2005 was a truly life-changing year for a tall, nineteen year old athlete called Deontay Wilder – he fathered a child. That can be enough of a head-trip as it is, but when doctors informed him that his new-born baby daughter suffered with spina bifida and would perhaps never be able to walk he was forced into ruthless self-examination. Moments like this determine futures and define destinies. Wilder could have shirked his responsibilities, sought solace in a bottle or a pipe – many lesser men would.
Naturally, he was crushed. Not long graduated from high school, the youth racked his brains – his tiny girl’s only chance lay in expensive treatments and care plans he did not have the means to afford. Inconsistent grades prevented him from attending college and pursuing a lucrative career in American Football or Basketball, two disciplines he had excelled in at high school. What could he do? Through either desperation, or divine intervention, depending on what you believe, Wilder walked into a boxing gym in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and told the coach, Jay Deas, that he wanted to fight. He had absolutely zero experience in the sport. Bear in mind, that was all just nine years ago.
It all sounds like the beginning of a Disney movie, the kind of pathos-laden melodrama that middle-of-the-road audiences love. If, on Saturday night, Wilder can take the WBC Heavyweight title from Bermane Stiverne at the MGM grand in Vegas it will mark the completion of a remarkable and frankly, unfeasible journey, a tear-jerking tale, almost too good to be true. Studio executives’ hands will be sore from being rubbed together. You can visualise it already (cue gravel-toned voiceover man) – “fighting for his baby’s life, fighting for love, he took on the world and won. Bronze Bomber, The Deontay Wilder story, in cinemas now.”
But this is real life, not Saturday night at the Odeon and despite the good will of many, the Alabama bean-pole faces a really tough task this weekend. No-one can become heavyweight champion of the world less than a decade after taking up the sport, can they?
Firstly it needs to be reluctantly emphasised that regardless of the result on Saturday, it isn’t really a fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. To rightly claim that title you need to defeat Ukrainian cyborg Wladimir Klitschko, who incidentally was between spells as a title holder in 2005 and about to embark on the era of complete dominance that he continues to enjoy to this day.
Despite Wladimir’s ascendancy and partially shared reign with brother Vitali, it has not been an electrifying period for heavyweight boxing. The Klitschko style is effective, but dull and beyond the brothers the division has been weaker than at any other time in living memory. For these reasons Saturday’s bout generates huge interest despite only being a kind of world-title sideshow. Boxing fans crave heavyweight nights filled with action and a big star with charisma, who can talk and create a buzz. With his moving backstory and conveyor-belt record of KO wins, ‘The Bronze Bomber’ fits the bill. More than a few of us have gone wild for Wilder.
The hype that has come through thirty-two straight knockouts and no professional opponent lasting past the fourth has been ebullient and at times overwrought, but is there real substance behind it? Despite his late start, Wilder showed potential from the beginning and within two years of first pulling on some gloves was American national amateur champion, eventually going on to share the bronze medal with Liverpool’s David Price at the 2008 Olympics. This was despite only having had 21 Amateur contests. His unpaid journey was not necessarily entirely smooth, though. Tall, rangy, but somewhat skinny in heavyweight boxing terms, Wilder often gave indications of not being able to take a shot very well, such as in this fight against the Pole, Krzysztof Zimnoch.
It should be noted that although more-or-less the same height as Wladimir Klitschko, Wilder weighs just over 2 stone (30 pounds) less. He probably has the smallest calves ever seen on a heavyweight boxer. Some may not think that to be important, but it is generally accepted that leg strength, like neck strength, is a crucial component in punch resistance by creating stability. Sure Deontay’s power-to-weight ratio must be very high and he could probably kick Wlad’s ass in a 100 metre sprint or the bleep test, but it leaves him with a worryingly, top-heavy, fragile-looking build.
America thirsted for a new heavyweight hope to break the Eastern European stranglehold however and Deontay turned pro to considerable fanfare and acclaim. His promoters, Golden Boy, started cautiously and matched him with very modest opposition on local shows. Of Wilder’s first 9 opponents, only one got out of the first round. There is nothing particularly wrong with that – it is quite normal in the modern game for backed fighters to have 9 or 10 knockovers to start their career. The one thing The Bronze Bomber clearly possesses is power, particularly in his right hand and these early fights gave him the chance to showcase that, develop confidence and build his profile. Word soon spread of his KO record. His management and training team adopted the name ‘bomb squad’.
Boxing purists observed his technique with concern, however. In many ways Deontay still looked what he was and is – a relative novice. He fights from a stiff, upright stance, with his chin held up in the air and seems to have one tactic – land the right hand, then go mental. So far it’s worked for him, but is there a plan B?
