Fury-Wilder and the road to undisputed heavyweight championship of the world

It was once the most prestigious and prized title in all of sports. To be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world meant not only to be the best in that weight class, but to be regarded as the toughest person on earth. Many who held this distinction in what used to be known as the noble art became international cultural icons such as Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

All that lore of yesteryear, however, seems quaint and dated, analog relics in a digital cosmos. The last fighter to become the undisputed world heavyweight champion was Lennox Lewis, who unified what were then the three major titles in 1999. Despite boxing’s arcane politics leading him to be stripped of some of these belts, he finished his career in 2003 still atop the heavyweight division. After he retired, the belts were never to be re-unified again, as a rather dreadful era dominated by the Brothers Klitschko and an orchestra of sidemen dragged the prestige of the now-splintered heavyweight titles down.

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Who was the best heavyweight titleholder and who held all these belts were pieces of an encrypted puzzle which even the sharpest hackers could not crack. Boxing, and in particular heavyweight boxing, had, like so many other things, failed to adjust to the realities of this 21st century, letting so much else speed right by it. The magic was gone, consigned to black-and-white YouTube videos and debates among AARP members with their AOL email accounts.

Some of that started to change in November 2015, when an unlikely challenger unseated Wladimir Klitschko and effectively, and thankfully for most of the boxing world, ended the Klitschko era. Tyson Fury, an undefeated British fighter of Irish Traveller heritage who was reputedly named after Mike Tyson, befuddled the stiff Klitschko for 12 rounds with awkward movement to win a unanimous decision and thus capture three of the four major heavyweight belts. But as if there were some curse on the heavyweight division, Fury would never get to defend his newly-won belts.

After twice postponing rematches with Klitschko, Fury relinquished his belts in October 2016 on the heels of a positive drug test for cocaine. He soon was suspended and lost his boxer’s license for this and other pending doping charges. Succumbing to drugs, alcohol, and depression, Fury stopped fighting and training, ballooned up to about 400 pounds, and did not fight at all in 2016 and 2017.

Trying to re-assemble the heavyweight division were two more undefeated fighters. One is the 29-year-old Anthony Joshua of the U.K., a 2012 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist, who won the IBF belt in April 2016 from Charles Martin. Joshua also won the WBA belt in April 2017 via an 11th-round TKO over Wladimir Klitschko, fighting for the first time since his loss to Fury, in the consensus 2017 fight of the year, and sending Klitschko into retirement.

In March of this year, Joshua added the WBO belt to his collection with a unanimous decision over Joseph Parker, marking the first time Joshua had gone the distance as a pro. After stopping former WBA champ Alexander Povetkin in seven rounds in September, Joshua’s record now stands at 22-0 with 21 KOs. His next fight is slated to be April 13 of next year, possibly a rematch against rival Dillian Whyte. But Whyte, a 24-1 fighter whose only pro loss was to Joshua in 2015, must get by Dereck Chisora in their own rematch on Dec. 22 first.

The other would-be heavyweight champion of the world is the undefeated WBC champion Deontay Wilder of Alabama, now 33-years-old. After winning that belt in 2015 from Bermane Stiverne in the only fight in which Wilder was taken the distance, he fought a rather nondescript roster of extras, including his first-round KO of Stiverne in a 2017 rematch along the way, until he encountered the then-undefeated Luis “King Kong” Ortiz in March of this year.

That fight, a 2018 fight of the year candidate, while far from being artistic or technically sound, was a back-and-forth affair that saw Ortiz dropped by a Wilder right in round five, only to come back in the sixth and almost stop Wilder late in the seventh. Wilder survived, however, scoring a TKO win in the 10th round with an assault punctuated by a right uppercut to close the show. That win elevated Wilder’s record to 40-0 with 39 KOs.

This year would also see the return to the ring of a more or less slimmed-down Tyson Fury, albeit in two highly forgettable appearances. In June, he faced the blown-up cruiserweight, journeyman, Sefer Seferi. The highlights of this fight, if it can be classified as such, were both men dancing the Ali Shuffle in the first round, Fury pausing in the ring while in the middle of the second round to watch a real fight in the crowd, a few punches mostly by Fury being thrown here and there, and Seferi quitting after the fourth round. Such a charade would have made P.T. Barnum envious.

In August, Fury did face an actual heavyweight, journeyman Francesco Pianeta, who had lost two of his previous three fights, and was ranked No. 140 in the world by BoxRec at the time of his fight with Fury. When this scheduled 10-round bout was over and Fury was declared the winner by a score of 100-90 by referee Steve Gray (that’s how they do it in U.K. bouts which are not for an international belt), many in the previously pro-Fury crowd at Windsor Park in Belfast reacted by raining down boos. These were not for the verdict, but for Fury’s non-threatening slapfest against the oft-immobile southpaw Pianeta. 

While Fury had dispensed with the clowning of his Seferi affair, he showed little power or urgency to stop his flat-footed foe. For much of the fight his hands hung at his sides, although he did exhibit some good footwork and hand speed. It more resembled a sparring session, and Fury, with his 6-9 somewhat slumped-over body, had failed to deliver anything remotely close to a knockdown or climactic moment. That left Fury, now 30-years-old, with a record of 27-0 with 19 KOs, but the glow was gone.

The real show came after that bout, when Wilder, as had been previously announced, entered the ring to set the stage for their own bout with an imitation of a WWE skit. Even this shtick fell flat, as Fury and Wilder didn’t know whether to laugh or bark at each other, as their whole pantomime came off lame.

