Giant Steps: Anthony Joshua-Joseph Parker, Deontay Wilder-Luis Ortiz and the heavyweight scene
“The heavyweights? I tell you; there ain’t no bop in that crop. The ones they got, they just nursing them along. You see these clowns, records like 32-and-O. But they never fight each other, see? They got to have that undefeated record to get a shot. Then they score but they ain’t no more. One fight, that’s right – and then it’s over, Rover.” – The Prof
Since the late heyday of undisputed champion Lennox Lewis, heavyweight glitterdom invariably revolved around whether Vitali or Wladimir Klitschko would lose more than a round or two per alphabet title defense. It was slow burn, ho-hum, more or less, for over a decade, or until Vitali retired in 2013 and Wladimir Klitschko was finally dethroned by madcap Tyson Fury, two-and-a-half years ago. Under the staid rule of the Klitschkos, the heavyweight division had a predictable, almost sleepy air about it, like a quiet village in Bavaria, despite the occasional element of discord thrown in by the bumbling diktats of the perpetually fumbling sanctioning bodies. For years, the Klitschkos inadvertently anesthetized audacity among their peers. So lucrative was a mandatory challenge for their championship jewelry (Wladimir and Vitali were superstars in Germany, which, for some strange reason, brings to mind David Hasselhoff), that what passed for contenders systematically avoided each other to ensure a windfall title shot.
Now, however, with both Klitschkos out of the picture, the heavyweight division features an intriguing cast of characters whose global reach, colorful personas and potential for bloodshed has created a hot spot among the big men for the first time in years. Among them are the destructive U.K. phenomenon IBF/WBA beltholder Anthony Joshua (a two-fisted powerhouse whose attendance figures resemble those of the Monsters of Rock concerts at Castle Donnington in the mid-1980s), electrifying bomber Deontay Wilder (billed as the American heavyweight champion of the world and possessor of the WBC gewgaw), whose potential star quality has been tantalizing observers for years, Joseph Parker, the raw WBO titlist who is headline material in New Zealand, and troubled Tyson Fury, out of action since vanquishing Klitschko in 2015, and perpetually threatening to slip the thunderheads that surround him and return to the ring.
This surplus of titles and talent, power and promise, means little, however, unless it winds up intersecting. In other words, these men will all have to face each other, a one-in-a-million possibility, given that boxing is where cross-purposes are more common than crossroads fights.
What Deontay Wilder wanted – no, what he needed – he finally got when he scored a dramatic TKO over legitimate dangerman Luis Ortiz at the Barclays Center on March 3. (His stoppage of Ortiz should also have qualified as a come-from-behind victory but the inept judges of an increasingly inept New York State Athletic Commission somehow had Wilder ahead on the cards, when he finally lowered the boom in the 10th round.)
With a pristine ledger consisting of KOs over contortionists, tumblers and gurneymen, Wilder has carried a palpable aura of fraudulence around him, since turning pro in 2007. Part of what made Wilder seem less accomplished than his heavyweight title reign might indicate is the fact that so many of his opponents appeared, even to the casual eye, inept. These limited pugs saw their limitations paradoxically accentuated by the fact that they were nearly all late-substitutes deprived of full training camps. In the ring, their exertions were painful for everyone involved – except for Wilder himself.
But Luis Ortiz distinguished himself from previous Wilder victims by the simple virtue of not looking at his best ascending the ring steps. With his southpaw stance, his gaudy KO record and his amateur pedigree, Ortiz was as far from being a pushover as Johann Duhaupas was from being a threat.
Except for suffering a knockdown in the fifth round – an omen of painful things to come – Ortiz had a relatively easy time over the first half of the bout. Then came the seventh, when Ortiz opened up a crossfire attack that left Wilder reeling from corner to corner, for nearly all three minutes of the round. Only the bell prevented Wilder from toppling over like a garden gnome in the middle of a bombogenesis. An unusual delay to start the eighth (when referee David Fields allowed the ringside physician to examine Wilder) kept Ortiz from pouncing on the groggy “Bronze Bomber.” Although Ortiz dominated this round as well, he returned to his corner at its completion a spent force. A dull ninth culminated in Wilder rocking Ortiz just before the bell and the 10th round was an object lesson in how power can wreck dreams seemingly on the verge of fulfillment. Three knockdowns later, Deontay Wilder completed his first legitimate title defense, along with a buzzworthy event out to elevate his Q-rating. (And his chin – reportedly made of papier mache and only a single pinpoint shot away from spilling its cheap bonbons onto the canvas like so much candy – passed a sustained test in the harrowing seventh and eighth rounds.)
For Wilder, 40-0 (39), to go beyond Tweleb fame, however, he needs Anthony Joshua. Naturally the usual grandstanding, one-upmanship and backroom politicking will precede – and possibly delay – such a match-up. As a fair ratings draw, a solid attraction in New York City and the only American claimant to the heavyweight title, Wilder remains a commodity, one whose value – until now, at least – remains largely theoretical. There is a chance that Wilder can become the breakout star he believes is destined to be – after all, charismatic KO artists are not a common currency in the United States. That said, Wilder (and his braintrust) should bear in mind the Golden Rule under which boxing has operated since fights took place on barges and sandbars: The Man with the Gold makes all the Rules.
