When Robert Helenius looked across the black canvas in Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, he saw a familiar face: a former sparring partner, a friend, and an opponent for the next (laughably gratuitous) thirty-six minutes. He saw likely his last, perhaps his only, opportunity to gain access to the heavyweight elite, an informal and incomplete tournament whose prize remains one of the most revered in sport. Maybe Helenius saw a man whose proclivities and tendencies he’d committed to memory, whose reputation Helenius himself had confirmed even through so many ounces of padding thoughtfully arranged to preserve his connection to the waking world. Maybe he saw in Deontay Wilder a man on the descent, an improbable champion looking to test what remained after consecutive and brutal knockout losses.
What did Deontay Wilder see in Helenius? There was that striking resemblance to his nemesis: the bulk, the beard, the baldness. Indeed, were the police to assemble a lineup of suspects in their hunt for the man who twice made off with Wilder’s daylights, Helenius might find himself among them, called forward and asked to utter the word “dosser” before stepping back beyond the interrogatory light. What Wilder saw that Helenius did not, could not, was an opponent selected to recover the mystique of boxing’s most frightening puncher. Helenius was a sacrifice; all Wilder needed to do was finalize the process. And who deals in greater finality than Wilder?
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Helenius must have felt good, encouraged in those early minutes. He had Wilder skirting about him, throwing little, inviting Helenius to throw with something resembling—but not quite achieving—commitment. A pair of looping punches followed by a cross, a genuine act of aggression. And why not? There were but thirty seconds left in the round, twenty if the last ten were—as they often are—squandered. But Helenius forgot to bring his hands back to his chin; worse: he brought his chin forward. What he felt after that, Helenius might struggle to remember and struggle harder to explain.
The punch traveled all of a foot, launched without the kinetic assistance of a turned hip or pronated wrist. But the sound? The sound was proof enough of its force. Wilder knew it, knew it like he may know few other things in life, knew that when he casually, almost trivially speared his right hand into Helenius’s onrushing face, it was over. Helenius, rigid on his back, looked as though he’d just watched an apparition climb out of a well and through his television.
For all of those, who wanna profile and pose
Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone
—Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones, Part II”
Some knockouts are peaceful: Manny Pacquiao anesthetized by Juan Manuel Marquez, Herol Graham snoring through shattered teeth for tempting Julian Jackson. The human machine shut off, keeping its secrets. Wilder does not shut men off. No, he sends them into crisis—hysterical spasms, panicked expressions, drowning on dry land. There is a way to speak poetically about ultraviolence like Wilder’s, and doing so can prevent crossing lines of taste and sensitivity when discussing a sport that claims lives annually. But the sound of Wilder’s punches, the gnawing, flailing, heaving catastrophes born of that unmistakable crack demand harder language. When the cameras catch him in the stands and he shakes his right hand, Wilder is flashing a weapon. No, the “Bronze Bomber” should not be euphemized—he’s a head-buster, skull-fucker of the first order. If he is nothing else, Wilder is that.
What returns with Wilder is the most exciting question in the division, an odd one because the answer is simple and unclear: Can [insert fighter name] beat Wilder? The answer is simple because any fighter who can beat Wilder has to survive his power. Wondering whether a fighter can take that power is pointless: if Wilder hits you clean, he ruins you, and the cumulative effect of even his punches that miss that mark will shorten your night. But there are ways to mitigate Wilder’s power, to work toward victory in the shadow of that risk. Bermane Stiverne went twelve rounds with Wilder when the latter was an even rawer version of himself. Most recently, Tyson Fury used unparalleled mass to survive Wilder’s power, distributing that concussive force through his undulating torso like so much ballistic gel. He used that same bulk to crowd Wilder, leaning on him and smothering his punches, something Wilder encouraged with his own added muscle (muscle he’s wisely shed since). But there is no other Fury in the division, so mentioning the exception to the rule is pointless.
The answer to the most exciting question in the heavyweight division is unclear because Wilder is hardly perfect. It is easy to envision Oleksandr Usyk outboxing him, lancing him from the southpaw stance. Usyk proved in two decision wins over Anthony Joshua that he has a heavyweight chin and the stamina to employ his confounding style for twelve rounds. And if any fighter can avoid Wilder’s right it is Usyk, the supremely skilled former cruiserweight who fights within himself until the moment demands greater. With his formidable tools, Joshua could also beat Wilder. That he seems less likely to do so rightly reflects what Joshua has revealed in his losses, though the unflattering characterization of Joshua as a fragile and limited fighter leans too heavily on a cliche concretized by his predecessors. Perhaps no potential opponent is as enticing as Joe Joyce, an iron-cast bear of a man who administered a grisly beating to Joseph Parker in September. Joyce is almost hynotically slow, with a penchant for ignoring the leatherbound penalty of his style. A lumberjack chopping away while a nest of protective hornets assaults him—this is how Joyce fights. He is as brutal as Wilder is explosive, and the alchemists concocting the future of the heavyweight division can make no better magic than mixing equal parts of those ingredients.
In his postfight interview, Wilder asked for Usyk because he remains supremely confident; he asked for stablemate Andy Ruiz because he remains a company man. Give him what he wants. Every name. If only because Wilder is that rare breed of fighter who will respond in kind.