By Thomas Gerbasi
The fights we’re getting at the top of the heavyweight division aren’t the ones we want, but they’re the ones we’ve got.
Deontay Wilder vs Dominic Breazeale this Saturday. Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz on June 1. Tyson Fury vs Tom Schwarz on June 15.
You could call it the spring of our discontent, but that would just be redundant, with only the seasons changing. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not after the stirring end to 2018 that gave hope to the idea that in 2019, the 89-0-2 trio of Wilder, Joshua and Fury would have a round robin tournament of sorts to leave one man atop boxing’s glamour division.
But that didn’t happen.
Joshua hasn’t fought since beating Alexander Povetkin last September. Wilder and Fury certainly earned a break after their stirring 12-round draw in December, especially with the promise that they would meet again this year. But Fury signed a deal with Top Rank, Wilder let a proposed deal with DAZN go by the wayside, and Joshua remained on his own schedule, one only disturbed when failed drug tests booted Jarrell Miller from the June 1 bout and brought Ruiz in.
So we’re back where we started. But Wilder says we shouldn’t lose faith.
“The great fights will happen; we just have to stay patient,” said Wilder a week before the Breazeale fight was announced. There’s a lot of heat between champion and challenger, and that history will likely lead to an entertaining scrap, but few outside of Team Breazeale believe he was what it takes to dethrone the 40-0-1 (39 KOs) Wilder. That’s the nature of boxing today and the price we pay for sanctioning body mandatories.
The same goes for the upcoming Joshua and Fury bouts. Few expect them to lose, so they’re basically tune-up fights for what’s to come. Hopefully. And Wilder is hopeful.
“I’m optimistic about a lot of situations,” said the Alabama native. “I’ve got tough skin when people say things and I’ve got a big heart when it’s time to do things. You gotta stay relaxed, you gotta stay calm and I know I can’t get upset with everything. When you understand the business of boxing, you understand that you have to be patient because anything can happen. And that’s the only scary part about this business. You think you got something, then the next second you get a phone call and it’s gone. But I’m calm, I’m happy because I know where my life is, I know what position I’m in and I know my worth. And a lot of big things are about to happen soon, and I’m looking forward to it. So I can’t complain, I can’t be down, I can’t be sad.”
Truth be told, he may be in the best situation of his peers. Joshua is huge on the international scene, but is only now trying to break the U.S. market. Fury’s profile rose considerably with the Wilder fight, but he still may be too edgy to truly transcend the sport. As for “The Bronze Bomber,” he still hasn’t hit that international star stage, but the upside is still there, and it may come down to more than what he does in the ring. And sure, it’s blasphemy at the moment to compared Wilder to Muhammad Ali, there are a lot of similarities in attitude.
Bear with me as I explain. When Ali was the biggest star in the world (which was for most of his life), he never shied away from meeting and greeting the people who cheered him on – and even those who didn’t. And he was the most written about boxer in the world for a reason. He talked to the media, his camps were open, and he didn’t sit in an ivory tower giving the occasional nugget to the public.
In March, I was assigned a piece on Wilder for Boxing News magazine in the UK. I reached out to Wilder’s team and the interview was in the bank within 24 hours. No army to get through, no 10-minute time limits, just Wilder as he’s always been since he first arrived after the 2008 Olympics: Accessible, candid and generous with his time. You would be surprised at how much goodwill that generates, not just with the media, but with fans. Can Wilder be raw and make cringe-worthy statements at times? Absolutely; just listen to the comments he’s made about “getting a body” on his record this weekend. But outside of tacky pre-fight gamesmanship, if you do run into him, it’s impossible not to like him. And hey, I’ve had nothing but positive encounters with Fury and Joshua, but can the kid sitting in the cheap seats say the same thing? Can that same kid say that they really know these other fighters the way they do Wilder?
“There’s a saying about my mom that she never meets strangers,” said Wilder. “I don’t look at myself higher than anyone else. We’re all human beings, and my occupation just consists of me whipping ass. That’s what I do and I do it great. But we’re all great. And it’s very important to be yourself. Me and my brothers and cousins, we always reminisce about when we were kids and there were certain things that our parents would tell us. And one thing my dad would tell me and my brothers and sisters was to be yourself and not try to be like no one else. Be a leader and not a follower. Don’t let people peer pressure you. Be yourself, and if they don’t like you then they ain’t meant to be around you. And he was firm about that. I don’t care if the president is in the room, you don’t laugh if it ain’t funny. You don’t fake nothing. And that stuck with me all the way to being a grown man. I’ve always been one person. I’ve always been myself. I don’t want to pretend that I’m someone I’m not just to have acceptance from others. I don’t want that energy, and I don’t need to vibe with you if I have to go outside my character.”
That’s Ali-esque. But can Wilder deliver what “The Greatest” did in the ring? That’s a trickier question. On paper, it’s hard to argue with 40-0 and a four-plus year reign as WBC heavyweight champion. He’s successfully defended that crown eight times, and if hits nine on Saturday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, he will become only the tenth fighter with nine or more consecutive successful title defenses.
The fighters above him are all hall of famers, with the exception of Wladimir Klitschko, who will most certainly join the hall in Canastota the first time he appears on the ballot. That’s heady company to be in, regardless of the level of competition the 33-year-old has faced. Then again, you can say that for many of the heavyweight greats, from Klitschko to Larry Holmes to Joe Louis. A fighter can only fight the competition available, and Wilder has done that, even if Chris Arreola, Bermane Stiverne and Artur Szpilka won’t go down in the history books as elite heavyweights.
But what the greats did have were those defining bouts when they were available to be made. And for Wilder to be truly great and not paper great, he must see Fury again and also face Joshua should the Brit keep winning. Sure, he’s got plenty of opponents under the PBC banner to fight, but the only ones that matter are the ones outside that banner. Here’s hoping Wilder goes the Ali route, taking on all comers. I’m guessing he will.
“One thing about Ali and what made him my idol is the way he carried himself and what he stood for and he didn’t allow anybody to take that away from him,” said Wilder. “He knew who he was, what he stood for and what he represented and he bowed down to no one. He spoke up and he was a force for the people. He was a people’s person and I love that so much because that resembles me. So of course I want to walk in his footsteps, but I want to overshadow his footsteps. I’m sure the size of my shoe is a lot bigger than his (Laughs), so I don’t have no choice but to overshadow his footsteps. And I must do it. I want to make boxing bigger than it’s ever been. And we can do it. They say history repeats itself, and why can’t it repeat with me?”