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We’re not there yet.
We got closer from Saturday night to Tuesday morning.
There’s a showdown brewing and this is one of those times where having a fight or two more won’t hurt a thing. Naoya Inoue wants to finish his collection of straps at bantamweight. He has one to go. Stephen Fulton can add the two straps he doesn’t have at Jr. featherweight in one night. Fulton’s would be the tougher assignment.
If they keep clearing obstacles, boxing could be looking at the sort of generational clash that gives this era a night like Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor.
Fulton went first over the last few days and showed off what makes him such an impressive talent on Saturday. In battles with Angelo Leo and Brandon Figueroa, Fulton used his feet and boxing ability but he also hung in the trenches. Against Daniel Roman, Fulton used his edges in length, speed, and elusiveness to contain the most accomplished opponent of his career.
Fulton had the ability to make a hard fight easy and he used it. It was Fulton’s third straight win against a fighter ranked in the top ten of his class by both TBRB and Ring Magazine. No one else has a streak longer than four. Fulton retained the WBO belt for the second time and the WBC strap for the first. Tantalizing for fans, Fulton has elevated his game at each stage of his development from knocking off undefeated prospects to undefeated young contenders and now a veteran former unified titlist.
Inoue long ago showed he can elevate at each level. He started elevating in only his fourth pro fight, winning a decision over more experienced future unified Jr. flyweight titlist Ryoichi Taguchi. Inoue elevated more in 2014, winning belts at 108 and 115 lbs. He’s been about as high as a fighter can get since arriving at bantamweight.
Tuesday, Inoue made short work of his rematch with Nonito Donaire. There were shades of Joe Louis-Max Schmeling II in the efficiency with which he handled the only man who had ever really pushed Inoue. The short right hand he dropped Donaire with in the first traveled inches, a reminder of the accuracy and technical acumen of the “Monster.”
Donaire was battered with the left and right in the second. The veteran tried to find a home for his own legendary left but Inoue was more defensively responsible in the rematch and guarded it perfectly. It was an almost perfect performance from a fighter with a few of them in his career.
Consider this: Inoue is now 10-0 against fighters ranked in their division by TBRB or Ring. Eight of those wins are by knockout. Among active professionals, only Saul Alvarez, Terence Crawford, Donaire, Gennadiy Golovkin, and Roman Gonzalez have more similarly ranked wins. Inoue’s ten wins have come in just 23 professional starts, giving him one of the highest concentrations of ranked wins to total fights in the sport (Vasyl Lomachenko is highest at nine wins in 18 starts).
While there are always lots of guys who can populate the imagination pushing confines of pound-for-pound lists, when Inoue fights like he did Tuesday it’s hard not to see the best fighter in the world. No one in boxing combines his speed, skill, and power quite the same way. He’s electric in a way no fighter has been since Roy Jones Jr. in his days at middleweight and super middleweight. In his two fights with Donaire, we learned he has a chin, unreal grit in fighting through a broken orbital bone, and now the ability to adapt and lethally end a rematch.
This is a special fighter in his prime.
Inoue has made clear he’s moving to Jr. featherweight in the near future. It’s time to start thinking seriously about what can happen when he gets there.
Futures: If there is a criticism of Inoue, it is that he missed all of the hardcore four at 115 lbs., leaving the division just as that round robin caught fire. Even now, opponents like Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada would likely be far more difficult tasks than WBO bantamweight titlist Paul Butler even if Inoue would be highly favored regardless. In a perfect world, Inoue would face Butler before the end of September and secure one of the 115 lb. staples for a divisional farewell before moving up.
If Inoue can’t do that, he will arrive at Jr. featherweight in a moment where they are very much in the midst of the sort of talent rush Inoue missed at Jr. bantamweight. For fight fans who want to see a showdown, and their numbers will swell, the hope should be for a Fulton-Murodjon Akhmadaliev unification to happen first. Fulton holding all the belts would drive Inoue toward him. If Inoue somehow got to Akhmadaliev first, it could potentially make it harder to make the fight.
Fulton would have no guarantees against Akhmadaliev and it may end up that we’re looking at a different showdown. So be it. Fulton, Akhmadaliev, and Inoue are all still in their 20s. The potential is there for an all-undisputed showdown between the kings of two weight classes, undefeated and in the full flush of youth and prime. This is the stuff legends are made of.
It wasn’t the only big development over the last few days.
Traveling into a packed arena half a world away, Devin Haney used an educated jab, deft defense, and a general gap in talent to make George Kambosos’ win over Teofimo Lopez a fleeting memory. The debate over who was the ‘real’ WBC lightweight king was rendered irrelevant.
Devin Haney is now the undisputed lightweight champion of the world.
Futures: Will that position hold for long? Haney is big for the division and could easily move to Jr. welterweight sooner than later. If he sticks around, drawing power or social media followings won’t make anyone else the lightweight king. Anyone who wants to be the king has to see Haney as long as he’s there.
And anyone who isn’t hunting for Haney should be asked why.
Gervonta Davis, Vasyl Lomachenko, and Ryan Garcia are the biggest name foes currently in the class. Davis and Lomachenko are the most accomplished and deserving to challenge Haney. Haney won on an ESPN card and is now doing business with Top Rank so that could give Lomachenko an inside track but the ongoing conflict in Ukraine could impact the option. Haney-Davis would be big business if the relevant parties worked together and, considering the whole WBC franchise nonsense at lightweight appeared to start as a way to get around Haney challenging then-titlist Lomachenko, a Haney-Davis battle would have some elements of what goes around.
Another name soon to be at lightweight is Shakur Stevenson. Before he rises, Stevenson may have found another rival at Jr. lightweight.
It wasn’t the most prominent fight of the last few days going in but it produced one of the highlights of 2022. Olympian Joe Cordina blistered IBF titlist Kenichi Ogawa with a single shot to win his first major title. It was an impressive coming out party against a pro who hadn’t been stopped in a decade. Stevenson holds two belts at 130 lbs. Cordina has another. Olympic showdowns between undefeated young fighters are never a bad thing. It’s a fresh option in a weight class without a ton of intriguing ones.
Rold Picks 2022: 26-6
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 email@example.com