NEW YORK — Early Sunday morning, half an hour after midnight, the heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder ascended a stage deep inside the Barclays Center. He wore a black patterned suit, a bedazzled black dress shirt and gold bracelets on his right wrist. Cameras crammed onto a platform in the back. The room, filled with supporters and reporters, burst into applause.
At the lectern, though, Wilder remained atypically subdued. Gone were the usual shouts of “Bomb Squad!,” the threats he issued to Dominic Breazeale last week, even the charisma normally oozed from boxing’s greatest showman. And this on a night he ended in two minutes and 17 seconds, with a thrilling, stunning knockout that actually hurt to watch. He said he didn’t feel the punch; he just knew, and those kinds of blows are the most serious.
“I don’t know what to call my right hand anymore,” he said. “The atomic bomb? Kid dynamite? The hammer of Thor?”
All work. But that wasn’t the problem Saturday, not in the ring, not for Wilder, not the way he ended things. The problem here was wider and more typical, more about boxing than the boxer. For his part, he said, “We’ve got to make the big fights happen.” Let’s hope he does. Let’s hope he can. Let’s hope that the heavyweight division he correctly described as small—meaning number of true contenders—now enters another golden age. The one that has been predicted for years now. The one that hasn’t been fully realized. Not yet.
“All fights are in discussion,” he said. “No doors are closed.” Let’s hope that’s true. Let’s hope he’s right.
What do Dominic Breazeale, Andy Ruiz Jr. and Tom Schwarz have in common? Between May 18 and June 15, each of those challengers is scheduled to meet a top heavyweight, when those same champions—Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, respectively—should really be fighting each other, or at least foes casual sports fans have actually heard of. This unfortunately is boxing, more or less, part tease, part build-up, part it-should-be-different-but-rarely-actually-is.
The 13,181 who descended late Saturday on the Barclays Center saw that as soon as Wilder cocked the sport’s most potent limb, shot his right hand forward and launched his fist right into his opponent’s skull. It looked like something out of a cartoon. The fight ended in that instant, before the end of the first round. Breazeale crumbled to the canvas, the word TROUBLE spelled out across his belt line. That word, before this night allegedly his nickname, summarized exactly what kind of shape he was in.
“This is what makes boxing so great,” Wilder said in the ring. He was both right and wrong. Right in the moment. Wrong in the wider sense. He danced around the ring, winding his right arm, wiggling his legs, expending as much energy in celebration as he had in the actual fight. Celebrities like Floyd Mayweather Jr. rose immediately and headed toward the exits. Fans spilled out of the arena stands.
In some ways, there was nothing wrong with that moment. In fact, the knockout sent adrenaline surging through the Barclays Center, like the crowd had been injected with an energy drink. Surely, the KO will spawn a thousand memes, boost Wilder’s fame meter and reinforce what he we already know about the man known as the Bronze Bomber. That he can knock out anyone with that right, anyone on the planet, really, but especially inferior opposition.
But we already knew that. We need to know whether he can knock Fury out in their rematch, rather than just down (twice, the last time, and to be fair, so hard that Fury’s eyes rolled back in his head in Round 12). We need to see Wilder test his power against Joshua and hopefully more than once. Instead, boxing fans will be fed Joshua-Ruiz and Fury-Schwarz and the notion that something interesting might happen. Spoiler alert: it won’t. The three top heavyweights in boxing will each fight within the same month. Just not against each other.
I talked to Wilder this week, about the two fights he must confront each time out now. The first is against whatever opponent is put in front of him. The second is the fight for relevance, for him, for boxing and for the most revered division in the sport’s history. In fairness to Wilder, he turned in two of the more entertaining bouts last year, the first a stoppage of then-undefeated Luis Ortiz and the second the draw with the also unbeaten Fury. That moved Wilder into the 34th position on ESPN’s “World Fame 100” list, the highest of any boxer. He told me that he’d never had a better camp than this one, that he’d built a gym/recovery center in the basement of his house in Alabama, that he’d never “invested this much in myself.”
“People won’t appreciate my career until I retire or I die,” he said.
He’s right, or, if overstating, at least on the right track. Wilder is underappreciated. He should be higher on that list, should be more well known, more celebrated, more mainstream. He’s the first American heavyweight champion in a generation. He’s won 41 of his 42 fights, 40 of them by knockout, and if the quality of opposition lacked some early into his career that hasn’t been the case of late. At least, not until Saturday.
That’s why it’s hard with Wilder. He’s getting there, but he’s not all the way there, not the way he would be should he take and win, or even win most of, the bouts the boxing world really wants to see. He says he wants them, says Fury signed with Top Rank to avoid him, says Joshua has turned down five contract offers. They all say the same things. The question that matters is: for how much longer now before they dispense with the usual B.S. and actually fight?
Wilder sold this night—for which he made a reported $20 million for 137 seconds of work—and sold it hard. Sold the incident between him and Breazeale in 2017 at a hotel in Alabama. Sold their confrontation, the bad blood, the pain he intended to inflict. He said in a press conference this week that he wanted to kill Breazeale and get paid for that at the same time.
And yet the knockout of the 2019 so far produced a host of conflicting feelings, starting at where pure excitement gives way to emptiness. Again, that’s not a knock on Wilder. There’s no reason to doubt that he wants the top fights, wants the top fighters. He proved that with Fury the first time and with Ortiz. It’s the machinery in boxing, the promoters, the extended build-ups, the lack of a central body, that lead to these types of situations. That led to Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao dancing around each other for six years in their respective primes.
Before their bout, Breazeale said Wilder had no “fundamental skills,” or few noteworthy accomplishments, that he hadn’t grown or changed, that he was just a big right hand. He was wrong about all of that. But he wasn’t wrong when he said that Wilder needed bigger tests and more of them. They just won’t involve Breazeale. “Nobody wants that highlight on them,” Wilder said. “Because the way the Internet is set up right now it’s undefeated.”
This marked Wilder’s ninth-straight title defense, tying the most ever for both Mike Tyson and Joe Frazier, one away from the most times Muhammad Ali ever defended any one belt. But that, too, speaks as much to the difference in eras as anything else. Those fighters engaged anyone, lost bouts, were knocked out, came back, won rematches. They made the heavyweight division into the most coveted space in sports, must-see TV not every few years or once a year but multiple times a year for years on end.
The current crop seems particularly promising and has seemed that way for a while now. At minimum, against each other, they should deliver several high-quality, entertaining, either-guy-could-win fights. The fact that such a menu would be considered luxurious, or an anomaly, says a lot about boxing. It says everything that you need to know, in fact.
But it’s not too late. Rather, it’s time. Time to make the matchups that matter. Time for the top heavyweights to rumble, over and over again. Time not only for someone to claim throne but for that throne to mean something closer to what it once meant.
It **should** be fun to watch.