Walking through fire: On Deontay Wilder vs. Luis Ortiz

Undefeated WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder (left) vs. Luis Ortiz. Photo credit: Ed Diller/DiBella Entertainment

 

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – For the past few years, the ledger belonging to Deontay Wilder, the American heavyweight champion of the world, looked as uninspiring as a phone book opened up to a random page: bouts with a special education teacher, a former football player and an undistinguished contender from France round out a heavyweight reign that has looked as subpar as any championship run in recent memory. By having been spoon-fed repeated mismatches, the WBC titleholder had few occasions on which to allay doubts about the sturdiness of his chin and concerns that his obvious technical flaws could prevail against fighters who possessed more craft.

 

Such questions were, in part, answered on Saturday night when Wilder, who was on the brink of peril in the seventh round, roared back in the 10th to score a ruinous technical knockout over division bogeyman Luis Ortiz in a thrilling showdown at the Barclays Center before a crowd numbering 14,069. Wilder, to be sure, had to earn every moment of this victory. Though he weighed in at a svelte 214 3/4 pounds, the lowest weight since his third professional fight, compared to Ortiz’s 241 1/4 pounds, Wilder reminded onlookers that, as dubious as his other pugilistic qualities may be, his punching power is the genuine article.

 

“Tonight I showed I had the the bigger heart,” Wilder, now 40-0 (39), said at the post-fight press conference. “I solidified myself as the baddest man on the planet.”

 

It looked to be a short night for Ortiz after Wilder knocked the Cuban down with a shotgun right hand at the end of the fifth round. But two rounds later, in the seventh, Ortiz, who kept Wilder off-balance for most of the night, by moving to his right and firing a stiff jab, rocked Wilder with a straight left and proceeded to batter the Alabaman with an array of powerful combinations. Referee David Fields looked as though he were ready to stop the fight but the bell rang and Wilder survived, stumbling back to his corner with blood dripping above his right eye. Wilder had never looked so vulnerable.

 

“That was the first time I saw (Wilder) in that kind of trouble,” said co-trainer Mark Breland. “I told him, ‘Listen, next round, just move. Don’t worry about fighting. Stay away from the ropes. Don’t get in the corner. Keep your head up.”

 

“(Ortiz) was hitting me with those furious punches but they didn’t have sting on them,” Wilder said after the fight. “He was throwing combos that knocked me off balance.”

 

Long pilloried on the web through countless memes, for his comically loopy punches, Wilder looked as technically unvarnished as ever against the textbook Ortiz. Indeed the majority of the fight featured Wilder awkwardly backpedaling and pawing his jab at Ortiz, to the chagrin of a restless crowd that repeatedly booed at the inaction in the ring. But as ungainly as most of Wilder’s punches may be, his booming counter right hand travels in a relatively straight line and, whenever it landed, it sparked a raucous response from the stands. The tired boxing adage “It only takes one punch” regained some currency on this night.

 

Wilder’s concussive power right found its mark again late in the ninth round, when, after two-and-a-half minutes of relative inaction, he uncorked a bazooka right that left Ortiz staggered and dazed heading back to this corner. In the 10th round, Wilder once again stunned Ortiz with another straight right, following it up with a barrage of clubbing hooks that sent Ortiz to the canvas for the second time. Though the Cuban would courageously get up, by that point, he was clearly spent, his legs gone and the confidence sapped from his face; he looked every bit the road-weary 38-year-old who competed in more than 350 amateur fights. With arms swinging like rotor blades, Wilder connected on an uppercut that dropped Ortiz for the final time, like a bag of flour. Fields immediately waved off the fight at the 2:05 mark.

 

“What matters most is how well you walk through fire,” said the show’s promoter of record Lou DiBella, quoting the name of a book of poetry by Charles Bukowski. “And Deontay did that tonight.”

 

All three judges, incredibly, had Wilder ahead by a point on the scorecards. (UCNLive had it 85-84 Ortiz, at the time of the stoppage). After the fight, the two embraced in the ring.

 

“I thought I had (Wilder) out on his feet,” said Ortiz. “But you have to give him credit; he weathered the storm.

