On January 17th, WBC beltholder Bermane Stiverne (24-1-1, 21 KO's) will make his first defense against knockout artist Deontay Wilder (32-0, 32 KO's) in a pivotal heavyweight title bout. Wilder is seen by many as the next great hope for an American heavyweight champion, but Stiverne will look to put a blemish on the American's perfect record.
A Bit of Backstory
The heavyweight division in boxing is experiencing perhaps the weakest era it has ever seen. Under the championship stranglehold held by the giant Ukrainian brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight division has not commanded the same excitement as it did a little over a decade ago. However, in late 2013, Vitali gave up his WBC belt to pursue politics in Ukraine, and from this, a number of challengers have surfaced to vie for a title shot.
Bermane Stiverne secured Vitali's vacated WBC belt with a vicious TKO of heavyweight contender Chris Arreola to become the first Haitian boxer to claim a heavyweight world title. Though he is a seasoned veteran with a crafty style and consistent power, Stiverne's quiet personality and generally low media presence has caused him often get overlooked in the heavyweight picture among other contenders like Tyson Fury, Bryant Jennings, or even his challenger Deontay Wilder.
Deontay Wilder has been making waves in the division for his ability to poleaxe every one of his 32 opponents within the first four rounds. Despite starting boxing at the late age of 20, Wilder qualified for the 2008 Olympics with only 21 amateur bouts, and won a bronze medal in Beijing, becoming the last American boxer to medal in Olympic boxing. Though he has never fought anyone of note to justify his placement within the heavyweight top ten, Wilder's impressive finishing ability and natural athleticism have caused many to view him as an exciting contender in a relatively stagnant era.
Styles: Strengths and Weaknesses
The book on Bermane Stiverne is built around the head slip. The Haitian champion has some of the slickest head movement in the heavyweight division. Whereas some prefer to utilize head slips to avoid punches as they're thrown, Stiverne uses constant head movement to press the action and establish his rhythm early, from which he builds his potent offensive counterpunching game. Watch any point of a Stiverne match, and you'll most likely see something like this.
Stiverne's (black trunks) head movement allows him to avoid damage and causes his opponent to become apprehensive with his offense.
Bermane's head movement is continuous, involving angular slips, circular rotation, and level changes. This perpetual motion allows him to quickly react to incoming punches, especially the opponent's probing jab, as well as feint and create angles for offense. Stiverne tends to look best against an opponent that relies on potshotting setups because he is so good at taking away their jab with his inside slips.
Ray Austin (red trunks) could not establish his range because Stiverne constantly avoided his left jab, preventing him from setting up his right.
Stiverne prefers to slip deep towards his left side, which against an orthodox fighter like Deontay Wilder, would place him on the inside of his opponent's jab. This lines up Bermane closer to his opponent's body, and creates opportunities to neutralize a taller opponent's reach advantage by allowing Stiverne to land shots from the inside. Against Wilder, Stiverne will have a 4 inch reach and 5 inch height disadvantage, making nullifying the taller American's reach advantage a priority.
Bermane's head movement is key to setting up his counterpunching game.
In this sequence, Stiverne first feints twice with inside slips before he snaps through to Austin's midsection. Ray Austin then expects Stiverne to slip again on the inside, but Bermane instead circles low to the outside of Austin's jab and counters with a wide left hook that backs his opponent up. Stiverne's ability to flow so quickly from defense to offense is what makes him so hard to deal with. Many opponents become discouraged when engaging the Haitian because he punishes them for attempting to set up an offense while remaining extremely difficult to hit.
For how effective his offense-defense transitions are, Bermane has the tendency to shell up too defensively. Against aggressive, high-volume punching opponents, Stiverne has the tendency to cover up and lean against the ropes with a high guard and attempt to counterpunch from there.
While Stiverne's guard is tight, he still takes unnecessary damage from remaining on the ropes
Unlike his fluid counterpunching offense, Bermane's tight guard is uncharacteristically stationary. He leans against the ropes and does not attempt to either circle out and reestablish his distance, or close the distance to pressure the inside and force his opponent on the defensive. Against a formidable puncher like Wilder, Stiverne can't afford to let the challenger get off free damage.
