That boxing is a sport where one punch can instantly end a contest is intrinsic to its appeal; that the danger of such a punch is all the more pronounced in the heavyweight division is part of why it commands such a lofty place among all weight classes. In recent years, under the rule of king Wladimir Klitschko, the land of the giants hasn’t been a very dangerous place. With his recent fight an exception, all of Klitschko’s bouts are risk-free, predictable beat downs, where a knockout might come impressively but the journey is like looking out the window on a train ride through Ohio.
That changes for a night on Saturday on Showtime, when Bermane Stiverne meets Deontay Wilder. Wilder has demonstrated considerable punching power thus far, winning every one of his fights by knockout, although he has done so against sub-fringe contender types, and none of them stood much of a chance of hurting him back. Stiverne has stood up to big punchers thus far, and has proven his qualities against another contender, knocking out Chris Arreola. No one can be very confident of their fight prediction, short of “somebody’s probably getting knocked out.”
In addition to ending the heavyweight division’s reprieve from peril, Stiverne-Wilder ends Showtime’s reprieve from worthwhile fights. 2014 was a dreary year for the network, and with top manager Al Haymon taking some-to-much of his stable over to NBC, Showtime has lost its rainmaker from 2013, so it could be a dreary 2015, too. For now, at least, Showtime is getting a sniff of Haymon, with Wilder one of his prizes.
Wilder’s star qualities are obvious. Very little sells in boxing like knockouts, which he has delivered 100 percent of the times he has stepped into the ring. He is enormous, Klitschko-sized, at 6’7″. He is quick, he is an American Olympian, he has an ebullient personality. A late starter in the sport at age 19, he has gone from completely raw to a more honed talent, though one still with plenty of rough edges. As recently as 2013, he comically winged away at Audley Harrison, throwing punches less like a professional and more like a souped-up version of Andy Kaufman’s pro wrestling windmill technique. These days, he’s sharper, yet rather basic. He doesn’t do much besides probe with his jab and follow it with an lethal overhand right, occasionally working in a left hook when he can’t get the right hand off. He’s athletic enough and large enough that he doesn’t get hit all that often, a tendency that has been aided by the ineptitude of his opposition.
With his spindly legs, he does still sometimes get off balance, and to suggest he gets incautious going in for the kill is an understatement. The most worrisome thing for Wilder, overall, is that his chin showed a peculiar ding when he was hurt by a jab by Nicolai Firtha, who has just eight knockouts in his 21 wins. Stiverne? Twenty-one KOs in 24 wins.
Stiverne is more proven than Wilder, to be sure, but largely on the basis of his two wins over Chris Arreola. Two fights before that he had a lethargic outing against Ray Austin. Typical of a Don King-promoted fighter, he has barely fought in recent years; he had just one bout each in 2012, 2013 and 2014. That’s not ideal for another late bloomer who is 36. He suffered a loss in 2007 and draw in 2009, and only just appeared to have come into his own as a fully confident fighter in the first Arreola bout.
He’s a more polished pro than Wilder, though he lacks Wilder’s physical gifts. At 6’2″, he struggled to reach the taller Austin, and while he was faster than Arreola, he’s not a speedster. What he has going for him, comparably, is battle-tested toughness — Arreola tagged him with some massive shots, and Stiverne hardly flinched — and superior know-how. He has a nice body attack, absent from Wilder’s arsenal. His sweeping right hand is his money shot but his left hook is pretty potent, too. He fires two-handed combination nicely. He’s good at stepping around with small motions, and countering. That’s not to say his know-how is superb. Defensively, he stands in the middle of the ring with his hands down, and gets hit by big looping right hands like Wilder is going to throw. He can be navigated with his back to the ropes easily (where, to his credit, he keeps his hands up for once, and he can find punching room from that distance). His jab is quick, but inaccurate.
According to his trainer, Stiverne is going to be putting pressure on Wilder. He’ll have to, if he is to have a chance. Without getting close, he might not hit Wilder much at all, given his troubles finding Austin’s head from mid range. Maybe he can back against the ropes, take some shots and stop Wilder with a counter, since he did drop Arreola with his back against the ropes. But playing that game with Wilder is foolish. You don’t want to stand around getting hit by the guy, even if you’re confident in your chin and should be. No, getting Wilder off-balance, keeping him there, cramping his space to throw that big overhand right and making sure you make contact with and test his own chin is the right way to go.
Even then, Stiverne will remain very much in harm’s way. Wilder could counter Stiverne with a nice left, say, and that punch is powerful enough. Still, there’s enough here to say that Stiverne, with that strategy, wins the kill-or-be-killed risk/reward exchange. He stops Wilder Saturday, perhaps even fairly early in the bout.