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Old Dogs, New Tricks: Deontay Wilder and the Paradox of Trying to “Fix” a Puncher

Deontay Wilder Tyson Fury

By Joseph Hirsch: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“A leopard can’t change its spots.”

I’m sure you can think of other chestnuts that make the same point.

Applied to boxing you sometimes hear people say things like “Power can’t be taught.” Sure, one can improve the delivery system, teaching someone how to “sit down” on punches more, or correct bad habits, but trying to make Mickey Ward into Pernell Whitaker would have been a waste of time; trying to teach Mike Tyson to develop a totally jab-centric attack, a la Larry Holmes, would have pleased some of the purists who called him a “bum slayer” in his prime, but it would have taken away the advantage that Mike got from squaring up and hooking, finding routes to the chin and the body from a stance boxers were taught (prior to Cus D’Amato’s peekaboo) not to use.

There’s a story that when a young, lanky Tommy Hearns first entered the legendary Kronk gym, he couldn’t break an egg. But Emanuel Steward taught him fundamentals, and with those Hearns eventually discovered the dynamite that had been dormant in his hands.

But trying to teach one to mine their hidden talents is different than trying to cultivate them from scratch. And there’s a difference between a talent and a style. A talent is a single dimension of a boxer’s arsenal; it can even be a single punch. A style is everything put together (and Bruce Lee once pointed out that having a specific style was itself a weakness, and that since one’s style meant they had a pattern, a fighter should “be like water,” or, in other words, without a style).

Examples are legion, but most attempts to try to graft graceful, more fluid styles onto boxer-punchers or to make finesse artists out of seek-and-destroy stalkers bear pretty questionable fruit. Gennady Golovkin does not look like a better fighter under Jonathan Banks, compared to his longer years of tutelage under Abel Sanchez, for instance.

Trainer Buddy McGirt helped polish and hone Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev’s style so that he was less dependent on menacing, clubbing shots and had a more balanced attack, which allowed him to get his belt back against Eleidor Alvarez, and to make a successful defense against English up-and-comer Anthony Yarde; but the changes to Kovalev were psychological as much as physical, and, as we recently saw with Kovalev’s loss to Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and now with his renewed legal problems, those changes were temporary and mostly cosmetic.

Which brings up another point: Just as everyone has a plan until they get hit, as Mike Tyson once put it, most men tend to revert to form and what they know best in the heat of battle. And that might actually be a good thing.

There’s a story the English super middleweight Nigel “Destroyer” Benn tells about how, tired of being derided as a one-trick pony and a puncher, he hired a trainer to teach him the niceties of the Sweet Science. He was learning and things were going good, until he got into the ring and sparred, got hit with a couple of shots, and had an epiphany: “That hurt.” He’d never paid attention to the pain that punches caused until the new trainer came onboard. Realizing that there was an advantage to his previous, raw and rugged style, Benn did the smart thing and sacked the new trainer.

“You think and you’re dead,” as “Sugar” Ray Robinson once said. When things aren’t working, it’s a good time to bring in some outside help and do some hard thinking. But eventually the boxer is going to have to leave the training grounds, stop thinking and get back into a mode where they act and react with little hesitation or deliberation, reentering the proving grounds to see whether what they learned is of any use, or, even worse, if what they learned is worse than useless, that in trying something new to make themselves better, they actually robbed themselves of their greatest advantage.

Put this into perspective, and remember how when Prince Naseem Hamed was making his climb through the ranks as a young featherweight, how many purists pointed out that his balance was terrible and that he lacked fundamentals. But what power the guy had! And because those other well-schooled fighters were used to countering textbook attacks, Hamed’s fistic illiteracy was more advantage than liability. And the way he managed to bring those shots up seemingly from the floor and to keep connecting with what looked like wild Hail Mary shots! Those shots looked desperate but they landed too regularly to be anything but premeditated strategy.

When Manny Steward was ready to give up duties seconding for the Prince, he gave Hamed’s new handlers some advice: “Just train him, don’t coach him. Don’t try to change him up.”

The astute reader can probably see where I’m going with this: wild punches, power, not a lot of orthodoxy, more than his fair share of haters. Sound like anyone we know?

Deontay Wilder, former reigning WBC champion, lost his belt in a humbling, one-sided dismantling (psychic as well as physical) to the man-who-beat-the-man-who-beat-the-man, Tyson “Gypsy King” Fury. Wilder had his detractors even when he was rattling off a respectable string of defenses of his belt (including one in which he was a fraction of a second away from knocking out the Gypsy King himself). And although he had and has his fans, he was a bit of a “shadow champion” in the mould of a Charles “Sonny” Liston or Floyd Patterson, someone who perhaps was not given his due and was maybe not going to get it while he was reigning, no matter who he beat.

But now that the dust has settled, and the smoke has cleared, can he pick himself up? Can he learn (or unlearn) some things which might make him a better boxer, or give him a better chance in his rematch with Tyson Fury (assuming the Covid-imposed moratorium on fights gets lifted anytime soon)?
This is a low point for Wilder, but there’s nowhere to go but up from here. And the Fates of Boxing are very fickle (as are the fans). Remember that just a few years ago Tyson Fury himself had ballooned up in weight and was considered a washed-up has-been, more likely to end up in a padded rubber room than under the bright lights in Vegas or at Madison Square Garden one more time.

Another thing Wilder has going for him: One of the men who wants to help the deposed King get his throne and crown back is the aforementioned Buddy McGirt. He sees some things he can work with, he claims, though he doesn’t want to divulge much this early in the proceedings.

There’s no guarantee that Deontay Wilder or anyone in his camp picks up the phone and gives Buddy a call. And even if they do, there’s no guarantee that the magic McGirt shared with Arturo Gatti or, to a lesser extent, Sergey Kovalev, translates into any fighter-trainer chemistry between Wilder and Buddy.

Deontay Wilder has had former Olympic standout and world champion Mark Breland in his camp and in his corner for some time now, and not only is there some alleged tension between Breland and Wilder, there are still rumors circulating that Wilder may be jettisoning Breland entirely because the man had the temerity to save his life in his last tear-up with Tyson.

If you can’t take counsel from someone trying to save your life, how are you going to listen to someone trying to tell you what to do with your hands or feet?

Maybe, for Wilder, the answer doesn’t lie with McGirt, or with any other trainer.
Maybe the answer he seeks is in the mirror.

Or, perhaps there is no answer, and Tyson Fury is simply his boogeyman, too big, too versatile, and too possessed of a literally religious faith in his destiny to be the greatest heavyweight on Earth to be shaken up by the Bronze Bomber.

Time will tell.

And speaking of time, Tyson has a lot of that on his hands right now, and there’s no telling whether he’ll deal with being champion any better in the long-run this time than the last time out.

Let’s hope so though, for whoever emerges triumphant in a rubber match between Tyson and Wilder (if and when it happens), I don’t want someone claiming they lost because they fell off the wagon and went back to the Bolivian marching powder, or because their costume was too heavy (and that’s not even addressing the Dan Brown-level conspiracies about Tyson’s gloves).

Excuse-making is a soothing balm for the wounded ego (i.e. James “Lights Out” Toney claiming that he only lost to Roy Jones because RJ was running from his power all night). But eventually one has to take responsibility for their loss, if they hope to have any chance of correcting the mistakes that caused them to lose in the first place.

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