Resurrection Men: Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury Reanimate the Heavyweight Division

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 01: Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder pose for a photo with referee Jack Reiss after fighting to a draw during the WBC Heavyweight Champioinship at Staples Center on December 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder pose for a photo with referee Jack Reiss after fighting to a draw in their WBC heavyweight championship fight Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Los Angeles—For once, the din of outrage failed to block out the hum of appreciation. Bad decisions, or at least those that are perceived as such, tend to ignite a wildfire of complaints: wretched cries of “robbery” and effete calls for reform and abolition. But what Tyson Fury accomplished in the twelfth round against Deontay Wilder in their WBC heavyweight title fight at the Staples Center on Saturday night gave pause to such antics. In a sport short on ineffable moments, not even the announcement of a couple of questionable scorecards could overshadow what transpired in that fateful round.

There was the usual caviling, to be sure, with tinfoil-hat specialists, online and in the stands, keen to point out that referee Jack Reiss had handed Fury a long count after he had been splayed out on his back from Wilder’s caterwauling right-hand, left-hook combination at the 2:21 mark of the final round. Not to mention the indignation reserved for the verdict, a split-decision draw, in which judge Alejandro Rochin inexplicably scored 115-111 for Wilder, to go along with more reasonable scores of 114-112 for Fury and 113-113, in a fight that many observers ringside felt should have been awarded to “The Gypsy King,” whose guile and acumen overcame the brutal but artless power of Wilder for long stretches.

But for the most part, the grumbling was kept at a minimum. That the mood was cheerful after the fight, almost strangely celebratory, in spite of the scorecards, was because Fury, the cocksure heavyweight from Manchester who had once looked like a lost cause, rose improbably to his feet like Lazarus in that twelfth round to mount a comeback against the hardest hitting boxer in the sport—to the shock of the reported 17,698 in attendance. Even Fury, hardly a paragon of humility, admitted to being a bit mystified himself.

“How did I get up from the knockdown? I don’t know,” Fury, 27-0-1 (19), said to reporters in a press conference after the fight. “I had the holy hand upon me tonight and it brought me back.”

Wilder, 40-0-1 (39), had no answer as well. “I don’t know how he got up. I don’t know why they didn’t start the count earlier? But we don’t make excuses.”

Going into the twelfth, it looked as though Fury was all but three minutes away from reproducing his Dusseldorf act, upending the naysayers once again. Round after round, Fury had beguiled Wilder, making the champion miss repeatedly with his loaded-up right and keeping him off-kilter with an array of feints and a jittery right hand, unprecedented for a man six feet nine and 256 ½ pounds. Several pundits correctly predicted that Fury would control most of the rounds; the question was for how long?

His window of opportunity appeared to close in the ninth, when Wilder connected on a right hand to Fury’s left temple, sending him to the canvas for the third time in his career. But Fury quickly regained his wits. To show he was not bothered nor hurt, Fury flicked out his tongue; then he raised his hands toward the end of the round, in what served as a prelude to the climatic twelfth round.

“I’m what you call a pro athlete that loves to box,” Fury told Jim Gray after the fight. “I don’t know anyone on the planet that can move like that. That man is a fearsome puncher and I was able to avoid that. The world knows I won the fight.”

He was not the only one to think so. Former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney felt strongly that Fury should have had his hand raised at the end.

“Tyson Fury won,” Cooney said during a moment of downtime before the post-fight press conference. “He kept Wilder out of sorts. Just like Klitschko. Wilder was trying for the nobody shots, the one-shot wonders. It was like a sparring match. Haymakers with nothing [no punches] on the inside. Wilder was befuddled tonight.”

Abel Sanchez, who trains Gennady Golovkin, was in attendance and he agreed, saying, “I thought Fury edged it out. Yeah, there were the two knockdowns, but I still thought Fury did enough to win it.”

Many of the rounds, however, were contested closely, and the tense atmosphere compensated in part for the lack of punches, a point made by Naazim Richardson, the longtime trainer from Philadelphia, who believed neither fighter truly distinguished himself. “I don’t think anybody dominated,” he noted succinctly.

