Deontay Wilder, Paper Heavyweight

Deontay Wilder is undefeated, and as big and intimidating-looking as any heavyweight in recent memory. It's not enough.
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Deontay Wilder is fighting again this weekend, which is a handy reminder to boxing fans to schedule a much-delayed root canal or colonoscopy. Either would be a healthier and more advisable use of your time than watching the undefeated heavyweight contender; neither would be significantly less entertaining.

Wilder is the latest version of the paper heavyweight, another entry in the division’s long and definitionally uninspiring lineage of Big Motherfuckers Who Look Scary. Marketable-but-lousy fighters can be found in every weight class, but ineptitude is easier to disguise in the heavyweight division, both because the average skill set is lower and because it’s easier for a Big Motherfucker to Look Scary.

The fundamental problem with Wilder is that no one believes he’s the deadly puncher he once seemed to be. He has most everything a promoter would want: size (6 foot 7), big muscles, a genuinely touching relationship with his daughter, who suffers from spina bifida, and, as demonstrated when confronted by mouthy heavyweight weirdo Tyson Fury in the ring last year, a compelling way with words. There’s also the matter of his gaudy record (37-0, 36 Kos), and four straight title defenses all by knockout. But Wilder still fights in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, which is not exactly a mecca of boxing. And he’s still an underwhelming draw, despite being the first American heavyweight champion since Shannon Briggs lost in 2007. He snagged an average of 1.8 million viewers for his last fight with Chris Arreola, a surprisingly low number for a free fight on Fox.

And now Wilder is coming up on a fifth defense of his WBC heavyweight title, against another uninspiring contender. This time it’s Gerald Washington (18-0-1), a former USC defensive lineman and current musclebound blob.

Like so many of the other physical specimens in the Al Haymon stable, Washington is a chump in the ring. He doesn’t walk opponents down, because he’s not sure how. He’s hesitant to attack, because he’s worried about being countered; for a 250 pound man, he doesn’t really hit very hard. Add it up and you have another heavyweight title defense for Wilder that’s unlikely to convince anyone that he can beat anybody who knows what they’re doing. The closest Wilder has gotten so far was his victory over Arreola, a very tough man who has been beaten into premature old age.

Wilder doesn’t seem to understand that the coming crop of popular fighters could bury him. That’s his job as a fighter, of course. It’s also the likeliest cause of his undoing.

Troll Hunter

Charlie Zelenoff didn’t know how to slip punches, or anything else a boxer should know how to do, and employed the practiced attack of a bully who’s not used to opponents that fight back. A head shorter and 80 or so pounds lighter, Zelenoff spent a great deal of time leading up to his encounter with Wilder behaving like the internet troll he is; Zelenoff made his name known by telling anyone who’d listen that he possessed punching power so devastating that it could kill a great white shark. When his YouTube videos didn’t succeed in impressing people, he talked about Kim Kardashian, claiming that destiny had chosen her as his future wife.

By the time Zelenoff finally stalked Wilder to a gym to interrupt his training, he’d built enough ill will to earn a bullshit match on the gym floor just outside the boxing ring. Zelenoff had thrown racial slurs and disparaging remarks about the man’s little girl; he had very much earned a beating. But in agreeing to give it to him, and in letting this big-talking internet joker jump the line, Wilder took a sort of shortcut that’s all too popular among fighters. For Wilder, fighting a doofus like Zelenoff did no service to the more important broader goal of learning his craft, and did nothing to contribute to the goal of someday becoming a good, long reigning champion.

Worse still, Wilder didn’t even deliver on the beating. In the idiocy of the moment, Wilder didn’t even look that dominant, and showed a hilariously high level of respect for Zelenoff’s power. Maybe realizing how bad it all looked, Wilder’s entourage tried to intervene but were hesitant to undermine their guy. Wilder won the fight, such as it was, but it was hardly the sort of result you’d expect from a man who claims to be the best heavyweight in the world, and seems like he actually believes it.

Pretty much no one else does.

The Ambling Alp

In the late 1920’s a little-known Italian crossed the Atlantic to begin a pro boxing career. He was 6 foot 7, his promoters told the world, and he a danger to any man who could scrounge the courage to fight him. But even Primo Carnera’s height was a lie. His mass was enough to fool many fans, but he was about an inch and half shorter than listed; more importantly, he had little in the way of fighting skill. He was slow and unlearned, his attack full of uncoordinated punches that pushed opponents around but didn’t do damage. He was huge, though, intriguingly huge. At a time when many heavyweights hovered near 200 pounds, Carnera hit 275 pounds at his heaviest, covered in huge muscles and roped with veins thick as cables.

From the beginning, Carnera was treated like he was different, when mostly he was just big. That’s because he was matched the right way.

In 1933 Carnera finally got a shot at the title, knocking out Jack Sharkey in six rounds. But rumors that the fix was in overshadowed Carnera’s victory, and whispers of a mob connection steadily grew. Then, in his 85th pro bout, Carnera stepped through the ropes to fight Max Baer, who was 60 pounds smaller, and dangerous—a real fighter, and one equipped to expose Carnera as something else.

Baer had a right hand that is counted among the most potent weapons in boxing history. Over 11 rounds, he hit Carnera with it almost at will, and never gave him a chance to mount an organized attack. It was a brutal beating; Carnera had heart, but too much rope. He fell to the canvas 11 times, by some reports, and lost; his jaw broken, he was sent off to the hospital in ignominy. The novel The Harder They Fall  tells a fictional story of a mob-connected fighter that looks a lot like the career path of Carnera. Boxing historians widely concede that the Ambling Alp never really had the goods to take the title for real.

The loss to Baer marked the end of Carnera’s days as a contender. He was a below average fighter, but he did have a champion’s heart and guts, qualities that can ruin a man for the rest of his life if they’re not paired with the necessary chops. He returned home afterward to his small Italian village, used his fame to continue to earn as a wrestler. He died at 60, a former heavyweight champion of the world.

Back to Wilder

The difference between Wilder and other underqualified big men with reputations as killers in the ring is that he wasn’t matched quite right. He fought terrible opposition for too long, somehow won the title from a genuinely tough, calm fighter in Bermane Stiverne—who didn’t do any of the things that earned him the title—and then went back to fighting heavyweights who weren’t even bad enough to make him look good.

Wilder still hasn’t lost, but no one is really mistaking him for a champion anymore and he has lost all of his momentum. There is a way forward for him; he could make a fight with Anthony Joshua and likely score a huge payday in the process. Joshua will almost certainly wipe him out, but that comes with the territory. Wilder will always be big. If he wants to be anything more than that, he’ll have to earn it.

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