By Michael Rosenthal
Some people I respect speak of Deontay Wilder as if he violates the sanctity of the sport’s traditional glamour division.
“Worst boxer in history among heavyweight titleholders,” one has said of Wilder, who defends his WBC title against Dominic Breazeale on Saturday in Brooklyn. “Crude boxer at best,” other, more generous observers might say. “All he has is his punching power,” is one more common refrain.
Like most opinions, these are at least slight exaggerations. It’s true that Wilder has limited skills, which is no surprise given that he started boxing at 20 years old. And, yes, his power is his not-so-secret weapon.
That acknowledged, he’s also a good athlete (particularly for his 6-foot-7 frame) who uses whatever boxing acumen he has to set up the shots that have given him 39 knockouts in 40 victories. He must be doing something right. As former Wilder opponent Gerald Washington told me, “You can’t argue with his resume.”
And it’s not as if he has been ducking challenges, such as they are in the heavyweight division these days. Wilder last year took on two of the most-respected active big men, Luis Ortiz and Tyson Fury. He stopped the former in a thrilling brawl that tested his resilience, his finest victory, and he was fortunate to emerge with a draw in the latter fight.
Wilder also has tried to make a fight with his most natural rival, Anthony Joshua. If there is a benevolent boxing god, that fight will happen one day soon.
The critics would cite his performance against Fury as an example of Wilder’s ineptitude. The WBC titleholder was able to knock Fury down in the ninth and 12th rounds – the second time in brutal fashion – but otherwise he was outboxed by a more skillful fighter.
It would be difficult to defend Wilder. He DID struggle against Fury. I remember telling someone in disgust immediately after what I thought was a boring fight until the knockdowns, “Man, Wilder just reinforced everything his critics say about him. That was a really bad look for him.”
One thing, though: Fury dominated the great (but aging) Wladimir Klitschko more thoroughly than he did Wilder. The point is that Fury, a remarkable athlete and superb boxer for his size, has the ability to make anyone look bad as long as he stays on his feet. That could include Joshua one day.
And Wilder has an explanation, if you will, for his performance: He was trying too hard to knock out Fury. Once he stopped pressing, the knockdowns – and near-knockout – came.
That’s exactly how Eric Molina, another Wilder victim, saw it.
“One thing about Wilder, when he tries too hard to throw the right hand, you can see it coming,” Molina said. “He was desperate to knock Fury out. Fury is too slick for the wide shots (Wilder) was throwing. He saw them coming. To land against Fury you have to throw clean, precise shots that are set up with a different rhythm. Those were the punches that landed in the end.
“I think Wilder knows that now. In the rematch, he knocks out Fury in six to eight rounds.”
The bottom line for Wilder is that he can hurt any heavyweight, even when he struggles. It only takes one punch because of his power. That’s the primary reason he has been successful. It’s also the reason he is fun to watch, at least for most of us.
If you require your biggest punchers to also be special boxers, then Wilder isn’t for you. I get that. I preferred the memorable series between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales to that of Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward because the Mexicans combined action with a higher level of skill.
But I, like a zillion others, enjoyed the Gatti-Ward battles. I accepted the fact that neither had polished skills and focused on the compelling mayhem they produced, which was something to behold.
That’s more or less how I approach Wilder. I accept the fact that he isn’t a particularly good boxer and focus on what he brings to the ring – crazy knockouts.
I’ll always admire sublime technicians like Floyd Mayweather but a knockout artist like Wilder taps into a more primal desire for all-out war. In other words, fans want knockouts and Wilder delivers them. Simple as that.
Wilder probably will never be considered one of the best heavyweights in history because of his deficiencies but he does two things: He wins and he entertains. That’s something.
Michael Rosenthal was the 2018 winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has covered boxing in Los Angeles and beyond for almost three decades. Follow him at @mrosenthal_box.