When Otto Wallin was born, in 1990, professional boxing was still outlawed in Sweden, a country that turned its back on blood sports barely a decade after producing a national hero in Ingemar Johansson. Wallin, alas, probably did not do enough against Tyson Fury on Saturday night to justify the decision of Swedes to legalize fisticuffs again in 2006, but he managed to provide a few interesting moments nonetheless. In a bloody slog, Fury outpointed Wallin over twelve rounds of grim waltzing at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
To call Wallin, 20-1 (13), limited would be an understatement, but such blunt assessment would clash resoundingly with the fandom mentality that dominates boxing coverage. Even so, Wallin showed durability, grit, earnestness, and a certain amount of belief. Wallin uprooted himself, settled in a foreign country, and pursued a dream that, to some, might have bordered on delusion. Moving to New York City from Sundsvall, Sweden, gave Wallin a cosmopolitan air, but his brief 2019 American campaign was a bad omen going into the Fury fight. First, Wallin suffered a cut during a no-contest against Nick Kisner in Atlantic City, and then he was left dangling last June when B. J. Flores failed a medical test before their scheduled bout. It should be noted that Kisner and Flores were considered improvements over the previous names on his ledger.
All across the globe, run-of-the-mill heavyweights are guided—carefully, very, very carefully—to 19-0 or 20-0 records in hopes of qualifying for a lottery-sized paycheck against one of the three moneymen in the division: Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, and Fury. During the pre-Fury era, the same situation applied to the Klitschko brothers, who produced a generation of avoidant albeit middling heavyweights happy to test gravity against either Dr. Steelhammer or Dr. Ironfist in exchange for a hefty retirement package. And while Wallin may not fit this description down to its finest details, he was considered a walking target when he entered the ring against Fury.
Of course, you would not have known that by watching the ESPN+ streamcast, which amounted to an endurance test for the viewer. Five national anthems in an hour, an absurd vignette about boxing on Mexican Independence Day weekend focusing on Fury (which culminated in this doozy: “Just like Mexico in 1810, he is coming to take the world by storm!”) and, worst of all, an announcing crew that belongs in a boiler room, on a midway, or hawking goods on The Home Shopping Network—anywhere but ringside. Even for boxing, where “HARD SELL” is the default mode, the ESPN team was beyond the pale in its bombastic shilling.
Andre Ward, perhaps still smarting over having had two of his handpicked opponents nixed by the Nevada State Athletic Commission a few years ago, lectured streamers across America about how 30-1 underdogs are always live. Of the ESPN crew, only Tim Bradley offered pushback on Wallin as an opponent, and more than once tried to explain to Ward that the reason Wallin was not at the championship level was, well, because Wallin was not a championship-level fighter.
To make matters worse, these cynical matchups, propped up by PR corps at the mic, exist only for one purpose: as advertising for a Fury‒Wilder pay-per-view showdown. HBO pioneered this crass cash-grab years ago with its showcase cards and its “24/7” series, glitzy infomercials designed to lure subscribers (who already paid a monthly fee) into purchasing extracurricular programming in the form of costly pay-per-views.
Because Fury, thirty-one, possesses the mythical “lineal” championship, every time he struggles into his bathrobe in the morning or stubs his toe on a coffee table he is engaged in another impromptu title defense. With standards that low, is it any wonder that Joe Tessitore, in his usual melodramatic tones, said that Wallin was ranked fourth in the world? By whom? Well, it turns out that the WBA had Wallin rated at number four, which highlights just how dishonest the ESPN script skews. Until ESPN signed Top Rank to an exclusive output deal, Tessitore routinely trashed sanctioning bodies and the tinplate titles they produced with such assembly-line proficiency. Now, he not only pumps up cheapjack titles on ESPN but justifies a mismatch for Tyson Fury based on a spurious WBA rating.
