After just 15 professional fights, Philadelphia boxer Stephen Fulton will have his first shot at a world title Saturday when he faces Paulus Ambunda for the IBO super-bantamweight championship at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Va.
Fulton, a 122-pound, fleet-footed and powerful rising prospect who survived a rough upbringing in the area of West Philly known as “The Bottom,” will be fighting on the undercard of the junior middleweight title showdown between challenger Julian Williams, his James Shuler Boxing Gym stablemate, and IBF/WBA champion Jarrett Hurd.
The 24-year-old Fulton (15-0, 7 knockouts) is hoping a dominant victory against Ambunda (27-2, 11 knockouts) will help catapult his name and star power into the boxing stratosphere.
“Once I win this fight and get the belt, I’ll be able to call certain title shots as well," Fulton said. "Everyone wants to be an undisputed champion, and that’s my goal. So belt holders like Daniel Roman and Rey Vargas, they can come get it. Once I master the mental part of the sport, which I consider to be my greatest asset, I’ll be unstoppable.”
The 5-foot-7 Fulton said he expects Ambunda, a mostly unknown Namibian who will be fighting for the first time in the United States, to apply plenty of pressure and bring endurance to the ring. Ambunda is 14 years older and should provide the touted prospect an engaging test.
While he’s excited for his world-title opportunity, Fulton is upset that his fight was scrapped from the Fox slate of programming because of time constraints.
“I’m very upset that I won’t be on TV after all. I’ve worked so hard for my spot and opportunity, but it was taken away,” Fulton said. “I don’t have to prove anything to myself or anyone else. They know what I can do, and it’s all about executing now. I just have to dig deep, fight hard and fight smart. I have to be fast and first and out-think Ambunda to beat him.”
TV time, or anything else for that matter, has never been handed to Fulton. He grew up without his father in his life until the age of 10 because Stephen Fulton Sr. was serving jail time. Young Stephen and his three siblings were raised by a single mother. He had to hustle and earn everything he wanted growing up, all while enduring endless crime and violence around him.
“I had a rough upbringing,” said Fulton, who by the age of 15 knew five friends who were killed. “I did not have a father figure or guidance in my life. I don't know where I would be without boxing.”
Fulton never had a knack for school and said he’d either be a drug dealer or a rapper if he hadn’t discovered the sweet science. Once his father was released from prison, he rescued his son from potential pitfalls and served as the missing force in his life.
One day when Fulton was 12, his father was reconnecting with old friend Hamza Muhammad after prayer services at a local mosque. Muhammad, currently Fulton’s trainer, took the youngster under his wing soon after their meeting and built the fighter from the ground up at Champ’s Gym, once home to Bernard Hopkins.
“Hamza came from the struggle, and we know how it feels to be down,” said Fulton, who now has a 2-year-old son. “We’re all loyal to one another. It’s a brotherhood, and we all help each other.”
Once the gym saved Fulton from a trouble-filled life, he fought his way through an outstanding amateur career and was the Ringside, Silver Gloves, National Golden Gloves and Junior National Golden Gloves champion. He turned pro at age 19 and signed with Premier Boxing Champions. Fulton is managed by Al Haymon, head of PBC and the legendary figure who has guided the careers of Floyd Mayweather, Deontay Wilder, and many other champions.
Now, the flashy Fulton can be Philly’s next star. He knows that any adoration he receives must be earned from a city that is so steeped in its rich boxing tradition.
“It’s hard to get Philly’s support because everybody is trying to make it out. You have to work your way up to be liked, and I feel like I’m putting in the work,” Fulton said. “I want to be considered one of the greats to come out of Philly. I’m thankful to be in the position that I’m in now. I’m still beating the odds and coming up strong.”