PHILADELPHIA — The only sound was their muffled steps as Stephen Fulton and his trainer, Wahid Rahim, made their way back to the dressing room through the warrens of the Mohegan Sun Casino, in Uncasville, Connecticut. Fulton had just won his first major belt, beating Angelo Leo for the WBO junior featherweight title in January 2021, when COVID was still going on, so there was no one in the arena.
There was no applause. No fanfare. Nothing but the sound of their feet.
It’s when Fulton turned to Rahim, who was carrying so much (Fulton’s gloves, robe, banner, etc.) that he felt wrapped like a leftover Christmas present, and said, “You know I’m going to have to go to Japan to fight (Naoya) Inoue. That’s my path to become a superstar.”
In late April or early May, Fulton will travel to Tokyo, Japan, to fight “The Monster,” the former undisputed bantamweight champion, who will challenge the 28-year-old Philadelphian for the WBC and WBO 122-pound belts.
It will be one of the year’s premier clashes, absolutely huge in Japan and to the hardcore boxing community, though regrettably, possibly nowhere else as lighter-weight fighters are often overlooked by general sports fans.
The Ring’s No. 1-rated junior featherweight could care less. Fulton (21-0, 8 KOs) stands to make in the neighborhood of an eight-figure sum for the fight, according to numerous sources close to the situation. He has the chance of a lifetime because beating Inoue (24-0, 21 KOs), a three-division champion currently No. 2 in The Ring’s pound-for-pound rankings, will make him the star he envisioned two years ago when he first thought of the clash.
No one, besides himself, his team and a few friends, thinks he can go to Japan and win.
Again, “Cool Boy Steph” could care less.
“Good, I like it that way,” Fulton said. “I remember talking to Wahid right after the Leo fight about Inoue. I went to Al Haymon about making the fight happen, and Al made the fight happen. I’m still with Al. He is my guy. Every time I ask Al for something, he’s come through.
“I have no fear about going over to Japan and being screwed over. When you know how to fight, and I know how to fight, you don’t worry about the judges or any of that other stuff.
“I’m the only world champion in Philadelphia (so far with the Philadelphia Eagles playing in the Super Bowl this Sunday). It’s like no one knows that. It’s why I said I would never fight in Philadelphia. I get more love across the country than I do in my own city. Okay, I’ll change that when I beat Inoue, and everyone will want to support me. They can keep the love. I don’t care for it at this point.”
The goal of one day facing Inoue originated from Fulton during that long walk back to the dressing room in Uncasville two years ago; long enough for a plan to develop.
“Scooter turned around to me and said, ‘I’m going to have to go over to Japan,’ and I remember I said, ‘What? What the f—k are you talking about?’” Rahim recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to have to go to Japan to fight Inoue.’ He told me he had to do it. I thought Stephen was f—g crazy. I immediately thought about Roy Jones being screwed over in the (1988) Olympics by the South Koreans. (And) Inoue, at the time, was 118. I didn’t think anything of it.
“Scooter is amazingly confident. Confidence brings ability, but Stephen is also very smart. We don’t care whether we get treated fairly or not. They might treat us fairly in front of the cameras, but behind the cameras, it could be different.
“We’re used to it. We’ve been treated unfairly by the boxing community, the media, and as far as Philadelphia treats him, he has not been treated fairly at all. Look at Inoue’s record, he has fought one undefeated fighter. Stephen has fought 10. You could say the prejudice Stephen has gotten is because he’s a smaller fighter, but Inoue is a smaller fighter, too, and look at the attention his country gives him.
“If we didn’t have Al Haymon and PBC, we would be somewhere, but nowhere near where we are. They’re the only ones who supported us. Al made the fight happen. Stephen called Al and told him what he wanted to do. Al does what his fighters ask him. Al cares about his fighters and wants what’s best for them.
“People saw this going under Top Rank and immediately thought Scooter left Al. Wrong! The stupid media, idiots on social media, who don’t know anything, they thought Scooter left Al and PBC. The fight doesn’t happen without Al.”
Rahim proceeded to rattle off PBC fighters under Haymon that have fought ini co-promotions or under other promotional banners, such as Deontay Wilder (twice against Tyson Fury), as well as Danny Jacobs, Shawn Porter, Jesse Vargas, Felix Diaz, Andy Ruiz and Thomas Dulorme.
In Japan, Inoue is Tom Brady and LeBron James rolled into one. He has that crossover appeal.
Fulton wants a piece of that in the U.S. It could be hard to come by, considering he is a smaller fighter.
“In Japan, Inoue is the biggest thing ever and he’s small,” Rahim said. “The Japanese stay together. In America, everything is spread apart. If Scooter was Caucasian, he would be a superstar. He would be the biggest thing ever right now because of the support behind him, because Caucasians stick together. I mean that in a respectful way. I like it, I like it a lot.
“In the Black community, everything is spread apart. If Scooter were Hispanic, he would be the biggest thing ever, because of the same thing. Think about it. Scooter is not an American superstar. He should be. Boxing fans know him, and no one knows who Inoue is in this country, so, f—k no, Stephen doesn’t get the support from the Black community that he should get. If he did, he would not have to go to another country to fight.
“We went to Vegas and the whole crowd was against him for the Brandon Figueroa fight. Mexican fighters are great fighters and the Mexican fans are great fans that support their fighters. I’m not mad at the Mexican fighters. I’m jealous of them. I’m being honest. I’m not angry. I’m used to it.
“I’m jealous of them, because they get support from their people. We don’t. Stephen had to deal with that, too, against Figueroa. Why can’t the African-American community support in the same way? We’ve been torn and separated like every other culture, and we can never seem to come together. If the Black community knew how to stick together, Scooter would not have to do this.
“What Stephen is doing is breaking age-old curses. This little guy is the little engine that could. After Scooter does it, the African-American community will still not stand by him.”
Rahim maintained Fulton is special. He has a special gift. He believes in himself. He is also honest with himself. He has high emotional intelligence.
“It’s kind of funny, people said Al wouldn’t take care of me, and look where I am, fighting for the biggest payday and in the biggest fight of my life,” Fulton said, laughing. “It’s why I say big fights don’t happen more so because of the fighters, not the promoters or the managers. I went to Al, I asked him to make this happen, and he did. I’ll be honest. I don’t even care about the money. I love fighting. I’m the first one doing things. I don’t care about the other stuff. I don’t really care. Size, race, like me, hate me, I know who I am.
“I love what I do and I’m great at it. There aren’t many world champions who can say that. When I win, everyone, the fans, the media, people in boxing, everyone that ignored me, will be on my junk. This is not a big deal to me. I’m a fighter. I was born a fighter. This is what I’m supposed to do. And to all those who don’t think I can win, well, f—k them. I was made to do this.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.