When the heavyweight division broke from its languor not long ago thanks to the collective rise of Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, it didn’t take long before cock-eyed promoters, who can spot a shard of gold glinting in the lights of Times Square, sought to tighten their talons around their respective big men.
That Top Rank’s Bob Arum didn’t have a horse in this particular race mattered not. The inveterate promoter bellied up to the heavyweight card table anyway, earlier this year, with a bankroll supplied by ESPN, and promptly whisked Fury away from his rematch talks with Wilder. Since then, Fury jigged and shimmied his way past lowly Tom Schwartz and Otto Wallin on a streaming app, made his debut in professional wrestling, published a book, and, latley, has been hinting at crossing over into the MMA. (For his part, Wilder went on to kayo Dominic Breazeale in one destructive round). In short, Fury already seems like a semi-retired fighter on the cabaret circuit, ready to carry out his chintzy, guttural rendition of “American Pie” at a moment’s notice to the goggle-eyed.
Of course, Fury cannot go full freak-show mode quite just yet. (Having virtually ignored the division in recent memory, Arum has been busy trying to complement Fury by stockpiling heavyweight B-sides in the past few months, a ragbag that includes Kubrat Pulev, Agit Kabayel, Carlos Takam, and possibly drug cheat Jarrell Miller as well as neophytes Guido Vianello, Jared Anderson, and Sonny Conto). Fury’s contract with Top Rank aside, he is set to potentially face Wilder next year to settle their controversial 2018 stalemate—on the dicey condition that Wilder can get past an old but potentially still dangerous Luis Ortiz for the second time this Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
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Despite cakewalking through most of his title defenses, Wilder has relished the idea of true competition in recent years. He took on two risky challenges in a row in Oritz and Fury and was also prepared to go to Russia to face Alexander Povetkin, in 2016 before Povetkin tested positive for PEDs. By agreeing to face Ortiz once more, the man who nearly derailed his career, Wilder surely deserves some credit, especially considering how outclassed he appeared at times in the first fight.
In the early rounds of that fight, Wilder looked exactly like someone who picked up the sport when he was twenty years old. Ortiz controlled the ring, worked behind his jab and connected on straight lefts to the body—doing everything a competent southpaw is taught to do—as Wilder flailed. With his own jab neutralized, Wilder was essentially a one-armed fighter, bumbling around the ring, looking for one big punch. But if there is a fighter today to whom the platitude, “one punch can change a fight” actually applies, it is Wilder, who would overcome a hellish seventh-round beating to go on to raze Ortiz for good in the tenth.
Since then, Ortiz scored three consecutive dominant wins against no-hopers, but he appeared particularly sluggish in going the distance in his last outing against the woeful Christian Hammer. Ortiz was fatigued in the late rounds, but, more crucially, was susceptible to Hammer’s straight rights. If Ortiz’s reflexes have truly eroded, it won’t matter if he is in career-best shape for the rematch. Ortiz, after all, is not exactly a shifty target. Wilder may not know how to fight on the inside or know how to respond to a southpaw jab, but he does have a keen understanding of the space he needs to unload his bazooka right. That he is able to do so without telegraphing it makes him that much more dangerous. The fact remains that Ortiz, perhaps the best skilled big man outside of Fury, nevertheless has a credible chance to upend Wilder’s grandiose plans on Saturday.
Indeed, it’s worth asking why Wilder‒Ortiz II is even taking place—as it falls way short of meeting the low-risk-high-reward criterion that governs most matchmaking these days. Much is at stake, not only for Wilder, but also for his handler Al Haymon, the reclusive impresario behind Premier Boxing Champions, perhaps the largest management stable ever assembled in the sport. Even Evander Holyfield, superior competitor that he was in his heyday, expressed bewilderment at the logic supposedly presiding over the making of this fight. “I don’t know why they [made Wilder-Ortiz II],” Holyfield told Fight Hype. “Somehow you beat the very best that nobody wanted to fight. Nobody was tempted to fight him. You beat him? Now, go on. Why give another guy a chance that good.”
Arum, always blunt, offered a simple explanation for Wilder‒Ortiz II. “It’s stupid, but Al was boxed in.” he told Boxing Scene. “He had to (make Wilder-Ortiz II). We talked about getting out of that fight, and doing Fury and Wilder here, now, in the fall. And Al couldn’t get out of that fight because Ortiz had been offered the Joshua fight, and so he promised him this [rematch with Wilder].”
Ortiz had reportedly been offered $7 million to fight Joshua in the summer, after Miller, Joshua’s original opponent, had tested positive for PEDs. But after the confusion in which Ortiz declined the offer, another Haymon client, Andy Ruiz, stepped in as a late replacement. Everyone knows, of course, what happened next: Ruiz steamrolled Joshua in seven rounds to capture three of the four major heavyweight belts. Two weeks from now, Ruiz will defend his title against Joshua in Saudi Arabia. Another win over Joshua would transform Ruiz from sporting oddity to a bona fide titleholder and see him return to the PBC orbit. As a Fox executive recently pointed out during the Chris Mannix podcast, a Wilder‒Ruiz full heavyweight unification—for what would ostensibly be for the PBC heavyweight championship belt—is the most alluring in-house PBC fight that can be made.
All of this, of course, is nothing more than speculation. And so is any talk about Fury‒Wilder II—which would be the biggest bipartisan effort in the sport since Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather fought in 2015—if Wilder cannot replicate the greatest win of his career on Saturday. As with most things in boxing, certainty is a trick of the light.