Kubrat Pulev didn't exactly seal it with a kiss this time around.
Returning to the ring for the first time since inappropriate behavior following his last bout, the mandatory heavyweight contender in waiting kept his place in line but failed to impress in a slow-paced unanimous decision win over Rydell Booker. Scores were 98-92 twice and 99-91 in favor of Pulev in their ESPN+ streamed heavyweight battle Saturday evening at Chukchansi Park in Fresno, California.
The bout was the first fight back for Pulev since a brief suspension issued by the California State Athletic Commission. The 38-year contender from Bulgaria was disciplined for a post-fight kiss was a female reporter following his stoppage win over Bogdan Dinu this past March in Costa Mesa, California.
"This last fight in the ring (after eight months between fights) was a little bit different," Pulev (28-1, 14KOs) told ESPN's Crystina Poncher after scoring his eighth straight win. "But, my thing was not bad. It was a very nice fight."
Booker opened up the fight failing to adhere to the memo that he was supposed to serve as cannon fodder for a title contender in waiting. The 39-year old heavyweight from Detroit jabbed his way to a strong opening round, taking advantage of a lethargic Pulev who simply failed to let his hands go.
Pulev picked up the pace in round two, not by much but just enough to cause reddening around the right eye of Booker. Action continued to move at a slow pace in round three, one which featured more pushing than punching but where Pulev's jab slowly became the difference in the fight. Booker was scoring with the occasional counter right hand, but not enough to where the threat of an upset ever surfaced.
Round four saw Pulev throw his right hand with greater regularity, also using his jab to force Booker on the defensive. A demand from his corner to target Booker's fleshy midsection went largely ignored by the heavyweight title challenger in waiting until later in the fight, and even then still coming in isolated moments. A stoppage was there for the taking, but Pulev was inactive enough to where Booker was able to plod his way through rounds, tying up on the inside and doing his best to make the fight as dull and awkward as possible.
The veteran tricks weren't flying well with the corner, though. Booker's head trainer, Jimmy Paul reiterated prior to rounds seven and eight that he needed to throw punches or else the fight would be stopped. Booker simply didn't have it in him, but Pulev refused to take advantage. The once-beaten heavyweight continued to use his jab to create distance rather than to position his opponent into punching range. Right hands finally began to flow with regularity late in round eight, Pulev's busiest sequence of the fight. It wasn't enough to force a stoppage, with the same pace carrying through to the finish line.
Booker falls to 26-3 (13KOs), having now dropped two of his last three starts.
With the win, Pulev remains first in line for the winner of the Dec. 7 rematch between unified titlist Andy Ruiz Jr. and recently dethroned Anthony Joshua. On the surface, Saturday's bout did little to endear to the public in believing in his chances.
It's not quite the way he sees it.
"I controlled the whole fight, and I was the much better boxer," insists Pulev, whose lone other title shot resulted in his only career defeat, a 5th round stoppage at the hands of then-World champion Wladimir Klitschko in Nov. 2014. "I showed everyone I’m at the world level, and I must fight the winner of Joshua and Ruiz.”
The bout served as the chief support to Jamel Herring's first defense of his junior lightweight title versus Lamont Roach Jr.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox