One of the biggest fights of 2023 will take place on Tuesday, July 25th in Tokyo, Japan as undefeated unified WBO/WBC Jr. Featherweight world champion Stephen Fulton will defend his crown against undefeated former Undisputed Bantamweight champion of the world Naoya Inoue. The bout, which can be seen here in the United States on digital subscription sports streaming network ESPN+ not only brings together two of the top stars in Boxing's lower weight divisions, but also presents an interesting clash of styles.
Fulton, who will enter the bout unbeaten in twenty-one professional bouts is a slick boxer/puncher that has thus far has proven to be elusive and a difficult puzzle for opponents to solve. The unified world champion in the 122lb. Jr. Featherweight division likely has an eye towards further unification of the division towards the eventual goal of becoming an undisputed world champion. Fulton's opponent on July 25th is a fighter that has already accomplished that goal as a 118lb. Bantamweight. This observer is referring to Naoya Inoue, a fighter simply known as "The Monster."
In his last fight, Inoue successfully unified the Bantamweight division by scoring an eleventh round knockout of IBF world champion Paul Butler in December of last year. Inoue now sets his sights on attempting to become a three-division world champion after previously holding world titles as a 115lb. Jr. Bantamweight and Bantamweight.
There are a few things of interest beyond the stylistic differences between these two fighters. First among them is the location where the bout will be taking place. The Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan. A site that will be hosting a Naoya Inoue fight for the second consecutive time as the venue also played host to Inoue's undisputed championship unification bout against Paul Butler last December. This in addition to Inoue's star status and ability to draw significant crowds in his native Japan, gives him a unique position to be in, in being able to essentially dictate where the fight would take place, despite now being a challenger. Second, despite the champion's ties to the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) group of promoters and manager/advisor Al Haymon, Fulton is essentially being treated as a challenger in facing Inoue on his terms, in the challenger's home country, and also under circumstances where there is little to no involvement from the PBC in terms of a promotional standpoint, even going as far as who will be broadcasting the bout in the United States as ESPN has an exclusive agreement with Inoue's United States promoter Bob Arum and his promotional company Top Rank, Inc.
While this may be something that some will interpret as an indication of the current state of where things are with the PBC as Fulton is the latest fighter to fight outside of the PBC umbrella, it does nevertheless indicate that these are less than favorable circumstances for the champion in having to defend his crown in unfamiliar surroundings and being treated as though he were the challenger as opposed to a defending unified world champion. The business elements of the sport, which often do not favor fighters, aside, how can Fulton get the job done against "The Monster?"
It is important to note that Inoue is referred to as "The Monster" because of his reputation as a "Knockout Artist" and his ability to score sudden and often brutal knockouts having scored knockouts in twenty-one of his twenty-four career wins registering a career knockout percentage of nearly 88%. Inoue has the clear advantage in this aspect as Fulton has only scored knockouts in eight of his twenty-one career wins. Fulton does have the Boxing skills to not only make things difficult for Inoue, but perhaps more importantly, the ability to go into the middle and late rounds of a fight, which if he can manage to build a lead on the scorecards, could prove crucial as the fight progresses. The champion must be elusive from the outset, look to land short combinations and move before Inoue can get close.
Although Fulton certainly has the skillet to accomplish this, it is something that could prove to be easier said than done as Inoue is a fighter that comes forward, applies constant pressure, and has knockout intention with almost every punch he throws. Naoya Inoue does have knockout power in either hand, but the challenger will have to answer two questions in addition to whether he can get to and break Fulton down as he has done to many of his previous opponents. How will he respond to getting hit by a naturally bigger fighter, who is a natural Jr. Featherweight?
Perhaps the question that most knowledgeable Boxing fans are likely asking is whether Inoue's punching power, which has been devastating in lower weight classes will carry with the same impact now as a Jr. Featherweight. It is indeed true that fighters throughout the history of the sport have been able to move up and at times, down the weight scale without a significant negative impact to their punching power or negative effects physically by adding or reducing weight. For some fighters, particularly those who compete in the lightest weight divisions Boxing has to offer, it can become an issue both in regard to a fighter's punching power as well as their ability to take a punch. Inoue began his career as a 108lb. Jr. Flyweight in October 2012. Although it is something that remains to be seen, it is not out of the realm of possibility that now fourteen pounds up the scale from where he made his pro debut over the course of an eleven year career, that this could be a fight that at the very least, might serve as an indicator as to whether Naoya Inoue has reached the ceiling as to how far he can go up in weight and be at his competitive best.
No matter what happens when Fulton defends his world championship against Inoue, the slightly wrinkle involving the business elements of the sport aside, this fight should serve as an example of what can happen when Boxing is treated with the respect it deserves. Two undefeated fighters, one a former two-division world champion, just coming off becoming an undisputed world champion in his previous division going against an undefeated unified world champion. It is a high stakes gamble for both fighters, but one that will benefit the sport in the long-term as it will show what can happen when the politics that be in Boxing does not get in the way of fights like this being made and fighters are allowed to do what they do best. Fight.
"And That's The Boxing Truth."
Fulton vs. Inoue takes place on Tuesday, July 25th at the Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan. The fight can be seen in the United States on digital subscription sports streaming network ESPN+ beginning at 4:30AM ET/1:30AM PT and will be available for on-demand viewing shortly after the event concludes. ESPN+ is available through the ESPN app on mobile, tablet, and connected streaming devices/Smart TVs.
For more information about ESPN+ including schedules, list of compatible streaming devices, platforms, Smart TVs, and to subscribe please visit: www.ESPNPlus.com.
*Card and start time subject to change.*
*Check your local listings internationally.*
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