Naoya Inoue, the unbeaten Japanese boxing star known as the Monster, bolstered his claim as the world’s best fighter regardless of weight on Tuesday when he laid waste to Stephen Fulton to capture the WBC and WBO junior featherweight titles, becoming a world champion in a fourth division.
Inoue (25-0, 22 KO) dominated from the opening bell at Tokyo’s Ariake Arena, showing off his unique cocktail of power, speed and footwork and outclassing the taller, longer champion from Philadelphia over seven one-sided rounds before dropping him early in the eighth. Fulton, an elite operator who had been regarded as the top dog at 122lbs since winning his both of his belts during a banner 2021 campaign, was able to beat the count but was soon brought to heel under a hail of blows, prompting referee Hector Afu to intervene at the 1:14 mark.
Less than one year after making history by stopping Britain’s Paul Butler in the same venue to unify all four world titles at bantamweight, the 30-year-old Inoue further strengthened his pound-for-pound credentials in improving to 20-0 with 18 knockouts in world championship fights, punctuating the latest chapter in a destructive upward surge through boxing’s weight divisions not seen since Manny Pacquiao’s prime.
Inoue’s stabbing jab, blinding hand speed and twitchy in-and-out movement troubled Fulton from the first round and all but nullified the American’s ample physical advantages, making him appear tentative and unable to get off. Inoue outboxed his opponent by a yawning margin in the opening stages, leaving Fulton with a trickle of blood flowing from his nose while reduced to full retreat during the third.
Even when Fulton (21-1, 8 KOs) enjoyed rare pockets of success, like when he strung together a couple of combinations during his strongest moments in the fifth round, Inoue responded immediately and with prejudice. He countered the champion’s jab when he wasn’t outright beating him to the punch, landing punishing straight rights and evading return fire from the slick technician nicknamed Cool Boy. The bull was trampling the matador.
Inoue closed the show with style in the eighth, following a precise jab to the body with a concussive right hand upstairs that sent Fulton reeling backwards then a left which sent him crashing to the deck. The American made it to his feet on rubbery legs before the 10-count, but Inoue, perhaps the sport’s most ruthless finisher, trapped him in a corner within seconds and unloaded with a violent barrage of punches until the referee correctly stepped in.
Compubox’s punch statistics lent numerical context to the one-way traffic: Inoue landed 114 of 379 punches (30%), including a whopping 39% of his power shots, compared to 47 of 223 for Fulton (21%). Remarkably, he connected with nearly twice as many jabs (44) as his opponent (23) despite concessions of two inches in height and three and a half inches in reach.
Tuesday’s long-awaited blockbuster between two undefeated champions in their primes was initially made for 7 May, but a two-and-a-half-month delay was required after Inoue injured his hand during training camp.
“Everything I was thinking about was to fight him this year,” said Inoue, who became the second Japanese man to win titles in four different weight classes after Kazuto Ioka. “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.”
It was the latest sensational finish for the 5ft 5in knockout merchant from Kanagawa prefecture, who captured his first world title at 108lbs in only his sixth professional fight before adding another belt at 115lbs then becoming the undisputed champion at 118lbs.
“I’m not feeling bad, because I’m a champion no matter what,” the 29-year-old Fulton said. “I’m very disappointed in my performance, but I can’t allow that to dictate who I am as a person. I went out like a man, so I hold my head up like a man.”
The Filipino southpaw Marlon Tapales, who won the other two major belts at 122lbs in April with an upset split-decision win over Murodjon Akhmadaliev in San Antonio, took in Tuesday’s fight from ringside. Both men expressed confidence that a showdown to unify the super bantamweight championship will happen before the end of 2023.
“I want to fight Inoue to prove to myself that I am a great champion,” Tapales said during a brief in-ring interview.
Said Inoue: “Let’s do this, this year.”