What did Mark Breland think? The towel that saved Deontay Wilder from Tyson Fury in their rematch. Breland threw it; it cost him his job. Would he have thrown it in the eighth round Saturday? The ninth? In the tenth, would Breland have finally seen enough? In his opinion, when was that fight no longer winnable?
There won’t be any excuses this time. You might hear a half-hearted gripe about long counts, or injured hands, or the illegality of holding and hitting. You won’t hear them from Wilder, though. Or shouldn’t. The litany of excuses he offered last time—too absurd, too tedious to humor here—was a compilation of necessary lies, phantom truths he needed to steel himself once more against a man who pulped him. Without them, there was only what transpired, and what transpired permitted scant hope.
Excuses are for losers, so the adage goes. Deontay Wilder lost, but Wilder is no loser. And should he need to lie to himself dozens more times in the aftermath of another knockout loss, well, if that is what it takes for him to fight as he did Saturday, who wouldn’t hear him out?
Because one man cannot make an excellent fight and the loser of such a fight reserves a special place in the heart of aficionados. There is some empathy at work there, compassion too. At some point boxing—which transforms the kind of violence most people spend their lives insulating themselves against into entertainment—still triggers those feelings. So we watch Wilder’s complete yet futile sacrifice and want to soften the blow. Indeed, the likelihood that Wilder is fashioned into a fighter greater than the one he is is a likely consequence of his role in a fight whose second wind will kick in ten weeks from now, when the grand bestowal of awards begins. How good is Wilder? If you’re looking to drape a proverbial arm over his shoulders, that’s the wrong question. How exciting is he? That’s better. How tough, brave, determined? Better yet.
He is not better than Tyson Fury. Fury proved that over three fights—arguably in each one—and never more comprehensively than he did at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday. Twice on the canvas in round four, Fury steadied himself then ground Wilder to bits, corkscrewing him to the canvas in round eleven. He’d survived Wilder in their first fight, battered him in their second; accomplishing both in their third fight makes a fourth less than a priority. That may be an unpopular opinion now, but the drama over the second half of Saturday’s fight owes much to the question of how Wilder remained upright and his reputation as a puncher. In hindsight, the latter was less of a factor than it seemed, which is why the momentum stopped shifting when Fury got up. As for Wilder’s remarkable toughness, consider this question: How does he use it to win?
The short answer is, he doesn’t. Not against Fury.
It looked like he could in round one, though, when Wilder (as trainer Malik Scott had intended) committed wholly to the body. It was a new tactic, unnaturally so. Wilder’s face bore that out; he wore the expression of a man thinking, reminding himself what to look for, what to do when he found it. That was a reminder of how late Wilder came to boxing, of what he’s accomplished despite that abridged education. Fury thinks in the ring too, as he did while Wilder popped his belly with jabs and the occasional cross, but he hides it better.
Unfortunately for Wilder, Fury put his thinking to work. By the third round, Wilder’s body punching was gone, stymied by Fury’s control of distance and holding. There is an all-or-nothing dynamic in the Wilder–Fury fights. When Fury is in control, it is total—Wilder cannot bleed a little away from him here, snatch a bit there. When Fury is working to his strengths, Wilder is in perpetual peril. Fittingly, in the first round Fury gained such control that Wilder found himself on the canvas, sent there by a right hand while Fury worked him along the ropes.
When Wilder wrests control of the fight, though, he does so dramatically and with an urgency that acknowledges how precious those fleeting moments are. Hence the fourth round, when Fury, perhaps a little overconfident, tested Wilder’s power and was reminded of why Wilder has exceeded the limitations of his craft. Fury was back on the canvas a second time with thirty seconds left in the round. But then he’d been there before and gotten up too.
Wilder never again came that close to victory. He might have had he landed his vaunted right hand, but Fury needn’t take away Wilder’s right hand provided he claimed Wilder’s legs. That required accepting the risk of coming forward, but once Fury closed on Wilder, once when he made him back up, Wilder lost his footwork, and with it, the leverage he needed to punch. That concussive power might have served to sell the drama of the fight, but after nearly succumbing to it in the fourth, Fury had it diffused.
Fatigue too conspired against Wilder; his new, heavier body betrayed him. Wilder is a natural puncher; when he is throwing with purpose and technique, he is electric. But he needs fitness to do that, not strength. His toughness will be applauded in the coming days because it is legitimate, of course, but also because Wilder had to rely on it so heavily. And he had to because fatigue helped turn him from a dangerous fighter to merely a tough one.
Fury, meanwhile, is no puncher: his stoppages of Wilder are attritive, protracted, aided by fatigue, which explains their brutality. But he is a natural fighter; he has a fighter’s bearing. Were his success attributable to his size alone, there would be nothing particularly interesting or compelling about Fury. But Fury isn’t just the biggest of the super heavyweights—he’s the fighter of the bunch. Make them all nearly seven feet tall, all nearly 300 pounds, and Fury would still find success. After the fight, Fury tweeted: “Don’t ever doubt me, when the chips are down I always deliver!” He’s right. Despite a penchant for self-sabotage, Fury is the one current heavyweight who has delivered his best on his biggest nights. And size does not explain why.
Well, maybe he isn’t the only one.
The division is now in the hands of a fighter who is greater than the sum of his considerable genetic fortune, and a fighter who bankrupts such men. Neither should accept sharing that ownership.