High voltage: Bermane Stiverne vs. Deontay Wilder preview
After 32 fights, Deontay Wilder finally steps onto a proving ground when he faces Bermane Stiverne amid the neon and glitz of Las Vegas, Nevada. Since making his pro debut in 2008, Wilder has given little indication that he would one day wind up headlining Sin City and not 100 miles or so farther north, say, in some gloomy hangar surrounded by concertina wire in Groom Lake. As it is, Wilder finds his White Sands tomorrow night at the MGM Grand.
Although this is a tinsel title fight – Wladimir Klitschko is the legitimate heavyweight champion of the world – its outcome could be worth gold. If Wilder, who will answer the opening bell as a slight favorite, wins a moldy wedge of the heavyweight championship pie, he becomes publicity paydirt for Showtime and/or Al Haymon as the first American heavyweight titlist in nearly a decade.
Wilder, 32-0 (32), has a flash-bomb right hand and a brash personality to match. Practically magniloquent compared to the mumbling boors who pop up on grainy videos across cyberspace, Wilder is a potential larger-than-life character ready to take on the mantle of “The Baddest Man on the Planet” – at least the Showtime (or is that NBC?) version of the planet, that is. Because if the current stratification of boxing proves anything, it may be that the medium is the message now more than ever.
Wilder is an object lesson in how boxing specializes in smoke-and-mirrors. “The Bronze Bomber” has a record that brings many of the fistic fugazis of yesteryear to mind.
Traditionally, building up a heavyweight under dubious circumstances required a Caucasian in order to galvanize public interest. Think of Peter McNeeley and Richie Melito or, going back to the 1980s, Gerry Cooney. Better yet, try not to think of the madcap machinations of Rick Parker, whose pet projects 20 years ago included Mark Gastineau and the comeback of Tex Cobb (behind these orchestrated careers was a simple underlying principle: a synthetic record would lead to a single cash-in opportunity). The Great White Hope era, in the wake of Jack Johnson winning the world title, featured imposters and stumblebums ranging from ex-wrestler and future murder victim Al Palzer to soldier-of-fortune-turned-Academy-Award-winner Victor McLaglen. In those days, there was money merely in the billing; even if some poor pale pug from the prairie never got a title shot, shekels passed hands because of simple possibility.
But perhaps the most successful heavyweight sideshow starred an African-American relic. In 1987, George Foreman, 37, started his comeback in barnstorming fashion against an assortment of moonlighting stuntmen, some of them proficient enough at pratfalls to draw dark suspicions. Eventually, Foreman parlayed his fairgrounds act into a sitcom, a moneymaking grilling machine and, yes, even the heavyweight title.
Over the last few years, heavyweights, especially in Europe, have taken the soft-target route – avoiding each other in the process – for a very remunerative reason: because a title shot against either Klitschko meant a virtual windfall. Preserving a ranking in hopes of hitting the jackpot has been the modus operandi of any number of undistinguished pros to challenge the Klitschko Combine since 2009. This boom-and-bust narrative is almost always heavy on the latter and Saturday night will provide yet another chapter in the continuing dime-novel saga of the manufactured heavyweight.
For Wilder, a man whose outsized dreams could not be crushed by the vagaries of life – or even a job at Red Lobster – the road to his El Dorado has been switchback all the way. Make no mistake about it: Wilder is the beneficiary of some serious matchmaking mojo. Against a slew of pugs who ought to have entered the ring wearing paper gowns and emergency room bracelets, Wilder, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has looked like a juggernaut wearing Everlasts.
But are swift, farcical blowouts of Dan Sheehan and Damon Reed really as cynical as they appear to be? Not everyone seems to think so. Veteran trainer “Iceman” John Scully, for example, feels Wilder has been over-criticized for the level of his competition. “I think it hasn’t been a stellar group overall but I don’t think it has been as bad as people have made it out to be,” Scully told UCNLive.com. “People generally seem to think that if a guy isn’t undefeated, is past his best days or isn’t famous that it means he can’t fight and I don’t agree with that at all. Wilder hasn’t faced a murderers’ row; that’s true but he’s faced many different styles and he’s gotten rid of a few guys much easier than people ever thought he would and they just don’t want to give him credit for it.”
