The Square Jungle: On Bermane Stiverne-Deontay Wilder
What a match flare is to a fuse, the heavyweight division – at least in the United States – is to boxing. When Deontay Wilder challenges Bermane Stiverne for a splinter of the heavyweight championship on Jan. 17 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the American scene may see its first real spark since the Oscar De La Hoya era ended years ago. Yes, there have been a few fighters capable of generating mainstream interest over the last decade or so – most notably Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao – but the last 10 to 15 years of boxing have solidified its current (non-) standing as a niche pursuit. As the American heavyweight began to slip into an endangered species category, the industry as a whole began to lose its grip on the imagination of the public (there are other reasons why the Sweet Science has slipped as a sport since its last heyday but you may be better off learning about them from someone who discovered boxing in 2008).
In the 1990s, a slew of talented, if troubled, heavyweights vied against each other – as well as the chaos inherent in boxing -and kept fan interest kindled for years. Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Razor Ruddock, Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison and Michael Moorer were all noisemakers at one point or another. George Foreman, who had failed to wrest the heavyweight title from Holyfield in 1991, was one of the most beloved sporting figures in America during the early-‘90s. Not only did Foreman hit the jackpot with his “Lean Mean Grilling Machine” in 1994 but he also starred in his own sitcom on ABC. It was short-lived, true, and Foreman became heavyweight champion before he could get his destructive hands on an Emmy but his popularity is a correlative to the heights boxing reached regularly during the 1990s.
(Today a $32 million guarantee makes Floyd Mayweather look like the Warren Buffet of boxing to his army of HTML lapdogs but consider this: In 1991, Evander Holyfield was set to earn at least $30 million to face Mike Tyson. That works out to roughly $52 million in 2014 currency. Keep in mind that at the time Holyfield-Tyson was originally scheduled, roughly 20 million households in the U.S. were wired for pay-per-view. In 2010 that number is at least 60 million.)
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Any number of reasons has been put forward for the demise of the American heavyweight. Since the division has been dominated by African Americans from the mid-1950s until the mid-2000s (with a few blips from historical footnotes such as Gerrie Coetzee, Ingemar Johansson and Frans Botha) and because the ranks of boxers are primarily filled by the underclass, it makes sense to sketch a few socio-economic factors that may have played a role in the current lack of U.S. heavyweights.
* The skyrocketing popularity of the NBA in the early-1980s, the NFL expansion and the emergence of hip-hop as a viable commercial force gave struggling minorities opportunities to advance that did not involve the extraordinary rigors of prizefighting.
* A reduction of social services under Ronald Reagan also slashed the numbers of PALs (Police Athletic Leagues) across the nation and prison boxing programs – including those at Rahway and Graterford – were discontinued, with only Angola remaining as a reminder of that strange era when you could see fights from cell blocks in New Jersey broadcast on PBS.
* In addition, the crack wars of the 1980s wiped out an entire generation of inner-city youth from the Verrazano to the Golden Gate. For thousands, there was nothing more to look forward to than death or life sentences. In 1990, for example, New York City set a record for homicides that, two decades later, is no less bone-chilling for being a dusty historical fact: 2,245 murders took place in a watershed year of drug-related violence.
As a result of some of these factors, heavyweights, like the red wolf, have virtually disappeared from the American landscape.
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If ever a big man resembled a potential star, someone who can kickstart barbershop palaver across the country, it is Deontay Wilder. With his superhero physique, authentic charisma and jackhammer right hand, Wilder is exactly what “The Baddest Man on the Planet” looks like.
Barely a decade since he first hit a speedbag, Wilder, who went from working at a Red Lobster to winning a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics, is on the cusp of a breakthrough that belies the orchestrated nature of his career. Only in boxing can such apparent fraudulence be rewarded. At 32-0 with 32 knockouts, Wilder has a record that brings to mind Primo Carnera or Richie Melito. Some of his opponents have been so woebegone that even Kimbo Slice might object to them. In fact, one Wilder fall guy, Damon Reed, can be found on the record of a heavyweight whose ledger is full of fixed fights.
No wonder so many observers believe Stiverne will put a violent end to Operation Wilder. Consecutive wins over Chris Arreola in 2013 and 2014 have been enough to set “B. Ware” apart from the halfway-house types Wilder has been steamrolling since he turned pro in 2008. But Stiverne has a few stylistic tics that may leave him, face-first, on the canvas, against a man with a wingspan as wide as a mini-Cooper is long. First, Stiverne has a perilous habit of dropping his left hand after he jabs, leaving an opening for Wilder to strike with one of his destructive overhand rights. Second, Stiverne likes to counterpunch off the ropes, a potentially dangerous strategy against someone with such physical advantages. Third, Stiverne moves back in a straight line against an advancing opponent and when he does move from side to side, he tends to cross his feet, which is what led Chris Arreola to wobble him with a hard right in the second round of their rematch. Though Stiverne objected to his stoppage loss to trial horse Demetrice King in 2007, his defense remains a serious liability. Whether or not Wilder has the ability to exploit it remains a key question. On the plus side, Stiverne has a solid left hook, good hand speed and has gone 12 rounds in the past. Wilder, by contrast, has never heard the bell sound for the fifth.
Still, he has all the confidence of a man who has faced little resistance in the ring. In an interview with the Tuscaloosa News last May, Wilder outlined his vision of the fight, “I see this fight being an easy fight for me to be honest. The guy, he’s got so many things that benefit me. [Stiverne] keeps his head down; I’m a tall fighter. He likes to stay back; of course he likes to counter but my arms are so long. You’re going to have to get out of your comfort zone to fight a fighter like me. They say styles make fights but he’s going to definitely have to get out of his style. He’s going to have to be more of a pressure fighter, which he isn’t a pressure fighter…I think it’s going to benefit me a lot in this fight. He’s not going to be able to touch me. I’m going to show people – I’m predicting a first-round knockout.”
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Wladimir Klitschko, of course, is the recognized champion of the world but this is one of the dubious reasons Stiverne-Wilder is taking place. In another example of the Parallel Universe effect in boxing, Showtime, along with Al Haymon, is trying to create its own in-house heavyweight champion, which would be a PR bonanza. Surprisingly, Don King, who promotes Stiverne, decided to bypass Klitschko altogether and work out a deal with Haymon in order to avoid a purse bid (as well as a potential chisel attempt by Roc Nation Sports). While the WBC “ordered” Stiverne to defend against Wilder, sanctioning body decrees are notoriously flexible, especially when so much money is involved. That King settled on Wilder, under backroom circumstances unknown to the public, may say a couple of things about the veteran promoter: He believes Stiverne has a good chance of winning, which will give King his first moneymaker in years, and negotiating for a Klitschko fight simply may not have been worth the effort. If you ever speak to a manager who has dealt with Bernd Boente – who represents Klitschko – then you may have some idea of why haggling with Haymon seemed like the lesser of two evils.
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Although Stiverne, 24-1-1 (21), was born in Haiti and is a Canadian citizen, he currently lives in Las Vegas. If he beats Wilder, can he become a hot commodity in the United States despite the shadow of Wladimir Klitschko? And will Don King go for the gusto by pitting Stiverne against “Dr. Steelhammer?”
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Both Klitschkos were/are credible titleholders but the lack of buzz they generated outside of Europe – combined with the usual self-destructive tendencies boxing suffers from – may have set back boxing in America. In another era, Stiverne-Wilder would have been a headline bout between a mid-level contender and a streaking, albeit unproven, prospect. But that era will never be seen again. Yes, the WBC strap may be a penny-ante title but for Wilder and Stiverne, it may be a trinket that brings them millions.
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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.