Unified Jr. featherweight titlist Stephen Fulton (21-0, 8 KO), who holds the WBC and WBO straps, has made recent comments that his wish list for future opponents boils down to two names. (photo by Ryan Hafey)
One is the man who holds the other two major titles in the division, Murodjon Akhmadaliev (11-0, 8 KO).
The other is a knockout artist one win away from a title cleanout at bantamweight, Naoya Inoue (23-0, 20 KO).
Sometimes, wishes take time to fulfill. On Wednesday, Jake Donovan reported Akhmadaliev was ordered to face IBF mandatory Marlon Tapales. Inoue still has business to take care of in a December unification bout with Paul Butler.
Having fought only once in 2022, Fulton has time to squeeze in one more bout before the year is out. Even if he doesn’t, it’s unlikely he’ll be sitting still until either of his preferred opponents is available. Jr. featherweight has developed into one of boxing’s most interesting divisions and, with Inoue likely on his way, it’s only going to get better.
Assuming Fulton doesn’t move to featherweight in the next fight or two, there are credible opponents to further develop his name and establish him as the leader of his class. One of them goes to scratch Saturday.
Former bantamweight champion Luis Nery (32-1, 24 KO) won’t be on US TV this weekend but he will be in the ring for the second time this year. Nery returned to the ring in February to put a nasty stoppage loss to Brandon Figueroa in 2021 behind him. Nery dropped undefeated Carlos Castro early and held on in a close fight to garner a split decision. He should see less resistance this weekend.
Nery, 27, will square off with 32-year old Jesus Ruiz (43-9-5, 31 KO) in a fight that will keep him active with an eye on what comes next. Nery is one of two opponents who have fought under the PBC umbrella in recent years that could make for good opponents in the absence of the most desirable opponents.
The other is 32-year old Ra’eese Aleem (20-0, 12 KO), last seen in September scoring a lopsided win over Mike Plania.
Fulton has taken shots at both on social media, which ultimately may help to build fights with one or the other. That’s kind of how it works pretty often. Jr. featherweight might be good, but it doesn’t mean there are fortunes being made there just yet. Even in the epic era of Barrera, Morales, and Pacquiao, the biggest money didn’t start to come until they had all moved up the scale and left a series of wars behind them.
The bottom line is if Fulton is going to stay at Jr. featherweight, he’s got to fight and those are two of his best options. Nery might be perceived as the more vulnerable of the two and is a fighter still looking for a redemption story.
It started well for Nery, building a hardcore following with appearances on the well regarded fight series on BeIn Espanol on his way up. Nery’s title win over Shinsuke Yamanaka, one of the best bantamweights of the 21st century, should have been a coronation. It was more of an unraveling.
Nery failed a test for a banned substance after the fight and then grossly missed weight for the rematch, coloring a pair of knockout wins. The Figueroa loss lowered his regard for those who still wondered if the fighter they thought they saw as he worked into contention was going to fully emerge.
The Castro win at least reminded Nery remains a world class professional despite blemishes and defeat. Fulton could present him a last chance to establish more elite credentials and, for those who don’t forgive past transgressions, a chance to see Nery pushed back one more time.
Nery is by no means guaranteed to be looking down the barrel at a Fulton title shot but he and Aleem take up valuable real estate. Nery is the WBC’s number one contender. Aleem is the WBO’s. Both would further Fulton’s credentials and build anticipation for one of those two big fights in 2023.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org