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The Top Ten Cruiserweights of the Decade 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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The decade of 2010-2019 was a great one for the cruiserweights and it is quite possible that in this divisional rundown of the ten best in each weight class, 200lbs will not be bettered. It was two eras, really, with one or two of the giants from the first throwing wild hooks at giants from the second as the decade roared to an end. Multiple lineal champions, quality contenders of varied styles and proclivities made it the finest decade for fights and fighters in the division’s short history.

Rankings are by Ring Magazine until the inception of the TBRB in October of 2012.

10 – Ola Afolabi

Peak Ranking: 3 Record for the Decade: 8-4-1 Ranked For: 58% of the Decade

I suspect Ola Afolabi will be something of a controversial pick.

He shouldn’t be. This man defined the term “road warrior” after the retirement of light-heavyweight Glen Johnson. British, born to Nigerian parents, he was a fighter who trained out of California but came out swinging in places as far flung as Argentina, Russia, and many spots in between. A chin hewn of titanium and an underrated jab saw him do damage on four different continents. That story began in earnest in 2009 when he got his first of four shots at cruiserweight Don Marco Huck and dropped the narrowest of decisions in an excellent fight. Treading water through the early part of the decade, he was re-matched with Huck in 2012.

That fight was probably the best of the year and among the best of the decade; Huck-Afolabi II was a heart-fueled war fought tight by two men made of granite. They may have delivered the best twelfth round of the century.

The wider context here is the result of the fight as seen by the judges, which was both gratifying and surprising in Huck’s adopted German stronghold: a draw. Anything close would have been reasonable but Afolabi earned his share, the best result he would achieve against the Serbian tough in four attempts.

That draw and the fact that Afolabi over-achieved away from home is enough to get him to #10 here. It may sound thin but thin is enough; Afolabi’s best cruiserweight win is over Rakhim Chakhkiev, a victory from an Indian summer interrupting what was at times a bizarre final act in his career. It objectively puts him alongside the likes of Tony Bellew and Steve Cunningham (who did most of his good work in the decade before) so that precious draw with Huck makes Afolabi one of the ten most accomplished cruiserweights of the decade.

09 – Krzysztof Wlodarczyk

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 16-2 Ranked For: 70% of the Decade

Diablo (“Devil)” was at the vanguard of the European assault on the cruiserweight division in the early part of the decade, a clever, adaptable fighter who was well tooled but battled physical limitations while establishing himself at the top of the division.

Neither particularly fast, strong, nor powerful, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk isn’t even an elite counterpuncher in the truest sense of the word, rather he uses baiting footwork to invite opposition to pressure his space whereupon he launches left-hand heavy attacks led by the jab and a well-disguised hook. His underused right became something of a surprise weapon for him, almost by default. It rescued him against the likes of Danny Green, thousands of miles from home and behind on the scorecards. Diablo had some layers.

What he does not have is a deep resume for the decade, his best win a breakdown of Giacobbe Fragomeni in 2010. Fragomeni had been the recipient of a gift in the form of a draw the year before and in the rematch the Pole seemed determined to robe the judges of their responsibilities. In a signature performance he dominated with mobility and jab before introducing hurtful punches which had a terminal cumulative effect. Disciplined and controlled and only allowing himself to fight with more commitment when he had his opponent off balance or out of step, Wlodarczyk stepped up the pain and the pressure in the seventh to earn his stoppage win.

2013 was his prime year and included a curbstomp of anointed prospect Rakhim Chakhkiev but he could not stem the tide; Grigory Drozd and then Murat Gassiev found him, forcing him to make way for a new generation. He is still active though – and well-handled prospects still give him a wide-berth.

08 – Yuniel Dorticos

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 22-1 Ranked For: 34% of the Decade

Here then is the first entry from the second era of the decade, Cuban puncher Yuniel Dorticos, although it should be noted that he started boxing professionally way back in 2009. It’s been a long and winding road for the Miami resident who has taken a relaxed route to the top but whose patience is now revealing the counterpunch. He meets Mairis Briedis in March to determine who is the first best cruiser of the new decade in a fight that is not to be missed.

Dorticos graduated against Youri Kalenga, an established fighter and a juddering puncher in his own right.  Joyfully, Dorticos confirmed himself as a boxer of direct aggression up against top-line opposition just as he was in dusting journeymen; his work also carries a pragmatists streak, however, and he recognizes advantages and actions them accordingly. Dorticos is listed at 6’3” with an 80” reach and so sometimes uses the backfoot.