Despite the odds against him, Stiverne, 24-1-1 (21), is seen as the real professional in this fight. In fact, “B. Ware” shines by simple virtue of juxtaposition: Compared to Wilder, whose ledger reads like a body farm inventory, Stiverne resembles Battling Nelson or Mike Tyson – a scrapper willing to take on almost anybody with a shrug or a pithy sound bite. But his edge in experience basically boils down to consecutive wins over Chris Arreola, a man whose own highlights are limited to kayos of Chazz Witherspoon and the last 3-D printed heavyweight to gain traction in the U.S.: Seth “Someone, Quick, Hand Me My Helmet” Mitchell.
Unlike Wilder, who has never gone past the fourth round, Stiverne has not always beaten the fall guys in front of him. In 2007, Stiverne, born in Haiti but now fighting out of Las Vegas, suffered a TKO loss to perennial no-hoper Demetrice King (after losing to King, Stiverne fought one set-up after another before struggling to a draw against woebegone Charles Davis in 2008. Davis had lost nine bouts in a row coming into his fight with Stiverne). Getting stopped by a trialhorse like King bodes ill for Stiverne and if Wilder hits as hard as it appears he does, then Stiverne could be seeing double at some point. In order to win this fight, Stiverne, who likes to counter off of the ropes and draw back from punches, needs to learn how to side-step and, more important, move to his right, away from the danger zone.
While some may think Wilder has a punch that is deceptive, a byproduct of poor opposition, Scully is not so sure. “When you stop a bunch of guys early, it doesn’t always mean that they can’t fight,” he says. “Sometimes it means that you have legitimate power. I think having been through the Olympics as an amateur gave [Wilder] a wealth of experience that even guys with over 100 fights – but who haven’t made the Olympic team – don’t have. Any way you slice it, he has also stepped into the professional prize ring over 30 times and that’s got to count for something. And in this particular case, it’s not like Stiverne has 40 fights himself with 10 title defenses.”
If Stiverne, 36, decides to work with his back to the ropes, then spatial ability becomes paramount – and judging distance on the spot against a 6’6” power-puncher with an absurd reach is no easy task. Proven commodities are few and far between in boxing. For some, perhaps, Stiverne is not nearly proven enough to enter the ring with a significant edge in seasoning and that makes for an intriguing match-up.
“I see a tough, hard-fought fight, a pick ‘em sort of fight but I believe in Wilder’s power,” Scully says. “I think he has a very smart corner – with Mark Breland and Russ Anber – and if he doesn’t let his emotions get the best of him, he will use his long arms and his jab to great effect and set up his power shots. He’s going to probably be in for the toughest fight of his career thus far and will likely get tested in several ways that he hasn’t yet but I have the feeling that he will come through. That power is a game changer and it will likely keep Stiverne on the lookout the entire time. No matter who you are and no matter what people are telling you, he’s going to be concerned with the power every second of the fight.”
As for Wilder, there is simply no telling just how sophisticated his tradecraft is at this point. Having turned pro at 23 (despite the bronze medal he won at the Beijing Games, he also had a limited amateur career), he may not even have met “The 10,000-Hour Rule” prescribed by Malcolm Gladwell. One thing is certain, however, Wilder has a wrecking ball for a right hand and he has left more than one poor schlub kicking on the canvas. Whether or not he can apply the finisher on Stiverne remains to be seen. When a fighter has a record as illusory as Wilder does, concealment overtakes illumination. No one knows if Wilder has the durability, stamina or chin to succeed against even a moderately talented pro like Stiverne. Indeed, Wilder has been knocked out as an amateur and whispering campaigns (HTML editions) about his gym troubles have been going around for years. In 2010, Wilder was decked by ringworn Harold Sconiers. To put that in perspective, Sconiers was once a regular on “Thunderbox,” which brings to mind dial-up modems, pleated khakis and cellphones the size of cinderblocks.
Maybe this is just a match-up between a journeyman heavyweight and an overhyped astral projection. Or it may be the heir apparent against a solid contender. It can be for the heavyweight championship of the world or just for one devalued sliver of it. Like some sort of sporting Rorschach blot, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. If anything, the winner of this sanctioning body scrum will catapult himself out from the off-brand, no-frills and generic categories. And since both men have TNT in their fists, you can probably look forward to a few thrills and spills. In the end, that ought to be enough for aficionados starved of action over the last year or so and often at the mercy of Fancy Dans with little interest in quickening pulses. To quote Tony Curtis in “Houdini”: “People fall asleep at the opera – but they stay awake at a bullfight!”
It may not last very long but the power surge will likely leave you wide-eyed and wired – for a little while at least.
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 Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to Remezcla and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.