The sight of an exhausted Deontay Wilder taking punishment in the latter rounds of his third match with Tyson Fury for the WBC/Ring/Lineal World Heavyweight Championship confirmed to many Fury fans what they had been saying for a while. Tyson Fury was the superior fighter who had been robbed of the title by a draw when the two had first met, proven his worth by stopping Wilder in the seventh round to take the titles and now cleanly knocked the ex-champion out in the eleventh round in their third match. Wilder had never beaten Fury and lost twice to him in decisive ways.
Fight number one was a split decision with Wilder seemingly only snatching a draw due to the fact that he knocked Fury down twice in the fight. The second knockdown occurred in the final round and Fury’s recovery from it looked almost supernatural. Fury versus Wilder II saw Fury damage Wilder significantly when he knocked him down in round three and the champion never seemed to full regain his composure for the rest of the bout, leading some to incorrectly speculate there had been some internal ear damage. After two knockdowns that were ruled as slips, Tyson undeniably knocked his man down with a swift combination in the fifth. During the seventh round, Wilder’s corner had seen enough and after another unanswered combination found their mark, they threw the towel in against protests from their frustrated fighter. The third outing saw Wilder go much longer, but this time Fury left everyone in no doubt. He took Wilder’s best shots in the fourth round where he was knocked down twice but came back and began out-boxing his opponent again. By the eleventh an exhausted Wilder was sent facedown to the canvas with a right hook from Hell and the referee didn’t even count.
The verdicts came in along and where met by expected the confirmation biases. Wilder had shown improved boxing skills but this was no match for Fury who had removed all doubt by knocking his opponent out. To the minds of many, boxing had won out and the limitations of the slugger or brawler had been laid out for the world to see. It was far from the first time in recent history. The former WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO Heavyweight Champion, Anthony Joshua, had publicised and seemingly demonstrated his ability as an out-boxer against the brawling Andy Ruiz Jr when he won back his title in text-book style. Ruiz, looking like something of a callback to 1930s/40s “Two Ton” Tony Galento, had shocked the world by winning the titles in their first confrontation. Joshua would lose the title to another outboxer, Oleksandr Usyk, two years later. Usyk seemed to even further reinforce the argument as his performance to most who watched demonstrated that of an even more skilled fighter besting a less skilled heavier opponent.
And yet the slugger is a commonly misunderstood and unfairly maligned type of boxer. In purest style terms, they aren’t even considered to be “boxers”. We are provided with an image of an ignorant brute wholly reliant on their genetically gifted tools. He or she perfectly represents the role of the bully in the playground, the thuggish henchman and the monster in our storytelling imagination. Duels throughout mythology in ancient cultures across the globe often championed intelligence and skill over opponents who were more reliant on strength and power. Therefore, the pure boxer or out-boxer is the exemplification of what the art of the sport is supposed mean in the modern gloved era. However, boxing is far more nuanced than these distinctions might lead you to believe. In the first half of the 20th century “Gentleman” Jim Corbett was rightfully considered the father of the modern art. His defeat over the last bare knuckle and first gloved world heavyweight champion, “The Boston Strongboy” John L. Sullivan, re-established the brains over brawn ideal of fight folklore.
We can drawn a line from Corbett to the talented light heavyweight Gene Tunney who decisively beat the great Jack Dempsey to first win and then retain the World Heavyweight Championship. Tunney idolised Corbett and surviving promotional footage shows the two training together. They were the true descendents of the type of boxing popularised by Daniel Mendoza in the 1700s and Tom Sayers in 1800s. These fighters are often the ones credited with progressing and developing the art of boxing often often contrasted with highly inaccurate depictions of everything that occurred before them being little more than toe-to-toe brawls. Corbett is credited with inventing the lead hook, the great lightweight Joe Gans and later Benny Leonard are outboxers famed for developing the technical jab. Tommy Loughran and Billy Conn became known as the masters of footwork in the ’20s and ’40s respectively. Jersey Joe Walcott doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his prototypical shuffle and unpredictable maneuvering. However, Willie Pep took it to an incredible level and turned evasion into its own fighting art-form.