He moved through the gears after Kalenga and Dmitry Kudryashov (his next opponent) to face Murat Gassiev in what was another wonderful fight but was also a step too far for Dorticos. Gassiev eventually broke the Cuban and sent him spilling through the ropes but not before he had swallowed bomb upon bomb and proven his chin and heart both. Rebounding since that lost with two wins against fighters ranked in the top five (Mateusz Masternak and Andrew Tabiti), Dorticos showed ambition to match that heart and chin.

07 – Krzysztof Glowacki

Peak Ranking: 3 Record for the Decade: 23-2 Ranked For: 37% of the Decade

Krzysztof Glowacki emerged from Poland to replace Wlodarczyk as his country’s premier cruiserweight and soon had overhauled him, becoming one of a stacked division’s preeminent fighters. In a 200lb class stuffed with deluxe brawlers he was, for a time, the best.

He proved it most dramatically by out-thugging Marco Huck, nearing the end, but still venomous in a throwdown, dangerous enough that he held a narrow lead at the opening of the eleventh round.  Glowacki, technically unequal to the task of out-fighting Huck, had invested heavily in the body.  Gradually, ominously, Huck’s hands began to drop to try to keep those booming hooks from his ribs and gut. Huck had been beaten just once that decade, in a questionable decision up at heavyweight, and to watch the younger, less experienced, but more substantial Glowacki crumble Huck’s battlement was one of the great sights of the decade in any division for those paying attention. There seemed a dreamlike inevitability to it which certainly had not existed at the first bell and when Glowacki landed a delightful little short right traveling up and through the head behind a grazing left-hook it made a strange kind of sense.  Huck survived that knockdown – they say the power is the last thing to go, though often it is the heart – but no man would have survived what Glowacki brought behind it. It was a minor upset and a true passing of the torch, from one streetfighter to another.

In his very next fight he devastated another old man, burying Steven Cunningham –39 and confusingly matching a fighter who is the very definition of nightmarish for an ageing warrior – under a barrage of knockdowns and picking up a decision, before running afoul of Oleksander Usyk. There is no shame here but when, after beating number five contender Maksim Vlasov, he was stopped in three rounds by Mairis Briedis in a rough fight, there was a sense that he had found his level – better than most, but not capable of hanging with the very best.

Hence, number seven.

06 – Mairis Briedis

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 25-1 Ranked For: 28% of the Decade

That Mairis Briedis is ranked outside the top six is indicative of just how strong this list of ten is. I’ll wager that no other weight division has a number six of this quality.

Briedis is iron-hued. He reportedly took some of Wladimir Klitschko’s finest punches in sparring without giving ground. A stylish and skillful boxer, he has delivered nineteen knockouts for his twenty-six victories and lost just a single contest, a majority decision where Oleksandr Usyk defeated him by a single point.

That, alone, is enough to get him on the shortlist, but Briedis has done fine work. He landed on the division in earnest in 2016, beating up a fellow prospect who had achieved contender status in the shape of Olanrewaju Durodola. It was a performance that oozed confidence and seemingly belied his limited experience although even as he (somewhat controversially) closed the show in a hurtful ninth round, Briedis seemed perhaps a little short of gas.

In light of that fact I was a little surprised to see him matched with Marco Huck little less than a year later.  Huck was on his way down the rankings, Briedis on his way up, but if ever there was a veteran possessed of the ability to make an inexperienced fighter short of stamina pay it was Huck. I needn’t have worried. This was the fight where Briedis showed his left hand as directly comparable to that of Usyk, taking a clear decision over his veteran foe all while smothering Huck’s offense and coping with his rougher tactics like a ten-year veteran

Briedis came up short against Usyk of course, barely, but has since dispatched no less a figure than Krzystztof Glowacki in three rounds. That, probably, was Briedis’s best win and it leaves him poised to become the pre-eminent cruiserweight of the next decade should he master Dorticos in March.

05 – Yoan Pablo Hernandez

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 9-0 Ranked For: 43% of the Decade

In a sense, Yoan Pablo Hernandez was the decade’s big disappointment. A product of the Cuban amateur system and German professional promotion, he was a strange mix of schooled and staid in style, borrowing from both boxing cultures and his southpaw right jab was a noted punch.

