Like all of you, I thought that the fight was over in the 12th. Deontay Wilder unfurls a pulverizing right hand/left hook combination. Tyson Fury crashes to the canvas. Referee Jack Reiss starts the count, but it's just a formality, right? Fighters don't get up from that type of heavyweight thunder, especially from Wilder, the boogieman: He who hath knocked out every single opponent. Fury rolls around on the canvas, his dream of reclaiming a heavyweight championship title is mere seconds away from going up in smoke.
What kind of man gets up from such devastation?
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After becoming heavyweight championship in 2015, Fury entered a personal abyss of depression, hard living and drugs. By his estimation he had ballooned to 400 lbs., and he wanted no part of boxing. He would lose all his titles without appearing in the ring. Furthermore, he was suspended by the British Boxing Board of Control for failing a drug test. He announced his retirement from boxing multiple times and quickly was becoming the type of cautionary tale that is seen too often in sports, and one that rarely involves a happy ending.
But something clicked earlier this year for Fury and he decided to give it another go, not just regarding boxing, but for life in general. Overcoming the crippling effects of depression, Fury rededicated himself to the sport. He made some changes with his team, replacing his uncle and longtime trainer Peter Fury with little known 26-year-old Ben Davison. In addition, he also aligned himself with promoter Frank Warren. He was aiming dead set for the top of the division.
Prior to Saturday Fury had fought twice this year; both were against lesser opponents. His performances weren't anything special, but there were signs in his most recent bout against Francesco Pianeta that Fury the cagey boxer was resurfacing. However, there was still hard work to be done. In total, Fury lost more than 100 lbs. and perhaps even more importantly, he had to get himself into the right physical and mental shape to go 12 rounds against the hardest heavyweight puncher of his era.
Fury's dominant performance in 2015 against Wladimir Klitschko suggested that he had the technical capability and mental fortitude to win at the highest level of the heavyweight division. But it was anyone's guess, after his years in the wilderness, as to whether he could recover his best form in the ring.
And yet there Fury was on Saturday night, boxing beautifully, flummoxing Wilder with an array of feints, movement, jabs and solid right hands. It was as if the intervening three years had never happened. Through most of the fight Fury's defense was terrific, repeatedly slipping under Wilder's right hands and either countering with sharp shots or tying up to limit follow up punches.
In some ways Fury was even better on Saturday than he had been against Klitschko. I thought that he was far more offensively-minded against Wilder, not merely trying to neutralize. And unlike Klitschko, Wilder winged bad-intentioned bombs all 12 rounds of the fight. Fury needed to be switched on to avoid danger throughout the match.
Overall it was an improbable tale and an almost unbelievable site to witness. A man returns from the pits of hell to get the better of one of the best.
Through eight rounds of the fight, things weren't going well for Wilder. Yes, it's possible that he could have nicked a round or two but he was well behind. Wilder would unload with wild haymakers, most of which missed, while Fury would control the action with expert boxing and ring generalship.
From moment one of the fight, Fury imposed himself physically. Using his height, reach and movement, Fury gave Wilder little to hit and dictated the flow of the fight. Fury's reflexes and footwork were so superior that there was no range where Wilder had an advantage.
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In addition to Fury's physical and technical superiority, Wilder also had to deal with Fury's constant mockery in the ring. Fury demonstrated a tour de force of psychological gamesmanship throughout the fight. Just in the first round, Fury put his hands behind his back daring Wilder to hit him, he raised his arms up like he had already been declared the winner, he stuck his tongue out, danced, feinted with every part of his body except his ass, and this pattern continued round after round.
It's easy to understand why fighters would want to give up against Fury. He's extremely difficult to hit and he consistently tries to embarrass his opponents. And in my experience in following boxing, a fighter would rather get knocked out than be embarrassed in the ring. Almost everything Wilder tried didn't work. Although he landed here and there with a stray jab or a right hand, there was little sustained success. He was being beaten, consistently, and he knew it.
But it takes a rare breed of fighter to keep going for the win after being rendered ineffective time after time. It almost runs counter to human nature. We're not trained to deal with failure well. Yes, Wilder has been blessed with uncommon God-given power in his right hand. But it's more than that; it's his faith that his moment will materialize and his self-belief that he can land his best, whatever the circumstances and in whatever setting.
