Sunday, November 24, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Wilder-Ortiz II, Smith-Ryder

Remember those nature videos about lions attacking their prey? Camouflaging themselves in the high grasslands of the savanna, they lie in wait. They are patient. Their prey get comfortable, let their guard down and no longer perceive an imminent threat. It is then that the lions pounce – attacking with ferocity, devouring their unsuspecting victims. In a matter of seconds it's all over.  

Deontay Wilder is such a lion, although he hides in plain sight. He waits. He remains focused. He deals with the distractions of pesky shots from an opponent. He's looking for that one opening to pounce, that moment where a foe gets a little too comfortable. And then he sees the opportunity. He attacks. In a snap of a finger the target winds up supine, lifeless and defeated. It's a clinical destruction. The hunter gets his prey.  

Wilder unleashes his right hand
Photo Courtesy of Ryan Hafey

Through 43 fights only two of Wilder's opponents have made it to the final bell. One, Bermane Stiverne, was destroyed in a rematch. The other, Tyson Fury, needed an act of almost indescribable intestinal fortitude, and the right referee, to survive. Each felt Wilder's right hand missile. 

It's no great secret what Wilder's opponents try to do in the ring: avoid the right at all costs. A handful of them have won numerous rounds against him. They land their shots. They beat him with activity. They capitalize on his indifference to winning rounds. But the problem that many of them have is that they are trying to beat him. That means they have to open up enough offensively to win rounds. At a certain point it's not enough just to avoid the right hand. If they want to win, they need to do so convincingly. 

Eventually defensive shortcomings, overconfidence and/or fatigue manifest. These three problems work in Wilder's favor. Wilder carries his power all 12 rounds. He doesn't burn himself out wasting punching. He has excellent conditioning. In addition, he has such belief in his right hand that he never feels that a fight is out of reach. And with his power, it isn't. 

Luis Ortiz boxed very well on Saturday. He landed a number of powerful left hands. He moved much better than he did in their first fight in 2018. But some of the same issues from their initial meeting re-appeared in the rematch. Ortiz found it so easy to hit Wilder that he started to take more chances in the ring. Instead of patiently sticking behind single shots that were successful early in the fight, he entered into a shootout with Wilder in the seventh round. And as the old adage says "never bring a knife to a gunfight"; Wilder had the 12 gauge shotgun. 

Wilder ended matters near the end of the round with a blinding jab and a perfectly thrown right hand. Ortiz, eyes scrambled, body discombobulated, couldn't beat the count. And if there were controversies in the first fight (the New York commission taking some extra time to examine Wilder before a round started), all of that has been put to bed now. Ortiz has had his chances, performed well, but ultimately could not remain on his feet for 12 rounds.

Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp

For all of Wilder's flaws as a fighter, and they have been well-documented, he manages to land his right hand on everyone. The footwork can be ponderous, his punch volume can be anemic, he loads up too much on big shots; yet, despite all of his opponents’ hyper-vigilance regarding his right hand, he still detonates it. And it's not just about power. His hand speed is terrific. His technique with the shot has perfect torque. Sure, he can slap with his left hook and he doesn't always punch through the target with his jab, but when he throws the right hand, it's with textbook precision. 

Similar to most Wilder fights, the knockout masked the other aspects of his performance, good and bad. After six completed rounds, at best he could have won two of them. He had so much trust in his chin that he sometimes didn't even bother to block or avoid shots (this flaw will one day cause a huge problem for him). In addition, his punch volume was poor. 

As they often do, Wilder's other punches played a role in his victory. In the sixth Wilder started to throw his left hook with regularity. It didn't always land with authority, but there was actually a sequence in the round where he connected with a shot high on Ortiz's head. In response, Ortiz moved away from the hook toward Wilder's right hand. Now think about that for a moment. The hook was so effective that it scrambled Ortiz's senses for a brief instant and convinced him that moving to Wilder's eraser would somehow be a better course of action. Although Wilder didn't capitalize on that moment, it was worth pointing out, for it exposed a flaw with Ortiz: Wilder's power was so significant that he could be taken out of his game plan. 

The one other effect of the hook is that it provided Ortiz with more openings to counter. This was of course fool's gold. Ortiz deciding to be friskier on offense played right into Wilder's hands. Deontay, like those lions, waits for targets to lose their vigilance. 

Let's also take a moment to reflect on Wilder's jab. Wilder may not have thrown more than two dozen jabs in seven rounds, or at least ones that were intending to land. Yet, Ortiz had enough respect for it that he moved his glove to try to parry it in the final combination. Now with the glove further away from Ortiz's body, Wilder had the opening that he needed. And that was that. The speed and power of Wilder's jab was enough of a concern for Ortiz to attempt to defend it. Wilder doesn't get that particular knockout on Saturday without the jab. 

