Sunday, March 4, 2018

Opinions and Observations: Wilder-Ortiz

For many years Deontay Wilder has been regarded as a one-trick pony in the heavyweight division. His defense was horrible. He lunged and over-committed with shots. Putting combinations together seemed exceedingly difficult for him. His footwork could get sloppy or cumbersome. Sometimes he would sleepwalk through portions of a fight. 

But he had that right hand. 

It's not as if conventional wisdom regarding Wilder was all wrong, maybe off by 20%-25%. But Saturday's thrilling 10th-round knockout victory over Luis Ortiz demonstrated that Wilder brings more to the table than just a straight right. He scored three knockdowns in the fight, each with a different punch: right hand, left hook and right uppercut. When he was hurt badly in the seventh round, he found a way to buy time, either by using the ropes or tying up. His jab was effective at points. And while Ortiz certainly had success landing his power shots, Wilder's positioning and defensive posture led to Ortiz being cautious with his offense; Ortiz had a couple of very good rounds in the fight, but it wasn't if he was teeing off on Wilder.

Courtesy of Tom Casino/Showtime

Wilder-Ortiz eventually turned on a few pivotal exchanges in the fight. After four rounds where Ortiz successfully established his pace and rhythm, Wilder connected with a right hand temple shot in the fifth. He followed up with another right, sending Ortiz to the canvas. In the seventh, Wilder rushed in with a big right hand. Ortiz countered the shot perfectly with a right hook. Ortiz then connected with a punishing straight left and another right hook, forcing Wilder to hang on for dear life to make it out of the round. 

In the 10th it was Wilder who landed a perfect counter, a short right hand while Ortiz was out of position. He then poured it on, scoring with a right hand/left hook/right hand/left hook four-punch combination, leading to his second knockdown. He finished the fight with a number of right hands, finally ending matters with a pulverizing right uppercut – perhaps the first uppercut that he had landed all fight. 

Was there more to the fight than that? Yes, a little. Early in the match, Ortiz kept Wilder at bay with some beautiful counter left hands. Ortiz essentially forced the early rounds into an offensive stalemate, which, credit to him, illustrates his supreme ring generalship and sublime countering ability. 

In the eighth round, Ortiz went for the kill during the first minute and then gradually reduced his offensive output. Did he punch himself out? Was he fatigued? Was he overconfident? In the beginning of the ninth, Ortiz might have thrown two punches in the first 45 seconds, surely not a way to attack wounded prey. 

Similar to last year's wonderful Joshua-Klitschko fight, there were opportunities missed by the older fighter. Wilder showed mettle by absorbing punishment, finding a way to recover and then regaining control of the fight. Overall, it was a thrilling bout and it sets up a potential superfight later in the year against English heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua. 


And now it's time to take a break in the action for an aphorism from Confucius: "Better to be a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." 

A few years ago I had a Twitter exchange with my friend Ryan Bivins. This was probably in late 2013 or early 2014, before Wilder had become a headliner on premium cable. Through that point in his career, Wilder had amassed several early-round knockouts but often looked terrible in doing so. Bemoaning Wilder's myriad technical flaws, I kept harping on all the things he couldn't do. Ryan retorted: That right hand could knock anyone out in the division. Right now. 

I thought about that exchange with Ryan after watching Wilder-Ortiz. Yes, Wilder has slowly improved in a number of fundamental areas. He's not as raw as he was when he was battering the Matthew Greers and the Nichola Firthas of the world. But during his development, that straight right hand has brought Wilder all the way from prospect to contender to champ. 

In baseball, they use a scouting system to evaluate players' skills based on the 20-80 scale. "Fifty" is an average score for a major league skill. Each 10 points on the scale represents one standard deviation above or below the norm. For instance, Yankees slugger Aaron Judge would rate an "80" on the power scale while Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton would score an "80" for speed. The top score is reserved only for the elite of the elite for a given skill; there might be only three or four players who grade at an "80" in any particular category. 

Well Wilder's right hand is an "80" in the power category – and that includes boxers from every division. It's such an elite punch that it can excuse other mistakes. Are other heavyweights more coordinated? Could we find a dozen heavyweights who have a better jab? Are there those with better hooks, lateral movement or defense?  The answer to all of those questions would be yes. However, there may not be a heavyweight that grades at an "80" in any specific skill besides Wilder. Maybe Joshua's right uppercut would be a "70", but that's still one standard deviation below Wilder's right hand. (When thinking about standard deviations, think about exponential differences, not linear. A difference of 10 on this scale is several magnitudes greater in reality, not just 10 points higher.) Wilder's right hand is a diamond. Yes, he contains several flaws and warts in the ring, but he still possesses a diamond, one that no one else does in the division. 

Now, on to other matters: it's time to remove the one-dimensional talk from Wilder. Let's bury it, say a prayer, give it a proper remembrance and move on with our lives. Wilder's conditioning and heart allowed him to hang in against Ortiz during the seventh and eighth rounds. Only because of these factors was he able to then land his power shots in the ninth and tenth. Without his conditioning and heart, there isn't a knockout on Saturday. If he was just a one-trick pony, he would have been knocked out. If he didn't take his training seriously, he would cease to be threat later in fights. Yes, he can still be ponderous at times on his feet, but don't mistake that for a lack of athleticism or a blasé attitude about his career; he has a desire for greatness. He doesn't want to settle for being a novelty act with a freak right hand.  

Here's another old saying: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  

Wilder produces memorable knockouts. And he stops guys at any skill level, and at any time in the fight. When watching Wilder, there's a realistic chance of seeing a special and dramatic ending. If and when those moments happen, they create an indelible imprint on boxing fans; those moments are shown a bazillion times on sports highlight shows and create a buzz for the sport.

Sure, we can always focus on what Wilder is not; I know that I've made that mistake in the past. But let's remember what he is: a highlight reel American knockout artist – certainly not the worst thing in the world to be. He's never out of a fight, he's not a frontrunner and he can end a bout in a blink of an eye. Slowly, he has incorporated additional technical elements into his game. Remarkably, at 40-0 and at age 32, he still may not have hit his ceiling.

All of this doesn't mean Wilder is the best heavyweight in the world or that he will become the top guy in the foreseeable future. But he has made himself into an attraction. The greater American sporting world has started to take notice; all of these are positive signs and great for boxing as a whole.

Other than Wilder, perhaps nobody had a better night on Saturday than Deontay's financial planner. With that performance, Wilder added millions to his side of the ledger in a potential megafight with Joshua. Recent generations of boxing fans aren't used to seeing a captivating heavyweight division. But now, with Joshua and Wilder, there are two champions in their respective primes who are knockout artists and bona fide attractions. The pair has single-handedly elevated the division from its previous somnambulant state. Joshua has brought millions of new boxing fans into the fold in England and hopefully Wilder will start to grow the sport in his home market. Joshua-Wilder could be absolutely huge if the fight is promoted correctly. Hopefully the powers that be don't fuck it up.

But for now, let's rejoice in the pleasures of the sport and remind ourselves of how wonderful it can be. For the moment, let's brush the unpleasantness of boxing politics off to the side. We've seen two unforgettable heavyweight fights in the last year. In what decade was the last time we could say that? And we may not be done yet.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of
He's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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