Thursday, September 21, 2023  |



Fight Picks: Stephen Fulton vs. Naoya Inoue

Photo by Naoki Fukuda
Fighters Network

On Tuesday, Stephen Fulton will put his WBC/ WBO junior featherweight titles on the line against pound-for-pound star Naoya Inoue at the Ariake Arena, Tokyo, Japan.

​The eagerly anticipated showdown will be broadcast live on ESPN beginning at 4.30 a.m. ET/ 1:30 a.m. PT. and on Sky Sports at 9:30 a.m.

Fulton (21-0, 8 KOs), The Ring’s No. 1-rated junior featherweight, worked his way into title contention by besting former titleholder Paulus Ambunda (UD 12), stopped previously unbeaten Mexican Isaac Avelar (KO 6) and used his skills to tame another unbeaten opponent in Arnold Khegai (UD 12).

The recently turned 29-year-old showcased his smooth boxing skills to beat Angelo Leo (UD 12) to claim the WBO title, and he showed grit by digging in deep when he added the WBC title by edging Brandon Figueroa (MD 12) in a hard-fought unification bout. Most recently, he sparkled against Daniel Roman (UD 12).

Inoue (24-0, 21 KOs), No. 2 in The Ring’s pound-for-pound rankings, devoured all before him en route to claiming world titles at 108, 115 and 118 pounds. The big punching Japanese “Monster” has lived up to his moniker, demolishing the likes of Omar Narvaez (KO 2), Jamie McDonnell (TKO 1), Juan Carlos Payano (KO 1) and Emmanuel Rodriguez (KO 2).

However, it’s his triumphs over four-weight world champion Nonito Donaire that provided Inoue with considerable acclaim. He edged Donaire (UD 12) in an instant classic that was later named Fight of the Year and stopped him in the second round of their rematch. The 30-year-old became the undisputed bantamweight champion when he dominated Paul Butler, stopping the Brit in 11 one-sided rounds. With nothing left to conquer at 118, Inoue decided to move up in weight in a bid to collect more hardware and accolades.

So far, Inoue’s (24-0, 21 knockouts) power has decimated his opponents, will it carry up to 122-pounds? Will Fulton (21-0, 8 KOs) show any signs of ring rust having not fought for 13-month? Inoue has never faced an elite African-American who can box and move quite like Fulton. How will he find that? The American is fighting outside his home country for the first time, will that play a part?

Online gambling group William Hill lists Inoue as an 2/7 (-350) favorite, while Fulton is priced at 11/4 (+275) the draw is 14/1 (+1400).

Here’s how the experts see it:



“This matchup is as good as boxing gets. Inoue, who cracked The Ring rankings in his fourth pro bout as a junior flyweight almost 10 years ago, has the look of a generational talent. Fulton is the man at junior featherweight. Both are complete, athletic fighters who are used to challenging themselves (that’s why the fight is happening). Whoever can dictate the pace and distance will have the edge in this one, and we can expect an entertaining duel of speed, power jabs, counter punches, and choice body shots. I think Fulton’s size, experience and style will pose a lot of problems for Inoue, who is making his 122-pound debut. I can see a path to a decision victory if the Philly fighter can stick-and-move with authority without getting pulled into extended exchanges, but the more likely scenario is Inoue clipping Fulton at some point between the middle and late rounds. Fulton likes to go to the body with both hands and he does so in a way that leaves his head exposed. He’s got good upper body movement, but he also has a habit of leaving his hands down. I think Fulton will have his moments, but I expect Inoue to be at his motivated best and my hunch is that he’ll hurt Fulton to the body and finish the American standout with head shots sometime after the eighth round.”


“Both fighters should be lauded for taking such a risky fight. Inoue could easily have taken a lesser opponent and settled into the new division, while Fulton went out of his way to secure this fight. The Philadelphia native had been linked with a return fight with Brandon Figueroa up at featherweight but ultimately decided he wanted to face Inoue and was happy to take his two titles to Japan to do so, which will be a big challenge. The fight is very intriguing, it will see both men face their biggest challenge to date. Fulton’s toughest test came against Figueroa, an all-action punching machine, and the American was able to pass the exam. Inoue’s most difficult night came when he got wobbled and battled through a fractured right eye-socket to beat Donaire. Both those wins were each fighters proving ground but they’ll be required to step up again to win this fight. It will mark the first time Inoue has fought an elite African-American opponent, who will present him with problems with his quick hands and feet, certainly more than he will have faced so far in his career. However, it will also be a giant leap into the unknown for Fulton, while he was able to hold off Figueroa, Inoue is a much more polished fighter who has elite skills of his own and will sorely test Fulton. I feel fighting at home will be a big help for Inoue, who I think will have problems with Fulton’s style but always just be a step ahead and win a hard-fought 12-round unanimous decision 116-112.”


