What Deontay Wilder is feeling these days may not count as schadenfreude, but it is awfully close. All summer, like a desperate lover, he courted British superstar Anthony Joshua for a heavyweight unification fight, only to get stood up. Wilder thought he had made the right moves. He knew his market value, so he offered to fight in London and to take a flat fee instead of a percentage. Those concessions would be enough, he thought, to get the deal made. But before long, Wilder saw his efforts fizzle on the spot when Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, announced that his charge would instead face Alexander Povetkin at Wembley Stadium in the fall. Wilder, a prideful man and a heavyweight champion himself—albeit with fewer belts than Joshua—did not appreciate getting yanked around. “That’s Eddie Hearn for you,” Wilder remarked. “He’s a liar. He gets off on lying. He loves it.” Many figured, at that point, that the heavyweight champion from Tuscaloosa would go back to fighting some overmatched opponent from the shallow end of PBC’s pool of heavyweights, say, Dominic Breazeale.
As it turned out, Wilder’s handlers—Shelly Finkel and Al Haymon, principally—had something of a trump card up their sleeves: a fight with the mercurial Tyson Fury. It was a canny move. By targeting the second biggest British heavyweight name today, Wilder sought to undercut Joshua’s authority in the division; and at the very least, he was not going to stand by idly, jilted, as Joshua and Hearn laughed their way again to the bank. True, while Fury was now effectively a reclamation project after a two-year stint in the pits and not the overachiever who shocked the world in 2015 with his upset of longtime champion Wladimir Klitschko, his name, eccentric personality, and status as the lineal heavyweight champion still carried plenty of currency to help sell a big-ticket item. “[Fury] is a bigger and better fight (than Joshua),” Wilder assured. “This is the biggest fight in boxing at this point of time. I’m just happy that Fury accepted and stepped up.”
The clarion call rose to a shrill last weekend when Wilder traveled to Belfast to sit ringside for Fury’s rehabilitation act. Wilder admitted that the reception he received from the locals was much more welcoming than he had anticipated. “Belfast was amazing,” Wilder recounted. “That was very refreshing for me going into another country and to show me hospitality, to another guy that ain’t even from there. They welcomed me with open arms.” After Fury finished up twelve dozy rounds against feeble Francesco Pianeta, Wilder climbed into the ring to meet Fury face-to-face. While their encounter fell short of an official announcement, the face-off still provided a legitimate prelude to their projected fight. (The expectation is that the fight will take place in November in Las Vegas on Showtime PPV).
Absent from the hoopla that weekend was any talk of Joshua, an almost inconceivable thought given that there is no bigger name in heavyweight boxing today. Joshua’s quiet charm, Adonis-like physique, and, of course, his knockout power, have resulted in nearly a quarter-million tickets sold in his past four fights, obliterating all contemporary comparisons. Yet if Joshua is at once the sine qua non and lodestar of heavyweight boxing, his influence was not so evident as Wilder mingled with droves of fight fans on the streets of Belfast. “I didn’t get no Anthony Joshua talk when I was over there,” Wilder noted. “It was all about Fury, that’s it. Fury, Fury, Fury.”
In an interview with Hannibal Boxing conducted just a few days after his arrival from Belfast, Wilder was in high spirits, and spoke at length about his enthusiasm for the Fury fight (“I’m just so happy that this situation came about. God works in mysterious ways.”) and touched on a number of other topics, including the state of the heavyweight division and his transparency when it comes to interacting with the public. But after a summer listening to the other side repeatedly sound off on Joshua’s commercial superiority, what seemed to please Wilder the most was reflecting on how a Fury fight undermines Joshua’s hold on the heavyweight division. “[Team Joshua] thought we needed them,” said Wilder. “Everyone was saying that ‘There’s no other fight other than Joshua… the heavyweight division can’t go on without Joshua.’ Now y’all seen that’s a total lie. So we showing them. I’m doing what I want.”
Should he go on to defeat Fury, Wilder goes so far as to predict that the terms for a Joshua fight will have to change dramatically. There will be no flat-fee offers this time, he assured. “Man, if [the Fury fight] turns out the way we think, I may be coming out of this asking [Joshua] for sixty-forty my way,” Wilder said, chuckling. “[The Fury fight] is a bigger and better fight than Joshua. I’m just happy that Fury accepted and stepped up. We finna make a lot of money on this one. We finna get one-up on Eddie Hearn.”
