Friday, June 7, 2024

Has Deontay Wilder Competed For The Last Time?

There are many stages in a boxer’s career. The rise through the initial beginning of one's career, one would often call the development or prospect stage, which if the fighter succeeds often leads to the chance to become a contender, which then if there is continued success might lead to an opportunity to fight for a world championship. For most fighters that achieve the ultimate goal of becoming a world champion, there will come a point where there is the stage known as “The Comeback." Under most circumstances, but not all, it is a stage that comes following the loss of a world championship for a fighter.

For former longtime WBC Heavyweight world champion Deontay Wilder, his title reign of nearly five years and ten defenses came to an end when he was stopped in his second fight with Tyson Fury in 2020 shortly before the global COVID-19 epidemic. Following that loss, Wilder claimed that his setback was attributed to some attire that he had worn to the ring on the evening of the rematch as well as severed ties with his longtime trainer and former world champion Mark Breland, who had thrown in the towel to save him from further punishment in that rematch. A decision that many trainers as tasked with at one time or another in a fighter’s career, but one that Wilder nevertheless disagreed with.

Following a year between fights two and three of his trilogy with Fury, due at least in part to the circumstances of COVID-19 as well as a legal battle that Wilder fought to get an opportunity to regain his title, the third and arguably most competitive fight in the trilogy took place in October 2021. Although Wilder came within inches of being able to stop Fury in the fourth round after dropping him twice, the result of fight three was the same as the second encounter, Fury scoring a knockout win, only this time it was a referee who stopped the fight after Wilder had been dropped for his third knockdown in the bout in the eleventh round.

While the third fight between Fury and Wilder was one of the best Heavyweight fights this observer has covered in his career, which after nearly three decades covers an awful lot of ground, what cannot be underestimated is the physical toll fights like that take on both the victor as well as the fighter that does not get their hand raised. It may indeed be viewed as a cliche by some, but fighters do leave something in the ring after every fight and both fighters, Wilder and Fury took significant punishment in those three battles.

For Wilder, obviously the toll he paid in those fights physically is viewed by many as more significant and severe. It was something that initially did not seem as though would be the case as Wilder returned to the ring in October 2022 and scored a devastating one punch knockout of Robert Helenius, which frankly resembled what he was at his best. A fighter with frightening punching power, among the most devastating in the history of the sport, capable of ending a fight in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately for the former world champion, like several fighters who had long been aligned with the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) group of promoters, inactivity and the inability to get back in the ring ultimately proved to be detrimental. 

When Wilder climbed back into the ring in December of last year after breaking away from the PBC to face former WBO Heavyweight world champion Joseph Parker in Saudi Arabia, he displayed all the signs of what is known throughout combat sports as “Ring Rust." In that he was sluggish, did not have his timing, and was behind Parker in terms of pace from the opening bell. The end result, Parker scored a one-sided twelve round unanimous decision.

This led to Wilder’s encounter with top Heavyweight contender  Zhilei Zhang on June 1st in the same venue as his encounter with Parker, the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The positive for Wilder was that this bout was a relatively quick turnaround for him in fighting nearly six months after the loss to Parker. Unfortunately for him, this is where the positive aspect ended.

From the opening bell, Wilder looked lethargic and hesitant to let his hands go. What resulted was Zhang gradually walking Wilder down and landing the harder punches of the two fighters. A stark contrast to how Wilder would typically be in that position and normally have success in the days that preceded his trilogy with Tyson Fury. As many Wilder opponents found out, a scenario like that usually ends one way, with the stalker eventually getting the better of its prey. This too would have a similar conclusion. In the fifth round, Zhang caught Wilder with a counter left hook that appeared to land on the nose, which badly staggered the former world champion into turning his back. Zhang quickly went for the kill as Wilder had done many times to previous opponents and landed another left hook to the head before Wilder could get an opportunity to steady himself, much less prepare for what was coming at him, and knocked Wilder down on his back hard on the canvas. Wilder’s mettle showed itself as he struggled to get to his feet, but he did get up from the knockdown. In no condition to continue on very unsteady legs, the fight was promptly stopped.

Before continuing on with the obvious question of whether this knockout loss will or should signal the end of Wilder's great career, a brief historical note of context that the reader might not know and could find insightful. In the days since Zhang’s knockout of Wilder, I have been asked whether the fact that Zhang rushed forward and hit Wilder with the second left hook was in any way a possible illegal move seeing as Wilder had his back turned and was in no way aware or prepared to try and defend himself as Zhang threw what ultimately proved to be the knockout blow. The simple answer is it was perfectly legal and Zhang did what he was supposed to do in that position.

As a noted Boxing historian with a lifetime of watching fight films having been spent, which began long before this observer entered the sport as one who covers Boxing and by extension all combat sports in the mid-1990’s, a practice I continue to this day, the way this fight ended immediately brought back memories of a fight I studied extensively in my youth, which took place slightly before my time.

On June 20, 1980 at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Canada on the undercard of the first fight of what became a trilogy between Boxing Hall of Famers Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, former WBA Heavyweight world champion John Tate was knocked out brutally by then Canadian Heavyweight champion and rising contender Trevor Berbick in the ninth round of a world title elimination bout.

