In a year full of big fights, good fights, and several times both at the same time, we arrive at arguably the best matchup of 2023.

At least until four days later.

At the very least, one can say confidently we have arrived at the best week of the year. 

It’s not often we get two superfights just days apart. Saturday will feature Errol Spence-Terence Crawford at welterweight in the United States. Tuesday (ESPN+, 4:30 AM EST), the spotlight is lower on the scale in a fight that will see fight fans all over the world tuning in from pre-dawn to evening based on where they are. Social media pictures from Japan give an idea of the magnitude of the event overseas, with advertising plastered from subway stations to billboards. 

The star of the show is the challenger, Naoya Inoue. Inoue has been a terror in winning titles at junior flyweight, junior bantamweight, and bantamweight where he became the first undisputed champion in fifty years when he stopped Paul Butler last year. Inoue vacated all his bantamweight titles as he entered the fray at 122 pounds, meaning this isn’t a toe test of a new weight class. Inoue is all in. 

The challenger enters 11-0 against fighters ranked in the top ten by TBRB and/or Ring Magazine in 24 professional starts, a nearly 46% rate for his career. While neither set of press-driven rankings is perfect, they provide a reasonable snapshot of the divisions that sanctioning body rankings can’t, in part because they generally don’t rate each other’s titlists.

Among those eleven wins are eight victories over opponents ranked in the top five of their weight class by one or both bodies at the time Inoue beat them, and a win over a future unified titlist at 108 pounds (Ryoichi Taguchi). 

Digging deeper, Adrian Hernandez was ranked number one at junior flyweight by TBRB, Omar Narvaez was ranked number one at junior flyweight by both bodies, and Donaire was the next highest rated bantamweight prior to their rematch. Donaire was ranked number one by Ring, who recognized Inoue as champion after the Rodriguez win, and number two by TBRB with Inoue at number one heading into the fight. What that means is that, in all the divisions he’s fought at, at some point Inoue beat someone with a case as the best available opponent and will go straight at the consensus top dog at junior featherweight.

Inoue challenging Fulton is on-brand for “The Monster.” 

It doesn’t mean Inoue’s record is spotless. While undefeated, he wasn’t able to work into the mix at flyweight and junior bantamweight that included Roman Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Estrada, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, and Carlos Cuadras. His unification of bantamweight and any accomplishments at junior featherweight will likely stand as the counters to those missing names when Inoue’s career in total is evaluated.  

The combined record of Inoue’s 11 ranked opponents going into the Fulton fight was 327-30-6, an average opponent record of approximately 30-3 and change. Fulton will be Inoue’s second undefeated opponent, his eighth opponent ranked in the top ten of their class in his last 10 starts, and his third ranked foe in a row.  

Fulton, the 2013 US National Golden Gloves champion at flyweight in 2013, has a lower volume of ranked opponents but has made the most of his last three fights, entering the Inoue fight with three consecutive ranked victories. Those three ranked foes share a combined record of 71-3-2, averaging to approximately 24-1 and change. The experience edge heading into this fight leans to Inoue but Fulton has done enough to demonstrate his quality at junior featherweight.

One unique aspect of the fight is how “Cool Boy” has been prepared at each stage of his professional development for the task of handing out first losses. Fulton has defeated ten unbeaten fighters, including a Damen Wood who was making his professional debut. The combined record of those ten unbeaten foes is 101-0-4, putting the average around 10-0. That doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Prior to his win over former unified titlist Daniel Roman in Fulton’s last start, he had defeated four unbeaten opponents in a row whose win totals ranged from fifteen to twenty-two. At every stage of a professional career dating to 2014, Fulton has faced fighters at similar stages of development and been the one to teach them to lose. He’s now entering the fight that could push him concretely into the upper echelons of elite conversation in the sport. Fulton’s career teaches him there is no reason to believe Inoue’s invincibility to date is the same as inevitability. 

Will Fulton’s experience against other young, hungry talents who didn’t know how to lose prove as valuable as Inoue’s rounds against a wider range of tested, veteran fare? It’s one of many questions that help make this such a special fight.  

Let’s get into it. 

Stats and Stakes

Stephen Fulton 

Age: 29

Title: WBO Jr. Featherweight (2021-Present, 2 Defenses); WBC Super Bantamweight (2021-Present, 1 Defense)

Previous Titles: None

Height: 5’6 ½   

Weight: 122 lbs.

Stance: Orthodox

Hails from: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Record: 21-0, 8 KO

Press Rankings: #1 (TBRB, Ring, ESPN)

Record in Major Title Fights: 3-0

Last Five Opponents: 102-3-3 (.958)

Notable Outcomes, TBRB and/or Ring Rated Foes: Angelo Leo UD12, Brandon Figueroa MD12; Daniel Roman UD12

Additional Current/Former Titlists Faced: Paulus Ambunda UD12


Naoya Inoue 

Age: 30

Title: None

Previous Titles: WBC light flyweight (2014, 1 Defense); WBO Jr. bantamweight (2014-18, 7 defenses); Lineal/TBRB World Bantamweight (2021-23, 1 Defense); Ring Magazine/IBF Bantamweight (2019-23, 6 Defenses); WBA Bantamweight (2019-23, 5 Defenses*); WBO Bantamweight (2022-23)

Height: 5’5   

Weight: 121 ¾ lbs.