For a few suspenseful moments in the seventh round, it looked like Luis Ortiz, now 28-1 with two no-contests and 24 KOs, would not only become the latest heavyweight parvenu but he also had a chance to improve the fortunes of the entire sinking “Cuban School” of boxing. More than 20 years after Team Freedom debuted in America (prefigured by the arrival of odious Jorge Luis Gonzalez, who defected from Cuba in 1991) only Joel Casamayor, Juan Carlos Gomez and Diosbelys Hurtado have managed to establish solid careers devoid of most typical Cuban pitfalls. (Although Guillermo Rigondeaux was the amour fou of pound-for-pound fetishists for a while, his career, following a signature win over Nonito Donaire, was as desultory as it was undistinguished and it culminated with him abjectly surrendering against WBO junior lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko last December.) Compare that record to that of the initial wave of Soviet Union fighters, who first earned permission from the Kremlin to turn pro during Perestroika and, two years later, left near-anarchic conditions after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991 to settle in the U.S., Japan, Australia and Toronto. There were washouts (Yuri Vaulin, Yuri Alexandrov); tragedies (Sergei Artemiev, Sergey Kobazev) and non-starters (Vyacheslav Yakovlev, Viktor Riabakov) but the early Soviet Union crop also produced Kostya Tszyu, Yuri Arbachakov, Gussie Nazarov and Artur Grigorian.
No sooner do contemporary Cuban pros win an alphabet title or debut on premium cable than they are signing deals with deranged rappers, drawing boos and catcalls with alarming regularity, disputing promotional contracts, quitting on their stools, evincing sullen and sour personalities and sitting out for long stretches. Whatever taxing conditions being part of the Cuban diaspora entails (along with long-term exposure to a repressive/anachronistic political system), it is clear that they are barriers to sustained success in the ring. Even with his own rise to a title shot hampered by PED suspensions, inactivity and a strange detour with Matchroom Boxing Group Managing Director Eddie Hearn in England, Ortiz was only a punch or two away from making history as the first Cuban heavyweight titlist. Now he will have to settle, perhaps, for being merely a part of history instead, the gloomy kind recently embodied by his erratic compatriots.
Crafty Dillian Whyte, whose only loss was suffered at the heavy hands of Anthony Joshua in 2015, tortured poor Lucas Browne for five rounds before poleaxing him in sixth. Somehow this bout, of limited interest to U.S. viewers, wound up being broadcast on HBO, which has been struggling in the wake of Top Rank splitting for ESPN. If airing Whyte-Browne signifies anything, however, it probably means that HBO is cozying up to Eddie Hearn for a specific reason. Showcasing two potential Anthony Joshua opponents in the span of a few weeks (Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller faces Johann Duhaupas on April 28), without a matchmaking payoff somewhere down the line seems unlikely – even with HBO Boxing being so scattershot recently. Anthony Joshua, whose matching-rights contract with Showtime expires with his upcoming fight against Joseph Parker, is the bullseye at which HBO is aiming.
Over the last few years, New Zealand has produced a handful of heavyweight hopes, most recently Shane Cameron and standout rugbyist Sonny Boy Williams, but only Joseph Parker has reached the fractured promised land of a world title. Parker, only the second native New Zealander to win a world title (Torpedo Billy Murphy was the first, in 1890 ), looks to add to his unexpected success when he faces fearsome Anthony Joshua in a unification bout tomorrow in Cardiff, Wales.
Give Parker credit for targeting Joshua when he could have made a few more title defenses in New Zealand against WBO soft touches but traditional bloodsport values – the marquee and the money – spurred him into a potentially damaging role as a longshot.
Parker, 24-0 (18), has talent. He is mobile, throws punches in combination, works behind his jab and has a fairly compact right cross. Parker can also alternate between brawn and bluff in the ring but his weaknesses are pronounced. In fact, these flaws seem prefabricated for Joshua: a stand-up style, a tendency to drop his left after jabbing and suspect stamina. To beat a thumper like Joshua, who sets a pace with which most heavyweights are only familiar from watching welterweights scrap on the telly, a fighter has to master pain management long enough to mount a rally. Going the distance in each of his WBO title fights – and looking middling in all of them – only proves that Parker coasts when allowed. Even worse, Parker struggled to separate himself from pudgy Andy Ruiz Jr. and non-combative Hughie Fury (who may very well be more Quaker than Traveller), two fighters who, without much firepower, are not the hurting kind. Unfortunately for Parker, hurt is an Anthony Joshua specialty. In the U.K., parochialism and nationalism often drive run-of-the-mill fighters to great heights of fame (Chris Eubank Jr., most recently) but Joshua, 20-0 (20), transcends mere rooting interest with a ring style that suggests GBH. Here it is, the heavyweight ideal: a sneering, smirking one-man-riot bent on annihilation from the moment the opening bell rings.
When Joshua and Parker meet in ring center at Principality Stadium, remember that this is a legitimate matchup – no matter how gruesomely it ends.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.