The Square Jungle: Deontay Wilder, Thurman-Garcia and Sugar Ray, Haye-Bellew
Every time Deontay Wilder defends his BMX heavyweight title, the lockstep boxing media hunt and pecks at their keyboards in wonder if “The Bronze Bomber” is the savior of American boxing. In scoring a fifth round KO over neophyte Gerald Washington (a substitute for Andrzej Wawrzyk, the latest PED big boy in a division overrun by them), last week in Birmingham, Alabama, Wilder may spark that question prior to his next bout as well. But Wilder did prove once more the folly of switching from the gridiron to the squared circle. Because of the windfall a world title shot promises, heavyweights are more apt to materialize from out of nowhere: Basketball courts, football fields, dojos, cell blocks, etc., and these athletes (Wilder included, to some degree) often seem to lack the skill set and endurance to thrive as fighters.
Washington resembled pained statuary in the ring and his jab, which repeatedly jarred Wilder, was thrown from his hip, where it returned with a regularity that might have caused him repetitive motion syndrome had the fight gone any longer. Instead, Wilder waited patiently for the right moment to drop the hammer, and, when he did, it marked the end of another mismatch.
Fights make fighters and Wilder is suffering from two issues, in that regard: First, there are few known commodities in the heavyweight division; second, the second-tier fighters he faces often require a Suspension of Disbelief disclaimer. To an extent, Washington, Johann Duhaupas, Eric Molina and a faded Chris Arreola all resembled caricatures of boxers and their exertions in the ring were, at times, comical. (A similar situation occurred when an overweight John Molina Jr. answered the bell against WBC/WBO junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford on HBO, last year, wearing outlandish trunks that seemed to underscore his lack of commitment to his craft.) It is no small feat to become even a middling prizefighter and the sacrifices all professionals make across gyms is legitimate, even if their efforts do not reflect it. But does this – the surface lack of skill of heavyweight challengers – actually affect viewers?
If his recent Nielsen ratings prove anything, perhaps it does. Defending his catchpenny title for the fifth time, Wilder-Washington averaged approximately 1.76 million viewers for a FOX prime-time special, a number far below his previous network appearances. When Wilder averaged 2.54 million viewers for his fandango against Arreola last year, promoter Lou DiBella, one of the biggest two-headed nickels in boxing, claimed, like some sort of druid, that the season was responsible for solid, if unspectacular, numbers. In that case, dreaded summer was the culprit. This time around, no doubt, the patronizing DiBella will conjure up the moon phases as the cause for such a steep drop in viewership. Until Wilder faces someone with a certain amount of competence to go along with a respectable profile, expect his Q-rating to fluctuate. Of course, there are other ways for Wilder to attract attention…
Wilder made further headlines after the bout, when he engaged in some sort of melee with Dominic Breazeale, another football castoff who stopped Izuagbe Ugonoh in a Pier Six brawl on the undercard. Naturally, there will be no repercussions for his transgression – either from the law or the near-lawless entity known as boxing. According to Christina Breazeale, Dominic’s spouse, Birmingham police had little interest in the brouhaha. The Alabama boxing commission, such as it is, was basically kick-started by Wilder himself. That leaves the WBC, which is unlikely to strip Wilder of his remunerative title and will likely issue one of its anodyne press releases.
Wilder, who sometimes seems to think he is the boxing equivalent of Anton Chigurh, seems to be conflating reality with fantasy by believing in his own comic book persona. How a fighter coming off hand surgery can throw punches in an extracurricular brawl is mystifying. Add the fact that Breazeale had taken severe punishment only hours earlier in a back-and-forth brawl that saw him knocked down and staggered repeatedly and you have to question just how rooted Wilder is in actuality.
For Wilder, this act of public misconduct will likely boost his uncertain popularity. Although the WBC has ordered Wilder to defend his title in a rematch against moribund Bermane Stiverne, Breazeale now seems like a likelier target. Boxing rarely fails to capitalize on bad taste and the Wilder-Breazeale fracas is ripe for exploitation. Perhaps Wilder is intuitively aware of this: that his future rise may be contingent on his lowering more than just the boom on his opponents.