And yet more credit might be given to Fury, whose return to near-peak form is a marvel in itself. Not long ago he had traded in two and a half years of his prime for a personal purgatory. He was mired in drugs, alcohol, suicidal thoughts, and fast cars. Then, in his return, tune-ups against Sefer Seferi and Francesco Pianeta earlier this year only emphasized how far removed Fury was from the nimble version of himself that wrested the heavyweight crown away from Wladimir Klitschko in 2015. Skepticism abounded, and when the fight with Wilder was first announced, many cynical observers wondered if promoter Frank Warren, perhaps concerned about his charge’s mental stability, was cashing his man in early. It was difficult to fathom, moreover, how a fighter who had ruined his prime years could come back and perform at the sport’s highest level—let alone against a concussive puncher like Wilder—without giving something along the way. There had to be some kind of Mephistophelean trade-off.

In any case, if there was, it did not show on Saturday night.

“I hope I did you all proud after nearly three years out of the ring,” said Fury, who has positioned himself since his return as a mental-health advocate. “I was never going to be knocked out tonight. I showed good heart to get up. I came here tonight and I fought my heart out. ”

Given the bombastic personalities of both fighters, it would not have been surprising if the aftermath of the fight had devolved into another shouting match, with each fighter bitterly contesting the decision. But they acted like gentlemen, heaping each other with praise. Fury was especially generous, as he held and kissed Wilder’s hand during the post-fight interview. Later, he would describe his Tuscaloosa rival as “probably the biggest puncher in heavyweight history.” It is no wonder, then, that there seemed to be an air of exuberance in the night, as though there were two winners, instead of a draw.

“I’m not going to sit here and complain and scream robbery,” Fury said. “Two men tried their hardest.”

Wilder reciprocated, adding that he believed the show was a successful promotion. “One thing I’m happy about—because I have a lot of questions that I ask myself—is that this fight lived up to the hype,” Wilder reflected. “Many times we have seen fights being promoted and they talk a good game and they got the hype going and then when you get the fight going, the fight is not as hyped as the talking was. In this fight it actually was. I thought we both did a great promotion.”

Indeed, if boxing has made a habit in recent years of saving its worst for the biggest stages, perhaps Saturday’s main event is a small step toward redemption in the eyes of the disgruntled. From this standpoint, Jay Deas, the head trainer of Wilder, perhaps put it best when he said, “Nobody can say ‘Oh, I don’t know why I bought that [PPV]’—that’s not going to happen.”

“Are you not entertained!” a high-spirited Fury screamed as when he arrived at the press room.

“I think very possibly you just saw the two best heavyweights in the world fight,” said PBC promoter Lou DiBella, before clarifying himself. “In fact, I actually believe you just saw the two best heavyweights in the world fight.”

Fury’s amazing recovery notwithstanding, the fact that two brash, elite prizefighters settled their verbal squabbles with their fists is something of a miracle these days. It leads one to suspect that the health of the chronically ill heavyweight division must be improving if its biggest, most consequential fight of the year—in what oddsmakers had deemed too close to call—did not include its linchpin Anthony Joshua, who owns the majority of the title belts. Pointing to Joshua’s absence, Fury balked into the microphone after the fight, “Chicken! chicken! Joshua, where are ya, A. J.?”

Though a rematch clause was in the original contracts, it is understood that only Wilder could exercise it—had he lost. Since the fight was a draw, the stipulation is moot. Nevertheless, both fighters expressed their desire for a rematch; their handlers, however, were a bit more circumspect. Said Warren, with an eye on the judging, “We want to do it again. But we want to do it in the UK. On home turf, he would’ve won that fight.” Wilder manager Shelly Finkel said he would be open to all possibilities, while also mentioning Las Vegas as an attractive destination. Of course, plans for a second fight could fall by the wayside if either camp finds itself in serious negotiation to fight Joshua, who still represents the biggest payday of either fighter’s career.

Though Saturday’s tussle—awkward and monotonous at times—may pale in comparison to the fights once waged by the likes of Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and Earnie Shavers, all of whom played a hand in promoting the fight, it is not likely to recede from memory anytime soon. Whatever their next steps, both Fury and Wilder have infused new blood into the long-moribund heavyweight division, and that fact alone is something worth appreciating. Saturday night was a step toward resurrecting the old beast, and the stakes, for once, felt oddly right.

“It’s life and death in there sometimes, at least that’s what it feels like,” said Wilder. “What an amazing fight.”