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Deontay Wilder: When the Laughter Stops

Deontay Wilder

By Joseph Hirsch – There’s a story, maybe apocryphal, about when Rocky Marciano first came into Lou Stillman’s Gym to box. The rumor was that there was this rough-but-hard-hitting Italian kid from Massachussetts who needed some polish, but might turn into a pretty good heavyweight.

The Rock shows up in the gym, and some of the trainers, fighters, and newspapermen stop what they’re doing to take a look at this rugged prospect they’ve heard about. Rocky begins dancing around the heavy-bag, crossing his feet and making basic mistakes, lumbering almost like a caveman.

The gym fills with the sound of laughter, which grows and echoes until Rocky stops dancing around the bag and starts landing punches. Once Rocky’s fists hit the heavy bag, the laughter stops.

What this has to do with Deontay “the Bronze Bomber” Wilder shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Boxing is a science, yes, and it’s a sweet science, but in all of its complexity you don’t want to lose sight of the fact that one punch can change everything, and that goes for the heavyweight division more for than any other weight-class. The jab is a great tool, but power is the great equalizer for a man perhaps deficient in other dimensions.

Deontay Wilder has an insane knockout percentage, on the order of roughly 98%. Even if he was fighting nothing but journeymen, fringe no-hopers, and (to paraphrase Nigel Benn) “Mexican Streetsweepers” or (as per Greg Haugen) “Tijuana taxi drivers” that’s still an insane statistic.

Pro boxers, even ones with less than stellar resumes, are good at hanging on for dear life, spoiling, clinching, “stinking up the joint” in old-timer’s parlance, and generally finding a way to last to the end of the fight, no matter how tough the opposition.

No one, except one of his forty opponents, has heard that final bell against Deontay Wilder, no matter how granitic their chin (Johann Duhaupas is not a household name, but neither is he easy to get out of there) or how deep their amateur pedigree and skillset (Luis Ortiz), or how good at fighting to survive they may otherwise be (watch Malik Scott’s stinker against the aforementioned Ortiz, and then watch his fight against Deontay Wilder to see what I’m talking about).

It’s a cliché that we all want to see the best fight the best in boxing, but when men who aim for greatness can’t get the best in the ring as their opponents, we judge their performance against whoever they can get as a dance partner.

Deontay Wilder was happy to travel to Russia to fight a world class opponent in Alexander Povetkin (who instead will be fighting English golden boy and Olympic gold medalist Anthony Joshua) but that fight didn’t happen for reasons that are old hat and need no recap here.

But if a man suspected of greatness beats good (but not great) fighters in spectacular ways, it makes it more than possible that he might also do special things once he gets in the ring with a fellow elite boxer.

A good example of this is the recently-dethroned Gennady Golovkin. Before “GGG” was stripped of some of his mystique (probably starting around the time he fought overinflated welterweight Kell Brook), he had trouble getting the best in the middleweight division to fight him, and so he fought good fighters, and beat them in memorable ways (remember the Macklin KO, the brutal body punch that ended their meeting, for instance, or the meat carving against David Lemieux in which Gennady broke Compubox records with his triphammer jab?)

The same thing could be said for Terence Crawford (although Bud’s glory across multiple weight divisions arguably puts his stock higher than Golovkin’s). Nobody is ever going to confuse a Hank Lundy or a John Molina Jr. with a Pernell Whitaker in terms of their pedigree (despite how exciting they are), but neither can you point to someone who did a number on either man quite like “Bud” Crawford did.

True, Johnny Molina Jr. had one stoppage loss to Antonio DeMarco earlier in his career, but that stoppage was a bit “sus” (to borrow a slang term from the English) and to my way of thinking Crawford got Johnny Molina out of there quicker than Matthysse did and in more convincing fashion than DeMarco. This might no longer be the case in the matter of a week and some change, since “Vicious” Victor Ortiz may blow right through the iron-jawed and hardheaded Molina in Canada when they meet, but then again, maybe not.

Putting this logic to use as concerns Deontay Wilder, “the Bronze Bomber’s” resume arguably only has only one or two elite names on it, but do yourself a favor and look at the contenders and fringe types he has on his resume, and ask yourself how fast Wilder dispatched these opponents in comparison to other men who handed them Ls, and not always by big KO or TKO.

Until Wilder can get Joshua or Fury in the ring (and no Fury fight is guaranteed to happen, no matter how massive the buildup), one should work with the pieces of the puzzle that are available rather than following every ebb and flow in rumored contract negotiation details on twitter feeds (which is frankly a time suck), or denigrating every decent to good fighter on Wilder’s resume as if they were a bum, because the truth of the matter is that, with the exception of the elite fighters whom the casual fan is acquainted with, most boxers do not have massive sponsorship or promotional machines behind them, and they do have day jobs. That they punch in and out somewhere for eight hours before hitting the gym doesn’t mean they aren’t good boxers, or should be defined by their day job as plumbers or night watchmen, or for that matter as cabbies.

Records can be very, very deceptive, as a Darnel Boone or an Emanuel Augustus Burton prove. Joe Smith Jr.’s Cinderella Man momentum may have been temporarily or permanently halted with a recent loss to the slick Cuban Sullivan Barrera, but he’s still ranked #2 at light-heavyweight by the WBA while simultaneously still carrying an active and up-to-date union card (in Local 66, if you’re curious).

No one is ever going to confuse Deontay Wilder with Muhammad Ali, that graceful Baryshnikov of Boxing, but sometimes grace isn’t what’s needed. Or, to paraphrase a line from “Big” George Foreman: Deontay Wilder may telegraph his punches, but the message still gets through.

Wilder’s rematch with the only man to go the distance with him, Bermane Stiverne, can teach you quite a bit about the Bronze Bomber and his recent progress under Olympic gold medalist Mark Breland’s tutelage. Yes, the desire to redeem the loss and the fire with which Wilder redeemed it tells you quite a bit about his will and heart and his power (which was so great that even the recoil from Wilder’s punches almost threw referee Arthur Mercante Jr. off his feet as he pulled Wilder away from his slumbering foe).

But what really impressed me in that single stanza rematch is the way Wilder began shooting his jab. No, it’s not as fluid as Larry Holmes’s jab, which had the quality of a submarine’s torpedo being launched, what with the way its course seemed to track steadily upward, and Wilder’s jab doesn’t have the quick flicking quality of Ali’s sting (which George Chuvalo compared to being slapped repeatedly with a wet towel), but it is better than it was in past fights.

Deontay Wilder is still a work in progress, which isn’t usually the case with champs, but tends to happen more often with those trying to marry freakish God-given gifts with things that need to be learned and earned. If one relies only on inborn talent, it’s a bit like giving a sixteen year-old a Porsche as their first car, as I think Teddy Atlas phrased it when critiquing Yuriorkis Gamboa. To extend the metaphor, Deontay Wilder is a sixteen year-old kid behind the wheel of a Mack Truck, driving through rocky mountainous passes without a guardrail, but he’s taking driver’s ed with Mark Breland sitting shotgun with a clipboard and taking notes.

And those meme-producing “windmill” combinations Wilder throws are funny until you find yourself caught in the blades, and then the laughter stops.

About the author: Joey Hirsch’s new boxing book can be found in kindle and paperback formats at Amazon, through this link

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