Every now and then boxing reveals a level of primal savagery that reaches far beyond skills, technique and tactics. This type of combat is fighting at its most foundational and scary, harkening back to a time well before there was a sport or rules for engagement. Saturday's Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder heavyweight title fight was an example of this primordial combat. This was two people engaging in a relentless and vicious war of wills to protect what's theirs, to overcome a foe determined to inflict life-changing damage. These fights don't happen often; even many fights of the year don't reach this rarified air.
Fury-Wilder 3 transcended the notion of a boxing match, even a great one. The fight included five knockdowns, three from Fury and two from Wilder, and resulted in a Fury 11th-round stoppage, but even those eye-catching statistics fail to capture the nature of what transpired in the ring. Fury-Wilder 3 will be remembered for the ferocity of its combat, the unyielding determination of its fighters, and how each combatant was unwilling to succumb.
|Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams|
The round-by-round scoring of Saturday's fight was almost incidental. Fury scored a knockdown in the third. Wilder had two in fourth. Fury had a second knockdown in the tenth. But even in the rounds where no fighter went down, the action featured a ferocity and brutality where both left it all in the ring. The kitchen sink was unloaded; all weapons were unholstered. Nothing remained in the gym or the dressing room.
By the sixth round Fury was in control of the action. Using his 277-lb. frame to batter Wilder in clinches and along the ropes, Fury demonstrated his mastery of close-quarter combat. He landed truly menacing shots: chopping right hands, left hooks to the head and body, right uppercuts and looping right hands. When he would connect with a power punch or a two-punch combination, he would go to town with grappling and bullying, trying to gain control of his opponent physically and mentally. In every round from the sixth on, Wilder looked like he could go down at any moment... but he somehow stayed on his feet; he would not yield.
Wilder didn't win the eighth, ninth or tenth rounds, yet even after being battered through large portions of those frames, he found moments to turn the tide and unload his best power shots. Unlike in previous fights in the series, Wilder utilized every tool at his disposal. He landed a couple of blistering uppercuts. He flashed a surprise left hook or two. He brought his right downstairs at times.
In the tenth, Wilder was dropped from a quick right hand from Fury. Wilder was off-balance when the shot landed and badly hurt. Yet even in the final moments of that round, he was able to turn Fury on the ropes and fire back a desperate salvo of huge power shots that temporarily saved him from more damage.
A picture-perfect two-punch combination from Fury in the 11th concluded the fight. With Wilder along the ropes, Fury landed a crushing left hook to the head and followed with a right hook, which Wilder never saw. Wilder fell over to his right side, his body completely defenseless for the ensuing impact. Referee Russell Mora immediately called the fight off. It was the right time to save the fighter from himself. No doubt Wilder would have tried to beat the count, to keep on going. But he had taken too much.
In a much-discussed move after the second Fury-Wilder fight, where Wilder was systematically dismantled by Fury, Deontay fired his co-trainer, Mark Breland. What followed was a lot of nastiness – accusations of cheating, traitorous behavior, poisoning drinks. This was not a dignified time for Wilder and his actions and words led a lot of ill-will in the boxing community.
Instead of hiring an established cornerman for the third Fury fight, someone with bona fides at the top level, Wilder selected Malik Scott to train him. Scott had been a former opponent of Wilder's and one of his chief sparring partners. Although Scott was certainly inexperienced as pro trainer, he had built a reputation as being one of the best sparring partners in the heavyweight division. And even though his own fights were often tough to sit through because of a lack of action, there was no doubting his considerable boxing foundation. But would he be able to teach Wilder? Would Wilder be receptive to change?
|Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams|
Scott's hiring was criticized by many corners in the boxing world. Scott was portrayed as a yes-man, a neophyte and out of his depth. Yet, watching Wilder on Saturday, there was no doubt how much Scott was able to impart on his good friend in just one training camp.
