Over the decades, junior featherweight has produced an outsized number of excellent fights, and one more needs to be added to that list. That would be last night’s brutal unification fight between Brandon “The Heartbreaker” Figueroa and Stephen “Cool Boy Steph” Fulton, which saw Fulton emerge with both WBC and WBO belts in a Showtime televized bout from the Park Theater in Las Vegas.
While neither fighter was a household name heading into their clash, hard-core fans were salivating in anticipation of the potential violence on display. Both Fulton and Figueroa were undefeated and ranked in top 5 by the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, yet they were inexperienced titleholders. In his last fight, Fulton (20-0, 8 KO) had won the WBO title by beating Angelo Leo decisively, but that was a year ago, and he had yet to defend the title. Similarly, Figueroa (22-1, 17 KO) was making the first defense of the WBC strap he won in May when he stopped Luis Nery courtesy of a debilitating body shot. Fulton and Figueroa had each beaten a few solid names, but represented each other’s most demanding test.
The bout was initially scheduled for Sept. 18, but was postponed because Figueroa tested positive for COVID. The delay was well worth it because when they finally got in the ring the action was intense from the opening bell.
Fulton started strong, utilizing his faster hands to pop Figueroa’s head back with jabs and lead rights. He intended to keep the fight at longer range to use his slick movement, sharper punches, and more varied offensive arsenal, but in what would be a sign of things to come, Figueroa managed to pin Fulton to the ropes early and unload his trademark body attack.
Despite owning a tremendous height and reach advantage over most junior featherweights, Figueroa prefers to neglect his physical advantages by exchanging punches on the inside. Although that offensive mentality had helped him earn stoppage wins in nine of his last ten fights, it also meant he was putting himself in harm’s way against a sharp and accurate puncher like Fulton. Fortunately for Figueroa, his chin is one of his best attributes, and he was able to rely on it again in the biggest fight of his career.
In the 2nd round, Figueroa pinned Fulton against the ropes, unloading his looping shots from all angles. Fulton was able to counter well off the ropes, but by agreeing to engage on the inside, he was providing Figueroa with his only chance of victory. Understanding that fact, Fulton made the intelligent move to push Figueroa back on his heels in the 3rd round. But Figueroa showed his intelligence by refusing to stay on the ropes. He made sure to reverse position quickly and then continue to target Fulton’s body with reckless abandon.
The intensity continued through the middle rounds, with Fulton having success with left hooks and uppercuts while Figueroa was doing the bulk of his damage to the midsection of the Philly native. The sixth was another excellent round where both men landed a bevy of power shots to the head and body. But it was Figueroa who had the upper hand because of his consistently relentless attack. His never-ending onslaught forced Fulton to focus on defense for long stretches, preventing him from landing his offense.
It was a pitched battle as it moved toward the championship rounds, with each stanza being too close to call. Did the judges prefer Figueroa’s volume and aggression or Fulton’s accuracy and sharpshooting?
In the 10th, Fulton had success early by forcing Figueroa on his heels only for Figueroa to roar back and momentarily stun Fulton. Backed into a corner with his body being strafed with hooks, Fulton demonstrated his warrior spirit by staying upright, standing his ground, and throwing back meaningful power shots in return.
Fulton stormed back and had one of his best rounds in the 11th by maintaining a greater distance so that he could land jabs and straight rights. Had he done that the whole fight, it would have been an easier night for him. But Figueroa deserves credit for refusing to allow that to happen and not giving Fulton any room to breathe.
With the fight hanging in the balance, both fighters emptied their tanks in the final round to provide the judges with an emphatic last impression, and the fans were the lucky beneficiaries once again. In the end, the judges awarded Fulton with the majority decision by two scores of 116-112, with a 114-114 on the third.
You can disregard the ludicrous cries of a robbery that came from Figueroa in his post-fight interview. He was just as delusional as Teofimo Lopez was in his remarks after being upset by George Kambosos on the same night. There is no such thing as a robbery in a close fight. With so many swing rounds in Fulton-Figueroa, no unbiased viewer can say with any degree of certainty that one man truly deserved to be the winner.
Instead of the decision and post-fight shenanigans, we should be focusing on the univocal aspects of this fight, its entertainment value and the sheer toughness exhibited by its participants. They both should be proud of their herculean efforts, and they deserve only significant opportunities in the future. Hopefully, for Fulton, that means a scrap with fellow title holder Murodjon “MJ” Akhmadaliev.
(Photo by Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)