Wilder will always be vulnerable in fights, but in my estimation he should be favored against any current heavyweight. Until I see evidence that he can't land his right hand, I'm just not sure how many opponents can take the shot. And I'm certainly not convinced that Fury would be able to rise up again. But this conjecture is for another day. Wilder has helped usher in a wildly entertaining era of heavyweight boxing. All of the top fighters have unique skills; all have flaws. I don't know which boxer will wind up emerging on top, but I know I don't want to miss it. The reintroduction of fun into the heavyweight division has been a wonderful development. 


Super middleweight champ Callum Smith survived a rugged fight against John Ryder on Saturday. He wound up winning a unanimous decision 117-111, 116-112 and 116-112, but ignore those scorecards (especially Terry O'Connor's dreadful 117-111); they didn't reflect the competitiveness of the fight. Most saw it very close. I had Ryder winning it by two points, 115-113.

Smith's lackluster performance couldn't come at a worse time in his career. Paraded as a potential Canelo Alvarez opponent prior to Saturday's fight, Smith seemed no more than ordinary. Perhaps Ryder was a "trap fight," a bout that Smith couldn't get up for in training. Smith also had subpar outings against Nieky Holzken and Erik Skoglund in the first two rounds of the World Boxing Super Series Tournament, which Smith would subsequently win in a great performance against George Groves. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

Physically, Smith looks enormous at the weight. He's a muscular 6'3", has an enormous reach and solid power. His dimensions present significant problems. However, he seems to be missing a consistency gene. There are times where he looks like a top fighter in the sport while on other occasions he appears to be easily beatable. Saturday was an example of the latter. 

John Ryder and trainer Tony Sims came into the fight with a great game plan: Make it rough on the inside, back up Smith whenever possible and take away Callum's significant reach advantage. Although Ryder isn't a master boxing technician, he was successful at getting into close range. He jabbed with Smith. He employed excellent head movement to take away Smith's straight right hand. He used angles when coming in. Perhaps most importantly, once he was on the inside, he stayed there. He knew exactly what he needed to do to win the fight. 

It wasn't as if Smith was completely outclassed in the fight. He had moments where he landed excellent left hooks and right uppercuts. When he was on the front foot he was able to neutralize a lot of Ryder's offense. It's not that he was necessarily an undeserved victor. There could be a case for him squeaking by with seven rounds, but more significantly, in this era of potential superfights, he failed to impress. 

Joe Gallagher has trained numerous champions over the years and has received almost every award that is available for a trainer to win, but he didn't have a good night on Saturday. There was no Plan B for Callum Smith. Why did Smith continue to cede control of the center of the ring? Why was he voluntarily backing up to the ropes? Why wasn't he investing more to the body? Smith and Gallagher were lucky to leave victorious from the Echo Arena in Liverpool (Smith's home town by the way). That performance, by fighter and trainer, won't be enough to defeat the best that the sport has to offer. 

Perhaps Callum does fight down to his level of competition. There are fighters like that in the sport. I'm certainly not dismissing his future prospects, but Saturday's performance was concerning. 

Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson

As for Ryder, his hard luck continues. Billy Joe Saunders scraped by with a 7-5 type of win against him in 2013. Many believed that Ryder earned victories against Rocky Fielding and Jack Arnfield, which were close defeats. If he wins even one of these four fights (counting Saturday's bout against Smith), perhaps the whole trajectory of his career would be different. Now, at age 31 and with a record of 31-5, he will continue to be viewed as a capable "opponent", but he was so close to being more. 

Boxing's not a kind sport. It's sometimes referred to as the cruelest, and here is yet another example. John Ryder may never have another opportunity to win a title. He may never perform against a top-level fighter the way he did on Saturday. And in another generation he will most likely be forgotten – a blip for the historians, a distant memory from fans of his time. 

He deserved better on Saturday: better judging, fairer scores, more respect from his opponent and promoter. He should be more than a footnote. But boxing is not a meritocracy, not when judges are involved. It's never been and never will be. And if you don't knock guys out, especially the right guys, you run the risk of being relegated to history's dustbin. Hopefully Ryder gets one more shot, but how many times can a fighter get the short end of the stick and remain confident and committed to the sport? We may have seen Ryder's best on Saturday, and he wasn't winning that fight absent something miraculous happening. Very good was not good enough.  

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe'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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