Wilder on Saturday was exponentially better than he was against Fury in either of their two previous fights. Wilder started with a coherent plan, with long left jabs to the body. The impact of these shots helped to create distance and let Fury know that he couldn't rush in without worrying about return fire.
Where Wilder was criticized in the past for being a little lazy in the ring, for not trying to win rounds, Wilder fought Saturday's fight with a new-found sense of urgency. And where Wilder often refused to throw anything except his jab and right hand, Scott had Wilder throwing everything in his arsenal – rights and jabs to the body, left hooks, right uppercuts.
Positionally, Wilder did much better along the ropes than he did in the second fight. Yes, Fury still got the better of the action in most of these moments. But, and this is a big but, Wilder did much better at clinching, working in the clinch and spinning off the ropes. He still lost many of these battles, but he competed in these aspects of the fight far better than he did in their second one, and it's obvious that this was something worked on and improved upon during training camp.
Even Wilder's two knockdowns on Saturday were uncharacteristic from his past fights. His first came from a mid-range right hand that caught Fury on his way in. His second was from a variety of cuffing shots at short range. These were new wrinkles from Wilder, who usually did most of his best work from distance. Wilder will never be a master in close quarters, but there was improvement on Saturday and a sense that he's not helpless in that range. It's clear that he worked on shortening up his punches and adding some variety to his repertoire.
Scott, of course, isn't a magician and many of Wilder's bad habits did reemerge when he faced duress. His footwork was too ponderous and he often wasn't in position to throw. He would often cross his feet, which made it tough to defend himself properly. He also didn't return to the jab after having some early success. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered given the nature of the fight, but perhaps the change of pace with the jab would have been able to make a couple of those big shots land with greater impact.
For as improved as Wilder was in the third fight, he still couldn't get the best of Fury. And it's almost easy to run out of superlatives for Tyson. Not only is he an expert boxer from distance, as he proved in their first fight, but he learned to batter opponents on the inside. He has solutions for every range in a fight. Remember, he beat Wladimir Klitschko mostly as a southpaw, a wrinkle that he didn't even show in the Wilder fights. His footwork, balance and punch variety are uncommonly good for a big man. He's a special talent and as boxing fans we are fortunate to see that he has overcome his personal demons and can now display his myriad gifts to the best of his abilities.
But ultimately, Saturday's fight and the Wilder trilogy as a whole wasn't about Fury's multiplicity of skills as much as his heart and undeniable fighting spirit. Fury somehow got up from a right hand/left hook combo in the 12th round of the first fight. Almost everyone watching thought that the fight was over after Wilder landed. But not only did Fury persevere, he won the rest of the round.
|Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams|
On Saturday Fury recovered from a vicious knockdown in the fourth that short-circuited his senses. Dropped again later in the round, Fury looked like he may not be able to survive. But he took the minute break between rounds, cleared his head and went back to business. By the sixth he had again established control of the fight. His recuperative powers are truly magnificent, but it's not just a physical attribute. He has supreme self-belief and an unwillingness to yield.
The Fury-Wilder trilogy was an odd one where Fury won two fights cleanly and had a strong case for winning the third, and yet the series was unforgettable. Wilder may have only won seven or so rounds in the whole series, but that aspect won't be remembered. The series produced indelible moments like Wilder's two-piece in the 12th round of fight one and Fury's rising against all odds; Fury's dominance on the inside in the second fight; the ferocious combat from both in the third bout, with each hitting the deck multiple times and throwing everything imaginable to survive, to emerge as the winner.
Fury-Wilder 3 was a gift for boxing fans, a reminder of how special the sport can be. Tyson and Deontay took an unfathomable amount of damage for greater glory and just rewards. It was prizefighting at its very best, and the fight will immediately be added to the annals of great moments in an imperfect sport. Boxing has too many warts and problems to count. But never forget that it also includes Fury-Wilder 3 and fights of this ilk, thrilling examples of the best that sport can offer.