Lineal champion in the first part of the decade, Hernandez suffered badly with injuries and even illness.  Plagued by knee and elbow problems he spent the best part of a year sat out and plotting his comeback after a rather flat 2014 win over Firat Arslan. It would be his last. He never returned to the ring.

He had been dazzling, however, against Steve Cunningham in 2011 with the legitimate cruiserweight title on the line. A consummate boxer, Cunningham sought to move his way through that fight but Hernandez controlled him with superb footwork, keeping his toe outside of Cunningham’s left foot almost throughout while dropping an excellent jab to the body.

In his rematch with the deposed champion, he staged the best performance of his career and one of the finest in the divisional decade, battering Cunningham to a virtual standstill in the fourth and coming within a hair’s breadth of stopping him, the star punches a right hook to the body and a two-piece built from a jab and uppercut.

Hernandez’s resume for the decade isn’t particularly deep with victories over Troy Ross and Firat Aslan probably his next best; he wasn’t always as glittering as he was that second night against Cunningham either and it seemed for every such performance there was a Steve Helerius where he remained in control but perhaps not imperious.

Still, he was the lineal champion and a very good fighter. It is hard to picture the top five without him.

04 – Denis Lebedev

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 13-3 Ranked For: 88% of the Decade

Denis Lebedev is arguably the definitive cruiserweight puncher for the decade and is certainly the definitive survivor. No man was ranked for more weeks than the Russian, who managed to hang on for nearly nine of the ten years at hand, something both unusual and impressive.

He has been around long enough to have beaten up an injured James Toney and obliterated an out-gunned Roy Jones in 2011 but also to have staged a failed comeback attempt against current #8 contender Thabiso Mchunu just last year. In the trunk of his career he lost two fights: in 2010 he was unlucky to drop a desperately close split to Marco Huck in his German stronghold. Six years later he met fellow Russian Murat Gassiev, the “new Huck” in many ways and was unlucky once more in receiving the stiff end of the decision.

Lebedev was robbed in neither contest, but I preferred him in both. Huck was given the benefit of the doubt in three close rounds on my scorecard and I saw the result, still, as a draw. Against Gassiev I had it to the older man by a single point despite his being dropped heavily with body punches. These narrow, narrow losses hurt Lebedev. Had he won both, he would have been unbeaten for the decade, that disastrous comeback aside, and would have a case for making the #1 slot; had he won one or the other, he would rank above the defeated man. On such tiny margins do legacies turn.

Still, those close losses speak for him somewhat as do wins over Kalenga, Pawel Kolodziej, Toney, Jones and, best of all, a brutal second round dispatch of Victor Emilio Ramirez.

03 – Marco Huck

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 14-4-1 Ranked For: 71% of the Decade

Second only to Denis Lebedev for longevity of relevance, Marco Huck’s name resounds throughout the decade as one that matters.

In honesty though, he needed that decade to build his legacy; Huck has done more than the likes of Briedis but needed twice the time to organize it. His impact in the second part of the decade was very limited. The made men who fell to Huck fell during the first half of the decade when he was in his fearsome prime.

And what a prime it was. Huck’s rambling offense looked disorganized but was anything but and there was no fighter more skilled in the art of the wait. Patience is a commodity much less valuable since the reduction of the championship distance from fifteen to twelve rounds but Huck, from very early his career, had the smarts and the guts to make it work. The benefits were many but chief among them were that he carried his power and his workrate late into fights and his sense of when his opponent was beginning to give was as well developed as his strategic timing. With the possible exception of Usyk, nobody ever had Huck completely and finally beat; there was always the chance he might rally and crush a tiring opponent.

Lebedev was probably the finest scalp Huck took in his pomp, but Afolabi and Firat Arslan both succumbed more than once to Huck’s guile.

The second half of the decade though, overall, was not a success. Glowacki cracked him in eleven rounds, devastating his mystique; a relatively unimpressed Briedis outpointed him by distance; then Usyk put a bitter beating upon him.

Huck was my first choice for the second slot but a closer look gave me a feeling, despite his longevity as a contender that he was making up the numbers from around 2015. Still, a powerfully impressive first half of the decade secures him the number three slot.

02 – Murat Gassiev

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 26-1 Ranked For: 29% of the Decade

Murat Gassiev was ranked for a fraction of the time that Huck was ranked for, but only once could he have been considered a true underdog. Gassiev was Huck plus, patient in the stalk but both more powerful and precise in the punch.

