Paulie Malignaggi's Picks: Fulton-Inoue's an even better fight than Crawford-SpencePaulie Malignaggi's Picks: Fulton-Inoue's an even better fight than Crawford-Spence

Errol Spence-Terence Crawford is the fight most want to see, but Stephen Fulton-Naoya Inoue, on July 25, is even better. 

Inoue is one of the most exciting fighters in the world. Finding opponents who can hang with him – at that level – isn’t easy, but Fulton is one of those, which makes them fighting even more exciting. 

Inoue’s fights typically end quickly, so with him being matched with someone capable of being a foil for him – some of Fulton’s strengths can target some of Inoue’s weaknesses; he can make Inoue pay for some of the mistakes he might make – we can expect a competitive fight and some two-way action, like we saw in 2019 when Inoue fought Nonito Donaire.

Fulton is a cerebral fighter – a good boxer with a very, very good jab – who knows how to pick his spots and picks his punches very well. Shot selection is very important for a cerebral boxer, and Fulton’s is terrific. He’s very good at understanding distance and at maximising distance – partly because of his jab – and he’s both tricky and crafty enough to make opponents look bad. His willingness to travel to Tokyo to fight Inoue shows a determination – he’s on course to outgrow super bantamweight so could have moved up and remained undefeated, but he chased the most difficult fight – and a willingness to leave his comfort zone, which in 2023 not enough do. 

Inoue’s not just a power puncher – he’s also very fast. He’s not as fluid as Fulton, which means he doesn’t disguise his power punching as well, but the fact that he is powerful enough to both head and body to end fights is a disguise in and of itself. 

The biggest weakness Fulton has shown so far has come when he’s been on the front foot doubling or tripling up on his jab. He can fall over that front foot, which against Inoue could leave him at risk of being countered with right hands or left hooks. If he’s going to be front-foot heavy like that he needs to be very careful.

Paulie Malignaggi's Picks: Fulton-Inoue's an even better fight than Crawford-Spence

photo credit: Mikey Williams

Inoue, regardless, can be a little stiff, and he has a tell. When he’s walking opponents down he won’t always have his guard high, but before he’s going to start punching he moves it high to his face. He doesn’t start any combination unless his guard is high, and someone of Fulton’s talent may be able to take advantage of that.

Fulton may have a natural size advantage, but he’s not the most physical of fighters. Nor is he going to try to be on the inside all the time, even though he’ll smother Inoue to escape danger. If he was more physical – like Orlando Salido was against Vasyl Lomachenko, and not as someone who’ll use his physicality, defensively, to smother his opponent – that size advantage might become more interesting. 

The first fight between Inoue and Donaire was the most competitive we’ve seen one of his opponents against him, and forced Inoue to show his determination. As Donaire raised the tempo they fought at, so did Inoue, and while Inoue’s youth ultimately overcame Donaire, he was forced to take some big shots. At bantamweight Donaire’s really smoked some previous opponents with his left hook, so for Inoue to take some of them – and not just survive but respond – was incredible.

I was very impressed by Emmanuel Rodriguez on the night in 2018 when he beat Paul Butler in England, and when Inoue-Rodriguez was made I got really excited, because Rodriguez’s crafty qualities looked capable of testing him. Unbelievably – or so it felt at the time – Inoue dismantled him with that punch to the body inside a couple of rounds. We maybe still haven’t yet even seen quite how good he’s capable of being.

Fulton, on paper, is Inoue’s biggest test to date. There’s a reason Inoue’s in the top two or three on most pound-for-pound lists, but we’re about to see if he can even look great, and continue to improve, against an opponent of Fulton’s level.

Both fighters – maybe unlike Spence and Crawford, who respectively are 33 and 35 – are young, hungry and determined. Fighters lose a lot of their ferocity when they get older – we saw that with Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao in 2015. When fighters have made a lot of money they’re often less willing to put everything on the line for their legacies, but Fulton and Inoue are still securing their futures and legacies. The reason “Sugar” Ray Leonard’s first fight with Tommy Hearns, in 1981, was such a great fight was because they fought when they were still young and retained that ferocity. 

I expect Inoue to eventually stop Fulton in a really good fight. Fulton will show plenty of what’s earned him the reputation he has, but Inoue’s ability to counter Fulton’s double and triple jabs could be decisive. If Fulton can extend Inoue he can expose some of Inoue’s flaws, but he needs to remain competitive to be able to do so. 

Unlike with Fulton-Inoue, I don’t believe Spence-Crawford – four days later – is happening at the best possible time. The naturally bigger Spence has the advantage, because of his size, given how evenly matched they otherwise are. Crawford has more ability, but Spence’s size and engine – and knowledge of how to use both – means he can break Crawford down in the second half of their fight.