Meanwhile, for the argument that the sluggers are just genetically advantaged fighters we need look no further than Jess Willard, Primo Carnera and Max Baer, who all had deaths of boxers attached to their names due the power they could pack into a single punch. We then can look at their contemporary, Luis “Wild Bull” Firpo, to add more weight to the argument that sluggers lacked technical ability. Firpo, who famously came back after a series of knockdowns to send Jack Dempsey through the ropes, can be seen in some fights running from his corner with his fist held back to throw the most telegraphed and crude haymaker imaginable.
However, this is all cherry picking. To be fair to Baer, his boxing footwork improved after his defeat at the hands of Tommy Loughran. Demonstrating the character of the man, he went to his lighter weight vanquisher and asked for some advice. Likewise, another great slugger with scarily powerful natural gifts, “Big” George Foreman, shocked the world when he returned to the sport after a 10 year layoff with new skills. Trained by the “Old Mongoose” Archie Moore, Foreman was still a slugger at heart but demonstrated he had a high ring IQ. Previously he had leant on his youth and immense strength with bully boy wrestling tactics as he manhandled opponents around the ring before unleashing terrifying punches. He demolished all opposition in his division, including the legendary swarmer Smokin’ Joe Frazier, claiming the undisputed World Heavyweight Championship. Like Wilder, all his opponents had been stopped inside the distance before he met his nemesis. Muhammad Ali was a total maverick in and outside the ring, but he was also a brilliant out-boxer who out-strategised Foreman. Although Foreman boxed for a few years following his defeat, the loss of his title to Ali’s brilliance mentally affected him. A second defeat, this time at the hands of another awkward counter-puncher, Jimmy Young, sent him into early retirement. When the big man returned in 1987, the sport had changed considerably but he adapted and made a very slow trek back to the top. Foreman could no longer rely on his youth and gone were a lot of the grappling tactics, but his new cross-guard became an effective weapon. Nevertheless, he was still a slugger and Moore knew, like any trainer, it was foolish not to play to this big strength and the new tactics were designed to complement and set up his power hand. Interestlingly, Foreman’s power technique changed the second time around. In the ’70s he was known for right uppercut – an almost supernatural looking punch that literally lifted world class atheletes off their feet with its force. From ’87 to ’97 his opponents feared his straight right. After becoming the oldest man in the history of the sport to claim World Heavyweight Championship, Foreman is a superb example of a slugger with brains.
Likewise, the man who took Jim Corbett’s title in 1897 was a slugger who does not easily fit into the brute strenght and ignorance stereotype. Bob Fitzsimmons was the lightest man to hold the world title. Contributing his own nuanced technical innovation to boxing education, Fitzsimmons knocked out Corbett using a punch to the solar plexus. The set up for this, which involved angling and switch-hitting, became known as the “Fitzsimmons shift”. Mike Tyson’s famous switch-hitting owes a lot to this move, proving its relevance eight decades later. Max Schmeling was a classic slugger but no one would argue he lacked intelligence or analytical skills. Like Tunney, Schmeling was an avid reviewer of boxers and, in the days before television and widespread filming, he would attend fights involving his opponents before fighting them. He is the man noted for seeing a weakness in the style of the technical wonder, Joe Louis, handing him both his first defeat and his first knockout. Schmeling had seen that Louis did not fully retract his jab, leaving an gap perfect for Schmeling’s best punch: the right cross.
Contrary to vacuous popular opinion, a slugger might have good footwork and, like Schmeling, might be as good a counter-puncher as anyone. They also might be creative like world featherweight champion Naseem Hamed who matched his showmanship with highly unorthodox movement patterns. What might seem like a highly predictable style of fighting, having to rely on one big punch, can evolve into a sophisticated set of strategies, tactics and techniques based around achieving that big shot. Some of the most memorable short combinations come from sluggers. Two-time World Featherweight and Super Featherweight world title holder Sandy Saddler used his rear hand, throwing straights and over-hands to steer his opponents into true weapon: the liver shot. Contemporary two-time world middleweight champion Tony “Man of Steel” Zale had his rear uppercut/lead hook combination, which looks almost suicidal by today’s standards and yet was regularly pulled off in a time when professionals fought monthly, sometimes fortnightly. In this instance the uppercut did most of the damage, stunning his opponent by striking him in the solar plexus whilst loading the lead hook to deliver the coup de grace. Likewise, when Tyson Fury went down twice in his first match with Wilder it was due to a well executed left hook/overhand right and an overhand/left hook combinations respectively. Wilder might be seen as the desperate thrower of haymakers when Fury frustrated him and he was running out of energy, but there is no taking away his ability to pair two-fisted combinations. The first of these combinations saw the left hook do the stunning job ready for the diagonal overhand, Wilder’s normal knockout punch, to send Fury to the canvas. The second knockdown – the one that Fury miraculously recover from – saw power thrown into both punches.