Stance: Orthodox

Hails from: Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan

Record: 24-0, 21 KO

Press Rankings: #1 at 118 lbs. (ESPN, BoxRec)

Record in Major Title Fights: 17-0, 15 KO (19-0, 17 KO including sub-title fights) 

Last Five Opponents: 139-13-1 (.912)

Notable Outcomes, TBRB and/or Ring Rated Foes: Ryoichi Taguchi UD10; Adrian Hernandez TKO6; Omar Narvaez KO2; Kohei Kono TKO6; Jamie McDonnell TKO1; Juan Carlos Payano KO1; Emanuel Rodriguez KO2; Nonito Donaire UD12, TKO2; Jason Moloney KO7; Paul Butler KO11

Additional Current/Former Titlists Faced: None

*Also won and defended a WBA sub-title at bantamweight in 2018 

The Case for Inoue: Inoue is one of the best combinations of speed, power, and technique in any weight class. The danger he presents is two-handed. Some punchers have a great left or right. Inoue has both. The short right hand he delivers is as technically flawless a punch as there is in boxing, detonating Moloney and Donaire in recent vintage. When timed correctly, it’s a difficult punch to see coming. Inoue also has devastating power to the body and can throw his left hook from multiple angles, including a near fall away when moving to the right that explodes at contact. Two-handed power, when combined with genuine skill and athleticism, is hard to avoid for twelve rounds.  

Against Fulton, if Inoue can’t time his attacks when Fulton gets in range, it will be a long night. Inoue has shown some adaptability, and that will matter if Fulton elects to clinch and maul in spots. Inoue doesn’t always throw a ton of uppercuts but against Moloney it was effective when Moloney attempted to crowd him. Inoue’s feet are as important as his hands in this fight as he will need a first step that allows him to cross the space Fulton’s longer arms will create. Inoue has seen a similar reach disadvantage (it’s reportedly three inches here) against Jamie McDonnell but McDonnell didn’t have the style or skill of Fulton. 

If Inoue can consistently force Fulton to engage, he can land and catch the eye of judges even if Fulton can stand up to his power. Fulton is hittable, and we’ve seen him rocked in the past (an Angelo Leo left hook made for a burst of drama in their fight). Inoue is capable of stopping anyone and is one of the sport’s most lethal counter punchers. In a career where he’s lost a handful of rounds cleanly over the last decade, Inoue also has the tools to win a decision.       

The Case for Fulton: Fulton can’t just take away one hand or the other because Inoue can dust an opponent with either. The level of focus required for Fulton will be constant. Fulton will have to find a way to disrupt and contain Inoue for a significant portion of the fight. Fulton has the height, length, and fluidity to do it. Fulton, when he elects to box, extends his jab and fires a long right hand behind it at varied speeds to keep opponents off balance. When he throws the right long, Fulton does it with his chin tucked and away, leaving him hard to counter. 

Inoue has been touched by right hands against Rodriguez, Donaire, Moloney…Fulton can land his too and in a way that leaves Inoue with nothing to counter but air. Fulton is the better defensive fighter of the two, though Inoue’s defensive hand placement when he respects his opponents is better than some might realize. If Fulton can outland Inoue consistently without being drawn into exchanges, he’s in good stead.   

The height and length difference in the fight is similar, on paper, to the dimensions at play between Fulton and Roman. Roman’s activity matched Fulton but he couldn’t land cleanly, often missing by narrow margins. Inoue is faster, more accurate, and more precise than Roman so Fulton may want to find a way to bring Inoue’s output down. Keeping Inoue outside of mid-range, touching him and turning him, will force the sort of resetting Inoue isn’t used to. Tying Inoue up, walking him back, and frustrating his efforts to find a rhythm could also be successful when the fight gets to close quarters.  

Fulton is perceived as the lesser puncher and that’s fair but his power is better than it looks. Watch the late frames of Roman and we see a tested veteran reeling in spots, drowning in leather that was coming to the head and body. Fulton is one of those fighters capable of discouraging opponents by keeping them under steady fire. Fulton doesn’t have to go for a knockout so every round he puts in the bank is a step closer to victory and another chance to force Inoue to open himself up to even more counters to try to get back in the fight.   

The Pick: The picks for both mega-fights this week are among the toughest in recent memory. There is reason to favor the chances of all involved. In this fight, the speed, footwork, precision, and power of Inoue will be a constant threat. Fulton’s ability to mitigate those strengths and steadily turn up the heat on Inoue will determine his fate.

While there have been some silly controversies in recent days, Fulton hasn’t gotten involved in them. He has exuded a calm, and near joy, about this moment since the fight was announced. The stoic Inoue is hard to read but his public comments on the fight suggest he knows he’s against a serious opponent and relishing the challenge. 

Can Fulton stop Inoue? Anything is possible but Inoue took the Sunday punch of Donaire in their first fight and still dominated a fight where he had a broken nose and orbital bone. Can Inoue stop Fulton? Inoue just pancaked the entire bantamweight division in a way no one has in generations. His power is going to carry so the question is whether he is still as fast as he was at the lower class. A chance for a knockdown or two without a stoppage is there and the guess is Inoue’s hand and foot speed will remain intact.  

Both fighters are gamers, rising to the occasion in every big moment of their career. They come up best when the lights are brightest and find ways to win. Of the two, Fulton is the one who has to fight a more perfect fight. While Japan has less reputation for controversial decisions than many places, this is a fight where there could be several tactical, tough to decide rounds. If Inoue can win some rounds big, and the remainder of the fight is packed with pick ‘em rounds to score, his path to victory is easier to arrive at than Fulton’s. That makes the smart pick Inoue, maybe by decision, in a fight where fans may be debating who really won and wondering when we can see these two together again. 

Rold Picks 2023: 22-6

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