The year after his razor-thin defeat of Lebedev, Gassiev found himself in the ring with another veteran in the shape of Wlodarczyk, still clinging on to a top ten ranking and still respected enough to command a berth in the cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series tournament. As detailed above, Wlodarczyk, like Lebedev, like Huck, had all the necessary qualities to torture a less experienced foe. Gassiev steam-rolled him. He was thoughtful about it; he felt his man out – but in the end, he just bombed through him.  The body punch that ended matters was hard enough to end all resistance but casual enough to strike fear into the hearts of lesser men.

Yunier Dorticos though, didn’t box scared against Gassiev when the two met early in 2018 but Gassiev sat down on his work in the second half of the fight and finally dumped his game opponent out of the ring and onto the apron in the dying seconds of the twelfth. He had turned in two winning performances against two elite cruisers in back-to-back contests and when the match with Usyk was made that summer the boxing world appeared to have the fight it most wanted to see.

In fact, it proved a mismatch. Usyk summited to greatness that night and Gassiev found himself scrambling around in the foothills seeking survival rather than victory. Injury has since robbed him of heavyweight riches.

Nevertheless, he was a prestigious puncher at the 200lb limit and seemingly impervious to the violent attentions of elite opposition. Gassiev isn’t locked at number two, and Huck, certainly, has a very reasonable case for being ranked above him, but in the end I’ve been more forgiving of Gassiev’s failure to beat Usyk in his prime than Huck’s failure to beat Glowacki, Briedis and Usyk just past his.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 17-0 Ranked For: 46% of the Decade

I’m unsure how many undisputed decadal number ones we will run into in the course of this series, but I do know that Oleksandr Usyk is one.

Marco Huck, ranked number three here, made the bad mistake of making things personal with Usyk in the run-up to their September 2017 contest. That is the Usyk fight to watch or re-watch if you want to see him at his most vicious. Not a noted puncher but one who hit often and hard enough to mix his man’s mind, Uysk is happy with a decision as a general rule but it was clear in the case of Huck that he coveted the stoppage. So motivated, he turned the trick more quickly than the brute Glowacki, taking him out in ten, faster than any other fighter. Tony Bellew, too, who returned from his adventures at heavyweight late in 2018 to confront Usyk, felt the full wrath of Usyk’s most full-blooded shots, succumbing in eight.

But it is as a boxer, not a puncher, that he has most excelled in the second half of this stacked decade, most of all (and in doing so proving his indisputable supremacy over the field) in his defeat of decadal number two Gassiev. Usyk completely outclassed Gassiev, turned his stalking style against him with deluxe footwork of the highest order that saw the division’s premier puncher reaching for nothing.

Briedis stretched him further with that cultured left-hand and smarts on defense closing the gap but dropped a decision, nonetheless. Throw in wins that had something of a routine feeling over divisional strongmen like Huck and Glowacki and two things become clear: Usyk is clearly the best cruiserweight of the decade and must be named among the very best fighters of the decade.

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Wilder, Fury Both Believe Providence is on Their Side

Bernard Fernandez

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You hear it more and more frequently at the conclusion of significant sporting events, including boxing matches. The winner or key-play maker for the victors thanks God for His supposed intervention, thus giving the impression that the Almighty, like many humans who pray that their wagers pay off, plays favorites on the field or in the ring, perhaps even to the point of running a celestial bookie operation.

Remember how it was when Joe Louis knocked out Adolf Hitler’s favorite heavyweight, Max Schmeling, in the first round of their June 22, 1938, rematch at Yankee Stadium? Millions of Americans considered it an affirmation of Divine Intervention, of Star-Spangled good conquering the pure evil of all that the Nazis represented, and never mind that Schmeling found Der Fuhrer as repugnant as did Louis and his vast legion of admirers.

Nowadays, choosing whom to support in a major fight, emotionally and financially, is not always so cut-and-dried. Some will plunk their money down on someone representing their country or home region, more pragmatic types are apt to follow their heads instead of their hearts. But the bedrock principle of gambling still most often applies: when in doubt, root for whichever individual or team will yield a profit rather than a loss.

Given that Saturday night’s megafight between WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder (42-0-1, 41 KOs) and lineal titlist Tyson Fury (29-0-1, 20 KOs) is about as close as it ever gets to being a 50/50 proposition (Wilder is favored by the narrowest of margins), many of those backing their play with big bucks might have to confess that they’re doing so with fingers crossed and fervent prayers offered to a deity that may or may not have determined the outcome beforehand.