Deontay Wilder is probably best known for his ability to do this.
The American possesses incredible length and power, and has proven time and time again that he can separate anyone outside the top ten from their senses with his heavy right hand. Despite Deontay's knack for knocking out journeymen, he possesses a rather formulaic amateur boxing style. Wilder is almost too reliant on his straight right, and his offense revolves around setting up opportunities to land it through his opponent's guard. Wilder's offense essentially boils down to this.
In this sequence, Wilder shows what is essentially his full offensive arsenal. He first intercepts his opponent, Belarusian heavyweight Siarhei Liakhovich, with a long jab, and while Liakhovich is knocked off balance, he throws a long left hook off the pivot to attempt to widen his opponent's guard to potentially land a right hand. When Liakhovich turns to engage, Wilder steps in with his standard 1-2 combination, wobbling Liakhovich and exposing him for another combination that puts him down. Wilder's offense is all about setting up his fight-ending right cross, and though simplistic, no opponent has lasted more than four rounds in the ring with the American.
Deontay Wilder's 1-2 combination is so potent because of the absurd distance that Wilder can cover when he throws his setup jab. In the gifs above, you can see a clear difference in distance covered between Wilder's intercepting jab and his leaping power jab to set up his right cross. Liakhovich likely thought he was maintaining a safe distance from Wilder after he was wobbled by the left hook, but Deontay's long limbs allow his leaping 1-2 combination to close the gap before the Russian could defend.
For how effective Wilder is at finishing his opponents, he is alarmingly weak to the right cross counter off the inside slip, which, unfortunately, is something that Stiverne excels at. While Wilder's natural length can be a blessing, he is very slow to pull back his jab, and has a bad record of getting caught over the jab by the overhand right cross counter since his amateur career.
In an amateur bout, Wilder (red trunks) had no answer to Evgenyi Romanov's (blue trunks) right counter to his jab, and subsequently suffered a TKO loss.
As you can see in this sequence, every time lankier Wilder attempts to throw his left jab, Romanov would counter with the right cross over the jab while dipping to his left, disrupting Wilder's ability to follow up with his right. In this case, Deontay's length actually worked against him; he could not recover his jabbing arm quickly enough to block the counter, and coupled with his general lack of head movement, Wilder ate heavy shots that lead to his knockdown.
Deontay has been very successful in his transition to professional boxing, but it is extremely alarming that he still looks uncomfortable against someone who applies forward pressure when he throws his set up jabs. Against out of shape journeyman Jason Gavern, who boasts a (26-14-4 record and took the fight on 6 days notice) Deontay looks troubled early in the match against Gavern's sloppy blitzes.
While not the most technically sound, Gavern, in the first two rounds, advanced and aggressively threw hooks when he saw Wilder begin to paw with his jab, and, though rough, was surprisingly effective at closing the distance and making the fight ugly. Wilder would eventually outpace the poorly-conditioned opponent and cause him to retire on the stool, but it left glaring questions of whether Wilder could actually hang with high-ranking competition.
Another question that has been raised is if Wilder's body can withstand a fight against top-tier heavyweights. For a heavyweight, Wilder is only 215 pounds with his 6'7'' frame and looks downright willowy next to other heavyweights like the stockier Stiverne; many outlets have questioned whether Wilder's length and build can hold up to a close-ranged exchange against a durable and seasoned opponent.
What to Look For
By all accounts, Stiverne and Wilder might be each other's stiffest competition. While Stiverne has the craftiness to neutralize Deontay's powerful offense, his bad habit of turtling up could let the American get free hits off, which would be catastrophic against a puncher as dangerous as Wilder. If Wilder can't find his way past the Haitian's fluid defense early, Stiverne could drag the challenger into deep waters that he's never experienced before, and we'll get to see if Wilder can deal with the pressures that come with later rounds and damage accumulation. Will Deontay Wilder live up to his massive hype and become a new heavyweight powerhouse? Or will Stiverne build his legacy off of the tarnished record of the next great American hope?