The third match began almost as repeat of the second one with Wilder firing in low jabs. Despite the disaster he met in the previous match, it was clear that he still didn’t want to make the mistake he had done in the first bout where he had been too slow in the opening rounds and allowed Fury to dictate the pace. All judges had him taking round one. Matters evened up in round two and in round three history looked to repeat itself when Fury stunned Wilder with a right hook to the temple, finishing him off with an uppercut from the same hand in the clinch. As in the previous fight, Wilder was down in round three. However, he had not sustained the same damage as before and was about to more than make up for it in the next round. In round four he took the lead on points again with a jab/straight right that sent Fury down for a count. Having beat the count, Wilder then landed a more punishing short right hook behind Fury’s ear somewhat reminscent of the first knockdown in their first encounter when the same target was struck with an overhand right. This time Fury was down for a eight. Now this part of the match is worth considering. Wilder despite being the slugger, wholly reliant on dropping power punches, was facing a man who was not only two inches taller with a two inch reach advantage but was 50lbs heavier. His record for doing this type of damage to Fury in their fights is not to be overlooked and testament to the proportionate power behind Wilder’s punches. This could be a fair argument for a super-heavyweight division to be instituted in all professional boxing asscociations, reminscent of the days when it was ruled world heavyweight champion Primo Carnera could not fight opponents who were giving up more than a certain amount of weight.
Furthermore, the second count – as noted by one commentator and former UFC champion Dominic Cruz – was a slow one. Slow counts are a big discussion points in the history of boxing, often creating debates when they occur during pivotal moments in past champion’s careers. Jack Dempsey and the man who idolised him, Mike Tyson, were both victims of slow counts. They knocked down their respective opponents who were given more than the accepted time to rise. In Dempsey’s case he had forgotten the newly instituted neutral corner rule where a fighter has to walk to before the count can begin. Such a rule affected Dempsey’s usual style of swarming that included pouncing on a opponent the second they got to their feet as can be seen in dramatic fashion when destroyed Jess Willard to first claim the heavyweight belt. Because he had waited to pounce on Tunney and then had to instructed to return to the neutral corner, Tunney had been given valuable extra time ahead of the official count. Likewise, Mike Tyson floored Buster Douglas for a count that was delivered at too slow a pace and was contested after the fight. Douglas would famously rise to knock out Tyson in one of history’s greatest boxing upsets.
Heart in a fight doesn’t prefer any of any of the different fighting styles. However, there have been many memorable sluggers who have amazed us with their bravery under fire. The fictitious Rocky Balboa, after all, is cast as a slugger against the outboxing brilliance of Apollo Creed – a name possibly taken from the Greek god who bested Ares, the god of war, in a boxing match in Greek mythology. Because of their knowledge that they have this one shot that can change everything, the slugger’s determination to keep going when everything seems stacked against them seems that much more tragic. It is not uncommon to see the greatest sluggers in history lose on round after round only to unleash their power punch and turn the tables completely on their slicker opponent. Deontay Wilder’s tenacity and determination has never been in question. Perhaps he and his camp have thrown accusations and made excuses that seem like sour grapes for his defeats at the hand of Fury, but his actions in the ring have always been that of a fighter willing to fight to the end. In the first fight it seemed that he was going to deliver a text-book slugger comeback when he almost knocked Fury out in the final round. A split decision gave them both a draw, but I think the majority would rule that outside of the two knockdowns, Fury had solidly outpointed Wilder. This is not to the detriment of Wilder, only further proving his courage and determination to pull out such a move in the final three minutes. In the second match Wilder was in trouble from round three onwards. Wilder was unsteady on his feet from that moment onwards and his subsequent falls were met by his palpable frustration erupting into anger when his trainer finally pulled him out in round seven. This was a fighter determined to fight until it was no longer possible and an individual who had complete faith in his ability to win. This time the exhausted and battered form we watched in round 10 that was sent down for the second time appeared to be a boxer allowed to continue despite having been severely wobbled since he had given his best shots to the champion. Round 11 was a foregone conclusion but this time no one stepped in and Wilder was permitted to go out on his shield as Fury obliterated him with a right to the temple.
