There was a moment of amazement on the Showtime telecast’s commentary on Stephen Fulton’s title-winning performance over Angelo Leo on Saturday night. With ten seconds to go in the second round, Al Bernstein chimed in, breaking convention of letting play-by-play man Mauro Ranallo tie a bow on the round. As if he were just remarking to himself in genuine disbelief about what was unfolding, the way he would if the microphone weren’t on, he uttered “wow, this is great.”
The fight was expected to be exciting, but not this exciting.
Fulton had a similar reaction when it was revealed to him after the fight just how many punches he threw on the night: 1,183. His 901 power shots were the third most in the history of the junior featherweight division, according to CompuBox recordkeepers.
“This is probably the first fight I did that, I didn't even know that but uh, damn. I swear to God I didn't know I threw that many punches, it didn't feel like I threw that many punches, but, it feels good to know that I can do that and not be winded,” Fulton said with a chuckle. “Who's number one? I've gotta go outpunch them. Find that out for me please and hit me up.” (Note: It’s Julio Ceja, 1378.)
Moments later, Fulton caught his reflection on the Zoom screen and remarked, off-the-cuff, about how clean his face looked. While Fulton won the fight conclusively, it was far from one-way traffic, and he knew it. Also sitting in third all-time in the 122-pound division is Fulton and Leo’s combined number of power punches, 1,601. Of those, 142 of them were body shots Leo landed on Fulton, representing more than half of his total number of landed punches on the night. That might have aided with the cleanliness of Fulton’s face post-fight, but in theory, it should have slowed him down at some point during the fight, but it never did.
Leo might not have been able to land punches downstairs with such frequency if Fulton had fought the way everyone expected him to. Though he’d never been a contact-averse operator, Fulton had garnered a reputation as a slick boxer with good enough pop to keep his opponents honest off his back foot. During pre-fight interviews, Leo remarked that the fight would be an exciting one because of the two fighters’ “contrasting styles.” Even the man tasked with studying him for months on end didn’t expect Fulton to come out not just with a style that reflected Leo’s but was a better version of it.
“I had to get dirty and fight his fight. I knew I had to make it a dog fight and continue to bang with him. Probably around the fifth or sixth round, I started seeing he was breathing a little heavy and started dogging him at his own game,” said Fulton. “I was looking at beating him at his own style. I showed him that I'm the better man at what he does.”
But Fulton’s motivation for his wholesale tactical adjustment to become a high volume inside fighter ran deeper than just a desire to one-up his opponent. This was the second time he was scheduled to face Leo—the first resulting in what he describes as one of the darkest periods of his life. Prior to their scheduled August 1, 2020 meeting, Fulton tested positive for COVID-19. For more than two weeks, Fulton battled symptoms that prevented him not just from training, but doing much other than sleeping. Once his condition improved, his doctors advised him to take his time in getting back into the gym, fearing for long-term damage to his lungs. Fulton said he was out of the gym from August 1 until October, likely the longest stretch he’d gone without training, paired with his longest layoff from ring activity.
Fulton said the experience changed his outlook on life, showing him that he shouldn’t take things he loved for granted. When he was able to safely return to training, not only did he not take things for granted, he didn’t take any rest days either. Fulton says that in the month leading up to the Leo fight, he ran five miles a day, consecutively, without taking a day off.
When the bell rang and the usually crafty and relaxed Fulton immediately met Leo in the center of the ring, dug his head into his opponent’s chest and started firing 100 punches a round, it was hard not to feel like you were watching someone fight with a level of desperation cultivated out of a new found understanding of mortality.
“That is exactly why. That's why I came out the way I came out. That's why I felt like I wanted to take the fight and engage more and really fight, because I feel like I lost it,” said Fulton. “You start to appreciate things when they're taken away from you, and that's what happened when boxing was taken away from me, during the whole pandemic, not just August 1. The whole pandemic, I couldn't fight, the gyms were closed, I was depressed and that's when I realized damn, I really do love boxing, this is something I really need in my life. Yes, I did take it for granted. But now I'm getting it right.”
The distinction of his performance and the magnitude of what he’d achieved hadn’t quite hit Fulton after the fight, sitting alone in a boardroom with a webcam, a bottle of water and his new world title belt. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly the way he’d dreamt it up, winning a title in an empty ballroom in Connecticut. But coming from the grips of disease and depression just months ago to reinvent himself mentally and physically, Fulton had achieved something that didn’t require the validation of any number of fans at the Mohegan Sun.
“When it hits me, I'm gonna act a fool, I'll be dancing and everything,” he said.