When undefeated 29-year old WBC and WBO 122-pound champion Stephen Fulton (21-0, 8 KO) steps into the ring at the Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan on Tuesday, July 25th, to defend his titles against 30-year old recently undisputed bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue (24-0, 21 KO), it will mark the latest chapter in a long, intertwined history between two weight classes separated by four pounds.

It's a history that extends back to the very first junior featherweight, or super bantamweight as it is also referred to today, championship fight over 100 years ago.

On paper, the jump in weight may look small for an Inoue who laid waste to the bantamweight division. Previously having held titles at 108 and 115 pounds, Inoue arrived at bantamweight in 2018 with a first-round knockout of former WBA titlist Jamie McDonnell. Inoue's flawless tenure in the division included nine wins, eight knockouts, and the first complete unification of the division since world champion Enrique Pinder was stripped of the WBA belt in 1972.

With two of four major titles in his class, Fulton is just one step from his own undisputed reign. Marlon Tapales upset Murodjon Akhmadaliev in April to win the IBF and WBA belts and has stated his desire to face the winner of Fulton-Inoue. It is an accomplishment no one has achieved since the modern incarnation of the weight class launched in the mid-1970s.

Tapales, a former WBO bantamweight titlist, is the last and latest former bantamweight titlist to successfully challenge for a junior featherweight crown. Inoue will attempt to add his name to the ranks in his divisional debut.

On the eve of one of the best matches that can be made in all of boxing, just how much will those next four pounds mean for Inoue?

How much does four pounds matter?

In trying to find an answer to the question, a look at the history of reigning and former bantamweight champions challenging for titles at junior featherweight provided some insight. So too did conversations with former bantamweight champions Orlando Canizales and Junior Jones, both of whom moved up to junior featherweight with different degrees of success.

Let's start at the beginning. 

For a brief period in the 1920s, a version of the junior featherweight division came and went quickly with the reigns of Jack "Kid" Wolfe and Carl Duane. Wolfe's inaugural reign came at the expense of World bantamweight champion Joe Lynch.

It was an inglorious start to the interdivisional rivalry.

The Wake of the News column in New York Daily News on September 23, 1922, credited to pseudonym Uppercut, didn't mask its disdain. Under a sub-headline reading "That Cheesy Fight," Wolfe-Lynch was condemned with no faint praise:

What a fine opportunity any good bantam would have had Thursday night to rob Champion Joe Lynch of his title had Lynch fought the same as he did against Jack Wolfe of Cleveland. It was a wretched exhibition those two boxers put up; malodorous from start to finish and a kind of fight which will do boxing no good in the State.

The two fighters went at it as if they were bound by some gentleman's agreement which prevented either from hurting the other. Lynch did not show any of the stuff he had shown in previous fights, and Wolfe acted so clumsily his performance almost was clownish, albeit it did look as if he were trying in several of the rounds. Lynch's work was inexcusable. Fight fans, who foot the bills, already are jolly well fed up with such alleged fights.

Notably, there was no mention of a new division being born. The New York State Athletic Commission didn't recognize the nascent title on the line. It might as well have been bridgerweight in its time but the fight was billed as the first junior featherweight title scrap and historians recognize the brief birth and death of junior featherweight with little fanfare.

More than fifty years would pass before boxing tried again.

On April 3, 1976, Rigoberto Riasco defeated Waruinge Nakayama for the first WBC super bantamweight title. More than a year later, the WBA joined the fray when former WBA and lineal bantamweight champion Soo-Hwan Hong knocked out Hector Carrasquilla in three rounds on November 26, 1977, marking Hong as the first former bantamweight champion to win a title at 122 pounds.

The arrival of new weight classes often moves in a cycle from initial cynicism to grudging recognition until finally they fold into the norms of the boxing business. Whether it's the reign of Evander Holyfield at Cruiserweight or big-money clashes like Thomas Hearns-Ray Leonard II and Roy Jones-James Toney at super middleweight, events unfold to establish a standard of excellence, relevance, and legitimacy for a young weight class.

At junior featherweight, the event that unfolded came in the form of a Bazooka.

On May 21, 1977, Puerto Rico's Wilfredo "Bazooka" Gomez knocked out Dong Kyun-Kim for the WBC belt to kick off a reign of terror that would last more than five years. Gomez would defend the belt 17 times, posting a record of 18-0 with 18 knockouts in 122-pound title fights, adding recognition from Ring Magazine as their first champion in the division along the way. Gomez's only defeat during his lengthy reign came in a challenge of WBC featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez in August 1981.

Arguably, Gomez's two most memorable defenses came against a pair of bantamweight titans.