I count myself amongst those who bemoaned the behaviour of the boxing business when Wilder activated his contractual clause and the judge ruled in his favour for the third match. Like many others, I was looking forward to seeing the unification bout between Tyson Fury and the then holder of the other major World Heavyweight titles, Anthony Joshua. On paper it looked fairly unimportant given that Wilder had only drawn with Fury in their first fight, which I believed Fury had actually won on points despite being knocked down twice, and the second time Fury had stopped the champion in the seventh round. Wilder always claimed he should have won the first fight given that he had knocked Fury down twice and not been knocked down once. He also claimed glove tampering and wearing a too heavy costume on entering ring as well as having his water spiked in the second match. Regardless of this, Wilder was not a man dodging his opponent. He was showing he was hungry and had his eyes on the belt he lost even if it meant taking down not only the first boxer to stop him but also the only professional opponent he had knocked out. Fans can say all they want about Wilder’s opposition, but he was the lineal champion and stopped every single one of his 42 professional opponents inside the distance.
So, if sluggers aren’t stupid and ignorant oafs set to be schooled by “proper boxers” why did Deontay Wilder, a formidable world class slugger, lose again to Tyson Fury? There are many different factors to consider. Fury was not just an outboxer, which should be the paper to the slugger’s rock, but also that rare hybrid known as the boxer-puncher. In essence this means someone who has the official skills of a technical boxer but also carries a heavy punch or two. Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Joe Louis and Lennox Lewis are counted amongst the exemplars in this smallest of categories. The style is the envy of all beginners, as it is not just a slugger/outboxer fusion but pretty much describes a fighter than can handle everything. Robinson could clinch, pick shots from the outside, fight dirty, fight clean and do it all in seamless transition. Archie Moore could and did readily adapt, handing huge numbers of fighters and often boxing the best above his natural weight class. Fury also displays incredible endurance, speed and agility for a man of his size. He also knows how to use his size to good effect, adding to the wear on Wilder when they clinched. Fury was warned by his over-leaning by the referee at one time during his third clash with Wilder. His previous fight had seen him, almost Foreman style, ragdolling Wilder around once he knew the damage had been done. In the third fight Wilder not only had to contend trying to maintain an aggressive pace against a fighter with swifter footwork he also had the smaller man’s burden.
An easy metaphor to follow is to think of boxing styles like firearms. The swarmer uses a machine gun – they spray and pray – the out-boxer uses a rifle for procession shots and the slugger uses a shotgun. The problem with the shotgun is that the time it takes reload and first in comparison to the way the other two work and the fact that the ammo is pretty limited. When one watches a fight it is important to note the number of punches that miss than the number that land. From Willie Pep to Floyd Mayweather Jr., there are many fighters who have made their living in the ring avoiding punches. When a slugger misses with their big shots they expend a lot of energy. Getting Wilder to miss and miss regularly had to be as much of Fury’s plan as picking his own shots. When a power shot is thrown it comes from the feet and utilises the entire body. Wilder’s force is without question, but the cost of throwing such hugely destructive punches is expensive. From their first confrontation Wilder would raise a high guard almost robotically in comparison to the natural Ali-esque low guard of Fury. There wasn’t a lot belief in that defence. Wilder was known for destroying his opponent’s guards not maintaining his own, something that clearly cost him once he was running low on slugs against an opponent that used head movement more than arm defence. This doesn’t mean it is impossible for Wilder to ever beat Fury. Indeed, this fight was the best of the three and Wilder was on his best form yet. However, so was Fury.