NEW YORK – Stephen Fulton couldn’t score the type of one-punch knockout he recorded in his previous fight Saturday night.
The undefeated Philadelphia fighter didn’t more than enough, though, to fend off rugged Ukrainian Arnold Khegai in their 12-round, 122-pound elimination match at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Fulton dealt well with Khegai’s rough approach, worked off his jab to out-box the previously unbeaten contender and won a unanimous decision in the first of three fights Showtime televised.
Judges Frank Lombardi (117-111), John McKaie (116-112) and Waleska Roldan (117-111) each scored their fight for Fulton by comfortable margins.
The 25-year-old Fulton (18-0, 8 KOs) owned the IBO 122-pound championship prior to this bout, but he relinquished that title before entering the ring. He had to give up that championship in order for the WBO to sanction this as an elimination match for its title.
The 27-year-old Khegai (16-1-1, 10 KOs) is ranked No. 2 by the WBO among its junior featherweight contenders to champion Emanuel Navarrete (30-1, 26 KOs). Fulton is ranked No. 8, but obviously will be moved ahead of Khegai now that Fulton has beaten him.
“I felt great against a tough opponent,” Fulton told Showtime’s Jim Gray following his victory. “I stayed on my boxing, kept him off his game and pulled a victory out. I knew he was a rough-and-tumble customer, so I just had to keep my composure.
“That’s what I do. I use my jab. I tried to utilize the jab all night and win the fight behind the jab. I showed that I’m ready for a world title next.”
Already in complete command, Fulton landed two overhand rights early in the 12th round. The durable Khegai continued to walk through his shots and had no difficulty making it to the final bell.
Khegai caught Fulton with a right hand, another right hand and a left hook a minute into the 11th round. Fulton shook his head to show those flush punches didn’t hurt him.
Referee Steve Willis instructed a New York State Athletic Commission inspector to tell Khegai after the 11th round that he’d have a point deducted if he committed another foul in the 12th round. Willis had warned Khegai at least three times earlier in the fight for illegal tactics.
A right hand by Fulton backed Khegai into Fulton’s corner with 1:40 left in the 10th round. About 30 seconds later, Fulton implored Khegai to come forward and unloaded a right to his head and a left to his body, both of which landed.
Khegai landed a right hand to the back of Fulton’s head with 1:10 to go in the ninth round. Willis warned Khegai for what Willis assured him would be the last time for rule-breaking tactics.
The eighth round was beset by lots of clinches and included little clean punching.
Fulton went after Khegai’s body throughout the first half of the seventh round, and he snuck a right and then a left around his guard. Khegai kept coming forward, which led to a few awkward entanglements.
Fulton also landed two straight right hands in the second half of the seventh, but Khegai shook his head to indicate Fulton hadn’t hurt him.
An overhand right by Khegai backed Fulton into Khegai’s corner with just over two minutes remaining in the sixth round. Khegai’s left hook knocked Fulton into a neutral corner with about a minute to go in the sixth.
Fulton caught Khegai with several left hands in the second half of the fifth round. None of those punches appeared to hurt Khegai, though.
Khegai connected to Fulton’s body and head in the final minute of the fourth round. Fulton, backed into a neutral corner, waved Khegai forward and landed to Khegai’s body toward the end of that round.
Fulton landed a short left just before the halfway point of the third round. Khegai came back by landing an overhand right a few seconds later.
Willis warned Khegai for slamming Fulton to the canvas with about 40 seconds to go in the third round.
Khegai came forward for much of the second round, but Fulton defended himself well and didn’t take any impactful punches. Fulton tied up Khegai toward the end of the opening round, though Khegai didn’t seem to land a punch to cause that.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.