An integral part of being a world-class fighter, at least according to those in the know, is “pageantry,” and so Fury, Manchester, Lancashire, United Kingdom, obliged the zeitgeist with an over-the-top Mexican themed entrance that would have been deemed cultural appropriation anywhere else but in the tone-deaf world of boxing. Finally, after an interminable preamble, the opening bell rang.
After two rounds of relatively light sparring, Fury backed into a corner with about half-a-minute left in the third, where the southpaw Wallin, twenty-eight, landed a sharp left that drew first blood. When Fury returned to his stool at the end of the round, the damage became plainly visible: a gory crevasse had opened up on his right eyebrow, along with a smaller cut on the lid, sending rivulets of blood down his face. For the rest of the fight, Fury seemed troubled by limited vision and repeatedly swiped at the blood with his glove. As the rounds went by, and Fury continued hemorrhaging, both fighters, as well as Referee Tony Weeks, resembled participants in a La Tomatina festival.
It took seeing his own blood for Fury to settle down to business and abandon his usual hot dog act. This tendency to clown, reflected in showboating defensive moves that left him vulnerable to a knockdown blow from Deontay Wilder in the ninth round of their 2018 matchup, nearly cost him the fight against Wallin. When Fury backed into a corner late in the third, it was for no other reason than to razzle-dazzle. He shimmied, with one hand on the top rope, while Wallin advanced, eventually landing the left that almost separated Fury from his lucrative pay-per-view date with Wilder.
While Fury, 29-0-1 (30), has a style that often borders on slapstick, it is the only style of its kind—an unpredictable footloose/switch-hitting homage to the junk artists of another era—and nearly impossible for which to prepare. Against, Wallin, however, he turned bulldog halfway through the fight, most likely to compensate for limited vision on the outside. In the trenches, Fury truly belabored Wallin, who was helpless to defend against a consistent body attack that left him visibly hurt late in the fight. Wallin pressed in the early rounds, tried to pound Fury to the ribs during clinches, and, more than once, raked at the bloody wound that might have forced a stoppage—if Fury had not been the house fighter with so much future at stake. But “All In” was outclassed for most of the second half of the fight, despite the fact Fury hardly looked impressive.
An exhausted Wallin, long running on fumes and throwing arm punches for several rounds, somehow froze Fury in his tracks with a left in the twelfth. Suddenly, a miracle reversal seemed possible, but Wallin did not have the energy to rally further. In the end, Fury was too-everything for Wallin: fast, strong, experienced, conditioned, talented. The final scorecards read 116-112, 117-111, and 118-110.
Although Fury flunked a PED test, has a record of bigoted comments, and has dubiously claimed to have donated his entire purse from the Deontay Wilder fight to charity—an assertion that should be the subject of a Snopes.com report—he is now the cornerstone for the ESPN boxing franchise. (As it is with most twenty-first-century notions of civility, boxing is immune to cancel culture.) This distinction is mainly due to his outrageous persona and not, shockingly, his accomplishments.
Consider this: for years, Fury has patterned himself on Muhammad Ali—garrulous, impish, outlandish—yet his achievements remain a decision over a thirty-nine-year-old Wladimir Klitschko and a draw against Deontay Wilder. (In two dozen rounds against Klitschko and Wilder, Fury landed fewer than 170 punches combined.) That fact, however, did not stop Joe Tessitore from babbling on about how Fury was fighting for “history” and “legacy.” Beating Liston, Quarry, Frazier, Norton, Foreman, Lyle, and Shavers gave Ali a street and sporting credibility that modern fighters can only envy—between Twitter boasts, naturally. In short, this insistence on authenticity (the Ali model) is the difference between boxing during the analog era and boxing during the Digital Age—no matter what corporate spokesmen tell you.
If Fury and Wilder do square off in February (given the fact that WIlder‒Ortiz II has not been officially announced, anything is possible, or, better yet, impossible, and the cut Fury suffered looks like a candidate for plastic surgery), history and legacy may or may not be on the line, but remember: there are no more mediocre fighters, no more mismatches, no more paper champions—just 24-7 fantastamatic wherever you turn.