On October 28, 1978, Gomez was challenged by WBC champion Carlos Zarate of Mexico. Zarate entered with a record of 52-0 and 51 knockouts. Zarate's run included a non-title knockout of WBA and lineal bantamweight champion Alfonso Zamora in four fantastic rounds. Gomez was 22-0-1 with all of his wins coming by knockout after a draw in his very first professional fight.

Fighting in front of a rabid home crowd at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, Gomez violently announced his greatness to the world. Reporting for Ring Magazine in the February 1979 issue, Mario Rivera Martino described a chaotic scene:

...with the bout a little over two minutes old in the fourth, Zarate cornered Gomez and put everything he had behind his potent right but missed its mark. Gomez countered with a left hook that dropped his opponent. A hard right dropped Zarate a second time. A third knockdown was not recorded by the referee, having occurred after the bell rang.

A merciless attack in the fifth produced another knockdown early in the round, It was the product of a left hook. The towel was then thrown in by the Zarate corner. However, Referee (Harry) Gibbs disregarded the towel, continued to count, but called a halt when Zarate barely managed to get up before the ten count but was in no condition to continue.

A little more than four years later, Lupe Pintor would present a much different challenge than Zarate, pushing Gomez to the brink. Pintor reigned as WBC bantamweight titlist from 1979 to 1982, unseating Zarate in a famously debated decision. Pintor vacated the belt in the summer of 1982 and challenged Gomez on the undercard of Thomas Hearns-Wilfred Benitez. 

Gomez-Pintor stole the show in a savage, 14-round war. Writing for the April 1983 edition of KO Magazine, Steve Farhood wrote:

It would be convenient to explain Gomez's 14th round victory by stating the cliche that a good big man always defeats a good little man. It would be easy to point to Gomez's unmatched knockout percentage and say that the better puncher always wins a phone-booth war. But those who saw Wilfredo Gomez and Lupe Pintor, frozen in time and fighting for their very lives in a match that will absurdly be recorded as a preliminary, know better. Those who witnessed the display of ferocity and the stubbornness, the subtle shifts in momentum, the wills of the two champions surface time and again, know better.

Gomez-Pintor was only the fifth time a reigning or former bantamweight champion challenged for a junior featherweight championship. With the birth of the IBF and WBO in the 1980s, the opportunities for clashes multiplied. Including the IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO, TBRB, and Ring magazine championships, and excluding interim or sub-title recognitions from those bodies, 34 former or reigning bantamweight champions were identified as having challenged for a title at junior featherweight, some multiple times.

Here are some notes of interest:

  •     17 of the 34 reigning or former bantamweight champions who have challenged for a title at junior featherweight were successful in at least one attempt. 
  •     Heading into Fulton-Inoue, the record for reigning or former bantamweight champions challenging for titles at junior featherweight is 22-31-2. Zaragoza-Zarate counted twice as it matched a pair of former bantamweight titlists for a vacant 122-pound title. Some fighters, like Gerry Penalosa and Jorge Arce, challenged for junior featherweight titles before and after winning bantamweight titles. Only the challenge after they won a bantamweight title factored here. 
  •     Five of 17 won vacant titles, including vacant Ring Magazine championships for Donaire (who was already a titlist at junior featherweight by then) and Paulie Ayala. In three of five cases (Hong, Mares, Nery), they defeated men who had never held a major title at 122 pounds. 
  •     Of the 22 victories by former/reigning bantamweight champions, two (Zaragoza-Zarate, Vazquez-Perez) came against fellow former bantamweight titlists. Seven of the 22 wins for former/reigning bantamweight titlists come from Donaire and Zaragoza, including all the times they challenged for a title in the division. For Donaire, that included unification bouts where he was both champion and challenger and the Toshiaki Nishioka fight for the Ring Magazine title. 
  •     Seven of the losses by former or reigning bantamweight champions came to reigning junior featherweight champions who were also former bantamweight titlists.

All of this together suggests a slight edge to junior featherweights in these battles but not a decisive one when including men who won titles in both divisions and defended against other men who held bantamweight titles. The scope looked in assembling the numbers above doesn’t incorporate cases like Daniel Jimenez and limited the look at Arce. Jimenez won the WBO junior featherweight belt from 1993-95 before winning the WBO bantamweight belt in 1995. Jorge Arce’s WBO title win over Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. came before Arce won a title at bantamweight. Add in cases like Jimenez and Arce and the gap closes even more.

Despite multiple attempts, some fighters could never quite get over the hump. Zarate, regarded universally today as one of the all-time great bantamweights, was 0-3 in chasing junior featherweight titles. All three of those defeats came to future Hall of Famers. Wayne McCullough failed in four attempts to add a junior featherweight title while Joichiro Tatsuyoshi and Jhonny Gonzalez fell short in two attempts apiece.