 

While the admonishments regarding Wilder’s technical ability will not likely stop anytime soon, his performance on Saturday night should put any discussion that uses him as a punch line to rest. That he is able to win, and win so authoritatively, in spite of his obvious shortcomings, is a reminder that heavyweights with a unique blend of power and killer instinct can make it far in the sport – even if that heavyweight only took up boxing at 21, with virtually no amateur career.

 

“America got a killer on their side.” Wilder declared after the fight. “I’m ready to put up my title with anybody in the world. After Ortiz, there’s going to be nobody with the skill set to beat me.”

 

With Wilder’s win, the biggest fight in boxing just became more intriguing, even if it remains nothing more than a pipe dream in 2018. Wilder will be ringside in Cardiff, Wales, for the March 31 heavyweight unification bout between U.K. sensation and IBF/WBA titlist Anthony Joshua and New Zealand’s Joseph Parker, who holds the WBO belt. More than 80,000 fans are expected to fill the seats. Should Joshua take care of Parker, as competent a heavyweight as one is likely to find today, as is expected, a showdown between Joshua and Wilder is thought to be inevitable. How quickly it can materialize, with both fighters holding onto their title belts, however, will depend on the eagerness for both sides to cut a fair deal. The normally press-shy Shelly Finkel, Wilder’s manager, appeared before reporters after the fight on Saturday night to make it clear that negotiations with Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, have not begun because Hearn has not returned phone calls since Finkel met with Matchroom Boxing patriarch Barry Hearn.

 

“The bottom line is that when someone wants a fight, the fight gets made,” said Finkel. “The dollars will get made if Joshua wants it. It has nothing to do with cowardice. Deontay is the only one he knows that can beat him. (Joshua) will fight when he is ready. Right now, he’s dodging us.”

 

But to think that Wilder, 32, nowhere near the level of a box office star, can simply wait on the sidelines for a Joshua fight is a a serious error in judgment. There needs to be an urgency on Wilder’s part to catch Joshua, 28, before the former’s physical gifts start to deteriorate and any notion of competition disappears. (The money, surely, will still be there.) Moreover despite the resurgence of the heavyweight division, it remains a largely top-heavy group, with few contenders available, who could put forth a challenge against Wilder. While a fight with fellow Al Haymon fighter Dominic Brezeale, whom Wilder sucker-punched in an Alabama hotel lobby, might make for a credible storyline, anything other than a Joshua fight for Wilder, one figures, is a waste of time.

 

****

 

It was a surreal night at the Barclays Center. A sound crew was present in the middle of the ring capturing simulated sound bites from a crowd, for what appeared to be the sequel to “Creed.” At Jimmy Lennon Jr.’s direction, the crowd either booed or cheered.

 

The televised undercard rematch between 168-pounders Jose Uzcategui and Andre Dirrell was nearly canceled after the doctor for the New York State Athletic Commission found what he believed to be traces of blood in Uzcategui’s urine sample. The revelation would send off the representatives of the promoter, Showtime and the NYSAC in a scramble for the next hour. A second urine test was administered – which involved going to the nearest hospital for testing strips – and it was determined that what caused Uzcategui’s red coloration was cranberry juice. The fight commenced, with Uzcategui dominating Dirrell for eight rounds, before the latter’s corner decided to stop it.

 

There was no end to the rampant conspiracy theories – “Ortiz will take the dive in the third, no the fifth, make that the ninth!” – that trailed the night’s main event, excessive even for boxing’s typical cloak-and-dagger standards. A glimmer of such speculation seemed to take a life of its own when “Prince” Charles Martin was spotted ringside, on Saturday. A source involved with the Wilder-Ortiz promotion told UCNLive.com that the former IBF heavyweight champion had been flown in on a private jet to potentially replace Ortiz, in response to the NYSAC’s misgivings about the fighter’s blood pressure test, taken after the weigh-in on Friday. But by that time, Ortiz was already in the clear.

 

“Luis was just excited at the weigh-in (on Friday),” said Jay Jimenez, Ortiz’s manager. “(His blood pressure) was a little high but nothing serious. They ran another test and he was fine.”

 

 

 

Sean Nam is a contributor to The Cruelest Sport and UCNLive. He also writes about film for Slant Magazine and Mubi Notebook.

 

 

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