Naoya “The Monster” Inoue vs Stephen “Cool Boy” Fulton is the best fight to make in boxing. Let’s discuss the reasons why. And in the process hopefully get fight fans beating the drum for a match-up so good it will make us forget all the disappointments and missed opportunities of the last many months. It’s a stylistic clash that can offshoot into just about anything the pugilistic mind can fathom, and it represents a truly historic victory for either man.
In fact, when one thinks about it, Inoue vs Fulton can’t help but remind hardcore fans of Julio Cesar Chavez vs Meldrick Taylor I, an all-time great battle, arguably the Fight of the Decade of the 1990’s. Two undefeated champions, one foreign, one domestic: a pound-for-pounder who is blasting through the lower weight classes like an unstoppable tornado now moving up to add to his legacy, and a Philadelphia-bred, ultra-talented boxer with a proven mean streak looking for a signature victory.
But unlike Chavez, if this fight were to happen (fingers crossed) immediately, Inoue would be delving head-first into the upper echelon of 122 without facing any lower tier champions and contenders, while “The Lion of Culiacán” had scored major wins over Roger Mayweather, Sammy Fuentes, and Alberto Cortes. But even if Inoue vs Fulton does, dare I suggest it, “marinate,” Inoue could take on Fulton’s fellow titlist Murodjon ‘MJ’ Akhmadaliev in the interim, an undefeated southpaw with some impressive names on his dossier, those being Daniel Roman and Ronny Rios.
By virtue of the fact that Akhmadaliev is not affiliated with Al Haymon, and is not subject to a ludicrous WBC order to move up to 126 and challenge a man he had already dethroned at 122 (i.e., Stephen Fulton vs Brandon Figueroa II), Inoue vs MJ may be a much easier fight to make in the first half of 2023, with the winner, presumably Inoue, being then cleared to take on Fulton for all the marbles in the latter half.
Given Inoue’s prior desire to unify 118, a division with less depth than 122, one imagines that undisputed is already on the mind of the Japanese KO artist for super-bantam, despite the fact he’s yet to fight at the weight. Meanwhile, even before Inoue’s one-sided demolition of a reticent Paul Butler to seize his fourth title strap, Fulton responded positively when asked about the prospect of facing “The Monster” at 122.
“I don’t think it’s far-fetched,” Fulton told ESPN in June. “I believe it’s realistic if [Inoue] comes up … I don’t shy away from big fights. A lot of people want to see it.”
Fulton’s life-and-death struggle with Brandon Figueroa in their 2021 Fight of the Year candidate certainly deserves a rematch, but one at 126 does not make sense when “Scooter” has so much unfinished business ahead of him at 122. Even without Inoue, Fulton vs MJ would be a fascinating match, and one that Fulton could certainly win to become the undisputed super-bantamweight kingpin. Such a victory could also give Fulton some leverage over Inoue at the negotiating table if financials becomes a sticking point during contract negotiation, particularly at a time when Inoue’s star power is beginning to fade ever so slightly.
While a win over Inoue would certainly be career-defining for Fulton, you can make the same case for “The Monster” if he dethrones “Cool Boy Steph.” Inoue has stated his intentions to one day move up to featherweight, but with the present lack of elite talent at 126, his legacy may be more strongly defined by what he does at 122. Perhaps I’m impatient, and if Fulton moves up to 126 and faces Inoue down the line at featherweight then the ends could justify the means, but if the Terence Crawford vs Errol Spence case study has taught us anything, it’s clear that it’s always better to strike the iron while it’s hot.
So how would it go down? If Inoue vs Fulton takes place in a timely manner, “The Monster” would likely be the favorite given his more proven track record and broader accomplishments. But size could be pivotal here, particularly if Inoue goes straight at Fulton without any tune-ups. Then again, Fulton’s advantage in physical strength could mean nothing if he is unable to withstand Inoue’s explosive punching power, particularly early. The Philly warrior has squared off against plenty of large, physically strong 122-pounders, such as Angelo Leo and Brandon Figueroa, but neither possess the one-of-a-kind hand-speed and punching power combination of the Japanese phenom.
If Fulton tries to impose his physicality on Inoue early with a reckless abandon, he may pay a terrible price, but something tells me that the young Fulton is too smart to throw caution to the winds. Instead I expect a tactical chess match early, with fireworks to break out in staccato-like, tactical bursts throughout the middle rounds. If Fulton can find a way to handle Inoue’s punch in a manner that doesn’t stymie his offense entirely, while also finding a way to apply his size and strength, this could be a very tough battle for Inoue, who has typically overpowered his opponents from 108 to 118. Inoue would likely have to make the kind of adjustments he had to make against Nonito Donaire in their 2019 war to work around Fulton’s immense gifts, both physical and mental. Either way, it would be an incredible exhibition of two of the most skillful operators in the world, let alone the lower weight divisions.
All this said, I won’t hold my breath waiting for Al Haymon and Bob Arum to work out a deal with two of their best unbeaten talents. But hope springs eternal, and as Fulton is less of a box-office attraction than Inoue, and with his inner-Philadelphia fighter eager to prove himself against the best, perhaps he can convince Haymon and PBC to take the risk. If he does, I will be far from the only fight fan eagerly waiting to watch the best match-up in boxing, one that could easily prove to be 2023’s Fight of the Year.
— Alden Chodash