NEW YORK – He was finished. He looked finished. The bell sounded to end the seventh round and all the old criticisms of Deontay Wilder came roaring back.
Hasn’t fought anybody.
And then it happened. Deontay Wilder had his heavyweight champion moment.
Four rounds into the biggest fight of Wilder’s career and you could already see the narratives unfolding. Never should have taken this fight. It was a theme during the week. Wilder could have hopped a plane to the U.K., fought fringe contender Dillian Whyte and pocketed — at least according to Eddie Hearn — $4 million for doing it. Instead, he stayed stateside, rebooked a date with Luis Ortiz— dubbed the heavyweight boogeyman — and took home $2 million.
Crazy, right? Crazier four rounds in, with Ortiz putting on a boxing clinic, swatting away Wilder’s lazy jabs, scoring points with shots to the head and body. It seemed downright nuts in the seventh, when Ortiz unloaded on Wilder, hammering him with combinations, bullying him against the ropes. Wilder showed heart staying upright, but that round, that brutal, savage round, seemed to take his spirit.
“[Ortiz] puts guys in the whirlwind like that,” Wilder said. “When he does that, some guys give up. I wasn’t going to give up.”
From his ringside seat Shelly Finkel, Wilder’s co-manager, calmly looked on. Finkel knew the public perception of Wilder — untested, never been in deep waters, rocked by lesser opponents early in his career. But he remembered something the late Emmanuel Steward once told him. Years back, Steward brought Wilder to Wladimir Klitschko’s training camp. Some fighters go easy on sparring partners. Klitschko tries to send them home. During training, Steward told Finkel, Klitschko leveled Wilder with a right hand that would have knocked any other sparring partner out. Wilder went down — then got up, and finished the session.
“This kid has heart,” Finkel told Yahoo Sports. “I knew it, even if some other people don’t.”
Here’s what heart looks like: 10th round, in a tight fight on the scorecards, an elite opponent comfortable in the later rounds in front of you — and Deontay Wilder stepped up. A crushing left hook put Ortiz to the canvas midway through the round. An uppercut moments later kept him there. His boxing future in front of him and the potential for $10 million-plus in a fight with Anthony Joshua on the table, and Wilder delivered the best round of his career, obliterating Ortiz in just over two minutes, whipping 14,069 pro-Wilder fans into a frenzy.
“I wanted to burn him out,” Wilder said. “When you get a southpaw you know it’s going to take a little time. I didn’t want to rush in. I tried to set him up and it took a little longer than I wanted, but a true champion knows how to adjust.”
Indeed. Any questions about Wilder’s chin have vanished — Ortiz (28-1, 24 KOs) landed 63 power punches, and Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs) walked through every one. Skeptics of Wilder’s heart are gone — few, if any, current heavyweights could have rallied against Ortiz, an elite amateur who had stopped 24 opponents as a pro. Wilder’s career had been defined by a bronze medal at the ’08 Olympics and a title he won against a lesser foe. Now, it’s defined by this.
“He walked through the fire and he fought the toughest guy out there,” Wilder’s promoter, Lou DiBella, told Yahoo Sports. “That’s a [expletive] champion.”
Said Wilder, “A true champion always finds a way to come back, and that’s what I did tonight. Luis Ortiz is definitely a crafty guy. He put up a great fight. We knew we had to wear him down. I showed everyone I can take a punch.”
He did, Anthony Joshua has, too, and can everyone agree that any other fight for either is meaningless? The public blame game between Joshua’s side and Wilder’s has gone on for months. Standing at the back of Wilder’s postfight press conference, Finkel produced an email from Hearn dated last November. In it, Hearn said he would send profit and loss paperwork for a Wilder-Joshua fight the following week. Finkel swears that was the last communication.
“Then I read all this stuff about how we don’t want the fight,” Finkel told Yahoo Sports. “I’m telling you, we want that fight.”
It’s time. If Joshua unifies the titles against Joseph Parker later this month, there is zero interest in seeing him defend it against Jarrell Miller a few months later. Similarly, a Wilder-Dominic Breazeale fight does nothing for anybody. The buzz for Joshua-Wilder has peaked, and anything but a summertime matchup between the two heavyweight kings would be a letdown.
A year ago Joshua had his heavyweight moment against Wladimir Klitschko, picking himself up off the canvas to end the career of a legend. Now, Deontay Wilder has his. Wilder will be ringside for Joshua’s title defense, as a broadcaster, and as part of the deal he will have the opportunity to address Joshua postfight in the ring. Addressing reporters late Saturday night, Wilder said he was tired of calling out Joshua. That he’s ready for the fight. That he wants the fight.
Believe me, Deontay. So do we.
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