Where the circumstances between Tate-Berbick and Zhang-Wilder differ is that at the conclusion of eight rounds in a grueling fight, Tate, who had lost his world title to Mike Weaver earlier that year, was badly fatigued and probably should not have been sent out for the ninth round. Shortly after the bell to begin round nine, Berbick hit tate with an overhand right that had Tate turn his back, literally running across the ring trying to get his bearings. In response, Berbick chased after him throwing a barrage of punches as Tate still had his back turned knocking him face down and out cold on the canvas. 

While Zhilei Zhang’s knockout of Wilder was also brutal in how it came about, at least Wilder was able to get up and did not take the type of punishment that Tate did nearly forty-four years ago. Like Zhang however, Berbick, who would go on to lose to Larry Holmes in his first attempt at becoming a world champion in 1981 before becoming a world champion in 1986, did what he was supposed to do, despite the brutality of the knockout that followed when an opponent turns their back to you in the midst of combat. Although the one exception to such a scenario would be if a referee steps in when a fighter turns their back, until the referee makes what is a judgment call to either step in, possibly rule a knockdown, or stop the fight, the fighter in the position of facing an opponent that has turned their back following a legal punch also has to make a decision. Whether to wait and see if the opponent is going to turn back around and resume battle, or to press forward and force the issue. Under the rules, unless the referee steps in, the fighter in the position that both Berbick and Zhang were in, is supposed to keep fighting.

With the brief explanation aided by historical context now concluded, has Deontay Wilder competed for the last time? I am not in the business of telling a fighter what they should do as my responsibility is to objectively cover the sport. Having stated the obvious, there are a few things to consider before any armchair critics form their opinion. One, Deontay Wilder has taken part in some grueling battles, most notably among them the three fights with Fury and two fights with former top contender Luis Ortiz, who challenged Wilder twice for his world title. Each fight, whether a win or a loss, takes something out of a fighter, which often starts in preparation for those fights in training. 

Secondly, like many fighters previously aligned with the struggling PBC group of promoters, inactivity also plays a major factor in a fighter’s decline. Wilder has not been an exception to that generally accepted rule of inactivity being a silent killer of a fighter's skills and ultimately their career. Part of the problem in addition to a struggling promotional entity, which is in a way understandable given the economics of the sport, is fighters in Wilder's position as being one of the top fighters in his division for most of the last decade do not want to compete regularly without significant financial incentives attached, which in this case, means multi-million dollar paydays per fight. Though the struggles of a promoter or promotional entity is the main culprit if said entity cannot provide fights to fighters under their banner on a consistent basis, the fighter must also come to the realization that while the goal of any fighter should be to try and earn as much money as they can, while they can, and hopefully, be wise with their earnings for life after Boxing, by refusing to stay active, insisting on an outdated model of pay-per-view each time they compete, if nothing else, as a means of trying to earn more money than a fighter’s given purse for a bout, they are trading their athletic prime in the process by not fighting regularly.

In contrast, fighters in previous eras in the sport including many Hall of Famers fought regularly in between marquee fights as a means of staying active and staying in ring shape. Often, this ranged from every couple of weeks, to months as opposed to fighting once or twice in a given year. This thus gave those fighters the best opportunities possible to try and succeed when those fights of significant interest came along.

While the above scenario is not aimed at Deontay Wilder directly, fighters who stay active, even if it comes against perceived lesser caliber of opposition in between “Big" or “Marquee" fights will always have better odds of success than one that insists on top dollar, an outdated model, and does not hold their promoter, who is supposed to represent them, to a standard to make sure they have the opportunity to be active on a regular basis. This is an old school philosophy, but one that continues to prove itself as more beneficial as time goes on and more and more fighters fall into a similar pattern.

Third and perhaps most crucial of things one should consider before forming an opinion is, Wilder, who has been under the guidance of former opponent Malik Scott following his first loss to Tyson Fury in 2020, has not been the same fighter. Although there was a glimmer of the Wilder of old both in his third fight with Fury as well as in his knockout of Robert Helenius, something has been missing.

Whether the reluctance to let his hands go on a consistent basis is and has been a result of both inactivity as well as possible lingering effects from the two losses to Fury, both knockouts, Wilder has not been the devastating fighter that he once was. Although it might be tempting to point the finger of blame in the direction of Malik Scott, the bottom line is these are questions and scenarios that not only one should consider before forming an opinion, but also for Wilder himself to ponder before he decides what he wants to do.

Whatever the decisions Wilder makes moving forward, if he wants to continue his career, he needs to realize that not only does he need to find what has been missing, but he also needs to stay active if he wants to succeed. The bottom line is there is no way around it and no loophole that will lead to success beyond a true old school approach. No matter who is in his corner if he decides to fight on, without that realization and approach, Wilder's best days will continue to be behind him. Only Wilder can make the decision whether to fight on or bow out after a great career as one of this generation’s great Heavyweight champions and hardest hitters.

“And That's The Boxing Truth." 

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