Twelve fights in and his handlers had still taken no risks, the opposition remained poor and Wilder happily blasted them out. Enter Harold Sconiers in 2010, a trial horse who had a 17-20-2 record at the time and had been knocked out in the first by Bermane Stiverne in 2007. It may simply have been unlucky 13 for Wilder, but few expected what transpired. He went life-and-death with Sconiers, was put down once and wobbled a couple of other times before managing to force a stoppage in the fourth. Fascinatingly, after being freely available for a couple of years, the video of the fight was removed from Youtube. Are Golden Boy protecting their man’s reputation? To put things in context, when Sconiers fought Kevin ‘Kingpin’ Johnson, the only other name on his record that could be bracketed as world class, he was again knocked out in the first, in 2011.
Since then Wilder ploughed on through a parade of no-names. By the time he came to the UK in April 2013 to take on Audley Harrison he was 27-0 and had not yet fought one live, world ranked opponent. Bringing along a prosepct carefully is one thing – but when a man is nearing 30 pro fights and still being matched only with those who will not return fire, questions have to be asked. How much confidence do Deontay’s team really have in him? Why hold him back for so long? Do they know of frailties they do not publicise?
On the night, A-Force froze, Wilder tagged him with the right, hurt him, then proceeded to launch into a bout of frantic, clumsy windmilling which saw him throw about 15 flailing, straight arm punches in 5 seconds, none of which landed. Harrison slumped to the canvas from the effects of the initial shot and the fight was done.
Not long after that Deontay sparked out Siarhei Liakhovic, a former WBO title holder, in round one, but by the time they fought, Liakhovic had semi-retired, was fighting infrequently for paydays and had lost 4 of his previous 6, including both his last two fights. That version of the ‘White Wolf’ was hand-picked for lack of threat while presenting a veneer of credibility. The fact that Wilder’s last opponent in August last year, in his 32nd bout was Jason Gavern, a clubfighter seen in the UK in 2013 losing to Michael Sprott in ‘Prizefighter’ at the York Hall, says it all. Yes Deontay has 32 KOs, but he has not fought anybody to actually deserve a top ten ranking, let alone a title shot. He has been deftly manoeuvred into position by his promoters.
Even his most impressive win to date, a 1 round KO of erstwhile fringe contender Malik Scott, leaves serious question marks. The bout caused controversy when Scott appeared to be knocked out by a punch that didn’t actually land. When replays of the finish were shown on big screens above the ring, the crowd in the arena booed.
Bermane Stiverne is not yet a true champion, holding just a small portion of the heavyweight title, but he appears to be a genuine fighter of class. His two bouts with the ever dangerous Chris Arreola underlined that. He comes with the experience of a solid, 59 bout Amateur career and fought his way up through the pros, ably guided by the tireless Don King while utilising a textbook left hook.
It is probable that in a stronger era, such as the early 90s, with Lewis, Tyson, Holyfield, Bowe, Morrison, Moorer et al he would be nowhere near championship material, but as the heavyweight scene emerges from its early 21st century doldrums he finds himself handily placed and presently has the right to consider himself the second best man above 14s stone 4 on the planet. The Haitian’s main flaw has been a casual attitude which has sometimes seen him fighting flabby and half-fit. Assuming he has taken his training seriously this time, he should have way too much for Wilder. He is a more rounded fighter and Deontay has never faced anyone remotely near his class. On the night those 32 quick blast-outs maybe a hindrance rather than a help. On what reserves of experience can the Bronze Bomber draw if the going gets tough?
It is not a foregone conclusion, of course. If Douglas can beat Tyson and Clay can beat Liston, it is always possible that Wilder will catch Stiverne with one of his trademark rights and close the show. With two men in a ring you never know and when one has Wilder’s power, he can never be completely discounted, but I expect Stiverne to have too much guile to allow himself to be lined up for the slaughter in the timid way that Deontay’s fall guys have so far. If the current WBC title holder is still on his feet at the end of round three, he will ruin the Wilder biopic, most likely with that left hook sending those spindly legs tottering to a mid-rounds KO.
As a father of two girls myself, I sincerely hope Deontay has got what he needed from boxing and that his daughter always appreciates what her Daddy has done for her. He will be being paid very handsomely for Saturday and good luck to him for that. His tale is a moving one and Wilder deserves great credit, having achieved remarkable things in a short space of time, but the world title, even just a minor portion of it, is a step too far – and I suspect his management and handlers all know it.
Stiverne to win by KO or stoppage in or before round 6.