What Everyone Is Getting Wrong About Deontay Wilder And The “Internet Troll”

This past weekend, two authentic heavyweight contenders (Bermane Stiverne and Chris Arreola) squared off on ESPN — a rare occurrence for the worldwide leader, which usually confines boxing to its sister network ESPN2. Yet the fight, a good one, was overshadowed by a farce in the same division, featuring Deontay Wilder — who is in line to face the winner of the ESPN fight, Stiverne — against a so-called “Internet troll.”

No one likes “Internet trolls.” Everyone has delighted at the moments when they receive a comeuppance. Mostly, then, Wilder’s beatdown of Charlie Zelenoff, the TMZ-labeled “Internet troll,” has been greeted with glee.

But it shouldn’t be.

Charlie Z has been circulating in various quarters of the boxing Internet and in various gyms as a figure of ridicule and attention since before 2008. When I first discovered him, I was of the mind that he could be an Andy Kaufman-eseque figure, pumping up his ring exploits as some kind of meta-humor. I, too, enjoyed watching video of him losing a fight when he couldn’t back up his claims. But it wasn’t too long thereafter that he sucker punched the same guy who beat him in his pro debut, followed by an increasingly dangerous series of sucker punches out and about. One of the sucker punches, against a nearly 60-year-old Floyd Mayweather, Sr., resulted him in getting beaten up by a member of the Mayweather entourage.  Another came in one of the clips that accompanied his beatdown by Wilder.

This is a person who is a danger to others, not some random “Internet troll.” And he’s certainly a danger to himself, getting into the ring against a much, much larger man, and perhaps the most dangerous puncher in the hardest-hitting division in the sport (31 fights, 31 knockouts).

This “Internet troll” has exhibited symptoms of mental illness, a view that is not a minority opinion by those who have watched him over the years. If you need more evidence of that mental illness, you need only look at what he’s said since — even TMZ has called him delusional, and he posted dozens upon dozens of messages on his (since-deleted) Facebook page in the next couple days after the Wilder fight, obsessing over what happened. [MORE: This video and the description here about being a cyborg and resurrected Jesus.]

Surely it was hard for Wilder to hear the taunts from Charlie Z for all those years, especially if they included racial slurs and threats against his family. (Charlie Z denies he said the N-word, and I can’t find any evidence he did, but it’s not anything I’d put past him.) Any normal person would be possessed with the urge to beat up someone who said those things. It’s easy to empathize with him by that standard.

But Wilder isn’t a normal person. He’s a pro fighter, and pro fighters can be convicted of assault with a deadly weapon by punching someone, which is why his legal team drew up a contract for Charlie Z to sign, so that if he was hurt, Wilder couldn’t be held liable. What’s more, the location where they held their match in the second video was a wooden floor that posed more risk of injury to anyone falling on it than a boxing ring. Apparently, Wilder went so far as to offer him a bare knuckle alley fight, even more dangerous. In short, Charlie Z is lucky he’s still alive.

And Wilder is lucky Charlie Z is alive, too. Right now, he’s riding a wave of mostly positive publicity from readers who don’t have the requisite information about what, exactly, transpired, and with whom (although boxing fans have given Wilder a hard time here and there, joking that this was the most fearsome opponent he has faced in his career — a knock on the level of competition he has faced as a pro).  But Wilder could have badly, badly hurt Charlie Z, especially with that uppercut that he threw while Charlie Z was on the ground. There’s a reason that in a sport of regulated violence, hitting an opponent while he is down is illegal: It’s ridiculously dangerous.

What’s more, Wilder has given every future opponent and every fan on the Internet and ringside the recipe for taking him out of his game. The number of people calling him the N-word — a word many boxing fans aren’t shy about throwing around as-is — is about to increase exponentially, as are the number of people likely to say something nasty about his family. Is Wilder going to fight them all? And Wilder is far from the first boxer Charlie Z has harassed. Far from it. He’s only been able to coax a hot-headed ex-boxer and an assortment of non-professionals into the ring so far. Wilder, though, has demonstrated problems with controlling his anger in the past, including when he “instinctively” strangled a woman. Now, that lack of anger management has been celebrated, reinforced. On the other side, there’s a reason the best advice about troll-control is, “Don’t feed the trolls.” And, again, Charlie Z is no mere troll — and now that he’s gotten the kind of celebrity and notoriety he long has sought, you think he’s going to stop? Everything he has said and done since, like repeatedly calling Wilder to talk more trash, suggests he will not. More than one observer of this man has thought his story ends with him pissing off the wrong person and getting killed (a very real risk when he agreed to get in the ring with Wilder), or going too far and killing someone himself. This probably didn’t help with that.

Wilder, perhaps feeling some of the criticism he’s received for doing this, went as far as to tell TMZ that he did it all for Charlie Z, to save his life, because “I genuinely care for the guy.” Even though he pulled some of his punches, none of this is the recipe for saving anyone’s life: a devastatingly powerful heavyweight boxer fighting a non-professional, knocking him down on a hardwood floor repeatedly, trying to hit him while he was down and then leaking the video to TMZ.

I had hoped this would’ve ended at “unsightly spectacle that reflects poorly on all parties, but a scene that’s hard to ignore” after a day or two. Instead, it keeps living on, with new outlets picking it up daily. I hope I’m wrong about Charlie Z, and that this is a big lark by a fellow who is a clever comedy stuntman outfoxing us all. Hopefully, it’s something we’ll be able to chalk up as a youthful indiscretion by a 28-year-old boxer who really only recently has moved into boxing’s spotlight, despite fighting in the 2008 Olympics. But right now, it has the look of something far uglier. If you’re cheering it on, you ought to know what you might be cheering.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.