JUST do your best.
These four words, heard when a task appears insurmountable and typically the prelude to disappointment, will this week be ringing in the ears of Sweden’s Otto Wallin as he prepares for a fight against Tyson Fury on Saturday (September 14) in Las Vegas. He will hear them said by others – coaches, family members and friends – and will be saying them to himself, too, repeatedly, until they stick.
You might call it Otto’s motto. You might also say it has been the unofficial tagline for this fight since it was first announced. Because not only do few people give Wallin a shot at beating Fury this weekend, but the underdog has done little to convince doubters they are wrong to doubt him.
In fact, he has taken the opposite approach. He has quietly gone about his business and refrained from trying to sell his skills or his chances, often seeming as surprised as anyone to have received the opportunity.
It has been refreshing in a sense. It would be deemed admirable in any other walk of life. Yet this is boxing, of course, and it’s here, in the context of a prizefight, Wallin’s reluctance to talk nonsense and flog his wares could be interpreted as disconcerting.
For if there’s one thing we know about boxers it’s that, by nature, they are confident, positive and prone to varying degrees of delusion when a fight is on the horizon. When one doesn’t speak from the script, we start to wonder. We start to fear the worst.
“I haven’t been at the elite level in fights, but I have sparred big names and know I am at their level,” said Wallin, 28, before namechecking Anthony Joshua, Kubrat Pulev, Adam Kownacki, Jarrell Miller as former sparring partners. “I am not worried about that, it’s just that people haven’t seen me. Anthony [Joshua] knows I am a good fighter. It helps a little with motivation. I have no pressure at all. I can only go in there and do my best.”
It could be argued a humble, grounded fighter aware of the reality of their situation is preferable to one whose confidence stems solely from delusion and the hype of others. And, if nothing else, Wallin certainly seems grounded. Grounded like an underdog, sure, and grounded like your archetypal fall guy. But grounded, too, in a way that could mean he is cognisant of the size of the task ahead of him and therefore better equipped to handle it – the occasion, the opponent – than a fighter drunk on a fantasy.
“This is the moment I have been dreaming of since I started boxing when I was 15,” Wallin said. “Now it’s just I am fighting the best I have ever faced.
“I am fighting probably the best heavyweight out there – at least the best boxer. He is a big guy and he uses his size well. He is very skilled and can do a lot of things in there. He is tricky and has beaten good fighters but there are some things that people haven’t done to him.
“I am really confident in myself and my work ethic. I have worked for a long time and dreamed of this moment. Now it is finally here and I have to try and grab it with both hands.”
No doubt the anticipation will have been greater in Otto Wallin’s mind than it will have been in anyone else’s. Fury, for one, wouldn’t have predicted sharing a ring with the big Swede following a career-defining 2015 title win against Wladimir Klitschko in Dusseldorf, Germany, nor when toying with the hapless Tom Schwarz in Las Vegas in June.
And why would he? Wallin, a name familiar to only a few, is rated at four by the WBA and 11 by the IBF, yet most realise these rankings are generous and should be applied as loosely as Fury’s ‘lineal heavyweight champion’ status. They are numbers, not any kind of indication, and they say more about the lack of quality in today’s heavyweight division than the quality on Otto Wallin’s pro record.
In terms of his 20-fight resume, there are two decision wins of note, neither of which scream danger. The first, a 10-rounder against Raphael Zumbano in December 2016, doesn’t compare favourably to the two-round demolition job Anthony Joshua did on the Brazilian in 2015 and isn’t all that encouraging given Zumbano was stopped inside a round by Alexander Ustinov after going the distance with Wallin.
The second, meanwhile, is a 12-round victory over Adrian Granat in a 2018 European Union heavyweight title fight. Though arguably Wallin’s best win, it counts for little given Granat was stopped inside a round by Alexander Dimitrenko in 2017 and is a Swede similarly protected.
Fury, of course, sells his next opponent differently. He uses softer language and numbers, not names.
“Otto Wallin is a world-ranked fighter and is tall, something we want with the Deontay Wilder rematch around the corner,” said Fury. “He is also a southpaw, which will bring its own obstacles.
“I will be fully focused to get this job done because the rematch needs to happen.”
When Fury was preparing to fight Tom Schwarz in June, the mismatch was helped by the damage Andy Ruiz Jnr did to Anthony Joshua two weeks earlier. That result helped them sell the fight on the basis that upsets do happen and, moreover, it helped us suspend our disbelief in order to watch what we might otherwise have avoided.
But then came the first bell, this hypnotist’s hand clap, and we quickly woke from our trance and knew we had been played – again. It was at this point we understood Tom Schwarz wasn’t Andy Ruiz and that Tyson Fury wasn’t going to go the way of Anthony Joshua. A round and a half later, the fight was over.