But a Fury-Wilder fight was indeed soon officially announced, and will take place Dec. 1 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. With negotiations for a Joshua-Wilder title unification mega-bout failing, and Joshua not having an announced opponent for his next fight, the focus in the heavyweight division moved to the Wilder-Fury bout. It gained its cachet by being positioned as a contest between the slugger and unbeaten WBC champ Wilder, and the unorthodox and mythical unbeaten lineal champ Fury (i.e., the man who beat the man who beat the man, etc.), whose reign was only interrupted by self-destructive behavior, afflictions, and addictions.

As for the fight itself, whether or not Fury can outbox Wilder for 12 full rounds with movement, timing, and speed while staying away from his renowned right hand, or even stop him, is the challenge and gamble he is taking. But do not expect Wilder, for all his well-known technical flaws and failings, to stand idly by as a befuddled Klitschko did when he fought Fury in 2015.

Klitschko was used to fighting in a sort of paint-by-numbers way: Keep your opponents away with pawing jabs, then land some jabs, and when ready try to close the show with a big right. Fury was so awkward that he upset Klitschko’s plan, so much so that there were times when Klitschko had clear openings but didn’t punch. Just like guerrilla forces have defeated stronger regular armies with hit-and-run tactics and creative strategies, both Klitschko and those regular armies never knew what to do.

With Wilder, Fury will face the opposite problem. Wilder swings for the fences whether he is in position or not. That is both Wilder’s weakness, as he has been outboxed, for a while at least, by many mediocre opponents. But it is also his strength, as he can compensate for losing rounds by ending things with one blow.

While the Wilder-Fury prefight media tour looked like a WWE Monday Night Raw outtake, Fury was fairly subdued during his Nov. 14 international media conference call. He outlined his path to victory in response to questions from John Dillon of the London Evening Standard.

“Deontay Wilder’s a good fighter,” Fury said. “Styles do make fights as we’ve seen time and time again in the past. It’s very rare that we get to see two people over 6-6 fighting each other. So, it’s going to be an interesting clash. We never probably seen this before. So, I don’t know what to really expect. You’ve got someone whose got dynamite power and he’s going to be looking to land it. And you’ve got someone who’s got great boxing skills, and he’s going to be trying to use that.”

He continued: “But at the end of the day, it’s a fight, and at some point or other, two men, heavyweights in the fight, will have to punch each other and stand and fight. And when that moment comes, we’re going to see who’s the better fighter, who can take the better punches, and who can’t. And the loser of this fight rebuilds, and the winner continues on the winning road.”

Of course, Fury did predict that he would prevail.

“At some point we’re going to have to stand and trade,” he acknowledged. “And when that point comes, I’m very confident that I can, that I can withstand the power and knock him out in return.”

But he did add that his preference is for this fight not to be a slugfest.

“Boxing is about hitting your opponent, not taking any in return,” he noted. “That’s how I look at boxing. I don’t look at boxing like, ‘I’m going to hit you in the face and you’re going to hit me back.’ Then I’d be a fool. Because at heavyweight, you don’t want to be taking big punches to the head because it may cause brain damage sooner or later, and that’s nothing that I want to occur, so it’s my business to get out of the way of the punches and just hit him.”

In contrast to Fury, Wilder mainly strung together rant after crude rant during his media conference call the next day. He declared himself “a gift from god” and boasted “no one is going to be able to beat me,” as if to re-assure himself more than the journalists listening in. Topics like technique and opponents’ strengths and weaknesses were not what he wished to discuss. That is because he insisted that he is “special” and “the real deal.”

Perhaps that portends the unfolding of this fight. Fury may attempt a thoughtful strategy of moving, wearing Wilder down, making him miss and depleting his energy, staying away from his power, and doing damage only at the most opportune times. Wilder, true to his name, may ignore point-scoring tactics and work only to set up his prey for a one-punch knockout. The results of these equations can only be definitively known when Fury and Wilder actually fight Dec. 1.

The winner of the Wilder-Fury fight, if there be a clear-cut one, will no doubt proclaim himself the best heavyweight in the world today, and maybe even the “real” heavyweight champion. Such an assertion, of course, is not only hyperbole but also refuted by the facts. Depending on which ratings you prefer, Anthony Joshua not only holds three of the major heavyweight belts, but has already defeated three or four of the current top 10 heavyweights in the world: Alexander Povetkin, Dillian Whyte, Joseph Parker, and Dominic Breazeale (who is presently Wilder’s WBC mandatory challenger). Joshua also has his victory over Wladimir Klitschko. Wilder has thus far defeated only one current top 10 fighter — Luis Ortiz. For Fury, it is zero, along with his win over Klitschko. So while the Wilder-Fury victor will certainly improve his stature in the division, to place him above Joshua at the present time would be irresponsible propaganda.

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What will be the next fight for the Wilder-Fury winner, and when or if he will ever fight Joshua to unify all the major titles, is far from clear. The heavyweight division, and all of boxing for that matter, is held captive by the byzantine politics involving rival promoters, sanctioning bodies, TV networks, and streaming services, among other characters. The Joshua-Povetkin and Wilder-Fury fights should have served as a sort of semifinal playoff in an unofficial four-man tournament to crown an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Real sports do such things all the time. Even in boxing, the World Boxing Super Series is doing just that in a few other weight classes.

Will we see the two beltholders in the ring next year to settle all the debates about who is the best heavyweight out there? A good bet is not to bet on it because, as we know, boxing is boxing is boxing, and the best often fight other than the best.

Eddie Goldman is the host and producer of the No Holds Barred podcast and blog, at http://eddiegoldman.com. He is known as “The Conscience of Combat Sports.”

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