It was a harbinger of his undoing, that talk of toughness, that little kindness from the commentary team offered barely fifteen minutes into the action. And true too. But the timing of that gesture was all wrong. Stephen Fulton represented a style Naoya Inoue, the new unified super-bantamweight champion, had never encountered—for some even, a style Inoue had avoided in a career that anathematized avoidance. What was that style? Sharp, elusive, quick, confounding in that concoction. But not one characterized by toughness. And so you knew—if the action hadn’t already proven as much—that when the commentary team began romanticizing Fulton’s toughness, his reign as champion was in peril.
That reign ended Tuesday, formally and violently in the Ariake Arena in Tokyo. Fulton, to his inestimable credit, attempted to validate the title “world champion,” bringing his belts and his best overseas where Inoue crumpled him in one corner before ascending another—victorious again, champion again.
And again and again, if his performance against Fulton indicates how Inoue, now 25-0 (22), will take not only to 122 pounds but to 126. He is, more than any of his peers, a fighter whose greatest threat is his ambition, that calmly and resolutely stated mandate to determine his limits regardless of the outcome. That some believed Fulton represented such a limit was understandable, as unsurpising as the hope that he did, considering the resistance the last little Asian fighter with frosted tips and dynamite in his fists faced.
But Inoue walked through Fulton; were you looking to identify those moments in the fight that belonged to Fulton, you would be forced to count in seconds and would have fingers and toes enough for the tally. Not because Inoue is a murderous puncher—though he is, without question, a concussionista of the highest order—but because Inoue is the better boxer, the finer technician, the smarter fighter, which brings interesting questions about matchmaking.
Where does Inoue fit in the matchmaking alchemy, the formula for mixing punchers, boxers, and pressure fighters? The notion that Fulton, the boxer, would outbox the puncher, Inoue, proved nonsense before the bell to end the first round. No one without the power to hurt him will outbox Inoue, and punchers, Donaire, for example, hardly fare better. Perhaps the solution to Inoue is the pressure fighter. One wonders what a fighter like Brandon Figueroa, with his significant advantages of height and reach and his comfort in belligerence, might manage against Inoue. Isn’t the answer something like, “A few rounds more/less than Fulton”? Or “To get his head caved in”? The work still needs to be done, of course—like any fighter, Inoue is undeserving of hypothetical victories and has no interest in them—but his first fight at super bantamweight feels like a reason to add another four pounds. This much then, his supporters and deniers have in common: enough is not enough.
It was too much for Fulton, though, who found himself in the unlikely and uncomfortable position of being slower than his opponent. The speed unnerved him first: Inoue’s ability to pierce with the jab and escape at a range that Fulton expected to be safe; then came the power, the punches thrown from a former light flyweight that can ring a bell even if it is protected by leather, by muscle or bone. Fulton did well to block Inoue’s punches early (though not without penalty) and to elude them with footwork, but neither strategy left him in a position to counter. So Inoue stalked him with an arrogance he flashed at the weigh-in, a fundamental disregard for an inferior threat. It was at about this time that Fulton’s harrowing upbringing in Philadelphia and the toughness it instilled in him crept into the commentary.
Inoue delivered the finish on a path cut in the first round, one where he stuck Fulton with multiple jabs to the body. Early in the eighth, Inoue shot a jab to Fulton’s belly then launched a cross through the space left by Fulton’s lowered left hand. Fulton stumbled back before a left hook nearly rolled him under the ropes. He beat the count, and took a long, almost contemplative walk before stepping earnestly into the action. Inoue pounced with a zest befitting the moment and, true to form, sunk in a left hook to the body that drove Fulton into a corner he never escaped.
Fulton, 21-1 (8), was the latest victim in Inoue’s incredible ascent, but there are more: the zits and other pustules who did their best to discredit, besmirch, criminalize a fighter without a shred of evidence—they too lost. Mind you, they beat the count, with their chins galvanized to the reality of a world that refuses to arrange itself to assuage their aspirations or insult. Where there is sweat and toil and honest work, so will there be these trivial little infections. We would be wise to remember they are, above all, proof that something good is happening, and that such losers stay losing, such is their foundational orientation to happiness (if there is a happy message to take from that).
Enough of the negativity, though: it will return whenever Inoue does, which means we should welcome it. Because when Inoue returns, even at a time when we are being gifted more of the fights that those who rarely follow the sport say never happen, the sport does more than set an alarm—it holds its breath.