Naoya Inoue is special. Very, very special. His fight against Stephen Fulton Jr was supposed to be a challenge for him—maybe his toughest test to date. Moving up to super-bantamweight, taking on a tough, skilled champion; most expected him to win, but there should have been some bumps along the way.
There were not.
Instead, he won every round, dominating Fulton until he scored a knockdown. The TKO followed shortly afterward in the eighth round. It was a staggering performance, one that cemented him right at the very top of the pound-for-pound tree—at least until Crawford fights Spence on Saturday. Let’s take a look at how he did it.
How Naoya Inoue beat Stephen Fulton
What may be difficult to swallow for Fulton, watching the fight back, is how much Inoue allowed him to try doing the things he needed to do to win. The longer man anyway, his ideal gameplan would have involved circling Inoue, popping him with a jab and then turning the corner and getting the challenger to follow. Inoue did very little to stop that circling movement. He’s never been big on ring-cutting and he didn’t change that dynamic here. Fulton was, by and large, allowed to move wherever he wanted in the ring.
It. just. didn’t. matter. Inoue was too fast, too sharp and too dangerous, and Fulton was second to everything. Unable to land much, he had to become more aggressive as the fight went on, and against arguably the greatest counterpuncher in the world today, that was always going to be tough.
The first building block was, as it so often is, the jab. Realistically, Fulton had to win that battle, and he didn’t get close. Inoue landed his with relative ease, both to the body (this will be important later) and the head. Even when he didn’t, Fulton’s defensive reactions to deal with it stifled his own offense.
On the flipside, Fulton’s range advantage gained him very little, as Inuoe’s head positioning and quicksilver speed left him falling short consistently. In order to win this fight he’d have needed to getting points on the board while at that range, and he simply didn’t.
Despite this, Inoue did push towards him, and as mentioned, Fulton was mostly allowed to circle out. In theory, this would have given him angles to land as Inoue turned to follow. But, because he was winning the exchanges at range, Inoue could simply ignore that battle. Instead, he’d land his jabs and a follow-up shot and then hold back, and let Fulton reset. Unfortunately for Fulton, he never got comfortable enough circling at a closer distance, at a range that could have forced Inoue to pivot.
It should be noted that that last part was in part due to Inoue’s defensive footwork. On the odd occasion he did try to get tighter, Inoue would just slide back, and Fulton would essentially be circling air. It’s another one of the things that makes him so difficult: he can change direction on a dime. Pushing forward too hard can turn into a controlled but rapid retreat with no hesitation. It’s incredibly fluid and remarkable to watch.
That’s a contrast to Fulton, who as mentioned would react defensively to Inoue’s jabs and follow-ups. And who, unlike Inoue, would often need a beat to reset and make his own attacks after defending. It was a concern coming in that Fulton’s transitions could be a weakness. While he didn’t get caught off-balance in them too often, they did prove too slow to keep up with the the much faster Inoue.
So, once the backfoot game failed, he had to do something else. He did, in theory, have options. Fulton is a capable front-foot fighter and excellent when needed in the clinch, and he could have tried to impose himself there. The problem was, though, that in order to do that he had to let Inoue do what he loves doing: getting on the backfoot in his own right, and counterpunching.
Basically, anything Fulton did, Inoue was able to read and counter, if not instantly, then on pretty much the second go round. He’d throw his own jabs to the body, but they’d be answered with sweeping lefts that would catch him upstairs. In the sixth and seven rounds, Fulton had some success with a looping hook countering Inoue’s jab. Very quickly, however, Inoue began to catch him setting it up, and step in with that jab even more—breaking Fulton’s stance and making it too risky a punch to throw. Fulton is a sharp, smart operator and he wasn’t trying the same thing over and over, but anything he found success with became a vulnerable point very quickly.
The other problem? Fulton just wasn’t fast enough. Much is said about Inoue’s power (and it is crazy). It mattered here too, with even shots Fulton defended perfectly well with his gloves moving him around. But his speed is sometimes hard to believe, especially when combined with his poise and balance. There were a couple of occasions from the fifth round onwards when Fulton did indeed get through with a shot or two. But Inoue, even if his head was off-line from taking the shot, was always able to disengage immediately and dance back to a safe range. Fulton could not follow without, himself, getting off-balance. Doing that was a recipe for punishment.
The finish: How Naoya Inoue stopped Fulton
To cap off the performance, once Stephen Fulton started to unravel a bit, Inoue reached for a move he’d been setting up for the whole fight—working off that excellent body jab. There were occasions earlier when he’d follow it up with a right hand upstairs. Mostly, though, he’d let it work on its own, or pause a beat before doing something else. For the finish, he threw to the body, and as Fulton hunkered down to try to take it, swept upstairs immediately. Because the stance was altered to absorb the bodyshot, Fulton couldn’t sway with it, and his head snapped sideways. Inoue saw him wobble, and immediately threw the left hand that sent him down.
After that, it was a matter of time. Inoue doesn’t press hard until he sees an opponent hurt. Then he cuts loose. He swarmed Fulton, who was not able to break free or counter, and the referee had no choice but to wave it off. Another finish to cap off a remarkable performance, and clinch him two belts in a new division.
The future: where do Naoya Inoue and Stephen Fulton go from here?
Inoue’s next step seems pretty clear: he posed in the ring with the other champion in the division, Marlon Tapales. The 31-year-old Filipino won the WBA and IBF belts in a surprise win over Murudjohn Akhmadaliev in April. While he’s a legit champion, he probably isn’t on Fulton’s level, and Inoue should feel confident of beating him. Expect to see that fight later in the year. After that, assuming no slip-ups, who knows? This card also featured IBF featherweight champion Robeisy Ramires, and that may be no accident. That would be an excellent challenge for Inoue.
Fulton will probably move up to featherweight himself. He was already considering doing so before he jumped on the Inoue fight; he had even been urged to by his team, in fact. So it seems likely he’ll make that move now. Who he’ll fight depends on boxing politics, but it’s a strong division with a lot of exciting fights open to him—be it Ramirez or one of the other champions. This defeat shouldn’t set him back for long.
Unless and until, of course, the ‘Monster’ steps up to join him there. Then, he’ll have hope to have improved, because Naoya Inoue’s performance here will shine for a long time.
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