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Story by John DiSanto
Photos by Naoki Fukuda


Naoya Inoue moved up to the 122-pound class and impressively wrenched the WBC and WBO titles from West Philly's Stephen Fulton at the Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan. The two undefeated boxers met in a highly-anticipated showdown Tuesday night on Inoue's home turf, but home field advantage appeared to have little to do with the new champion's dominant performance. Already a three-division titlist and a well-proven commodity, Inoue somehow bolstered his already pricey stock with a performance that suggests he may be the best fighter in the world today. Inoue scored an eighth-round TKO over Fulton in a clear-cut victory.

Many (myself included) gave Fulton, a 3-1 underdog, a very strong chance to win the fight and make his own entry into the pound-for-pound rankings. However, Fulton quickly learned why Inoue is called "The Monster." From the opening round, Inoue dominated Fulton, bettering him with the jab, body attack, power punches, control of the ring, work rate, and just about every other aspect of the fight. He swept every round, with only the fifth and the seventh possibly going Fulton's way.

Fulton must have felt Inoue's power early because he muffled his own output almost from the start and seemed to be overly cautious as the fight progressed. What we learned, however, was that Fulton was not being overly cautious. He was being justifiably cautious. Whatever Fulton tried, Inoue had the answer. Inoue calmly stalked Fulton, piled up points, and effectively inched closer and closer to an inevitable knockout.

The end of the fight came after Fulton's best round, the seventh. A round that despite Fulton's signs of life, I still gave to Inoue. However, in round eight, Inoue belted Fulton with a vicious right that buckled the champion. Inoue followed with a left hook that put Fulton down for the first time in his career. He bounced right up, but Inoue closed the show with a combination that dropped Fulton again as referee Hector Afu jumped right in to halt the fight. The official time was 1:14 of round eight.

With the win, Inoue, 25-0, 22 KOs, set up a unification fight with the WBA & IBF 122-pound champ, Marlon Tapales of the Philippines, who was seated at ringside for the fight. Inoue called for the fight to take place before the end of the year. By the width of the smile on Bob Arum's face after the fight, he seems to be on board for the four-belt unification match. 

For Stephen Fulton, 21-1, 8 KOs, it was his first professional loss. The stunning clarity of the defeat had to hurt. However, no shame or embarrassment should be placed on "Cool Boy Steph." Firstly, it was not a case of Fulton performing badly. He was simply outmatched by Inoue on this night. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, leading into the fight and in its aftermath, Fulton represented himself as a true champion. He wanted this tough fight, agreed to do it in Inoue's homeland, and demanded no special treatment. Fulton seized an opportunity to show the world his abilities. That is exactly what a champion should do. He prepared well and faced a formidable foe. Further, after the fight, his first loss and first stoppage defeat, he behaved like an adult. The vanquished champion made no excuses, threw no tantrums, and took his loss with grace. He even managed a smile before departing from the ring. 

Of course he'll be back. In fact, Fulton hasn't gone anywhere. This is boxing. He lost to a better fighter, but that does not mean he can't beat every other 122-pounder out there. Inoue is special. Fulton will learn from this experience. Champions win but they also lose. The best champions move on from defeat. Fulton could have protected his belts by facing lesser opponents than Inoue. But a boxer doesn't become great by doing that. True greatness comes from testing yourself against the best. Fulton fell short this time, but he's a better fighter and a bigger man for doing it.




John DiSanto - Tokyo, Japan (via ESPN+) - July 25, 2023