The great ones have that X-Factor. There's something in the combination of their set-up, their skills, their reflexes, and their command of the ring whereby a capable opponent becomes mesmerized almost instantly by what's in front of him. Whether it was Kelly Pavlik or Antonio Tarver against Bernard Hopkins, Saul Alvarez against Floyd Mayweather or on Tuesday with Stephen Fulton against Naoya Inoue, these opponents become rendered ineffective only moments after the opening bell; they are spectators in their own fights.
For whatever advantages Fulton had over Inoue – his size, his experience at 122 pounds, his athleticism – they were mooted by the end of the first round. Fulton was so disoriented by Inoue's collection of skills that he spent most of the fight in mid-range, an area of the ring where he didn't want to be, trying to counter against a guy with more power and offensive weapons in the pocket. Fulton offered little movement. He spent very few moments of the fight on the inside. He stood there, watched Inoue operate, and ate a lot of punches.
|Inoue lands a straight right
Photo courtesy of Naoki Fukuda
Not a knockout puncher, Fulton was trying to land one big shot to turn the tide, as if he was Deontay Wilder. It was a baffling decision; Inoue was so effective that he essentially made Fulton an accomplice in his own demise.
I think what did Fulton in at the outset of the fight was the combination of Inoue's hand speed and the effectiveness of his jab. There are fighters who don't look as impressive on tape as they do in the ring. And for all of Inoue's highlight reel knockouts, what had gotten lost in the shuffle was his elite boxing skills. He's far more than just a big right hand or a menacing left hook. He has a rock-solid boxing foundation to go along with his devastating power. And too many in the sport have focused on the latter at the expense of the former.
Inoue started the fight as a boxer. He didn't sell out for the early knockout. He stayed behind his jab and used his expert ability to cut off the ring to keep Fulton in punching range. Fulton, an excellent jabber himself, was continually beaten to the punch and it quickly became obvious that he had scrapped his initial plan to win the fight. He was in with an entirely different beast than what he had prepared for.
What impressed me the most about Inoue's performance, and there were myriad aspects worthy of praise, was his commitment to the body throughout the fight and how that ultimately set up the initial knockdown in the eighth round. Inoue consistently threw single stab jabs to the body. These punches had a cumulative effect over time. And in the eighth, he threw that jab again to the body, which forced Fulton to lower his hands so much that Inoue had a free shot with his straight right. And he didn't miss. Fulton was staggered by the punch, losing his balance with his gloves almost touching the canvas. Inoue then jumped in with a pulverizing hybrid left hook/uppercut that sent Fulton down.
That left hand was an improvisational move that the greats can pull off. It's not a punch that's practiced, but Inoue recognized the opportunity and had the athletic dexterity, gracefulness with his feet and menace in his punch to connect with the shot and essentially end the fight. Fulton did beat the count, but Inoue rushed in with a frenzy of power punches immediately after the fight resumed. The ref stopped the bout as Fulton hit the canvas for a second time.
Inoue's performance checked off all the boxes. He made an excellent fighter look ordinary. He showed a mastery of all phases of the sport. He boxed, he defended, he cut off the ring, he set up shots, he neutralized, he blasted with a combination, and he closed.
|Inoue with his new belts post-fight
Photo courtesy of Naoki Fukuda
For those who have followed boxing closely over the last decade, Inoue has not been a secret. He won belts at junior flyweight, junior bantamweight, became undisputed at bantamweight and now has moved up to claim two more belts at junior featherweight. He's fought in America before on HBO and ESPN. He won the World Boxing Super Series.
But what was missing in Inoue's Hall of Fame resume was an American fighter who was in his prime. And let's not pretend otherwise that more than a few American boxing fans are protective of their country's place in the sport. Despite Japan placing in the top-four countries of all time in world champions (the U.S., Mexico and the U.K. are the other three), there still exists a disbelief, an incredulity regarding the outsider. It's ultimately a snobbery. And while America doesn't have the same type of nationalism regarding its boxing that other countries do, let's also acknowledge that there's a feeling, even among many involved in the sport, that a foreign fighter has to prove himself in the gyms of Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Philadelphia to be considered a legitimate threat on the world level.
Fulton provided Inoue with the perfect opportunity to showcase his pedigree. Fulton, from Philadelphia, entered Tuesday as an unbeaten, unified world champion at 122-lbs. and had displayed an impressive collection of boxing skills that many, including this writer, thought could pose problems for The Monster. But Inoue was able to separate himself from an otherwise excellent fighter, and did so in such a manner that observers were left wondering if there is any current fighter near Inoue's current weight class who could actually have a chance of beating him.
Inoue's performance on Tuesday was enough to forever silence any remaining doubts of his skill level or pedigree. He has now become the top man in four divisions. And as he has moved up in weight, he has become even more lethal. Only one of his last 15 fights has gone the distance. And even then, he was able to drop Nonito Donaire and stop him in their rematch.
We are witnessing a generational talent, a fighter 18-0 in world title fights spanning four divisions, who has yet to lose even one scorecard in his professional career. He defines greatness in the ring. One gets the sense that Inoue is no longer aiming for supremacy among his peers in the sport, but instead trying to fight for his place in history against the very best. This is now the Naoya Inoue conversation: a measurement against the all-time greats.