But there are two individuals who profess to be absolutely certain of a favorable outcome at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, and not just for reasons that are presumably based in fact or logic. Wilder, the pulverizing puncher from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has offered his opinion that God indeed has blessed his cause, much as it was widely believed nearly 82 years ago that the king of heaven wanted Louis (also a native Alabaman, for those who take note of such things) to whack out Schmeling. But a different certainty is being offered by Fury, the gigantic “Gypsy King” from the United Kingdom who also claims he has it on good authority that it is his destiny to emerge triumphant.

Wilder, who had an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican in December, at which time he was named the papal Ambassador for Sport, said he has been aware since childhood of the plan God supposedly has for him.

“I’ve always had power,” he said. “I always tell the story of how my grandmother said I was anointed by God, that God is trying to use me for things. It’s just all about living, coming into this world and finding your purpose in life. I think I found one of my purposes in life, and of course that’s whupping ass and taking names. And I do that very well.

“I’ve just been blessed tremendously. It’s one of the things I can’t describe how it transpired. When you have a calling in life, it’s just that. I just have a calling all my life. I’m showing the world who I am and what I am.”

Fury doesn’t exactly identify God as the reason he will win. His explanation vaguely hints at Tarot cards and tea leaves, but he’s just as convinced that a mighty wave of predetermination will carry him to his inevitable success on fight night. He claims that it is his seemingly miraculous recovery from an emphatic 12th-round knockdown by Wilder in their first meeting, on Dec. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles, that has cloaked him in virtual invincibility.

“I didn’t know I was knocked down,” he said of the second of the two times he was dropped by Wilder. “It wasn’t a flash knockdown, like in round nine. It was like a knockout. I watched it on tape. He hit me with a right hand and when I was on my way down he hit me with a left hook. It should have been bye-bye. I remember opening my eyes after around four seconds. I thought, `Get up!’ I just jumped up. And then Wilder rushes in and hits me with another massive left hook right on the temple. But it was like I was bullet-proof. It was a more damaging shot than the one that buried me. But it wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t Wilder’s time (to win). It wasn’t my time to lose.

“I come from a long line of gypsies going back thousands of years. I’m the latest king of our tribe, our people, whatever you want to call them. I believe it’s written in the stars. I don’t believe all the hard work, all the dedication, have that much to do with it. You have to do that as well, but some things that have happened to me in my life now make me 100% believe it’s written in the stars.”

(One has to wonder how Fury’s public pronouncement that frequent cunnilingus has helped strengthen his jaw was received by his wife and mother of the couple’s five children, the most outrageous such comment since Livingstone Bramble bragged that, counter to standard boxing protocol, he engaged in sexual activity with his wife multiple times a night right up to the day of his bouts.)

For fight fans hesitant to buy into the notion, proffered by either principal, that a higher power has a vested interest in what takes place inside the ropes in this much-anticipated do-over, standard factors are likely to ultimately prove the difference. Can Wilder’s superior power get him home should he find the mark with that devastating right hand? Will Fury’s more polished boxing skills flummox his bigger-hitting foe all the way to the final bell and a nod on points? Or will Fury keep his word that he will take the fight straight to Wilder in the center of the ring, a radical shift in strategy possibly orchestrated by his new trainer, Javan “Sugar” Hill?

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Wilder – Fury Predictions & Analyses from the TSS Panel of Writers

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Whenever there is a big fight with a high level of intrigue, we survey members of our writing community to get their thoughts. In terms of pre-fight intrigue, Saturday’s rematch in Las Vegas between fellow unbeatens Deontay Wilder (42-0-1, 41 KOs) and Tyson Fury (29-0-1, 20 KOs) ranks among the top heavyweight title fights of all time.

As is our usual custom, we are listing our panelists alphabetically. The graphic is by Colorado comic book cover artist ROB AYALA whose work has attracted a lot of buzz. Ayala’s specialty is combat sports. Check out more of his very cool work at his web site fight posium.

MATT ANDRZEJEWSKI — In the first fight, my prediction was that Fury would easily out-box Wilder. I am sticking to my guns with the same prediction for the second fight. I know Fury is making a lot of noise about knocking out Wilder but I think this is more psychological than anything else. Fury will box cautiously behind the jab, pick his spots to counter and focus very carefully on his defense. He is not going to go for the knockout and will turn this into an even more tactical affair than the first fight. But he will be more successful this time and coast to a wide unanimous decision victory.