Once again, Premier Boxing Champions has corralled Sugar Ray Leonard to act as a touchstone of sorts for one of its headline events, in this case, the Keith Thurman-Danny Garcia welterweight title unification showdown. And once again, the PBC makes this comparison to its detriment. After all, Leonard is representative of fighters who understood that the performance was the thing.
Contemporary stars (a term used loosely) are largely unable to distinguish themselves against each other. Leonard, for example, stopped Wilfred Benitez, forced Roberto Duran to quit in their rematch and battered Thomas Hearns to a TKO a defeat. Hearns left Pipino Cuevas in shambles and his KO of Duran was both frightening and exhilarating.
Today, rising to the occasion is just another concept on the verge of eclipse in boxing. IBF/WBA/WBO light heavyweight titlist Andre Ward, the least interesting pound-for-pound claimant of the last 20 years, eked by Sergey Kovalev via dubious scorecards in a super-fight few bothered to watch. (Is it possible that the weary boxing public was wary not only of pay-per-views but of how little Ward extends himself in the ring?) And Kovalev, normally a wrecking machine between the ropes, showed that wishy-washiness may be contagious, when he failed to close the show against Ward after scoring an early knockdown. Even a proper tallying of the scorecards that night would have had Kovalev up only by two or three rounds – hardly a defining performance by any standard.
The biggest moneymaker in North America, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, is a terror against welterweights and Liverpudlians but struggled against Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, and settled for a points win over aging Miguel Cotto. Leo Santa Cruz seems incapable of hurting anyone other than his former sparring partners. Decisions against Abner Mares and Carl Frampton in the last two years have made for some good fights but not necessarily memorable performances.
Danny Garcia has faced fierce backlash for earning controversial decisions against Mauricio Herrera and Lamont Peterson. (To his credit, Garcia has clean wins over Amir Khan and Lucas Matthysse, both world-class fighters at the time Garcia faced them.) For his part, Thurman barely squeaked by his only marquee opponent, Shawn Porter, last year.
If fighters are failing to gain any traction from exposure of CBS, NBC and FOX,(HBO seems committed to underexposing its fighters as often as possible), it may be because many – not all – contemporary headliners fail to distinguish themselves from their opposition.
Tonight, Thurman and Garcia have a chance to do more than just make it to the final bell and hope for the best from ringside judges. They can even think about something Leonard once said: “You know, a lot of fighters, a lot of athletes, period, want a title or championship so bad. But when they get to that point, that fine point, they’re just about there and it hurts so bad. They start questioning themselves. Is it worth it?”
A few years ago, the BBC blamed David Haye for the unceremonious death of pay-per-view in the United Kingdom. Barney Francis, managing director of Sky Sports, said this about Haye in 2011: “We have shelved pay-per-view boxing, for the time being, because of a couple of bad experiences we had…There was general dissatisfaction with the Haye v. (Audley) Harrison fight, and then the Haye v. (Wladimir) Klitschko fight, so we don’t think it’s a great time to ask the public for more investment into pay-per-view boxing.”
That makes it more astonishing that the David Haye-Tony Bellew sideshow, scheduled for the O2 Arena in London, is such a hot ticket in England. Despite claiming the vacant WBC cruiserweight title last year, Bellew has accomplished little at the world-class level – his most notable results over the course of a 10-year career include a majority decision loss to then-WBO light heavyweight titlist Nathan Cleverly, a TKO loss to WBC light heavyweight beltholder Adonis Stevenson in 2013, a split decision rematch win over a backsliding Cleverly three years after their first encounter and a TKO of smooth-talking but unaccomplished B.J. Flores – and zilch as a heavyweight. Now years into the celebrity phase of his career, Haye has made a good living as a crass antihero when matched with similar brash personalities (and, in the case of Dereck Chisora, a borderline sociopath) but a serious run at the division elite seems beyond his reach.
In general, British boxing fans are far more supportive of their fighters than American fans are of theirs but Haye himself seems to have a solid gauge on this bout: “What’s a disgrace is the fight happening – this fight should not be happening,” Haye said during an odious pre-fight conference.
But when two fringe competitors such as Haye and Bellew create their own wage scale (by actions and antics that have little, if anything, to do with what they have accomplished as athletes), in a sport in which staggering paychecks are handed out with few tangible reasons, it almost seems admirable, until you start to think about it.
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.