It wasn’t a shock given the principles and requirements of the World Boxing Group however the information on Wednesday was welcome. 

As reported within the Japan Instances and a number of different retailers, 29-year outdated undisputed bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue (24-0, 21 KO) was “awarded the standing of bantamweight tremendous champion within the World Boxing Group’s newest rankings, giving him precedence for a title shot if he strikes as much as problem American Stephen Fulton within the weight division above.”

The 28-year outdated Fulton (21-0, 8 KO) is one among two undefeated, unified titlists presently reigning at Jr. featherweight. Together with the WBO’s, Fulton holds the WBC belt whereas 28-year outdated Murodjon Ahkmadaliev (11-0, 8 KO) reigns with the WBA and IBF straps.

The WBO has opened a window for what might be among the best fights in boxing. How lengthy that window stays open, and whether or not Inoue or Fulton step by way of it, stays to be seen.

Inoue hasn’t fought with no title on the road from one of many 4 main sanctioning our bodies since his fifth professional begin, amassing belts throughout the Jr. flyweight, Jr. bantamweight, and now bantamweight divisions. Whereas Inoue could take a non-title bout at Jr. featherweight earlier than a title strive, it feels extra possible he goes trying to find gold straight away. 

That assumes Inoue strikes up. There may be at all times the chance Inoue may defend the bantamweight title once more earlier than he makes a transfer. Countryman Kazuto Ioka is combating to unify a pair of belts at Jr. bantamweight on the finish of the month with Joshua Franco. Lineal Jr. bantam king Juan Francisco Estrada defeated Roman Gonzalez earlier this month. 

Each might be engaging opponents and Estrada particularly wouldn’t be with out intrigue. Inoue has by no means confronted any of the hardcore 4 (Estrada, Gonzalez, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Carlos Cuadras), having left Jr. bantamweight shortly after that rivalry actually kicked into gear. Estrada stands at 5-2 within the sequence. An Inoue-Estrada conflict as the ultimate chapter of an period at what might be referred to as bantamweight basic, the house between 112-118 kilos, would have historic worth.

If that’s not occurring, staying at bantamweight doesn’t current a lot in the way in which of interesting matchups or new mountains to overcome. Each of these issues come one division up. Probably the most direct line to Jr. featherweight gold for Inoue, primarily based on the necessary state of affairs within the division, goes by way of Fulton.

Akhmadaliev took care of his obligations to the WBA in his lone outing of 2022, a twelfth-round stoppage of Ronny Rios in June. The IBF ordered their necessary in September, declaring Akmahdaliev should face former bantamweight titlist Marlon Tapales subsequent or face the potential lack of their belt. Final week, the bout was ordered to purse bids. Akhmadaliev has been therapeutic from accidents however all indicators level to Tapales being subsequent.

For Fulton, the WBC necessary was fulfilled in June 2022 as effectively. Fulton posted a lopsided choice win over former unified titlist Daniel Roman, which means the WBO could be his subsequent necessary obligation…if Fulton chooses to battle on at Jr. featherweight.

Whereas Akhmadaliev is remitted to face Tapales subsequent, Fulton’s plans seem like a visit to featherweight to face Brandon Figueroa for the interim WBC title. Fulton defeated Figueroa in a wonderful Jr. featherweight unification contest in 2021. The interim label could be affixed as a result of the WBC’s featherweight titlist, Rey Vargas, is headed as much as face O’Shaquie Foster for the vacant WBC belt at Jr. light-weight. 

If Vargas wins and stays within the greater class, the Fulton-Figueroa II winner would slide in simply because the WBC’s main champ at featherweight. A Fulton win would imply selections for Philadelphia native.

Does Fulton stay at featherweight or return to Jr. featherweight to proceed his reign?

Inoue hasn’t fought thrice in a calendar yr since 2017. Ready to see what occurs in Fulton-Figueroa II earlier than signing his subsequent battle would match effectively in his common schedule. If the wait produces a showdown with Fulton, the game and its followers will probably be effectively rewarded.

It’s an distinctive conflict.

Inoue’s accomplishments, significantly after his run at bantamweight, are pretty much as good as nearly any lively fighter within the sport. Since 2014, he’s been probably the most dominant fighters in boxing. His most spectacular run of consecutive competitors got here at bantamweight, beginning with a knockout of Jamie McDonnell, by way of the World Boxing Tremendous Sequence and a Struggle of the 12 months victory over Nonito Donaire, and at last by way of a knockout protection of stable contender Jason Moloney. Inoue posted 5 straight wins in opposition to a few of the greatest bantamweights on this planet.

Since Moloney, the competitors hasn’t been the identical. His rematch victory over Donaire, a battle Donaire earned with two spectacular wins after the primary loss to Inoue, was extra spectacular for a way Inoue did it. Inoue beat Donaire the primary time regardless of a damaged orbital bone and was anticipated to do it once more. Inoue’s different three foes since Moloney, together with a Paul Butler who had a belt, entered with an air of hopelessness. 

Inoue’s need to be the primary undisputed bantamweight champion in fifty years was comprehensible. It didn’t imply lots of crimson meat to stay up for during the last two years. It’s time to see Inoue in a battle the place the result feels doubtful, the place we discover out if a contemporary nice could be higher.

Or if Inoue can push one other man to cement his personal place on the desk.

Fulton has constructed a stable resume, defeating undefeated opponents in 4 of his final 5 bouts with three consecutive high ten wins at Jr. featherweight based on the rankings of the TBRB and Ring Journal. What Fulton doesn’t have but is the form of opponent that makes the entire boxing world cease and anticipate. Angelo Leo, Figueroa, and Roman are all rattling good foes, however none carried the repute, accomplishment, or acclaim into the ring Inoue would. 

There are various who price Inoue as the most effective fighter on this planet, pound-for-pound, proper now. There isn’t one other opponent inside 4 kilos of Fulton, up or down, who’s within the zip code of that dialog. Fulton-Figueroa II is an effective battle but it surely’s not a conflict with Inoue. 

Somebody goes to be the primary man to tame the “Monster.”

Is Fulton that man?      

Inoue has by no means confronted a fighter with the mix of versatility, velocity, size, and peak Fulton would problem him with. Whereas Inoue could be shifting up one other weight class, his energy ought to be assumed to hold up with him. Inoue laid waste to many of the bantamweight division. A few of these foes have since gone on to compete and final far longer at Jr. featherweight. Fulton hasn’t confronted anybody with the explosiveness of Inoue and Inoue’s velocity benefit over Fulton’s previous couple of foes is palpable.

There have been some basic matches pitting Jr. featherweight champions in opposition to latest or reigning bantamweight titans. Wilfredo Gomez knocked out Carlos Zarate and Lupe Pintor. Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. held off Orlando Canizales. Rafael Marquez moved as much as topple Israel Vazquez and set off an epic sequence of battles.

Fulton-Inoue suits proper in with that legacy. 

The WBO has opened a window, a path, to an incredible showdown. They’re each of their prime. There’s motive to assume both males can win…or lose. The winner could be positioned to face the winner of an Akhmadaliev-Tapales battle to finish one more belt assortment in a latest burst of all-the-belts unifications throughout the size. 

It’s arduous to ask for extra.

Let’s begin crossing fingers now. Fulton-Inoue is pretty much as good a battle as boxing can ship in 2023.         

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the Worldwide Boxing Analysis Group, and a member of the Boxing Writers Affiliation of America.  He could be reached at [email protected] 

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