BERNARD FERNANDEZ — Fury is saying he’s going to meet Wilder in the center of the ring and take him out in two rounds. I’m guessing that’s a ruse, so I don’t put much stock in it. But even if the big Brit elects to outbox Wilder over 12 rounds, which he is capable of doing, that means he has to avoid getting clocked with a huge right hand for 12 rounds. Gotta go with the home run hitter here. Wilder by KO or stoppage in eight rounds.

JEFFREY FREEMAN — Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder are equally charged with restoring much needed prestige to the heavyweight division in America. It’s a long slow slog. As a result, the powers caring about this have to be careful not to give away what they can sell. That’s why the first Wilder-Fury fight was called a draw. Neither fighter can afford a loss on their undefeated record and Bob Arum won’t be giving paying fans an actual result in exchange for their hard earned PPV dollars. Not yet anyway. So, it’s going to happen again! Wilder-Fury II ends in another draw but don’t worry, you can pay for the trilogy rubber-match “tie breaker” spectacular soon enough!

ARNE LANG – We performed this exercise before the first-Wilder Fury fight. No one was more bullish on Wilder than me. Properly chastened, I am going to pass the buck this time. Here are the observations of a long-time friend who resides on the Isle of Man and is known for having a sharp opinion: “Fury was cut badly in his last fight and will be very cautious, having tasted Wilder’s power. Training at Kronk isn’t the same without Manny Steward there. Fury has had multiple distractions and I don’t regard him as a world class puncher. DW has 36 minutes to land the one punch that will turn the tide.”

KELSEY McCARSON — Can you imagine what Deontay Wilder might feel on fight night? Across the ring from him will again be Tyson Fury, the same fighter who ate Wilder’s best punch and got back up on his feet. The only other time Wilder didn’t score a knockout was when he faced Bermane Stiverne in 2015. But Wilder broke his right hand in that fight, so he could explain that mystery away until he got the rematch with Stiverne two years later and ended up folding him in half in the first round like a lawn chair. But neither of Wilder’s hands were broken against Fury. Worse for the 34-year-old American is that Fury outboxed him for the majority of the fight. I like Fury to win the rematch by decision. Wilder will overcommit on his punches, and Fury will box his ears off for the clear victory.

MATT McGRAIN — Predicting a Tyson Fury fight is rather like predicting the weather. Even with all the pertinent information on hand it’s impossible to know exactly what will occur. Fury has been running less but reportedly sparring more; he has spoken openly of targeting 270lbs for the weigh-in; he has a new trainer who may or may not be motivating him; he has looked consistently bored and disinterested at more recent pressers; he has spoken openly of the crushing depression that envelopes him every Sunday. So, we might get an overweight, disinterested, under-motivated Fury on Saturday night. And he still might win. Put me down for Fury on points, but the right answer is, ‘nobody knows’.

SEAN NAM — Tyson Fury’s body may be as taut as its ever been, but his mind is in free-floating mode these days. Between hinting at an early retirement and opening up about certain sexual proclivities, Fury seems to have one foot perpetually out of the ring. In fact, ever since he linked up with Top Rank, it has been one big, gaudy publicity tour after another for the Manchester man. A stint with the WWE, the publication of his autobiography (as though his legacy in the ring had already been set in stone), and repeated desires to fight in an MMA crossover bout give the impression that Fury may not be as dialed-in for the most important fight of his life. Not to mention, Fury inexplicably canned his former trainer, Ben Davison. Meanwhile, Deontay Wilder, he of the thunderous right-hand fame, has been quiet as a church mouse. Wilder TKO9.

TED SARES –  An in-shape Fury schools Wilder in the early to mid rounds with focus and discipline, but then Wilder’s right connects and a stunned Fury backs off. Wilder then presses the action and KOs the giant in the next round – maybe the 9th or 10th – with a windmill shot (left or right) or a paralyzing straight ala Breazeale. We know Fury can go down. We know he can get up. But so also do Wilder and Mark Breland.

PHIL WOOLEVER – Wilder’s KO percentage gives him the coin-flip edge (Fury better remember what happened to Stiverne) but I have no clear idea what might happen where I see another draw just as likely as a decision either way. What intrigues me most are the over/under bet propositions listed around the 11th (take the under) and the possibility of this rematch joining a list of outrageous circumstances like the long count, ear bite or paraglider.

