Wilder-Fury 3, or: Boxing as Peak Entertainment
Boxing has a strange quirk, as far as professional sports go: I rarely find myself watching for the enjoyment of the sport itself. Actually, this applies across most combat sports; it’s not that I don’t enjoy the content, but rather that you really have to be a purist to fully appreciate it — certainly the technical nuances, but occasionally the entirety of the action. I’m reminded of this Penny Arcade comic on UFC fights, which is reasonably accurate: there is a time-honored tradition of fighters presenting themselves with extreme flair, an excess of pomp and circumstance that’s immediately belied when the bell rings and the audience is subjected to three minutes worth of two individuals mostly staring at each other at a distance, and — occasionally — hugging.
It’s rare that fights themselves live up to the movie-scene entertainment promised by their trappings. When they do, it’s momentous, and extremely fucking hype. There’s a reason that people still look up 20-year-old Prince Naseem Hamed highlight videos on YouTube; you can arbitrarily tune into the next PPV-televised boxing card of your choice and find someone with a flashy entrance and swagger, but they probably won’t be doing backflips and dancing once they get into the ring. It’s also far too easy, these days, to condition yourself into viewing trash, lulling yourself into a false sense of complacency with a bad product, forgetting that it doesn’t always have to be like that.
So it was that I tuned into the world heavyweight title match on Saturday — Deontay Wilder vs. the reigning champion Tyson Fury — with a fair bit of skepticism. I’d seen the theming before, entrance-wise; Wilder with the rapper entourage, Fury with an absolutely ridiculous theatrical display that involved a dancing guy with eyeliner, a self-promoting voiceover drawing on his “Gypsy King” nickname, and everyone dressed in outfits looking like the Spartans from 300. Fury took off his Spartan costume, revealing a dad-bod. This is the reality of the fight; you mythologize, you preen, you strut to the ring in a costume, and then you mostly strip down and start trying to punch your opponent, as a large audience watches you struggle through one of the most grueling activities known to man. The glitz is gone, having been directly supplanted by one of the rawest forms of ugliness; the viewer is made to understand the appeal of the showman-fake combat of professional wrestling, empirically.
As it turns out, this phenomenon is why people enjoy watching Deontay Wilder, who is an extremely one-dimensional fighter — the dimension, in this case, being the ability to spectacularly knock out his opponents. There is very little in the way of technical prowess, but that is not the reason that you’re viewing a Wilder fight; you’re there to be party to a potential legally-sanctioned near-decapitation. This form of the sport’s entertainment has its own issues, though: namely, it’s a rather blink-and-you-miss-it proposition. You wait on bated breath for the hammer to come down, knowing that if it does, that’s it — that’s the guillotine, show’s over, the mob can disperse. Wilder — the executioner — is jacked; he is a monster. He is Superman. He exists to erase his opponents, not to satisfy boxing aficionados. He produces exhilarating entertainment, but it is not prolonged. It is a brief moment of gratification, temporarily sating the audience; it is a crumb and a squirting flower boutonniere, thrown to assuage the restless gladiatorial crowd.
Of course, the whole reason this fight was happening is that Wilder’s opponent was the one person in the world who had been able to withstand the hammer. Tyson Fury is basically Brad Pitt’s character from Snatch; I also suspect he is half caveman. He is an excellent fighter, which is rare, because heavyweight boxers — somewhat paradoxically — have somewhat of a reputation for being unskilled at their own sport. Being the heavyweight champion of the world is a prestigious title because it means, de facto, you are the best at fighting in the world; the concept of weight classes was invented to protect lower division fighters — the smaller, lighter, weaker — from you. The allure of this designation attracts many individuals who are tough, but not necessarily exponentially gifted; the average heavyweight boxer could definitely beat up your dad, even if your dad happened to work as a barroom bouncer, but is usually lacking in speed, stamina, precision, or all of the above.
