Not long ago, the heavyweight division, for years the madman in the attic of boxing, had a chance to shuck off its straitjacket and bring some normalcy back to a loony class brimming with healthy potential. Naturally, its global trio of stars—Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, and Deontay Wilder—have all figured out ways to keep the crazy act going instead.
After consecutive starts against quality (a relative term in 2019) big men, Wilder takes a step sideways when he defends his American heavyweight championship against Dominic “Trouble” Breazeale tomorrow night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Fights against either Joshua or Fury, alas, have vanished into the ether. As with so much of postmodern theory or national politics, truth is nearly impossible to ascertain. For the PBC boosters—those already on the generous payroll as well as those calculating acolytes hoping for future considerations—the remunerative contracts thrust at Wilder, a supposed free agent, by ESPN and DAZN, are overloaded with onerous stipulations and riders. For everybody else, it is all just another Big Nothing. Because trying to decipher what recent digital negotiations amount to is like trying to solve the Hodge conjecture on the back of an index card, there is no point in enumerating anything but the result: Wilder will not be facing either Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury. One thing, however, seems clear: even the concept of “fiduciary obligation” seems to have become obsolete, as archaic as the words “gardyloo” or “cap-a-pie.” And gone are the days when a fighter, Ray Mancini, for example, could say, “Everyone wants to fight me so that they can make some money off me. But there are very few fighters out there who can make me money.”
Over the last year or so, Wilder has done a solid job in raising his stock during a title reign that, at times, verged on the ridiculous. Not only did Wilder poleaxe a variety of middling pugs since winning the WBC title in January 2015, but he also did so under unusual circumstances. Nearly all of his title defenses came against fighters who were late substitutes (in some cases due to previous opponents failing PED tests) or standbys for TBA. It gave Wilder a bogus air at odds with the cheerleaders turning somersaults at keyboards across cyberspace.
When Wilder anesthetized a grotesquely out-of-shape and indifferent Bermane Stiverne on November 4, 2017, his title run hit bottom. That all changed when Wilder stopped competent Luis Ortiz last year in a risky bout that morphed into a violent coming-out party of sorts. Wilder rallied from a near-TKO disaster to stop Ortiz in ten seesaw rounds. It was the kind of fight that would legitimize Wilder, in a way that kayos over Gerald Washington and Johann Duhaupas could not.
Then Wilder, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, followed up by defending against the shifty “Gypsy King,” Tyson Fury, who outboxed Wilder for most of the fight, survived two knockdowns between long stretches of ho-hum, and wound up with a draw for all of his troubles. Despite the fanciful decision, however, Wilder still deserved credit for facing a risky proposition in the ring. Before anything else, before purses, before promotional or network affiliations, before P-4-P palaver or homespun ratings, a fighter defines himself by competition. In facing Breazeale, Wilder once again puts competition in the background. In its place, he has proffered up something else altogether.
One of several ex-football-players (Seth Mitchell, Gerald Washington, even Wilder, to a degree) who have made the heavyweight rounds in recent years, Breazeale, 20-1 (18), has few talents visible to the naked eye. At best, he is determined, courageous, and, by virtue of being six foot seven and 260 pounds, presumably a thudding puncher. Perhaps, in the typical jerry-rigged way unique to boxing, his eighteen KOs in twenty wins attests to that.
In 2016 Breazeale faced his only notable opponent and was sandblasted by Anthony Joshua in a fight that ceased being competitive the moment opening bell rang. Against Joshua, then nearing his destructive peak, Breazeale, thirty-three, showed the kind of foolish courage that endears fighters to aficionados but does not necessarily lead to victory—especially against world-class opposition.
Bravery was not enough to trouble Joshua; it will not be enough to trouble Wilder. For Brazeale to win, he will have to force a shootout against an undefeated titleholder who has dropped or stopped every fighter he has ever faced. (Only Bermane Stiverne, in their first fight, managed to remain upright until the final bell. Wilder rectified that in the rematch.)
To connect with his flashbomb right, Wilder, 40-0-1 (39), usually needs space for extension, and Breazeale seems likely to accommodate him. Not only does Breazeale tip his jab, but he also drops his hand to his waist every time he throws it, leaving an inviting target for a counter. To compound matters, Breazeale is as elusive as a Doric column. Without head movement, without nimble footwork, and without quick reflexes, Breazeale keeps a high guard on defense and simply trudges his way through punches. That elemental defensive strategy means Breazeale, Eastvale, California, takes his share of punishment, but it also means his offense is negated while he blocks and parries incoming shots. Although Wilder, with his spindly legs, is not exactly graceful in the ring, he has enough mobility to avoid the telegraphed blows Breazeale chucks like a man hurling brick-a-brat at a street protest.
While Joshua is a more complete offensive fighter than Wilder—“A. J.” throws straighter punches, is more compact, and often punctuates combinations with a hook—Breazeale has to worry about swapping blows with a man whose KO power is as legitimate an attribute as any in boxing. And some of these Wilder results have been chilling: Johann Duhaupas resembled something an industrial meat grinder would expel; Artur Szpilka was removed from the ring on a gurney; Bermane Stiverne looked like he had been sideswiped by a Pontiac GTO. These finishes, perhaps, have not been violent enough to suit Wilder. In an (over)determined effort to raise his profile among connoisseur and casual alike, Wilder has lowered himself into the gutter, where much of the American sporting psyche dwells, and where a boxer of limited ability (see Adrien Broner) can remain a headline staple because of the extracurricular—and often extralegal—antics so popular with TMZ and the clickbait crowd.
(Although this matchup has materialized because of sanctioning body protocols, it is ostensibly a grudge match, stemming from the night Team Wilder set upon Breazeale and his family in a Birmingham hotel lobby like something out of an apocalyptic zombie film.)
When Wilder, thirty-three, was charged with domestic battery a few years ago, well, that was something to hush up. But now we have the new, homicidal Wilder, a man whose recent talk is both debased and debasing, and, more to the point, as loud as various mixed media platforms of the day allow him to be. His lectures to schoolchildren, his talk of his Christian faith, his fairy tale rise from working at IHOP and Red Lobster to becoming a multimillionaire, his sob story about his daughter—all of that now overshadowed by a noisy loathsomeness likely to continue in the future.
Wilder ought to be able to stop Breazeale after eight or nine rounds, and, if “Trouble” manages to survive the ordeal, look for the PR machine at Showtime to e-blast the following press release: “Legendary Heavyweight Champion of the World Deontay Wilder Continues His Glorious Quest to Catch a Body.”