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The Beltline: The trouble with being a little boxer in a super-sized world short on patience


WHETHER in a physical sense or a sense more figurative, the idea of the little man being overlooked is hardly anything new. It has been this way since the beginning of time and therefore it is perhaps only fitting that boxing reflects this, with the big men, those in the heavyweight division, claiming all the power, money and attention, while the little ones, those who inhabit featherweight and below, scrap for everything the heavyweights either brush from their plate or take for granted.

What you find because of this power disparity is that the boxers in the lower weight classes have to combine in order to increase, or simply double, their strength and leverage. This, for the fans, is a move most welcome, too, for it typically means two well-matched fighters have got together rather than avoided each other, something commonplace in divisions in which more options are available and time is not so much of the essence.

On July 25, for example, there is a fight taking place at super-bantamweight which is better than anything the heavyweight division has offered so far in 2023 and, based on the schedule, will be able to offer in its remaining months. The fight in question is of course the quite brilliant battle between Japan’s Naoya Inoue and Stephen Fulton, which appeals for more than just one reason and should, in an ideal world, be greeted with all the attention and acclaim it truly deserves.

As it is, though, the pair must do all the heavy lifting themselves, with Inoue carrying the lion’s share on account of the fact he is, in boxing, something of an anomaly: a little man who invariably wins his fights by devastating knockout. Yet, in the end, what really elevates this upcoming fight with Fulton, and what makes it different from previous Inoue bouts, is the fact that Fulton is a fine fighter in his own right and a world champion to boot. Indeed, it is Fulton, not Inoue, who will be walking to the ring second in Tokyo on July 25, and it is Fulton, not Inoue, who will be announced as the reigning WBC and WBO super-bantamweight champion.

Interestingly, too, while Inoue carries a fearsome reputation, and is considered a man most seek to avoid, Fulton had no qualms about fighting him, and in Japan no less. Why? Well, it’s quite simple really. Without Inoue, Fulton is a boxer easy to ignore, by opponents and fans alike. Moreover, without Inoue, and without travelling to Japan, the American’s relevance, even as a super-bantamweight belt-holder, is almost non-existent, particularly at home.

That’s a depressing thought to consider given his talent, yet it’s still no lie. If in doubt, take a moment to watch one of the videos of Fulton arriving in Japan for the Inoue fight, all of which capture him looking almost overwhelmed by the reception he received at the airport.

It is the Inoue effect, that’s all. Just as once upon a time “Prince” Naseem Hamed brought relevance to opponents by virtue of the likelihood of them getting knocked out by him, Inoue now shines a light on opponents in the same way. It is, after all, an unspoken truth of the lower weight classes: if you want people to care, you must be a little man with a big punch.

For the ones not as blessed, it will forever be a tough mountain to climb, hamstrung as you are by not only your size but also the dwindling size of the audience who pretend to care. This has become more and more of a problem as time has gone on as well, what with the rise of social media and the dwindling of everyone’s attention span and ability to concentrate. Now, of course, the prospect of sitting down to watch a couple of flyweights box for 12 rounds seems an idea almost as perverse as watching a DVD or listening to an entire album on a Walkman. To those not that way inclined, it seems like the pursuit of the purist, the collector, the freak. No longer is it cool, in other words. No longer are names like Ricardo “Finito” Lopez and Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson passwords to enter an exclusive club.

9 November 1996: The great Ricardo Lopez goes to work on Morgan Nduma at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada (Al Bello/Allsport)

Nowadays, if the highlights can’t fit a TikTok video, or if the fight report can’t be tweeted before the ring has emptied, a fight is seemingly of no interest to the latest brand of fight fan. That’s precisely why talented fighters like Sunny Edwards, a flyweight, has to give so much of himself away on social media in order to become something bigger than what he already is: arguably Britain’s best technician. It’s also why, financially speaking, it is imperative Edwards fights Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez, another excellent fighter appreciated only by hardcore fans, in his next fight. (Which appears to be the case, thankfully.)

Because nobody in boxing is fighting to be seen and heard quite like the little men these days. It wasn’t much different when “Finito” was a warm-up act on mammoth Don King cards throughout the nineties, true, but here, in 2023, the little men are fighting more than just the bigger men (both heavyweights and those in positions of power). Now, unless you are Naoya Inoue, and therefore somebody who can keep people engaged due to your threat level, you are deemed a fighter hard to promote and even harder to watch. You are deemed a relic of a time long ago, back when people could concentrate for 36 minutes and didn’t feel the need to switch tabs or tweet mid-fight.

Maybe all that means is that habits have changed with the times. Maybe, just as we still have the crumbs of informative, longform journalism (R.I.P The New York Times’ sports department) competing with social media’s click-baiting alternatives, big men and little men will, as always, continue to somehow co-exist and make it work. Maybe one man’s microwaveable hamburger is another man’s wagyu steak, and vice versa.

Take this very article, for example. In print, it will be read, one hopes, in its entirety, with its message, whether well-executed or not, at least clear to magazine readers, those of a certain disposition. However, when it is at some point posted to a different audience online one must accept that there is every chance this same article, once the link has been spread about, will be considered only a talking point – that is, a headline – and cue for commenters to tell the world what they think without having read even its opening paragraph. To read it, after all, would likely require too much effort and too much time in a fast-moving world. To read beyond the headline would be the behaviour of an old-fashioned purist; or a person sad enough to still watch flyweights fight. Besides, Tyson Fury has just filmed himself calling someone a “sausage”.

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