At the end of the ninth round of Saturday’s fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, after the bout had clearly tipped in favor of the champion Fury, the PPV cameras picked up Wilder’s trainer, Malik Scott, giving his man some encouragement that, perhaps unwittingly, summed up Wilder’s entire career.
“You’ve been blessed with something that can end this fight right now,” he said. “But it has to come behind the surgical ways. We have to keep thinking.”
Alas, the surgical ways did not arrive, because why would they? Wilder had built an entire life out of the ungodly power in his right hand, failing to ever add any of the other tools that a fighter needs to become an all-time great. And while that right hand was enough to lead Wilder to 41 KOs and 42 wins overall against middling-to-good competition, his one-dimensionality has erased his fearsome reputation in this trilogy against Fury. In Round 10, Wilder kissed the canvas for the second time in the fight after Fury smashed him with his own right hand. And in Round 11, Fury likely ended their rivalry for good with a shot to the temple that had the ref refusing to even count.
This heavily hyped fight—the first involving either of these competitors since the COVID-19 shutdowns—lived up to the build by providing edge-of-your-seat action and a compelling story. But it also, in a way, couldn’t help but expose the weakness of the heavyweight division, because instead of showcasing two fighters with an equal claim to being the best in the world, it resembled something more like that incredible Nuggets-Jazz series from last year’s NBA playoffs—a thriller, but not quite a breathtaking clash of titans.
Wilder is mainly to blame for that shortcoming, unfortunately. He had been one of my favorite fighters to watch for quite some time now—not because of his skill, but because he boxed with all the button-mashing subtlety of a teenager at an arcade cabinet. After winning a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics, the Alabama native was brought up extremely slowly through the ranks, going an astonishing 32-0 while never seeing an opponent make it past the fourth round. That incredibly dangerous right hand was simply too powerful for any of the little-known fighters who dared step into the ring across from him.
“One time, I was wearing a bodysuit, and he threw a right hand on the inside,” Wilder’s former coach Jay Deas once said. “I had to have hernia surgery.”
Finally, in his 33rd pro bout, Wilder had to go the distance against Bermane Stiverne, winning by a wide margin and earning his first major championship. But rather than a turning point in his career that would see Wilder go on to fight more intelligently and diversely, his problem areas continued to show up in subsequent defenses. He made a five-year run with that WBC title, but particularly as Anthony Joshua made a name for himself across the pond, Wilder’s reign was far from convincing, and leaned heavily on that right hand to punch him out of trouble. Against Artur Szpilka in 2016, Wilder was highly inaccurate but managed to totally incapacitate the challenger when he connected. And in a 2018 classic against Luis Ortiz, Wilder took severe damage and even lost the seventh round 10-8 on all three scorecards, but he managed to survive until his opponent was tired and vulnerable to the KO.
This was Wilder in a nutshell. If he caught you clean, you would immediately become the subject of a viral knockout video. But even the second tier of heavyweights typically managed to delay that outcome for longer than they should have. So when Wilder finally squared off with Fury in December 2018, he was ripe for exposure. Fury bamboozled Wilder with stellar defense and energetic movement and then showed the incredible resilience that Wilder’s previous foes did not, getting off the canvas twice to force a draw that both men were lucky to get, for contrasting reasons. (Wilder for looking outmatched in most of the fight, and Fury for somehow surviving the killshot in the 12th.)
Fury, of course, would go on to make him look even worse in their next two meetings, completely dominating a disoriented Wilder in a seven-round win in 2020 and then, on Saturday, definitively outlasting the Bronze Bomber and fully asserting himself as the man to beat in this division. And after failing to win three straight fights against Fury, it’s hard to see the once Next Great American Heavyweight, now staring down his 36th birthday, as much more than a shell of unfulfilled potential.
What happens next is tough to predict, as a heavyweight division that once boasted a handful of would-be megafights is now hindered by its own parity. It was assumed for a while that if Fury dispatched Wilder his next destination would be a fight against Joshua, but AJ no longer has any claim to No. 1 status after losing all his belts twice—first to Andy Ruiz in a shocker, and then again to the former cruiserweight king Oleksandr Usyk in London last month. Usyk-Fury would be a heavily anticipated bout for hardcore fans, but the Ukrainian lacks lucrative PPV potential at the moment. On that front, Dillian Whyte would have been a marketable challenger as a Jamaican-British interim champ, but he’s hurt by his (since avenged) loss to Alexander Povetkin last year.
Heading into Saturday, the biggest possible heavyweight fight for 2022 would honestly have been a fourth meeting between Fury and Wilder, if Deontay had managed to get his revenge for his first and only loss. But instead, the undefeated Fury is lonely at the top, having finally proven his superiority nearly six years after first confronting his career-defining opponent. And frankly, especially as he’s only getting older, it’s hard to imagine Wilder ever again becoming a serious challenger for the throne.