Naoya Inoue proves he is the world’s best pound for pound by stopping Stephen Fulton in eight
Someone needs to check Naoya Inoue. He may be more machine than man. He may be more than the “Monster” moniker he carries. He possesses those diamond-shaped calves that generate great torque on his punches. He works at different levels. His punches are so crisp. His footwork is impeccable. His subtle movements create gaping holes in opponents’ defenses. What is unquestionable is that he is the best fighter in the world today.
On Tuesday at the Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan, Inoue tore through, tore up, and absolutely demolished one of the best fighters in the world, when he stopped previously undefeated Stephen “Cool Boy Steph” Fulton, at 1:14 of the eighth round to capture the WBC and WBO junior featherweight titles.
Inoue (25-0, 22 knockouts) did it using a superior jab, landing almost as many jabs (44) as Fulton (21-1, 8 KOs) landed punches (47). Fulton was The Ring’s No. 1 junior featherweight, while Inoue, The Ring’s No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter (a ranking that is bound to change), was coming up from 118 pounds. Inoue, who won a world title in a fourth weight class, is now now 20-0 with 18 KOs in world title fights.
Inoue is simply otherworldly.
“Everything I was thinking about was to fight (Fulton) this year,” Inoue said. “However, unfortunately, I got injured, and I had to postpone this fight. I am sorry to my team and Fulton’s team but thank you so much for accepting this fight once again. I am so happy right now.”
At the outset, both fighters were cautious. Inoue, 30, tried testing Fulton early with jabs, though he kept his left hand low. Inoue mixed his jabs, going up and down. Inoue also did a nice job of cutting off the ring. As the opening round closed, referee Hector Afu warned Inoue about hitting Fulton on the back of the head.
It was good start for Inoue, who outlanded Fulton 11-3 in the first round.
Inoue opened the second round attacking Fulton. Inoue used his up-jab again, and though many of his shots were blocked, Inoue was still getting the best of the 29-year-old Fulton.
Meanwhile, Fulton was having a tough time finding his range in the first two rounds. The other concern for Fulton is that he may have underestimated Inoue’s hand speed.
As the second round ended, Inoue was winning the jab war and giving Fulton trouble. Through two rounds, Inoue owned a 26-6 connect advantage.
Fulton seemed to be giving Inoue too much respect in the first two rounds. Fulton began the third more aggressive, coming forward. Inoue, again, worked well behind the jab, working up and down, body and head, head and body. Even going backward, Inoue was landing his shots. In the last minute of the third, Fulton began opening up somewhat, though he still did not seem to have any answers for Inoue.
After three, trickles of blood began falling from Fulton’s nose.
In the early stages of the fourth, Fulton got inside of Inoue, banging away against the body. Inoue kept to his game plan, mixing his jab, working jabs to Fulton’s head and body. Inoue was surprising Fulton with his speed and quickness. Blood began appearing on Fulton’s face. In the last 20 seconds of the fourth, Fulton closed the distance and became more aggressive.
But entering the fifth, Fulton, who was uncharacteristically tentative, had to begin thinking the fight was getting away from him. He had been outlanded 55-18 after four.
With 2:11 left in the fifth, Fulton, in a rare moment, opened his hands. Inoue, physically smaller than Fulton, was fighting like the bigger man. Fulton did commit more in the fifth, Inoue was still landing the quality shots.
For the fifth-straight round, Inoue had outlanded Fulton. It was easy to think Inoue had a 5-0 lead after five.
Inoue used his jab again in the sixth, beating Fulton to the punch, working up and down, landing a few jabs on Fulton’s waistline. It also seemed apparent that Inoue has taken his power up from 118.
Inoue kept setting the table with the jab. As the last 10 seconds wound down in the sixth, Inoue popped Fulton with blunt, short left.
Through six, Inoue was making it look easy and was far more comfortable.
With 1:52 in the seventh, Fulton landed possibly his best punch of the fight, an overhand right that caught Inoue on the side of the head. The problem was, Inoue walked through it and came right back. Anything Fulton tried, Inoue had an answer and then some, using his overwhelming speed and power.
A four-punch combination forced Fulton back into the ropes and with :15 seconds left in the seventh, Inoue plowed Fulton with a right.
After seven, it was apparent Fulton would have to knockout Inoue to win. Fulton landed double digits punches for the first time in the fight, with 13 connects in the seventh, and Inoue was still dominant.
In the eighth, Inoue got Fulton in serious trouble, beginning with a straight right to the chin that knocked down Fulton. Inoue set it up beautifully with a left jab to the body, then went up top with the right. Inoue then finished Fulton under a barrage of shots, which forced Afu to step in and rightfully finish it.
Inoue proved his superior skillset. Though he was the smaller man, he was the stronger fighter, and he showed superior footwork. Inoue is now 10-0 against world titleholders—and after this performance, a lead contender for not only the pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter in the world, but the 2023 Fighter of the Year, based on beating a formidable titlist in assertive fashion.
Fulton deserves a lot of credit for taking the fight in a different country, putting the titles on the line. He walks away with the highest payday of his career, in upwards of eight figures.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.
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