The United States has a heavyweight champion. On Saturday night, Deontay Wilder, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, defeated Bermane Stiverne by unanimous decision, taking the Haitian-born, Vegas-based fighter's WBC belt. It is the first time since 2007 that an American has held a heavyweight title.
It did not conclude the way many had predicted, with one man on the deck. It did not conclude the way I predicted-- I thought the man on the deck would be Wilder.
Wilder had been building up steam over the last couple years. A relative newcomer to the sport, the 6' 9'' Wilder picked up boxing at the age of twenty-one. Eight years later, he had an Olympic bronze medal and a 32-for-32 knockout rate under his belt, the record built with a long straight right hand that could fold men in half of catapult them across the ring. But standing at the threshold of a heavyweight title shot, Wilder still looked to have some green on him. A blind man could see that Wilder's power is a real force, but his technique still looked a bit raw, he'd never heard the fifth round, and most of his opponents had been, as the jargon goes, "opponents."
The pressing question was how Wilder would fare in deeper water against stiffer competition. Stiverne, for his part, boasted a less flashy highlight reel but was a significantly more experienced and well-rounded fighter. He could punch too, as exhibited in his previous bout with Chris Arreola, hitting his tough opponent with a right hook that seemed to vaporize the bones in his legs.
Instead of a mid-ring firefight, the match played out in a mid-tempo clockwise revolution along the ropes. For most of the fight, Stiverne stalked Wilder, who tried to keep the shorter man at distance with the long 1- of his jab and sought to follow it with a powerful right hand -2. The graveness, the focus, the intensity evidenced by Stiverne in the pre-fight manifested as reserve in the ring. Stiverne does his best work as a counter-puncher, but the feints and head movement that he has used in the past to create those opportunities were mostly absent. He ate Wilder's shots more often than he countered them.
Indeed, Stiverne's performance was characterized by a kind of inertia-- he seemed to have bet that putting Wilder on his back foot would be enough to crack him, and was unable to mount a plan B when it wasn't. Here and there, Stiverne modified his approach, and when he did, he was often successful-- bobbing and weaving, he eluded Wilder's long jab; changing tempos, he closed the distance; focusing on the body, he made contact-- but he seemed to keep falling into the same pattern of trailing Wilder around the ring and taking his jab. Indeed, Stiverne has suffered for passivity before, as in the last Arreola fight, which found him too often folded in his guard against the ropes, taking his opponent's fire.
Since the fight, Wilder has been lauded for his performance, particularly his visible technical development. "He boxed brilliantly," is a remark I've seen more than once. But someone has to play the curmudgeon, and the aforementioned assessment rings hyperbolic for me. That's not to say that Wilder didn't demonstrate new density to his game, but it's not to call his game high-density either. Wilder deserves credit-- he fought well on his back foot, his chin ain't glass, and (most impressive to me) he exhibited a patient side, avoiding many of Stiverne's come-get-me lures. He came into the ring with a new look and the match gave him little cause to change it up.
But Wilder is still, I think, getting by on his proportions and athleticism. He has improved but he has not banished his bad habits. Wilder remains extremely counter-able, and that was as visible in the Stiverne fight as ever. He's claimed that he could trouble the other man with a heavyweight title, Wladmir Klitschko, with his inside game, among other things. That's a side of Wilder I've yet to see. Most of all, I'm concerned that his enthusiasm (which makes him an occasionally charming personality) works to his detriment in the ring. It seems to overtake him in the moments after he's scored a staggering blow, and frequently we've seen him squared up against his opponent, surrendering his most effective distance in favor of winging wide shots with both hands, his center totally exposed. Watch a compilation video of Wilder's finishes and you will see a blueprint for his undoing.
Much of the hubbub around Wilder's victory concerns the return of the heavyweight title to America. The United States has a special relationship with the heavyweight championship. American fighters dominated the division through the early 1980's, and were well represented through the Lennox Lewis-era in the 1990's. Many of the sport's most celebrated figures- those names known outside boxing circles, in culture-at-large- are drawn from this pantheon. That this era has been without a great American heavyweight champ is one of the frequently cited reasons for the decline of boxing viewership in America (Carlos Acevedo explored some of the reasons for this phenomenon in his recent column.)
The heavyweight title is a position of special prestige. To the end that boxing purports to be more than a game, that it reveals some elemental status in its elites, the heavyweight champion lays claim to being the biggest and baddest on the planet. So the story goes, anyway. Accordingly, it's a division that has particularly suffered under the gravitas-buzzkill of the present day's champ-saturation. For a fighter to harness the iconic power vested in the heavyweight title, to capture the imaginations of a broad audience, he'll need staying power and a certain aura of the unimpeachable- not visible vulnerability. Which is just to say, I don't think Wilder will be the heavyweight messiah of American boxing. Simply put, at this moment I don't think he's a developed enough fighter to defeat all comers. He's called out both Klitschko and Tyson Fury, and I believe he'll have to elevate his game significantly to beat either one.
Several prominent American heavyweights of days passed were in the audience at Wilder's bout with Stiverne- Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe- and their presence gave the match the feeling of an inauguration ceremony. Wilder is now in their club, at least on paper. Measure him against them and decide if he belongs.