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Wilder vs. Fury: What History Tells Us About the Boxer and the Puncher

Matt McGrain

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Wilder vs. Fury: What History Tells Us About the Boxer and the Puncher

Jack Dempsey was “so badly out-boxed and out-classed” according to pre-eminent newspaper man Damon Runyon “he seemed more of a third-rater than one of the greatest champions that ever lived.”

“Gene Tunney is the best man I ever fought,” said Dempsey himself. “But if we ever meet again, I’ll beat him. There’s no maybe about that, either. He’s a grand man and a great fighter, but I know I can stop him.”

“Time after time,” wrote ringside reporter David Avila of the first Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury fight, “Wilder’s windmill rights hit air.” But here the Dempsey-Tunney comparisons end. Wilder did find Fury, dropping him “hard and seemingly for good” in the twelfth, Fury undertook his miracle recovery and the unsatisfactory draw was rendered.

What about this Saturday’s rematch? And what about the Tunney-Dempsey rematch? And what about other heavyweight rematches where the puncher and the boxer met for a second time, and what do they tell us about the upcoming meeting between the best and second-best heavyweight on the planet?

The first months of boxer Gene Tunney’s heavyweight championship reign were troubled. He incurred the wrath of New York’s press and public who preferred their champions humble and brutal. Tunney was neither and was actually booed in Madison Square Garden when presented to the crowd two weeks after his triumph. Dempsey was subjected to a two-minute standing ovation that same night, a new experience for him.

Dempsey, the puncher, wrestled with uncertainty about his fistic future before matching the mercurial Jack Sharkey, who was immediately installed as an 8-5 favorite. Here parallels begin to emerge between Dempsey and Wilder who both elected to meet serious opposition behind their nightmare encounter with pure boxers, although Wilder certainly wasn’t an underdog for his November 2019 encounter with Luis Ortiz. Ortiz, like Sharkey, was technically superb and more skilled than his respective punching opponent. Just as Ortiz was able to outbox Wilder throughout their contest, Sharkey set all kinds of problems for Dempsey who struggled to impose himself despite Sharkey’s determination to fight him in the pocket.

And like Ortiz, Sharkey fell victim to a brutal knockout though Dempsey’s victory was awash with controversy and the accusation of a finishing low blow that even modern analysis of fight footage cannot settle. Each man was rescued by his power in a significant fight staged before their respective rematches. But how did Dempsey fare with Tunney second time around?

What was both different and exciting about the second fight was Tunney’s overwhelming confidence in meeting Dempsey’s fire with fire. He didn’t seek a brawl, but he did seek to smother Dempsey’s work on the inside while sharing space with him. Tunney had experienced Dempsey and found him wanting; he dominated their first fight so completely that he feels, now, that he can take certain liberties with his man.

Fury talks like this may be his own thinking. He feels, and is right in my view, that his dominance in the first fight was legitimate, for all that he found himself on the ground looking up. He now talks openly about knocking Wilder out. There is a certain kind of consistency in his thinking; he ruled before and so can rule more directly now. He’s also hyping a fight though, and we all know how that works.

Fury should note that Tunney went straight back to the box-and-move strategy that brought him success in the first fight; he should also note that Tunney was able to hurt Dempsey by bringing him on to accurate punches he himself was sitting down on, especially in the fourth. Finally, it’s worth noting that after ten hot rounds it was Dempsey, not Tunney, who was struggling to reach the final bell despite the latter’s trip to the canvas in the seventh. Just like Fury, Tunney climbed from the canvas and by the end of the round was out-boxing the puncher.

In summary, Tunney became a little over-confident, much to the disgust of his cornerman Jimmy Bronson who repeatedly warned him that he was becoming neglectful of the Dempsey left. For Dempsey, there appears to be no secured advantage from having previously boxed ten rounds with Tunney. He drew a comparable blank to his first effort, despite the knockdown.

Billy Conn was unable to recreate Gene Tunney’s success against the even more fearsome Joe Louis in the 1946 rematch of their legendary 1941 encounter. In that first fight, Conn, contrary to the popular retelling, hadn’t so much hit and run as stayed in the champion’s wheelhouse and tried to stay on him, a declared strategy but one Conn surprised everyone by following through on. In the second fight, Conn froze: “this is going to be the worst fight ever” he told his father-in-law minutes before the ringwalk. Here the balance of power shifted in favor of the puncher mainly due to the ravages of time and the excessive toll they take on the boxer’s legs as opposed to the puncher’s power; Conn substituted his fighting retreat of five years before with a straight-up retreat and was dusted off in eight.

