After a scrappy fight, Pulev earned scores of 117-111, 118-110 and 115-113 in front of his home fans at the Arena Armeec in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Pulev, 37, was a worthy winner but did not give Fury’s fellow Englishman Joshua too much to worry about and was briefly in trouble in the eighth round.
It was second defeat in just over a year for Fury (21-2, 11 KOs), after he lost on points to New Zealand’s Joseph Parker for the WBO world title in September last year.
Fury, younger cousin of former world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, had to contend with a cut eyelid from Round 2 and faded after a promising start.
Pulev (26-1, 13 KOs) now hopes to be in the corner for Joshua’s next fight at Wembley Stadium on April 13 after missing out on facing the unified heavyweight world titleholder in Cardiff a year ago when he pulled out with a shoulder injury two weeks before.
Fury, who stopped Sam Sexton for the British belt in May, was criticised for not throwing enough punches against Parker, but he made an aggressive start against Pulev, with his right hand effective in the first round. Pulev responded with a decent one-two on the bell, but the Englishman landed more in the opening session.
Pulev landed a solid left jab that instantly drew blood late in the second round. Referee Albert Earl Brown asked the ringside doctor to look at the cut on Fury’s left eyelid, which was an unwelcome distraction for the British champion so early on.
Perhaps after being told by his corner about the seriousness of the cut, Fury began the third full of urgency and venom. Fury, the lighter of the two fighters, seemed to do enough to win the third despite not landing any shots flush.
With Fury’s vision perhaps obscured, Pulev began landing more early in the fourth round before a lot of holding. Fury, 24, was repeatedly backed into a corner in the fifth round as he hoped to set a trap for Pulev and land a big right.
But it never came, and Fury’s early momentum fizzled out as Pulev tried to rough up the Englishman at close quarters. Fury’s corner did a good job on the cut to stop the blood by the halfway stage, but he spent most of the second half of the fight on the back foot.
Fury, from Bolton, finally took his chance in the eighth round when he rocked Pulev with a right hand, and the Bulgarian looked in trouble while he tried to avoid further damage.
But it was Fury who was left tottering in the ninth round when he was caught by a couple of hooks thrown from close range. Pulev was more aggressive in the tenth, and knocked a tiring Fury back on to his heels with a straight left hand.
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