Indeed, few moments in the conversation made Wilder giddier than when he spoke about his team outmaneuvering the young and cocksure Hearn, who may just about own the heftiest war chest in the sport today. Hearn overplayed his hand, Wilder claimed, by thinking he could simply lowball Wilder on every point. Did he forget who he was dealing with in Finkel and Haymon? These were experienced powerbrokers who oversaw the careers of Evander Holyfield and Floyd Mayweather. Who was Hearn, this trust-fund kid from London, to talk so brashly?
“Eddie Hearn has never been on this stage as a promoter,” said Wilder. “He was too smart for his own self. You playing around with people (Finkel and Haymon) who have been in the game for over thirty damn years—guys that had all the top fighters. And you’re trying to come up with estimated numbers about this and that, when you’ve done nothing in America. You don’t know anything! He done messed up. This is just the beginning. [He and Joshua] are going to need a groundhog hole. Because it’s going to get humiliating, especially when Fury and me get done with each other.”
The relish with which Wilder spoke about supposedly duping Joshua and Hearn, of course, speaks to the acrimonious way in which the initial talks broke down. Why they broke down will depend on whom you ask, though good luck to anyone trying to trace the truth through the tangle of “he-said-she-said” jibes from both sides. Whatever the inconsistencies, there is this: Joshua’s newly-announced involvement with the streaming startup DAZN, of which Hearn’s Matchroom Promotions is the sole boxing content provider, suggests that Joshua and Hearn had different plans all along. Why, after all, would anyone risk a billion-dollar deal with a newfangled subscription service by putting the flagship fighter in with someone as dangerous as Wilder? It makes no business sense, which, in boxing, is all too often the only sense.
In any case, for Wilder, Joshua’s rationale for choosing to fight Povetkin is a clear indication that “He don’t want this smoke.” This realization both irks and comforts Wilder. “I don’t understand these guys who just want to protect their “Os.” My mentality, my mindset is totally different. I want to be the best in the world.” At the same time, Wilder believes he is now winning the court-of-public-opinion battle. “Joshua definitely has messed up his reputation in America,” Wilder mused. “The only thing you hear is how he is a coward, he’s scared, he’s a pussy, he don’t want to fight the best. He just wants to milk people.” What has also played in Wilder’s favor is that Joshua has yet to follow up with a performance that equals his dramatic knockout of Klitschko. (In his last fight, Joshua went the distance in a ho-hum outing against Joseph Parker).
To illustrate his point, Wilder brings up an interaction he had with a couple of British women when he landed in Heathrow. “They said,” Wilder began, before attempting the cockney accent. “‘We’re proper boxing fans, yeah. A.J. don’t want to fight. All he wants to do is make money.’ These were females telling me this. They already know the situation. That’s when you know things are embarrassing for him.”
In the morning, prior to the interview that day, Wilder had given a motivational speech on the importance of teamwork to the University of Alabama football squad. “I had everybody’s undivided attention because people believe in what I say,” Wilder described. “They feel me, they feel every word I’ve said. I’m a genuine person.” Sometimes, Wilder’s candidness can get him in trouble, like when his comment, “I want a body on my record,” an expression he says came out of an honest desire to show his competitive spirit and instead was blown out of proportion and widely condemned. Even so, Wilder does not apologize for his directness. “I know I’ve said some disgusting things that rubbed people off the wrong way,” Wilder admitted. “But guess what? There were other people who loved it. They really felt and connected [to what I was saying].” For Wilder, accessibility is practically a mandate for a heavyweight champion, so it is not surprising that this is where he feels Joshua has lately lost a lot of credibility. By hiding behind Hearn and his trainer Rob McCracken, leaving it up to them to craft dishonest excuses to the public on why the fight was not able to materialize, Joshua, Wilder believes, relinquishes the right to call himself a “people’s champion.” Joshua can’t have it both ways, Wilder insists: you either fight the best or admit to the public that you’re chasing the easy money.
How times change. Not long ago it was considered chic to rag on Wilder’s crude boxing ability or to point out his papered resume. Both criticisms were justified. Wilder’s punches, though deadly on impact, make a mockery of technique. And his ledger during his title reign, which consists of a former football player, a European journeyman, a school teacher, and two woebegone versions of Bermane Stiverne, is embarrassingly short on legitimate opponents. But by rolling the dice on the dangerous Ortiz, in a fight that had people in some corners screaming “the fix is in,” Wilder has earned something that is impossible to buy in a mercenary sport: respect. A victory over Fury, far from guaranteed, will further burnish Wilder’s name in a division that at one time looked like a one-man show.
“I just got done fighting Luis Ortiz, who, in my opinion, is the second best in the world,” Wilder stated. “Now here I come and I’m about to fight who I think is the third best in the world. Who is doing what I’m doing? Ain’t nobody doing what I’m doing.”