Tyson Fury is not your average heavyweight boxer, although it is easy to be fooled; he’s not quite Andy Ruiz, but you see a not-insignificant amount of belly flab over the top of his trunks. He has the rough build of a burlap sack stuffed with milk. He is also fast, and intelligent, and strong — not world-destroying strong like Wilder, but enough to knock out the guys who could knock out your bouncer dad. Most importantly, he has a chin. In their first fight, he got clocked late by a Wilder punch — the one that had previously been enough to end 40+ fights instantly, the one that most normal human beings don’t get back up from — then got up and fought to a draw. In the second fight, he toyed with Wilder, and won via stoppage. It must be an odd feeling for Wilder, knowing that you are better at something than all but one human being on the planet, and being forced to repeatedly engage in that activity with that person. Sports are occasionally excellent at ritually humiliating the questionably deserving.
Once the fight started, I was quickly reminded that it is fascinating to watch Deontay Wilder fight. Even to a relatively uneducated observer, the defining characteristic of his fighting style is mostly: it’s all wrong. If I asked you to throw a punch, you would not punch the way Deontay Wilder does; if I asked a trained boxer to punch, they likely wouldn’t, either. His jab involves an exaggerated duck of his head, as if a necessary prerequisite to extending his arm was that he had to pretend he was entering a doorway with a tiny frame. His power right is an overhand near-windmill, thrown with nearly the form of a child flailing in the middle of a temper tantrum. You wonder how something that looks so undisciplined can be so dangerous, and you realize that kinetic energy and momentum do not care about their origins. There is not much in the way of defense, or setups, or counterpunching; there is, however, the best puncher’s chance of maybe anyone, ever.
After some early feeling out — a passive first round from Fury when he mostly let Wilder jab him uncontested, a second round where he started throwing more — the fireworks started. Fury caught Wilder; Wilder was down. A flurry of punches, Wilder up against the ropes, saved only by the round bell — a 10–8 round, the type of thing that often prefaces more knockdowns and a quick stoppage. Only in the next round, Wilder tagged Fury, a full-on power punch, the world-ender. Fury got up. Then it happened again — and Fury got up again, a 10–7 round — even rarer in a fight that’s not immediately stopped. In the eighth round, Fury landed a punch that made me audibly exclaim. The broadcast replayed this moment, showing the ripple effect propagating through Wilder’s body. “Concussive” seemed an apt descriptor, for several reasons, only Wilder was still standing. This was silver screen combat, playing out in real life; for once, this was what the bright lights and the media circus and the rappers and the eyeliner and the Spartan capes promised.
At this point, both men were visibly tired. If you have never been in a fight: fighting is exhausting — or rather, expending your energy to hit something else is exhausting, and doing it while enduring impacts that could legitimately kill someone less trained doesn’t help. This is part of why your average late-round boxing match has so much clinching, or hugging; sure, it’s partly strategic, but mostly your body is just screaming, starved for resources, looking for any respite. In this particular fight, it didn’t help that, somewhere along the line, Fury might have mildly concussed Wilder; Wilder was on his feet, but not very alert, or mobile, and more than happy to grab onto any lifeline that dragged him out of immediate danger. At one point, the start of a round was delayed as a doctor came into the ring to examine Wilder’s right hand, which he appeared to have broken (he did). Despite all this, the fight was not stopped; the overall vibe was akin to avoiding a dying snake. Wilder was not mentally 100%; his best weapon was mostly out of commission (and Fury’s corner realized this, telling him between rounds to “just jab” because Wilder wouldn’t throw his right); this didn’t matter, because Fury — and everyone watching — knew that he could still get bit on reflex. One lucky shot, and the snake’s venom courses through your veins; your last thoughts are kicking yourself for not giving it a wider berth.
Fury, as I mentioned earlier, is not dumb. His corner told him to jab, so jab he did; he stayed out of trouble, only pressing the attack when he smelled blood, catching Wilder in the 11th and immediately following up, being waved off by the referee before Wilder even had a chance to get up. Fury retained his belt, and sang to the crowd in the post-fight interview. This was maybe the most impressive athletic feat of the night (you try singing after 11 rounds of heavyweight boxing). You wonder where Wilder will go from here, having conclusively proven after 3 attempts that he cannot beat the champion; when the peak is out of reach, what do you aim for? It’s a difficult question, exacerbated by the fact that the last few rounds of this fight were the type that probably cut several months to years off the onset of his inevitable cognitive decline; can’t be doing that too often. It’s the queasy footnote — both for the participants and the viewers — on what was otherwise a tremendously entertaining display, but that’s all relative, really; in another time and place, we would’ve just released the lions.