Louis excelled in rematches. Lee Ramage made it to the eighth in their first contest but seemed near death such was the destruction of the knockout he suffered in just two rounds of their rematch.  Max Schmeling, famously, out-boxed and out-thought the great Brown Bomber in their first fight in 1936 but was summarily executed in a single round of their rematch. Bob Pastor made Louis “look silly” according to some, and even managed to win a couple of rounds of their 1937 contest; Louis became the first man to stop him in their 1939 rematch. Godoy, Simon, Buddy Baer, all suffered terribly in rematches for one reason: Louis had learned how they moved.

This is the real disaster for any box mover and although he excelled in rematches against all styles, Louis is the ultimate example of this. He may have struggled to find his man on occasion, but once he did, he had found him forever.

Most famously of all, this fate befell Joe Walcott, who extended Louis the full fifteen in the first fight but was brutally dispatched in the rematch. Walcott was a master boxer, a man so smooth he seemed to have been poured rather than born, but he was as susceptible to the heatseeking puncher as the next man. He bedeviled Rocky Marciano in 1952, seemed ahead of him at every turn until, finally, caught by the Rock in the thirteenth he was undone. In the second fight, the puncher found the boxer in just a single round, Walcott decoded by Marciano just as he had been by Louis.

What about Wilder?  Does he have that kind of fighting IQ?  Can he unravel a boxer of Tyson Fury’s quality having put a serious glove on him twice in the first fight?

It’s a confused picture, but there is data: Wilder has boxed two interesting rematches.  The first was against Bermane Stiverne in 2017, having previously handily out-boxed him in 2015. As a promotional prospect it hardly set the grass alight, but in fairness, Stiverne had remained ranked and fought in one of Wilder’s more reasonable title defenses. The fight itself was butchery, and if it were to be analyzed as a part of a pattern it wall fall firmly onto the Louis side of the equation: Wilder learned about Stiverne in the first fight and crushed him in the second fight.

Wilder’s more recent rematch with Ortiz contradicts that notion. It ended, once again, in a savage knockout for Wilder, and that, once again, hints at his having unlocked his man, but in fact Ortiz was once more completely out-boxing Wilder at the time of the stoppage. Wilder, I thought, was even beginning to become a little uncertain.

By the time of the second Stiverne fight Stiverne was on the slide having last won a meaningful fight nearly four years previously, and but one more fight and loss from retirement. Wilder had also improved, and some of his gliding offense belied his reputation at times. The combination is what makes Wilder’s destruction of Stiverne look so Louis-like, I think.

In the second fight with Ortiz, we saw a truer Wilder. Tyson Fury has named him “a seven-year-old with an AK-47.”  This sounds a little like Furybabble, but it’s actually rather succinct. Wilder is indeed over-armed relative to his technique and he throws punches that are wildly under-schooled. But that is a part of what makes him so dangerous.

Re-watching him in the second Ortiz fight I was struck by the notion of a wind-up toy rather than a child, a persistent and vitally dangerous one. Wilder didn’t so much decode his opposition as deploy himself with consistent venom and opportunism. It’s a fundamental and sinister combination that clearly makes him difficult to face but I don’t think he’s learning in the way Louis or Marciano learned. I think he’s “just” improving, and a heinous puncher.

What that means for the Wilder-Fury rematch is that the specific nature of the contest will be decided by Fury. It will be he who decides whether to try to out-box the puncher while moving as we saw in Dempsey-Tunney, smother and out-fight the puncher as we saw in Louis-Conn I, or even duel the puncher, something like what we saw Archie Moore try with Marciano. Fury decides. Wilder will just be Wilder.

It all comes down then to Fury’s choice and to each man’s relative preparedness for it. Has Wilder guessed right?  And has Fury? A poor selection on strategy would be disastrous.

Lastly, have I got this wrong?  If Wilder decoded Stiverne for the devastating second knockout, if he decoded Ortiz thereby stopping him sooner, if he’s channeling Joe Louis in seeing more the second time around, I think there is only one possible winner, whatever version of Tyson Fury shows.

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