In the ninth round Wilder made a subtle adjustment that heralded the first significant change in the fight. Instead of (over)shooting the right hand with maximum force, he followed up the right with a sweeping left hook. This punch had been available for Wilder all fight, and in truth finishing a combination with a left hook is fairly common in the sport, but for Wilder, one shot has more often been enough throughout his career. He punches in combination sparingly.
Wilder exploded with a four-punch combination in the ninth that featured two right hands and two left hooks, and Fury fell to the canvas. It wasn't Wilder's cleanest knockdown, but it was an equilibrium shot. More importantly, it was a sign that Fury could be dented.
But Fury rallied. He not only survived the ninth round, he was getting the best of the action as it ended. In the 10th and 11th the previous pattern of the fight was restored: Wilder mostly failed to connect with haymakers while Fury continued to pick up points with superior boxing and movement.
In the final round, however, it happened, or so we all thought – that one moment where Wilder would forever change the fight. He threw a perfect two-punch combination: a blistering right hand and a whipping left hook, and Fury was out (or so we all thought).
Many referees would have waved off the fight immediately. We see this every weekend in boxing where the ref doesn't even bother to go through the motions of a count and calls an end to the fight, but Jack Reiss isn't such a ref.
Here's a quote from Reiss in an interview I did with him last year: "Everything I’m about to do I’m always asking the question, 'What’s the best thing for me to do for boxing in this situation?' Whether it’s stopping it or letting it go, whether it’s taking points or not, in every single fight my goal is the bigger picture…any time I don’t insert myself and bring controversy to boxing, to the commission or myself, that’s the goal."
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On Saturday, Reiss followed his philosophy to a T. He did what was best for boxing, which was providing the opportunity for a compelling fight to continue. But that was only one level of his exemplary work on Saturday. Not only did he administer a count that many refs wouldn't have even bothered with, but after careful examination he determined that Fury had enough of his faculties to remain competitive. Refs are human beings. Most don't like to make mistakes. The easy (and safer) way out would have been for Reiss to wave off the fight or to take a look at Fury and determine that the fight should be over. In a "cover-your-ass" world, Reiss was unafraid to put his reputation and career on the line.
And almost immediately Fury confirmed Reiss's judgment by cracking Wilder with right hands and thwarting his aggression. By the end of the round, somehow, shockingly, it was Fury who was winning the final moments, a literal resurrection in the ring as well as a perfect metaphor for his last three years.
With boxing preternaturally blessed with an inability to get out of its own way, of course the fight was ruled a split draw, with one judge scoring it even, one for Wilder and one for Fury. Alejandro Rochin's 115-111 tally for Wilder was indefensible. Rochin somehow had Wilder sweeping the first four rounds, a feat that would be beyond the ability of the world's best contortionist. Rochin was not watching the action at hand, and his scorecard sullied an otherwise remarkable fight. I have less of a problem with Phil Edwards's draw verdict. I scored the fight 114-112 for Fury, or eight rounds to four, with Tyson losing two additional points because of the knockdowns. I could envision a scenario where Fury won seven rounds, but it's inconceivable to me that he only took five.
Rochin has been a professional boxing judge since 1992. He's been awarded scores of international judging assignments. Examining his record prior to Saturday's fight, I wouldn't have necessarily considered him among the best or worst of American judges, but he turned in a career-defining doozy. Yes, bad scorecards do happen, and it's not always easy, but this wasn't a fight that had half a dozen swing rounds. At the very least, Rochin demonstrated that he's no longer competent to work as a professional judge.
But the poor scorecard doesn't diminish the fight for me. Ultimately I will remember Wilder-Fury as a thrilling encounter between two heavyweights fighting to the best of their abilities. Featuring wonderful displays of self-belief, heart, faith, boxing skills and power, Wilder-Fury was a glorious reminder that big fights can deliver the goods, and that the heavyweight division, the weight class that truly makes the world take notice, is healthy and exciting. Boxing and controversy often go together like a hand in glove, but the fans understood what they witnessed: A proper heavyweight rumble, an unforgettable event, Wilder unleashing a combination from hell and Fury miraculously rising.