Stephen Fulton does not know how many more fights he has left in the 122-pound weight class. He is Philadelphia’s only boxing world champion, but cutting weight is much more challenging now than it was eight years ago when Fulton turned professional. His body, the West Philadelphian said, is growing.
So it’s easy to imagine how much more difficult this training camp — leading into Saturday’s super-bantamweight title defense against former champion Daniel Roman — was because it fell during Ramadan.
Fulton, who is Muslim, had to fast for four weeks while preparing to defend his WBO and WBC titles. The 27-year-old trained on an empty stomach and worked out without water as nothing was allowed to enter his mouth from dawn until sunset between April 2 and May 2.
An already challenging camp must have become even more grueling, right?
“Actually, it wasn’t difficult at all,” Fulton said. “I had ups and downs, but I’ve done this in previous years and fought during Ramadan. I’m kind of used to it. It’s a bittersweet feeling, and it’s a humbling feeling. It makes you appreciate life and all that goes along with it. It makes you appreciate food and honestly I appreciate that it helps me with my discipline.”
Fulton has practiced Islam since he was a child and his trainer, North Philadelphia’s Wahid Rahim, is also Muslim. They fasted together during Ramadan so Rahim, a former boxer, knew how his fighter felt. He knew when he could push him in the gym and knew when to pull back as he knew Fulton did not have any fluid in his system.
“It teaches him discipline,” Rahim said. “A lot of people don’t understand it, and that’s fine. To each his own. I’d rather for him to stay on this path than on a path that doesn’t teach him discipline. Islam teaches discipline.”
Saturday night’s bout in Minneapolis on Showtime is Fulton’s third title defense since he became a world champion May of 2019. To get to the top, Fulton went through the premier fighters in his weight class and has not ducked anyone since becoming champ.
He won a majority decision in November against Brandon Figueroa, who had recorded his last nine wins by stoppage and said he would make Fulton quit. Roman, Fulton’s opponent on Saturday, was the WBA and IBF champ when Fulton was moving up the ranks, but Fulton said he could not get a shot. Now he’s giving Roman (29-3-1, 10 knockouts) the opportunity the former champ refused to give him.
In a sport where champions sometimes tend to become protected and shy away from the fights that fans want to see, Fulton is a breath of fresh air.
“I always wanted to be the people’s champion,” Fulton said. “I’m an outstanding champion and I carry myself like one. My confidence is there as well as my respect for others. I feel like I’m a great champion.”
Fulton (20-0, eight KOs) is an exciting fighter, matching his power with the boxing skills he gained as an amateur champion. His fights are always busy as Fulton does not shy away from contact. His win over Figueroa was named a Fight of the Year finalist by The Ring magazine.
“He has the mental strength about him, and that’s how he competes,” Rahim said. “Sometimes, when people step up to a challenge, mentally they’ll fold. They’ll physically step up and be there, but mentally, they already lost themselves. They physically do it because they’re standing on their pride and ego, but mentally that’s how he gets through it. It’s not just something to prove to people but to prove to himself. A lot of people want to just prove it more to others, but when it comes to themselves, they’re already lost.”
Fulton and Rahim built their training schedule around salah, the five daily prayers Muslims are required to make at specific times. Rahim would end each workout in time for Fulton to change his clothes and pray, kneeling on a prayer rug with his forehead touching the gym floor.
“Where would the world be without faith?” said Fulton, who has two sons. “I still work on that daily. When you’re young, you don’t care about fasting and you slack on prayers, but I’ve been working on myself and trying to better myself, so I lean on that a lot and much more than I did when I was younger. I’m a man with morals, and I’ve witnessed so many who didn’t have faith who had less to none morals.”
Midway through Ramadan, Fulton pressed his trainer to push him. The fighter, despite fasting, felt strong. But Rahim knew he had to hold the champion back, protecting Fulton from himself. Fulton listened and fight night was a little more than a month away when Ramadan ended. For Fulton and Rahim, it was time to turn up the intensity.
They made it through a month of training while fasting and they’re more than prepared for a 12-round fight.
“It built mental strength,” Rahim said. “Like when he’s in the gym training and his body shuts down, and he’s forcing the body to do something and the body is saying ‘no’ but you’re telling the body to do it, that works in the later rounds during fights. Your body is telling you to stop, but that’s where that mental strength comes in. You’re giving your body that extra boost. Your body is saying you don’t have it, but your mind is saying you do and you push yourself to another level.”