Orlando Canizales set the still-standing bantamweight record for consecutive defenses, holding onto the IBF belt 16 times from 1988-94. Canizales only got one shot at a junior featherweight crown, narrowly missing the honor in a split decision loss to Wilfredo Vazquez. Vazquez, like Canizales, was a former bantamweight titlist but had left the division in 1989 and was deep into a lengthy run as the WBA super bantamweight king.

It wasn't the most memorable affair, but could there be clues in the match to what we might see in Fulton-Inoue? As recapped in the June 1995 issue of KO Magazine:

Vazquez-Canizales was a tepid and largely disappointing affair. The 33-year old Vazquez, one of the bigger hitters in the lower weights, was content to box with caution and capitalize on his four-inch reach advantage. Canizales, who has always been most comfortable as a counterpuncher, failed to attack with a challenger's mentality. 

Inoue is one of the sport’s most dangerous counterpunchers but he will face a taller, longer foe in Fulton capable of boxing and containing that danger. Like Vazquez, Fulton will employ his game plan with a reach advantage. Like Canizales, Inoue will move up with no tune-up fights. Can Inoue summon the challenger’s mentality he will need?

Canizales noted the significance of the way he moved up in weight. “Most fighters, usually, they have like a tune-up fight before they jump to fight for a title. Just to see how they feel at that weight. No excuses. It was an opportunity. After I defended my title in October they offered me the fight in January so I took it.”

Reflecting on the size difference in moving up to Vazquez, Canizales said, “Vazquez was a good fighter; very strong fighter at 22. I felt the difference in weight.” Canizales wasn’t sure if the direct move to Fulton was a good or bad idea for Inoue. “It all depends…Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it doesn’t matter. When you think you’re ready, you’re ready. I think he’s ready.”

Canizales offered additional thoughts on the nature of the size difference itself. “Maybe (Inoue) will feel stronger because at 118 he was a pretty hard puncher. Then again, your opponent…you got guys going from 135, lightweights, to 22 or 26 and that’s the way it is and they’re strong and they can take a punch. It’s gonna’ be a good fight. Both guys are tough.”

Asked if four pound is really as slight as it might appear from the outside looking in, Canizales added, “It doesn’t seem like much but four pounds is four pounds,” he started, reiterating his point about the walk around versus ring weight of the larger man and contrasting it with bantamweights who, “come from featherweight, so you got bigger guys coming down to fight at 22 so they’re bigger and stronger. It’s a big difference.”

Another prominent bantamweight near the time of Canizales was also a Canizales opponent. Junior “Poison” Jones held the WBA bantamweight title from 1993-94, suffering a shocking loss to John Michael Johnson to end his reign. Jones was stopped again two fights later at featherweight by unheralded Darryl Pinckney before getting his career back on track. Jones won nine in a row, including a split decision win over Canizales in 1996, to earn a shot at arguably the best junior featherweight in the world at the time, undefeated WBO titlist Marco Antonio Barrera.

Unlike Inoue, Jones took the time to acclimate to the higher weight class, competing at weights between junior featherweight and junior lightweight. Barrera was a prohibitive favorite but, in November 1996, upsets were in the air. The report in the February 1997 issue of International Boxing Digest read:

In an upset nearly as stunning as Holyfield-Tyson, Junior Jones shocked the boxing community with an energized dismantling of Marco Antonio Barrera. It was a spirited slugfest that saw Jones use a probing jab and stinging right hand to register quality points…The fans ate it up, and they jumped from their seats when the elongated Jones used the power right to drop Barrera flat on his back.

Barrera would rise from the knockdown, scored in round five, but the beating continued and Barrera was ultimately disqualified when his corner entered the ring. Jones would repeat the victory by decision the following year to cap off the best run of his career.

Jones didn’t feel that the larger opponents in the higher weight class were an issue. “The strength of the opponents didn’t bother me. The only difference was the opponents were a little bigger. I was so used to being a dominant size over most guys, height-wise.” That size played a factor, in his favor, against Barrera. “They gave it a DQ but he was knocked out. They were entering the ring to save him from further punishment; being that they entered the ring, you had to call a DQ but,” Jones paused, remembering the moment, “that was a knockout.”

The run through the Barrera wins would end in his next fight. Jones would be stopped in four by Kennedy McKinney in late-1997 and the following year resume the challenger role, stopped again in four by WBC titlist Erik Morales. Asked about the difference in challenging Morales versus Barrera, Jones said, “I was depleted. I had trouble making the weight. I was going to Mexico,” the Morales fight being in Tijuana, “and they told us don’t drink the water. Nonetheless, the victory went to Morales. I don’t take nothing away from him. He was a hell of a fighter. His size didn’t give me a problem. It was his height. I wasn’t used to fighting guys who were my height and that gave me a problem.”

