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The Fights

Naoya Inoue Is Heavier And Scarier

Naoya Inoue (L) of Japan and Stephen Fulton (C) of the US fight
Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday night in Tokyo, Naoya Inoue entered what looked, on paper, to be his toughest fight yet. After winning some titles at 108 and 115 pounds, then all of the titles at 118, he faced off in the ring with Stephen Fulton at 122, heavier than he'd ever been, attempting to claim a pair of belts in the junior featherweight division. "The Monster" had absolutely crushed boxing's lightest divisions with knockout after knockout, but against the biggest challenge that this new division had to offer, it was fair to wonder if the 30-year-old's bone-crushing power would lose a little of its zip when hitting a bigger and more muscular man.

In the eighth round, that question was firmly answered. Despite facing an acclaimed defensive fighter with a size advantage, Inoue delivered another phenomenal performance for the highlight reel and made a convincing argument that he is the pound-for-pound king. I used to call him the scariest little man in the sport, but now he might just be the scariest, period.

An Inoue win at home looked like a safe bet after just a few minutes. From the first punch on his speed kept him simultaneously out of Fulton's range and in his own, even without a reach advantage. Inoue danced through the first two rounds on the strength of his jab, and as Fulton opened up a little more in the third, he just didn't have the power to seriously threaten the Monster. Inoue was so obviously bursting with the confidence that comes from downing two dozen lesser foes, and while that allowed him to get hit on occasion, he could also reset right back into his groove.

After seven, my feeling was that, while Inoue maybe can't physically bully guys quite as much at this weight class, he can have similar results. Fulton got outpunched a staggering 114 to 47, and this could have been a clean sweep on the scorecards had it gone the distance. But the powerhouse version of Inoue materialized for something even more emphatic. A left to the body was followed a barely perceptible moment later by a right to the head, and this so simple, so flawlessly executed combo took Fulton for a ride. Inoue got the knockdown and then stayed aggressive, suffocating Fulton in the corner until the stoppage.

In less than a half hour of fighting, Naoya Inoue has asserted himself at the very top of his latest territory. Everything that comes next at junior featherweight—specifically Marlon Tapales, the other beltholder, who came into the ring after this fight to promote a potential clash later this year—projects to just be dotting Is and crossing Ts. I know I'm committing a cardinal sin, but I'm already looking ahead past Tapales, imagining what Inoue could do all the way up at 126, or even higher. At a certain point, you'd think, his body will reach its limits, but they're not yet in sight.

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