In the aftermath, the mismatch was repurposed. It was viewed not as a fight in the traditional sense but as a coming-out party for Tyson Fury, a teaser for the American audience. It was, they said, why he dazzled them with an Apollo Creed impression, then with punches, and why he serenaded the crowd on exit. Apparently, it was not so much a fistfight as a show, a performance. There would be better nights ahead. Bigger fights ahead. And that’s a promise.
Now it’s Otto Wallin’s turn to reprise the role of Tom Schwarz and this time be sold as the tall, awkward and ambitious opponent Fury requires before facing Deontay Wilder again early next year. It’s a stretch, no question, and the logic’s skewed, yet the sales pitch will nevertheless pacify those willing to be pacified and buy Fury some time and forgiveness. To some, the strategy might even make sense.
The rest, however, will understand why being tall and left-handed should not qualify a heavyweight for a plum shot at the so-called lineal heavyweight title. Nor should it create intrigue ahead of a fight as one-sided, on paper, as any headlining heavyweight matchup this year.
Fights of this magnitude should never have to be sold the way this one is being sold. We shouldn’t have to analyse opponents according to how they look, how they are built, how they stand or how hard they will try. We shouldn’t have to accept a fight because the sport’s shoddy scaffolding and backwards business model allows promoters and television networks the opportunity to dress tune-ups as main event blockbusters and unproven opponents as world-ranked contenders.
In this instance, Wallin, 20-0 (13), has been chosen not because Fury wants rounds or because he wants to be pushed or because he wants to make a statement. He has been chosen because Wallin, of all the ranked heavyweights in the world, is positioned somewhere towards the safer end of the spectrum. He has been chosen because he is tall – almost six foot six – and presents a large and soft target to hit. Because he is hittable. Because he is inexperienced. Because he is untested. Because he is a slight upgrade on the last opponent but not enough of an upgrade to present any danger to Fury whatsoever.
More than anything, Otto Wallin has been chosen because Tyson Fury is these days getting paid good money just to turn up and play Tyson Fury. And for as long as this is the case, and for as long as he is being paid simply to perform, the supporting cast will remain irrelevant.
Not that Fury should be blamed. All he has done is create the environment and fashioned opportunities – as a star and entertainer – out of reach for boxers who take more of a reserved approach to their sport. Outgoing, charismatic and compelling, he is blurring the lines between the hurt business and show business and making the kind of money only the latter can offer. Both safe and clever, so long as he turns up, dances, dresses well and sings a familiar victory song, people will go home happy. No questions asked.
In time, though, the hope is that there will be a change in approach and some more serious action. Because Fury, as skillful as any heavyweight boxer on the planet, is wasted as a Vegas performer and has already shown he possesses as much substance as style.
Last December, in fact, ‘The Gypsy King’ demonstrated the ability to outbox Deontay Wilder, the WBC heavyweight champion, and would have been victorious had it not been for a couple of heavy knockdowns. For that performance he was praised both at home and in America and the rematch appeared inevitable, necessary.
But little did we know Fury’s star turn in Los Angeles would move him away from the rematch, not towards to it, and that the lights and lure of Sin City would delay it further. Now we must wait until the time is right, until our patience has been stretched to breaking point, and until Fury has had his fill of overmatched Europeans carefully selected to make him look good.
To this end, Fury, 28-0-1 (20), will surely win on Saturday and presumably end the fight when he feels like ending it (likely somewhere around the halfway mark). Otto Wallin, meanwhile, will hold up his end of the bargain and do his best. His absolute best. But his best, like the fight itself, probably won’t be anywhere near good enough.
Thankfully, better fights take place on the T-Mobile Arena undercard.
At super-bantamweight, heavy-handed Mexican Emanuel Navarrete puts his WBO belt on the line against Juan Miguel Elorde of the Philippines.
Interestingly, both have an identical professional record of 28-1 but it’s Navarrete who enjoys the edge in punch power, as 24 knockouts suggest. He won the title last December when outpointing Isaac Dogboe over 12 rounds in New York. He then went one better in the rematch, stopping Dogboe in the 12th and final round, before knocking out Francisco De Vaca inside three rounds for defence number two.
That fight was only in August, which means Navarrete, keen to stay busy, is doing it old school. He should be backed to retain his belt for a third time against Elorde, a talented fighter whose lack of experience outside his homeland could work against him on the night.
Also on the card, in a classic boxer vs. puncher matchup, Jose Pedraza, 26-2 (13), meets Jose Zepeda, 30-2 (25), over 10 rounds at junior-welterweight.
At light-heavyweight, meanwhile, Felix Valera, 18-2 (15), will be able to compare his power to that of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, 20-2 (17), in a battle of Sullivan Barrera victims.