For Jones, the initial decision to move to bantamweight was a matter of his body dictating his place in the sport. Jones, despite turning professional at a lower division, was slightly taller with a longer reach than Fulton. “I started having problems making the weight so I had no choice but to go to junior featherweight. I felt good. I was dangerous at junior featherweight. It was a division where I could impose my size on people.”  

Jones, who sometimes these days can be found training young fighters, sees Fulton-Inoue as a “pick-em fight” and feels Inoue will have to “get used to the height and size difference” in making his play for a junior featherweight crown. Jones indicated he felt Fulton is more of a physical threat than some oddsmakers indicate despite the lower knockout rate in Fulton’s record. “(Inoue) has to get used to a guy with a longer reach. He has to deal with a guy who has pretty decent power if he can’t hurt him without making mistakes.”

Inoue-Fulton, in terms of the tale of the tape, resembles Jones-Barrera to some degree but with the roles reversed. The height, reach, and speed of Jones were right at home at junior featherweight and his advantages over Barrera were similar to Fulton’s. Fulton’s record suggests a significant difference in power, but Fulton has thus far been more durable than Jones. 

As to what Fulton has to deal with against the smaller, potentially quicker Inoue, Jones provided, “He knows that he’s fast and he can’t neglect (Inoue’s) speed. He has to take the speed away. He can’t let him fight fast and have it at his own pace, his own authority. (Fulton) has to try to dictate the fight.” 

Regardless of the outcome on July 25th, Fulton-Inoue going into the fight only adds to the legacy of the matches described so far. While not all have been classics, there have been memorable battles like Jeff Fenech’s off the canvas thrashing of Samart Payakaroon; the brawler versus boxer drama of Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno; masterclasses in the sweet science like Guillermo Rigondeaux’s victory over Donaire; and Israel Vazquez’s off the floor comeback to stop Jhonny Gonzalez.

Vazquez was ultimately part of three fights relevant to this study. Two of them make up the first and last chapters of a three-part saga (a fourth, non-title epilogue occurred later at featherweight)  that produced two Fights of the Year. Rafael Marquez was a standout IBF bantamweight titlist when he rose to challenge Vazquez for the lineal and WBC thrones. In the first fantastic fight, Marquez was dropped but a badly broken nose forced a retirement from Vazquez. In the second, the Ring Magazine fight of the year for 2007, Vazquez avenged the loss with a stoppage in six.

They would top both of those first two classics in their third encounter, still one of the best fights of the 21st century. It was a study in escalation with Marquez, again playing the challenger, scoring a knockdown in the fourth, the only time Vazquez was down in the series. Vazquez summoned the will in the final two rounds to seize victory, clinching it with a knockdown of Marquez with seconds to go in the final frame.  Describing it’s selection as the BWAA fight of the year for 2008 in the program for the 84th Annual BWAA Awards Dinner, Don Steinberg wrote:

As Vazquez and Marquez had done in their two prior meetings, the fierce super bantamweights took turns surging and reversing the narrative, again and again and again. One man would attack like a wave crashing onto a beach; the other would weather it and storm back just as hard. They traded control in a cycle that seemed as endless and inevitable as night following day and day following night. It was like a movie that scrapped plot for pure action. Who’s winning? Don’t blink.

In the Vazquez-Marquez rivalry, four pounds mattered far less than the well of courage both men brought to the center of the ring. It would be a lot to ask of Fulton and Inoue to deliver something as violent, but it wouldn’t be an unwelcome development.

With that, it returns to the initial question: how much does four pounds matter?

Inoue, despite having won a title at 108 pounds, has competed almost his entire adult life at 115 or 118 pounds and spent most of the last five at the latter. His junior flyweight crown is an outlier. He’s a classic bantamweight moving up just that little bit more. Inoue’s accomplishments already place him in discussion for Hall of Fame consideration. If he fails against Fulton, he will have Hall of Fame company in the form of men like Zarate and Canizales.

There would be no shame in that. 

A substantial body of evidence shows that a move from bantamweight to junior featherweight is achievable. Given how many fighters have done it, the move alone is not remarkable and history shows the bigger man matters less than who the better man is in the ring. 

Will the power, speed, and precision of Inoue mean the biggest victory of his career or will Fulton’s speed, length, range, and defense cement him as one of the elite for good?

We’ll have answers in just a few short days.

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 roldboxing@hotmail.com