The date had already been set but on Saturday night WBO super-bantamweight champion Stephen Fulton discovered which man would be trying to take his world title. Brandon Figueroa’s perfectly placed left hand to the solar plexus of Luis Nery sent the Mexican crashing to the canvas in agony and set up an intriguing unification fight on September 11. But having been sat watching at ringside with his trainer, Wahid Rahim, Fulton was critical in his assessment of the newly-crowned WBC and WBA ‘Regular’ champion.
“It was sloppy. It was all over the place. And, as the rounds went on, the pressure and weight of Figueroa slowed Nery down; he did what he was supposed to do. But it definitely motivated me to work on a lot more things in the gym,” Fulton told Boxing Social.
Fulton will now begin preparations for what will be his ninth previously undefeated opponent. It’s a statistic that’s entirely rare for a fighter with less than 20 professional fights under their belt, but a test the super-bantamweight champion welcomes with relish.
“It allows me to challenge myself, facing a different style of undefeated fighter. I like to challenge myself, I’m very competitive,” he said. “That’s why I don’t see anyone in this weight class defeating me. I’m a smart fighter. Brandon Figueroa only has one style. We’ve never seen Brandon Figueroa box. I’m a thinker, I know how to think my way out of things.”
2021 has thus far been a breakout year for the 26-year-old American, with his eye-catching victory over Angelo Leo back in January not only providing him with his first world title but also demonstrating his capacity for industry as well as boxing smarts. Such recognition has been heartwarming for a young man who has been toiling away at his craft since he was 12 years old.
“Everything’s been great for me. I’m getting a lot of love and I’m getting out there more as far as my image in boxing. I feel like it’s just motivating me to train hard and do a lot more so I can stay here, obtain more, and become undisputed,” he declared, a feat he appears highly motivated to achieve as he namechecks WBA ‘Super’ and IBF champion Murodjon Akhmadaliev for a potential 2022 super-fight.
“I am the most wanted in the division. Everyone will be screaming my name, maybe for a cheque, for a title shot, for respect because they think they’re the best in the division. So I definitely have to step my game up. I have to work extra hard.”
Gratitude for this newfound recognition came off the back of significant personal and professional setbacks as the pandemic gripped the planet last year. Fulton himself became sick with Covid-19, quashing his original August fight date with Leo and seeing him unceremoniously kicked out of his hotel room with just a suitcase and his trainer Rahim in tow. On reflection, however, the WBO world champion feels the experience was a blessing in disguise.
“It changed my mentality about a lot of things, how I view things. It gave me that extra push to go and achieve my dreams in boxing. It gave me what I needed, that hunger for the sport,” said Fulton. “I feel like I took a lot for granted. But now after this pandemic I think the whole world needed, in some way, to see the light on the other side. To see what we all were doing wrong as a whole unit, as a whole world. So, I think it helped us in a lot more ways than we’d like to think.”
Such a stressful period of his life also provided Fulton with an opportunity to make some deeper changes outside of boxing, something he alluded to rather cryptically.
“Sometimes you have to take control of your life,” he said. “We’re always trying to please others. But we all need to realise that we can only control ourselves and our own emotions. It’s like you can tell your kids what to do but it’s really only up to them if they’re willing to do it. You can’t control them. We can only control ourselves.”
With boxing in the lower weights enjoying a golden era, speculation has mounted that a fight with ‘The Monster’, Japan’s Naoya Inoue, is being earmarked by Fulton’s team. Such a fascinating clash of styles would be heaven to any hardcore boxing fan, yet the American is bullish about how such a fight would play out.
“I think I beat him easy. He’s small. You see what just happened to Luis Nery? I do the same to him. He’s too small, he’s not a full blown 122. Us 122-pounders are big,” said Fulton. “Coming from 118, he’d probably get up to 137. We [are] walking around bigger than that. If they think they can come up a weight class and keep that same power and energy. We carry big power up here as well.”
For now, however, Fulton is enjoying his moment in the sun back home in Philadelphia. Few could deny him a period of contentment after growing up in one of the city’s most underprivileged neighbourhoods and having his father locked up in prison for 10 years of his childhood. Like many fighters before him, such hardships serve as fuel for Fulton’s ascent to the top and he sees his revered status in ‘Philly’ as an opportunity to become a positive male role model to the next generation.
“I just feel like it’s good for the city that I became world champion. We need people to lead by example,” he said. “All the kids love me, they all wanna do things. A lot of the young kids around my way who’re cool with my nephew, I take them out. Giving them that extra motivation. All the things I wanted when I was growing up.”
Main image: Amanda Westcott/Showtime.