IT’S a common narrative in the promotional drive for this weekend’s return between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury that this is the biggest heavyweight fight since Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield last came to blows. But Wilder-Fury II might be even bigger. Without question, among those who know the sport, the anticipation is greater.
Though most observers believed Fury deserved to beat Wilder in December 2018, the reaction to the draw was nothing like the outcry after Holyfield was gifted the same result against Lewis in 1999. But the need for a sequel way back then was merely to tie up loose ends, as opposed to any desire for seconds: Lewis vs Holyfield, episode one, was disappointing and rather dull; Lewis proved his superiority to such an extent that the outcome of episode two was all but a foregone conclusion beforehand. Put it this way, though the replay exceeded expectation, nobody would have been asking for it if justice had been served for Lewis in the first place.
Wilder-Fury II is different. The opener, though not a thrill-a-second barnburner, was laced with more tension than a good horror film. You knew something might happen at any moment, but you didn’t know what and you didn’t know when. And even for those who felt Fury won, of which I was one, the two knockdowns he suffered on foreign ground were enough to leave the outcome in the balance and the draw just about justifiable.
Consequently, the rematch, set for the MGM Grand on Saturday night (February 22), is a bona fide must-see. And the winner? Well, you might as well toss a coin.
‘IT’S not about what Deontay Wilder does. It’s about what I do. I don’t think about the opponent. I’ve got to concentrate on what I do… Wilder wasn’t my toughest opponent. It was one of my easiest fights. Apart from the knockdowns, it was pretty one-sided.’Tyson Fury says
There are compelling cases from both sides. Wilder, the WBC heavyweight champion, cites the two knockdowns he scored in Los Angeles as evidence that he’s already broken Fury beyond repair. More unconscious than hurt, Fury miraculously found his feet but there may yet be truth in Wilder’s claim that Tyson hasn’t been the same since he was cannonballed in that stunning final round. Wilder – who floored his rival in two of the last four sessions – insists it will merely be case of picking up where he left off.
The counter arguments are easy to construct. Fury, 29-0-1 (20), went down twice but got up twice. In truth, though he lost the ninth and 12th rounds, he’d regained control by the end of them. The lapses in concentration fixed, Fury simply went back to work. Nobody else has taken those punches from Wilder and heard the final bell, let alone regained their faculties and fought back. Luis Ortiz may argue otherwise, but no fighter came closer to defeating Wilder or outfoxed him so effectively. Throw in the fact that Tyson was having his first fight at world class in over three years (the pitter-patter warm-ups against Sefer Seferi and Francesco Pianeta don’t count), and still came so close to winning, then the evidence really starts to build in the Briton’s favour.
Indeed, if part one is all the evidence you’re using to formulate your opinion on who wins part two, watching Fury bamboozle Wilder for long periods make a cast iron case. A popular train of thought, for very good reason, is that if Fury stays active and switched on for 36 minutes then he will win the fight.
Such thinking will not be lost on Wilder. Though he insists it’s Fury who has the biggest hangover from their December 2018 date, Wilder’s own mind will be swirling with memories of frustration. He may not admit it but he will be acutely aware, in a way that he wasn’t before, that he’s embarking upon the trickiest assignment of his entire 42-0-1 (41) career.
Boxers remember those lonely moments in the ring when they realise their opponent is on a completely different level to anything they’ve encountered before. Old tricks don’t work. Honey punches miss and counters come back before you can blink. Indeed, the wayward punches he threw at Fury will haunt him just as much as the punches Fury landed on him.
However, what nobody should do is underestimate the mental resolve of Deontay Wilder. Boxers of lesser fortitude would have found a way to avoid this return and, perhaps even more tellingly, gone nowhere near Luis Ortiz again after the Cuban gave Wilder fits in 2018 (Ortiz was stopped in 10 after a titanic battle). Yet the “Bronze Bomber” went back to work with Ortiz last year in a voluntary defence that, until the astonishing one-punch finish in round seven, highlighted exactly why the American should stay away from slick and tricky boxers, of which Fury is king. But dig deeper and you’ll find reasons to back the champion here.
Lost in the overused spin that 34-year-old Wilder is a one-dimensional slugger is the truth that a 95 per cent KO ratio from 43 bouts is a heck of a feat. Okay, he has a habit of overreaching with his right hand and is off target more frequently than on, but, for evidence of his quality, watch how he gets into position to bang. A master of cutting off the ring, Wilder is intelligent and unlike so many others who are reliant on their power, he never loses heart if things are not going his way. Wilder stalks and watches and learns. Patience oozed from him as he waited for the opportune moment to land the defining bomb against Ortiz in their rematch. He knew the opening would come. He likely knows the opening will come on Saturday night, too.
Tyson is not lacking in self-belief himself, of course. For all the hot air he spouts there is a considered and thoughtful fighter beneath, one who boxes beautifully going backwards and one with underrated power when he decides to use it. And if you’re going to cite Wilder’s improvement in rematches (as well as showing off his education against Ortiz, he walloped Bermane Stiverne in a round after going 12 with him in their first contest) then you have to do the same with Fury: In 2010 he halted John McDermott in nine rounds, a year after being lucky to get the decision over 10, and in 2014 he pummelled Dereck Chisora in 10 one-sided sessions, three years after going 12 with him.