“Boxing certainly has its faults, but it’s fights such as Inoue-Fulton that illustrate what the sport can be if the right fights can be made often enough. This will feature a pleasing contrast of styles between two tough-as-nails competitors capable of producing high work rate, excellent accuracy and above-average defense. Although this will mark Inoue’s debut at 122, he will be fighting at home against an opponent with a low KO percentage (.381) and who will need to box on the retreat in order to give himself the best chance to win — a tough way to impress the judges in general, but even tougher when fighting in a high-end challenger’s home nation. Fulton will have his moments, but I believe Inoue’s aggression, body punching and technique will eventually wear down the American and score the late-round TKO.”


“It is truly difficult to envision a once-in-a-generation talent like Inoue being less than 100 percent for this homecoming fight against a superb talent like Fulton. People read too much on that Donaire fight and how vulnerable Inoue looked at times, but that was more a merit of a legend like Donaire than a lack of preparation or focus by Inoue. I do expect a more difficult-than-usual challenge for The Monster, but he will definitely prevail by a comfortable margin or a late stoppage.”


“A fantastic fight which, sadly, will be remembered more in historical importance than the current hype around it since it airs on a Tuesday in Japan. On paper Stephen Fulton holds advantages in age, size, natural weight class, and probably strength, which is not to be mistaken for power. There, it is Naoya Inoue who has the edge given his devastating fusion of balance, speed, technique, and punching power. Which package wins out comes down to poise in this pressure situation, and I trust the more tested Inoue on his home turf. The fight goes the distance, with Fulton battling back in the middle rounds, but ultimately unable to stop the more precise punching of Inoue in the championship rounds. I can even see a knockdown in favor of Inoue sealing a win that looks more comfortable on the scorecards than it was. No matter who wins, the loser will only be negatively impacted by the Twitter trolls who scream “exposed” for a short period… but fully praised in historical terms down the line.”

NORM FRAUENHEIM: INOUE UD                     

“He’s 5-foot-5, a little guy, but his stature has never been bigger in both the global pound-for-pound debate and Japanese popularity polls. That ascent figures to continue against Stephen Fulton, who has traveled a long way to take on what can only be called a longshot attempt at beating Inoue in front of adoring countrymen, who recently voted him as Japan’s fourth most popular athlete in a poll conducted by The Sasakawa Sports Foundation. Inoue is not Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth. But he’s in the ballpark. Fulton has the experience. He has two of the belts, too. He’s proven at junior featherweight. In Japan, however, he looks to be only a stepping stone for Inoue, a three-division champion who is making his 122-pound debut. The slick Fulton may be elusive enough to take it to the scorecards. But Inoue’s dynamic mix of power and precision will be too much, especially in the late rounds.”


“Stephen Fulton has boxed his way to claiming both the WBC and WBO super bantamweight titles and has a spotless 21-0 record but none of that will help him on July 25 when he defends those titles against “challenger” Naoya Inoue in Tokyo. It speaks to Inoue’s drawing power that the fight is in the “challenger’s” country not the US and that power comes from what will be Fulton’s biggest problem – Inoue’s crushing punching power. Some have argued that Inoue is at some risk because he is moving up in weight for the fifth time after winning world titles from light flyweight to bantamweight over the past three years. This will be his first fight at 122 pounds but there has been little indication that the rise in weight has sapped his punching power in any significant way. Fulton is a fine boxer who will give Inoue problems initially but eventually the mind-numbing power of Inoue, power that has led him to 21 knockout victories in 24 fights, will take its toll, first wearing Fulton down and eventually knocking him down. Fighting halfway around the world from home will only enhance the difficulties Fulton will be forced to try and overcome. When it’s all said and done, Inoue will stop Fulton somewhere in the latter third of the fight. If not sooner.”

Inoue eventually cut the ring off on the elusive Paul Butler. Photo by Naoki Fukuda



“This fight surely will meet all of the expectations of the fight game, all the talk and attention is commanded by Inoue given the fact this fight is in his backyard. With a hugely impressive record. The question has to be can the monster be tamed? Fulton, the naturally bigger man at 122-pounds, for me, is favourite to win this unified battle. Inoue’s power can only take him so far, his trade mark bodyshots will be blocked, slipped or parried away, we’re talking levels. Thus far Inoue has dominated his opponents with reputation and backing up his boast. The problem is the slick punching classy Fulton looks to have the answer he’s not a big puncher but more of a very good all- rounder with a good chin and a very good engine. Inoue will be forced to fight at a very uncomfortable pace and will get outboxed, Fulton won’t be intimidated by Inoue’s reputation and wins by majority decision.”


“Great match up that I just don’t see going the distance. Fulton is incredible boxer puncher, but Inoue is a pound-for-pound great! His power and speed are special. I see Fulton making a fight but not being able fight off Inoue for 12-rounds. Inoue by KO.”


“I think Fulton’s best chance is to make Inoue feel his strength and use his size on him. I think it’s a long night for Fulton. I think Inoue wins by knockout in the later rounds or by decision.”


