Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” is now the unofficial anthem for Philadelphia sports, a tale of ambition in the face of horror and reveling in success achieved against all odds.
When the song was released in 2012, Stephen Fulton was still an amateur, and with the Olympics passed, he was aiming towards winning a world title as a professional. Coming from the west Philadelphia neighborhood colloquially known as The Bottom, nightmares were far more likely to come true than dreams were. Fulton’s trainer Hamza Muhammad once said that of the group of kids he began training at the same time as Stephen, Stephen was “like the last of the Mohicans.”
The song, and Meek himself, became a symbol of hope for people in Philadelphia. Even out of a stacked deck could come a winning hand.
On Saturday, Fulton looks to become a symbol of hope himself, as he takes on Angelo Leo for the WBO world super bantamweight title in the main event of a card aired on Showtime. If he is to win, he would be the only current world boxing champion hailing from the proud fighting city of Philadelphia.
“When I was younger, there wasn't someone like that for me. Honestly, there wasn't,” said Fulton. “But then when I started boxing, I started looking at rappers such as Meek Mill, and I looked at him coming from Philly and I was like man, now he's one of the greats, damn, he's one of the hottest rappers out. So, once he got there, it was him that I kinda, not looked up to, but more so being like damn, okay, I can make it out.”
Fulton’s big break was supposed to come on August 1, 2020, when he was originally scheduled to face Leo for the then-vacant title. But three days before the bout, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was immediately taken out of his hotel room at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and sent back home, as Leo remained and instead beat Tramaine Williams for the title instead.
The 26-year old describes it as one of the lowest moments of his life, bringing him to tears as he thought about the possibility of never getting another chance at a world title. As much as he wanted to get back in the gym and work out his frustrations, his doctors advised him that rigorous activity while he had COVID could cause permanent lung damage.
While many boxers and people within the sport have publicly shared disinformation and dangerous views about the validity or severity of the virus, Fulton knows first-hand how real it is.
“They're taking it that way because they haven't been in certain life-changing situations, they haven't had that opportunity yet to have it taken away from them. Then maybe they'll open their eyes to other things in life in general, not just boxing,” said Fulton.
Fulton says that the experience, coupled with living through a year consisting of both a pandemic and civil unrest, has been an enlightening one for him as a person and as a boxer.
“I take my time with things now. I face my problems, I face what's in front of me. I try to be more open-minded to others. I take the sport a lot more seriously, because I know this is something that I love that could be taken away from me. As well as with family, I realize that family is all I have, so I just have to be more open-minded to them as well and start spending more time with them. Due to everyone dying and everyone acting crazy, God showed us all that this could be taken with a snap of a finger or the blink of an eye,” said Fulton.
“It changed my mental, the way I train, it changed the way I think as far as fighting and just life in general. It made me a better adult, a better young man.”
Even before the past tumultuous year, Fulton has never been one to shy away from “maturing” moments inside the ring. Leo will represent the ninth undefeated fighter Fulton has faced in his career. Fulton has adopted this as an identity of sorts—the guy that beats other undefeated guys.
What makes his rugged resume most laudable is the fact that it didn’t have to be that way. Fulton’s career has been backed by Al Haymon, who has plenty of power and influence to pave a smooth road for a touted prospect like Fulton to cruise to a world title shot. According to Fulton though, he wouldn’t have wanted it that way.
There is no shortage of fighters who enter their first world title fight on the very same night they enter their first 50-50 fight. For Fulton, that will certainly not be the case.
“At first it was the path that was given to me. After a while, people want to test their investment and see how they're looking. But then it became a thing where I started to enjoy it, get a thrill out of it,” said Fulton, who is a betting favorite despite being the challenger.
“It will help me, because this isn't something I'm new to. This is a normal thing to do for me. It'll be way more normal for me than it will be for him. I know he's the returning champion, but he's got a lot on his hands that he doesn't realize he has to deal with yet. Everyone tries to be cool and play it cool, but when the time comes, all those things will show, it'll show that I am the vet compared to him, I'm the better man, not just the better man on that night, I'm the better fighter in general.”
Fulton’s obstacles to get to this point have been plentiful, but they’ve hardened him in ways that have made him a better fighter and softened him in ways that have made him a better person. It all could have turned out differently, perhaps, if Hamza Muhammad hadn’t spotted Stephen and his father coming out of the mosque 14 years ago and told him about the boxing program he was running.
A dream that could have just as easily been a nightmare.
“I don’t really think about that, because I feel like this was meant to happen,” said Fulton. “Everything that's going on in my life right now, it was meant to happen.”