Facing Naoya Inoue in Japan is one of the most formidable tasks in boxing today. Unified WBO and WBC champion Stephen Fulton takes on that challenge, live on Sky Sports on Tuesday morning.
“He’s coming, lad. He’s coming.”
Paul Butler had boxed 10 rounds with Naoya Inoue, fighting for the undisputed bantamweight world title in Japan.
A voice from his second in the corner had a warning for him. Butler looked past his trainer’s shoulder to see Inoue had risen from his stool early. “He’s pulling his feet back like a bull,” Butler remembered. He knew then Inoue was angry.
Fulton risks his unified WBO and WBC super-bantamweight titles when he meets Inoue at the Ariake Arena in Tokyo, live on Sky Sports Main Event or Sky Sports Action from 9.30am on Tuesday morning.
It will be the Japanese star’s first contest at the weight, but Inoue has been a champion in three different divisions previously and went undisputed at bantamweight in his last fight when he stopped Butler in that 11th round.
Jason Moloney has gone on to become the WBO titlist at 118lbs, but Inoue knocked the Australian out inside seven rounds when they fought in 2020.
It wasn’t just Inoue’s “incredible power” that shocked Moloney. It was his speed.
“I didn’t see the punches,” Moloney told Sky Sports. “Both times he hurt me and then put me down.
“They were just so fast.”
He explained: “If you were trying to move away and create some distance for yourself, his closing speed off that first step where he would just explode into range and let his hands go was incredible.”
Inoue is renowned for being a ferocious finisher. “Once he gets into that, I guess, ‘killer’ mindset where he’s just reckless and lets his hands go and lets them go with bad intentions, he’s very hard to stop,” Moloney said.
But there’s more to him than solely the knockouts. His speed of foot and hand mean that when opponents try to step off to create space for their own work, they can’t. Inoue catches up to them before they can respond.
“He’s just special. He’s not only good in all areas – he’s obviously a very complete fighter and technically just about perfect but he’s exceptional in all areas, his control of distance, the use of his feet, how fast he can get in and out of range and his handspeed and incredible power. He’s just the complete package really,” the Australian said.
“I went in there with intentions of winning the fight and believing I could win the fight, but he’s probably even better than I expected once you’re in the ring with him.
“I couldn’t get the fight on my terms. He’s very good at controlling it. When you want to press the action, he’s very good at stepping back, making you fall short and bringing you on to his great counter-punches and then if you ever want to try and get away from him, his footspeed is incredible.
What to watch on Sky Sports this week
Final Men’s Ashes Test – July 27 to 31 – LIVE on Sky Sports Cricket
Premier League Summer Series – from July 23 – LIVE on Sky Sports Premier League
Belgian Grand Prix – July 28 to 30 – LIVE on Sky Sports F1
Stephen Fulton vs Naoya Inoue – July 25 – LIVE on Sky Sports Action
Seniesa Estrada vs Leonela Yudica – July 29 – LIVE on Sky Sports Action
Netball World Cup – July 28 to August 6 – LIVE on Sky Sports Action
Australia vs New Zealand – July 29 – LIVE on Sky Sports Action
St Helens vs Leeds – July 28 – LIVE on Sky Sports Action
“I knew going into the fight that he was very powerful but his handspeed and his footspeed were really, really incredible. Probably the footspeed was something that really surprised me.
“Obviously when he makes you pay, with the power he’s got, he hurts you and you stay hurt. You can’t afford to make those mistakes but unfortunately he’s very good at making you make them.”
Moloney had the uniquely intense experience of boxing Inoue in the ‘bubble’, in a quiet conference centre with a limited crowd due to the pandemic at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Boxing the ‘Monster’ in Japan adds another layer of difficulty. Ahead of Butler’s fight with him there were arguments about the scales at the weigh in. On fight night he hadn’t had a chance to warm up before he was called to ringwalk. On those occasions his team had to stand their ground.
“When it got close to the fight, the games started coming out,” Butler said. “They started messing around, they wouldn’t let you be comfortable basically.”
Fulton’s trainer has already taken issue with the way the Japan Boxing Commission allow fighters to wrap their hands. ‘Stacking’ is forbidden in some other jurisdictions.
Butler could have had his hands wrapped the same way, but decided to stick with what he knew.
“We tried it a few days before in training,” he noted. “Just to see if it makes a difference. Personally I didn’t like it, it felt like it was strangling my hands.
“We’re allowed a certain amount of tape on the skin first and then bandage and then back to your tape. [In Japan] they can put as much tape as he wants on his skin. Then he went bandage, then he went back to tape, back to bandage, finished with tape so I can see why everyone’s moaning saying it’s like a cast.
“But it’s legal over there.”
Butler also observed that Inoue has started using Reyes gloves in recent fights. These are known as the ‘puncher’s gloves’.
“The Reyes have horsehair and eventually, after so many rounds, the horse hair just seems to go to the back of the glove and you end up with his ‘cast’ basically hitting you in the face,” Butler said cheerfully.
There are all these additional pressures, psychological and tangible, when fighting a local superstar in their home country. But Inoue’s ability is also undeniable.
“He sort of pushed me round into places of the ring where he wanted me to be and I’m quite smart and I knew what he was doing so I just moved my feet that little bit quicker just to get out of them certain situations but it’s his presence in there,” Butler said.
“I knew if he hit me with two or three or I switched off, it was game over.”
Inoue will look to tempt an opponent into making a mistake. “He started dropping his hands, the hands started going behind his back and I think he was trying to make me change something,” Butler noted. “He’s trying to make me change so I open up a little bit more.”
But Inoue can also create the opportunities he needs. With Butler he found the finish tapping a punch high to the guard to open up a path for a body shot.
“My elbow’s tucked in but he goes right round the side,” the Briton said. “When the ref did wave it, I still had to stay down… I literally couldn’t breathe. It was sickening.”
Inoue looks unprepossessing outside the ring and far less intimidating than he is once he steps through the ropes.
“The day of the weigh in I looked at him and thought ‘how are you knocking people spark out? You’re tiny’,” Butler said. “His legs are massive, it’s obviously where all your power comes from.
“He smiled and nodded at me in the head to head,” he continued. “He looks a little bit different than what he has done before [in the final faceoff with Fulton]. It’s like he’s got a chip on his shoulder, which isn’t like him.”
Butler believes ringcraft and boxing with intelligence are key when it comes to fighting Inoue. “Always keep your shape, always keep your composure, always stick to the plan,” he said.
Fulton is known for being a smart boxer and has been a super-bantamweight for his entire career. For Inoue, stepping up to 122lbs for the first time, he is taking on an operator of the highest level.
“He looks good, he’s stylish, he’s slick. I just think Inoue will find a way,” Butler said. “The size difference with Fulton, I don’t think it will phase Inoue.
“He’ll do what he does. I think the presence again will eventually have Fulton on the back foot and I do think Inoue will get him as well, he’ll probably stop him mid to late rounds.”
Moloney is also tipping Inoue for victory.
“He’ll be very hard to beat for anyone, probably featherweight or below, I think he just about beats everyone in the world,” the WBO champion said.
“He’s the complete package.”