“Despite the odds favouring Inoue, this should be a highly competitive fight. Fulton presents problems that Inoue has rarely if ever encountered. The American is a natural 122-pounder, he’s known for his defensive prowess, and he’s arguably the best pure boxer that Inoue will ever have shared a ring with. The champ has never been down as a professional and his tactical know-how should keep him out of danger in the early rounds. But 12-rounds is a long time. If Fulton is having success off the backfoot, you can almost guarantee that Inoue will be wearing him down with suffocating pressure. Inoue is excellent at cutting off the ring, and his presence and positioning as an offensive fighter is sure to empty Fulton’s tank over time. When a fighter gets tired, they lose their shape, their reflexes, and their durability. That spells doom. Inoue is a patient assassin and he’s likely to break through with something devastating late on, which will invariably force the referee or Fulton’s corner to call a halt to the action.”


“I think it’s a great fight. Both of those fighters are excellent. Inoue definitely has the power in his favor but I feel like Fulton has the length and the boxing I.Q. plus, I don’t believe Inoue has ever been in the ring with an African American fighter before and that’s a very pivotal piece of the puzzle. There’s a difference in the style, the movement and just the work rate and ability itself. I feel not being familiar with that will go in Fulton’s favor. I think it will be an entertaining fight. I would favor Fulton by split decision.”


“This is a great fight and keep going back and forth with my pick, I think Fulton is going to box Inoue’s ears off, but I give the edge to Inoue for the simple fact that he is fighting in a comfortable setting, and he has a little edge on activity. This is Fulton’s first fight on the road, so that is a lot of pressure, but if he can pull it off, I stand corrected and will give all the credit to Fulton.”


“Incredible fight, truly hope it gets the attention that it deserves. Both of these guys undefeated, barely in the prime of their careers, and have both taken out a number of top guys thus far to get to this point. I do believe that Fulton has his back against the wall here, he’s fighting in Inoue’s backyard, and he also has been inactive. In my opinion he is going to have to fight the absolute perfect fight in order to get out of Japan with a win. He also doesn’t possess much power at all, which will be a problem when trying to keep the Monster off of you for 12-rounds. I have Inoue earning the unanimous decision in a very entertaining fight.”


“Even though Fulton is a natural junior featherweight and an excellent boxer I don’t think he has the power to neutralize the pressure of Inoue but he will be skilled enough to avoid the knockout and be competitive at times.”


“The fight of fights. Fulton definitely has the ability to do this with his speed, timing, sharp punching and foot work. But the lack of relative punching power alongside a regard for the fight could be his undoing.  Fulton might need to be perfect to win and Inoue isn’t Wilder; his danger is ever present. Originally, I though Fulton’s speed and size might carry him to a decision win but Inoue is a freak and part of history. He might have to toil for this though, perhaps by decision rather than knockout.”

Stephen Fulton (left) pitched a near-shutout in his decision win over Daniel Roman in June 2022. (Photo by Ryan Hafey/ PBC)


“The monster is moving up again, looking to conquor another division. And he’s going after one of the best in the division in Fulton. Fulton confidence in himself that he’ll be fighting in Japan. Most champions want home advantage, but Fulton believes he has what it takes to win and return home as the champion of the world. I like the confidence and as a true champion he’s willing to go abroad. Unfortunately for Fulton, he’s fighting probably the greatest Japanese fighter ever in Inoue. The fight will start with caution as both fighters will want to test the waters. Fulton, good movement and angles, with good hand speed. Only problem is that his punching power won’t be enough to stop the monster from coming. Inoue’s timing is one of his greatest assets and I believe he’ll bring his power the junior featherweight division. I see a competitive fight while it last. Both will get a few shots in, but the Inoue power will mark the difference and I see Inoue catching Fulton and maybe even stopping him in the later rounds. I think Inoue will win either late stoppage or a unanimous decision in a fan-friendly fight.”


“I think Inoue is tested, but comes through very solidly. His power will keep him in control for the most part. Inoue by 12-round unanimous decision.”


“I like Fulton in this fight. I think he’s going to be able to control the range. I think he’s going to outbox Inoue in a way and perplex him. I like Fulton’s ring generalship handspeed and I just think overall he’s a much craftier fighter.”


“A Battle of the Little Giants, reminiscent of Jeff Chandler and Richie Sandoval. I believe this is going to be Inoue’s toughest fight to date due to Fulton’s skill. However, as all great that rise to the occasion, I truly believe Inoue is special and an all-time great who will rise to the occasion and unify the belts in the late rounds. TKO or unanimous decision.”


“Fulton definitely has the skills, he’s flashy but doesn’t have pop. He needs to box, box and box. Inoue is all about power and pressure. This is a 50/50 fight. I lean more towards Inoue in close hometown decision.”

Final Tally: Inoue 18-3


Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected].


The Canelo-Charlo clash is the cover story to the September 2023 issue of The Ring. Art by Richard T. Slone