Technically, Fury is better than any heavyweight. Expect him to again jab high to nullify the threat of his rival’s right. Tyson’s left arm is just as effective when outstretched and artfully blocking Wilder’s view of the target. Rolling the shoulder and feinting with his head are other skills he’s mastered as he keeps his chin out of danger. Fury, 6ft 9ins, is very hard to hit cleanly when he’s on his game. Logic dictates that he’ll again look to control the distance and pace, that he’ll move away at angles and smother in close so not to allow Wilder, two inches shorter, to set himself or load up.
But logic, at least Tyson Fury logic, also tells us to expect the unexpected. He insists he’s going for the knockout this time. And though it’s tempting to write that off as mind games, such an approach from the Englishman shouldn’t be discounted completely. He felt he was robbed last time. He will also remember moments when he wobbled Wilder and how cheated he felt by the judges after conserving more than enough energy to go the full 12. But for Fury to win, be it by KO or on the cards, he cannot allow his concentration to lapse for even a second.
Asking anyone to fight a perfect fight is a huge ask, particularly when bogged down with the pressure of facing the Alabama assassin. Fury made only three obvious mistakes in the first fight. He stood too long in the pocket early on and took a right hand that bruised his face. A further two errors left him on the deck. Wilder doesn’t carry such a burden. His imperfections are all part of his game.
It would be a more straightforward call to pick Fury, probably on points, if this rematch was an immediate one. The first contest was almost a perfect storm for the Englishman; written off by many after his time out of the ring, Tyson craved salvation and respect. To recreate that drive will be difficult: After signing with promoter Bob Arum, Tyson found himself taking a lucrative detour that involved thrashing the hapless Tom Schwarz in two rounds, being hideously cut during a gruelling 12-round win over the unfancied Otto Wallin, earning extra dough in the WWE and swapping his coach Ben Davison for Kronk veteran, Javan “Sugar” Hill Steward. The official line on the switch is Fury wants to be more aggressive but sacrificing the calming and intelligent influence of Davison – who engineered the perfect plan to beat Wilder in 2018 – is a huge risk. The Wallin cut has healed but the scars are fresh and must also be referenced as a potential danger for the challenger here.
Fury, 31, will tell you he is now match fit in a way that he couldn’t have been 14 months ago, that he’s sharp and explosive and ready to unleash the combination punching he needs to dominate. He looked poor against Wallin but, in fairness, Tyson has always struggled to thrive against mediocre opposition. However, even the slightest erosion of his reflexes will lead to defeat against Wilder, who appears to be at his peak, not only physically but also mentally.
Wilder, perhaps more so than Fury, can improve in fight two. Though he wasn’t particularly wild in the Staples Center, he allowed Fury to be comfortable for too long. If Fury needs to retain concentration for 12 rounds to win, then Wilder’s key to success has to be to break it. There was an absence of body work from Wilder last time and that is something he can and should address. Though hitting Fury clean to the face is difficult, he does open his body up while on the move. Wilder, then, must take advantage.
Davison’s work in the first fight shouldn’t be discounted. He kept Fury on track throughout, in the build-up and during the fight. Whether his new coach can do the same, particularly when Tyson’s mind starts to wander, is unknown. Certainly, their relationship is fresh and untested.
The feeling, and it’s only really a feeling, is that Wilder, applying pressure, will have more success in the early going and Fury, though he will again prove a nightmare for the champion, will slowly start to unravel. One day Wilder’s punch will fail him but, for now, it is too potent to withstand. The fight-ending smash will land at some point after the sixth.
What we want more than anything, and what the sport needs, just like it needed in 1999, is a definitive winner. Though Anthony Joshua looms large, the victor can take their place atop a division readying itself for a historic decade.
The Verdict The most important fight the division has staged this century.
WORTH THE WEIGHT?
THERE has been talk that Fury will come in heavier than the 256lbs he weighed last time to give him a greater chance of overpowering Wilder. But mobility was a huge reason he had success last time. Any significant weight gain would be seen as a gamble.
REST OF THE BILL
CHARLES MARTIN, 27-2-1 (24), faces fringe contender GERALD WASHINGTON in an eliminator for the IBF heavyweight strap Martin meekly surrendered to Anthony Joshua almost four years ago. From St Louis, but now training in California with Manny Robles, Martin is 4-1 since being thrashed by Joshua. The lone loss, a gutsy points defeat to Adam Kownacki, showed there was more to Martin than just tight shorts and a nondescript title reign. Expect him to have too much for Washington, 20-3-1 (13), and score a stoppage in the second half of their 12-rounder… Filipino JEO SANTISIMA, 19-2 (16), takes a humongous step up when he challenges brilliant Mexican EMANUEL NAVARRETE, 30-1 (26) for the WBO super-bantamweight belt. Navarrete has been in spiteful form of late and that should continue against his raw and untested opponent… Morecambe’s ISAAC LOWE, 17-0-3 (6) gets another showcase on cousin Tyson Fury’s undercard. He should be too good for Mexico’s ALBERTO GUEVARA, 27-5 (12).