Let's start with Deontay Wilder's poise. From the opening bell, Wilder exhibited none of the nervous energy that manifested in many of his previous performances. He moved fluidly around the ring and didn't load up on power shots. When he started to land right hands in the second round, Bermane Stiverne took them relatively well. Wilder, used to seeing opponents sprawled along the canvas from his bombs, didn't panic in this situation and stuck to his game plan.
Facing pressure from Stiverne, Wilder maintained his composure throughout the fight. Few opponents had dared to come forward during his developmental fights yet, on Saturday, Wilder shook off Stiverne's advances with relative ease, relying on his footwork, jab and punch arsenal to minimize Stiverne’s effectiveness.
Wilder's ability to relax in the ring helped answer questions about his chin. In his 13th professional fight, Wilder had been dropped by Harold Sconiers, a 17-20-2 fighter. Because of that event, many boxing observers continued to hold significant reservations (and deservedly so) about Wilder's whiskers. Throughout his development, he had faced nary a puncher and the thought was that his team had deliberately avoided matching him with anyone who could really bang. Of course, to win a championship belt, Wilder had to fight a puncher (either Wladimir Klitschko or Stiverne). And if Wilder was really glass-chinned, it was certainly possible that he could struggle against a fighter who possessed real firepower.
Instead, Wilder took Stiverne's shots without much of a problem. It wasn't that his defense was particularly sharp; Stiverne found him enough. No, Wilder's ring composure allowed him to stay focused and maintain his energy as the rounds progressed. He was expecting to be hit and didn't fall apart the first time that Stiverne connected with something of substance. Wilder's sparring and gym work really came into play during Saturday's fight. He had rarely been hit hard in his pro fights but yet he behaved like a seasoned pro after absorbing Stiverne's power shots.
Wilder took some big punches in the fourth, sixth and eighth – rounds that conceivably could have be awarded to Stiverne. To Wilder's credit, each time that Stiverne had success, he responded emphatically and won the ensuing round. This resiliency was another sign of Wilder's maturity and progression in the ring. He had rarely lost rounds as a professional but on Saturday he shrugged that off as just part of boxing. He quashed any notion of a sustained Stiverne rally and came back determined after facing duress.
Even though Wilder had never gone past four rounds as a pro, he maintained his conditioning and comportment throughout the 12 rounds. Of course, he was aiming for the quick knockout but that was only part of the plan. The attempt at the early KO didn't supersede winning rounds. It wasn't so much "Plan A" or "Plan B"; the two were actually interwoven. The goal was to dominate the fight. If the knockout came, that would've been ideal but Wilder and his team were certainly prepared, both physically and mentally, to go the distance.
Wilder had Stiverne hurt during several occasions in the fight. Wilder's actions in these instances highlighted his poise in the ring. He refused to rush in. Aware that Stiverne's counter left hook was his biggest weapon, Wilder avoided getting too close and continued to respect his opponent's power; he didn't run into too many hard counter shots. After hurting Stiverne, Wilder kept in punching range for follow up shots, not smothering himself or allowing Stiverne to tie him up and stop action. Furthermore, there were a number of times where Wilder stepped back from pressing at all, believing that Stiverne was trying to lure him into traps (he was right). Perhaps most importantly, unlike many young knockout artists, Wilder didn't gas himself going for the stoppage. Wilder may not have "finished" Stiverne but he was able to finish the fight with a new belt. His ability to pace himself for 12 rounds was a big reason why the title changed hands.
In the 12th round, when a desperate Stiverne had success in the first minute, Wilder acted like a seasoned pro by using his body to lay on Stiverne against the ropes, neutralizing his power and smothering his work rate. Wilder clearly understood the task at hand. He wasn't worried about giving up the round; he was concerned with minimizing big shots and staying on his feet. Again, this was Wilder's first time in the championship rounds and he performed like a savvy veteran.
In short, Wilder's performance was terrific. He won by a wide unanimous decision (120-107, 119-108 and 118-109). Going into the fight, he was a giant question mark. No one knew if his stamina, chin or composure could hold up for a distance fight and he passed these tests with flying colors. Sure, there are still things that he needs to work on – he jumps at too many feints, he lowers his hands too much when an opponent goes to his body, he's doesn't effectively counterpunch and his defensive technique slips when facing combinations – but these are not tragic problems for a relatively inexperienced and young heavyweight (29) to have. There's a lot of good stuff here.
Having poise, power and the desire to improve, Wilder has the foundation to be a significant player in the heavyweight division for a long time. What he needs now are more rounds and some fine tuning. I have no doubt that Wilder's trainer, Mark Breland, can further refine the fighter's glove positioning on defense and other related issues; the core skills are there.
As for Stiverne, although he couldn't get off enough during the fight, he still had his moments. I'm sure that his power punches and hard combos in rounds four, six and eight would have bested a number of top heavyweights, but Wilder took everything far better than anticipated.
Stiverne had trouble establishing his counter left hook and he only attempted a couple of overhand rights (that punch seemed to be there for him). Throwing mostly one punch at a time throughout the fight, he had some limited success with body shots and right crosses. Stiverne, a natural counterpuncher, looked uncomfortable pressuring Wilder and he lacked the footwork or punch activity to trouble him consistently. As I write this, Stiverne is still in the hospital suffering the effects of dehydration; that condition could help explain some aspects of his lowered activity level on Saturday, but only some. Wilder's skills played a much larger part in Stiverne's loss.
Far more than a mere knockout artist, Wilder showed that he has a number of dimensions in the ring. He won several rounds on Saturday with just his jab. In addition, he used his left hook expertly to thwart an advancing Stiverne. His movement was also fantastic. He maneuvered the ring beautifully, using quick lateral movement and refusing to stay in the pocket too long. This limited Stiverne's opportunities for success.
Although Wilder answered a number of questions with his performance on Saturday, several additional concerns will now come into play. Just as one never knows how a fighter will react to getting hit, one can't be certain how a boxer will respond to being a champion. Will Wilder continue to work hard in the gym? Does he understand that he still needs to get better? Will he remain disciplined?
As an American heavyweight titlist (Wlad Klitschko is obviously the champion in the division) and an Olympian, Wilder will have umpteen opportunities and distractions coming his way. If he keeps his head on straight, he could earn some serious money in his career as well as help to grow the sport in America. Numerous special interests have a lot riding on Wilder. There will be significant pressure for him to perform, both in and out of the ring. How Wilder handles his elevated status in the sport will be fascinating. Whether he acknowledges it or not, he is now a star. And with that status comes all of the glory and trappings. For the good of the sport, let's hope that Wilder stays focused in the ring and in his personal life. There is a lot to like here and boxing in America gets only so many opportunities to make an impact in today's competitive sports landscape. Let's hope that Wilder opens up new doors.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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