The Last Gasp of the Bombast

It may not be the end for Deontay Wilder, but it should be. If it is the end, it is a right and fitting one at that. Saturday, Zhilei Zhang, “Big Bang Zhang,” one more goliath among the heavyweights, banged out Wilder in five rounds in what is becoming the new heavyweight proving ground: the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In that same ring six months prior, the typically bombastic Wilder went out with a whimper, losing a unanimous decision to a refurbished Joseph Parker. Against Zhang, Wilder was silenced fully. And while many a heavyweight might look up, way up, at Zhang, it was not the beating Wilder took but his bearing that should close his chapter.

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Was it after the third round? The fourth? Somewhere past a reasonable point for patience, and with Wilder set firmly on a path to destruction, his trainer, Malik Scott, asked him to stop being “a punching bag.” Not because Wilder was absorbing too many punches (that sum can be no greater than one at heavyweight), but because he was throwing too few. Because Wilder has always been sanguinary—if nothing else, a fervent executioner. He once described knockout victim Artur Szpilka as being dead for “three to five seconds” and drove the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching alike into fits when he murderously declared, “I want a body on my record. I want one. I really do.” If Wilder’s deeds did not always match his words, his intentions certainly did. No one achieves a record of 43-4-1 with 42 knockouts without deriving genuine satisfaction from leaving men senseless.

That concussive power, Wilder always treated it as a sort of deity to whom he sacrificed opponents with sudden and stunning violence. As the vultures set upon Wilder in the coming days, interrogating him with their clever and ruthless beaks, as his ample critics reduce him to a tyrannosaurus feasting on chained goats, remember that the last man to rule the heavyweight division was himself a ruinous puncher. Yet violence seemed anathema to this man—he used the threat of unconsciousness to quiet opponents and put viewers to sleep. Ask yourself: given but two careers to rewatch, would you choose Wladimir Klitschko’s or Wilder’s? The purpose of the question is not so much to bring another fighter down but to serve as a reminder that while the heavyweight division needed a cruiserweight to set it right, its disarray was made compelling largely by what Wilder could and could not do.

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What Wilder could not do has been iterated ad nauseum. Why? Because the flaws are glaring. His moniker ‘The Bronze Bomber” is a nod to his placing in the 2008 Olympics but also a tell, a confession of his rawness. Like the sanctioning bodies, however, Wilder’s limitations owe much of their bandwidth to the self-aggrandizing, to those who equate criticism with intelligence and yearn to project the latter. To harp on the defense of a fighter who left Siarhei Liakhovich spasming like a man who woke up during his colonoscopy is to miss the point.

Wilder also suffered from being so obviously raw from the outset, while the fighters who jockeyed with him for the division had their weaknesses—both in the ring and beyond it—revealed later in their careers. And while peak Wilder was determined early in his career, the best versions of his fellow heavyweight aspirants seemed preserved despite grounds for doubt. Yet long after Wilder was supposed to be exposed there he was, exchanging hypothetical victories and losses in a cold war for the crown. And then that war heated up.

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In 1954, twenty-five-year-old Englishman, Roger Bannister, ran the first four-minute mile. Over 1,750 athletes have broken that barrier since. It is as though the world had only to see it done to render the feat within its collective grasp. Perhaps something similar happened in 2018, when Fury hauled himself off the canvas in the final round of his first fight with Wilder, showing the boxing world that a power that seemed almost supernatural was not. That fight ended in a draw, the first blemish on Wilder’s record.

 

The idea that you could not survive a mistake against Wilder was proven false. He is 3-4 since his draw with Fury, with three losses by knockout, two to Fury, and one to Zhang; both men brought the fight to Wilder as no other opponents have. Physics explains their aggression to a large degree, as both Fury and Zhang weigh upwards of 275 pounds, with chins and belligerence buttressed by bellies. But the fallout of seeing Fury on his feet in the twelfth is worth considering. That night, Wilder looked on with disbelief as the “Gypsy King” stacked limb upon limb. Perhaps that disbelief was next directed inward.

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The ferocity Wilder summoned in his losses to Fury is gone; worse, so too is his confidence. He could once trust in his ability to close quickly, to explode into range with the kind of power that made exiting unnecessary. But he no longer has the legs for that deadly pendulum, nor the chin to survive being stationary. Against Zhang, Wilder was reduced mostly to counterpunching, but counterpunching is not simply a matter of throwing second, of being reactionary—at its best, it is actively aggressive.

So was Wilder, just not calculatedly so. Rather, his aggression was unhinged and unpredictable; he fought with arrogance, an unwavering belief that his power was greater even than the panic (and excitement) it inspired. Was he wrong for thinking this way? That is a question Wilder might not even understand. But the fighter pacing the ropes against Zhang, grinding his gloves together, flinching, guessing, was the same one broken by Fury, beaten by Parker.

Rather fittingly, it was a counterpunch that ended him—an anticipatory blow intentionally thrown a hair late. Zhang timed Wilder’s right hand with a right hook that spun Wilder into the ropes, then flattened him.

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It should be the end. A reticent puncher in his late thirties, one with scant fundamentals, soft knees, and a cracked chin, has little business in the ring. Certainly less than Wilder was supposed to have when he found boxing at age twenty or turned professional at twenty-three; less than he was supposed to have when he was windmilling punches like a novice, back when we eyed suspiciously his only world-class attribute, even when he was accumulating title defenses the quality of which is sure to come under scrutiny when his name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot.

But that end is a fitting one, too. While it is too late to win over those who will say Wilder was protected by a promoter preserving his grip on a portion of the heavyweight title and too late to prove wrong those who will remember him as a fighter who was exposed when he finally fought championship-caliber opposition, Wilder did his part for the future. He helped ratify a division where he was a supposed imposter. And he finished on his feet.

 

About Jimmy Tobin 107 Articles
Jimmy Tobin is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in The Cruelest Sport, 15 Rounds, Undisputed Champion Network, Esquina Boxeo, El Malpensante, The Queensbury Rules, and The Fight Network. Jimmy is the author of Killed in Brazil? The Mysterious Death of Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Jimmy on Twitter.