By Tyson Bruce
Showtime Boxing and the WBC would like the general public to believe that the latter organization’s current World Champion Bermane Stiverne and challenger Deontay Wilder are fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. The informed boxing public, however, understand that this is a marketing ploy, designed to make the fight take on greater meaning.
However, the one and only true heavyweight champion is Wladimir Klitschko of Ukraine, who has of late mostly fought in Germany, where he draws crowds of up to 60,000 fans to his fights, massive events in Europe on the level of professional football (soccer to American sports fans).
The Stiverne-Wilder fight has nonetheless captured the interest of the boxing public and even the general sports fan in North America, because it is a heavyweight fight of consequence between two genuinely mean-spirited heavyweights who are sure to cause bodily harm to one another. Aside from the two fighters unquestionable proclivity for violent fights is the added bonus of the number of intriguing side plots.
The most significant of these story lines is a familiar one to recent American heavyweight boxing: the search for the next American heavyweight savior. More specifically, it’s an attempt to fast track a multi-talented athlete (in this case Wilder) into a legitimate heavyweight champion. The last twenty years of heavyweight boxing has been a highway of broken dreams for this very same promotional gambit.
The failed aspirations of Michael Grant, Derrick Jefferson, Calvin Brock and most recently Seth Mitchell echo warning signals to even the most optimistic Wilder supporters because of their eerie parallels. Grant in particular seems to bear the most resemblance to Wilder, only he, to his fortune, is not fighting Lennox Lewis, he’s fight Bermane Stiverne.
Stiverne is a top guy, but not the guy in the division. Still, the Stiverne fight in a quantum leap in class for Wilder and in that sense he bears less resemblance to Michael Grant than some might think.
At the time Michael Grant challenged Lennox Lewis, he had more than his fair share of over-enthusiastic supporters, but crawling behind them was a vocal chorus of savvy boxing experts that knew better. The seasoned experts remembered the even more hyped (and probably more qualified) Gerry Cooney meeting his maker against Larry Holmes. The Holmes-Cooney fight is an everlasting reminder that in the squared circle, talent and professionalism trumps hype almost every time.
But how much does Grant’s story, aside from being a multi-sport athlete in his teens with a limited amateur background, really resemble Wilder?
Say what you want about Grant’s qualifications as a title challenger, but he defeated Andrew Golota, David Izon, and Lou Savarese, which is a murderers row compared to the utter stiffs that Wilder has faced. When Grant fought Lewis, he was the logical title challenger and had earned his shot at a title. Can someone really say the same about Wilder, who was knocked down by journeyman Harold Sconiers, an incident of which any video evidence has now been scrubbed from the Net.
The best opponent Wilder has defeated, by far, is Malik Scott–a gifted fighter–but one that has proven to be a quitter every time he has faced a shred of adversity. Wilder knocked Scott out in the first round with a punch that was so visually inconsequential it has more similarity to the Ali-Liston II than to Ray Mercer’s water boarding of the late Tommy Morrison. Aside from the Scott fight, the best names one can pull up are the remains of Sergei Liakhovich and Audley Harrison. At the height of their careers, both of those guys probably combined for less than a year’s stay on the Top Ten.
In other words, Wilder might be now setting the bar for what qualifies a boxer for a title shot. Taking into account that Wilder is already 29 and has 32 pro fights is a disturbing reflection of just how far heavyweight boxing has fallen. Still, his fight against Stiverne is a welcome step up in opposition for the Alabama native. The base appeal of the match stems from a desire to know whether Wilder is a hidden gem or the latest big-man boxing fraud. To suspect whether he is or is not is pure speculation—but Stiverne, given his superior qualifications, figures to provide the answers in one colossal step.
This fight possesses a unique ideological challenge to hard-core boxing fans, in that the majority of Wilder’s doubters still secretly yearn for his success. The decline of boxing’s popularity in American mainstream culture can be traced back to the steep decline of the American heavyweight. The World Heavyweight Championship, often dubbed the greatest sporting prize on earth, was a strictly American honor for so long that the patriotism in us almost resents that it could belong to any other nation.
The fall has been so sudden and steep that the great American heavyweight has become American’s sporting version of the lost buffalo. If Wilder were to defeat Stiverne in devastating fashion, it might just provide the shot in arm that that casual fight fan here has been aching for.
The biggest supporters for Wilder’s chances for victory comes from strange and optimistic place. Wilder, while his pro opposition has been pathetic, has spent time in camp with the very best heavyweights of the last dozen or so years, Both Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye, two of most gifted heavyweights of recent years, have both given sterling reports on Wilder’s work ethic and ability. Haye, in particular, has stated his personal confidence in Wilder’s probability for victory. While this does not and cannot eclipse the enormous doubt surrounding Wilder’s abilities, it does add a touch of legitimacy to the claims of his loudest supporters.
Those who staunchly favour Stiverne point directly to his track record as a pro and amateur. While Stiverne might not be an Olympic medalist, he had over one hundred fights an Canadian national champion in a generation of boxer’s that produced top flight fighters such as David Lemieux, Jean Pascal and Mikael Zewski. As an amateur, he scored a stoppage victory over once coveted prospect David Price. Price, like Wilder, also won a bronze medal at the Olympics.
Incidentally, one of the most under reported boxing stories in boxing is the exact nature of Wilder’s path to Olympic Bronze. A medal at the Olympics is an exquisite accomplishment in any sport, but just like anything, just how much is all in the details. Like pro boxing, however, the heavyweight divisions (there is two in amateur boxing) have fallen in quality since the days of Teofilo Stevenson and Cassius Clay. Wilder was an athletic protégé—like Michael Grant and Derrick Jefferson—in that he came out of virtual obscurity to conquer the domestic amateur ranks.
For most boxing coaches these days, the equivalent to winning the lottery is finding a gifted athlete that is six-foot-three plus with a real mean streak. Wilder is certainly the photographic personification of this desire. Ask any true fight fan about the physical condition of the average modern American and they will quickly lament about the spare tire around the waist and hyper-elongated tattoos—both of which used to be much smaller in size. Wilder is the exact opposite in the most unique way possible, perhaps.
While Mike Tyson was a short but exceedingly Adonis-like individual and Riddick Bowe was lengthy but not always physically robust, Wilder is a new breed giant heavyweight, six-foot seven, with a 225-pound waistband cut. In other words, this guy does his calisthenics.
Wilder, like every other fighter, is a product of his promotion and management, in that they want to produce a valuable investment. In fact, he might be the most prevalent example of “over protecting” a fighter. However, unlike the majority of those other fighters, Wilder has shown certain intangibles that could make him rise above.
Fighters very rarely get to plot the path of their own career and they can only do the best with what is in front of them. Wilder, while being managed cautiously, has shown the kind of pizzazz that most average fights fans crave, in that he appears to be extraordinarily dangerous in the ring and a colorful character outside of it, talking the kind of trash that gets many boxing fans excited.
American culture will forever be engrossed with the idea of someone out of nothing becoming truly great. After all, some of the roughest and most unforgiving neighbourhoods in America produced sporting protégées like Lebron James and Floyd Mayweather. The idea that one’s will to transcend his past and strive to better his future, is one of the great last strands of the American Dream that we can still regard with some pride.
At this current moment, in the world of boxing, Deontay Wilder is our best hope.
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