As I watched Luis Ortiz crumble to the canvas Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, something struck me as familiar. It was his face. Not the unique contours of Ortiz’s cinder block head or Chubby Thanos chin — but his expression. Eyes slung sideways. Lips drawn tightly over teeth. Neck flexing vainly to steady an involuntary head bob. You’ve seen it, too: a toddler who’s only just learned to walk, waltzing confidently onto an icy driveway. Or a child turning down a hallway to find a St. Bernard bearing down on them like Aaron Donald. It’s a reaction that’s viscerally defenseless — a mixture of fright, confusion and bald-faced shame for misjudging the capacity of one’s own agency in an infinitely harrowing world.
Hell, can you blame him? Ortiz (31-2, 26 KOs) had been knocked out just once – lost only once, in fact — before Saturday night, and the fact that that defeat had come at the right hand of Deontay Wilder seemed increasingly less significant as the Cuban piled up rounds in Saturday’s rematch. Although roughly as nimble as the protagonist in a Lego movie, Ortiz is a dangerously skilled and sturdy 236-pounder who, through six-plus rounds, had all but whitewashed Wilder. Patient but persistent in nudging Wilder toward the ropes, the southpaw Ortiz selectively picked his shots — clean left hands up top, power pokes to the midsection — while smothering the extension of boxing’s most concussive force. More encouragingly, Wilder seemed less than his usual aggressive self, possibly wary that, in their first meeting in Brooklyn 20 months ago, his opponent had almost got to him before Wilder could get Ortiz. A bloody gash across Ortiz’s right temple, opened by a grazing elbow, was the extent of the damage inflicted by Wilder after more than half a prizefight. Ortiz was cruising.
And that’s when Wilder smacked the Toddler Face into him.
Years of tactless springboard-leaping and caveman-clubbing in the ring have conditioned us to expect the worst from Wilder — at least in terms of strategy and technique. Last night I opened a YouTube video featuring Wilder’s career knockouts to take measure of how far he’s come, then shut it down after a couple minutes when I realized I was basically watching bar-fight scenes from an off-off-Broadway adaptation of “Roadhouse.” (You could have slipped a Schlitz into Wilder’s Everlast for any one of those stoppages and not missed a beat at the Double Deuce.)
But for all his supposed lack of craft and guile, Wilder set up Saturday’s finish of Ortiz brilliantly. He had been pawing at Ortiz all night with his left hand, not so much jabbing as waving at the challenger. The gesture was more nuisance than punch, more tick than threat. By the 7th, Ortiz could count on seeing that flicker of a jab as reliably as he would’ve expected another Disney+ Pimp get-up for Wilder’s ring walk. He could’ve set his watch to it. So when Wilder waggled that left hand in his face early in the round, Ortiz likely thought nothing of it. When Wilder immediately pumped a stiffer jab that he never intended to connect, Ortiz flinched just so and was blinded, if only for an instant. It was all Wilder needed. He followed with an avalanche of a right hand that exploded on the left side of Ortiz’s forehead, sending the challenger down in an awkward heap. In a moment when Ortiz would have had trouble locating his feet, he deserved a medal of commendation for making the effort to plant them both firmly in the ring again. It wasn’t enough. Ortiz undoubtedly wanted to fight on, surely agonizing at the thought of another knockout loss and, at 40 years old, staring down the beginning of the end. But all referee Kenny Bayless could be absolutely certain of was the thousand-yard stare of a knocked-goofy anklebiter. KO, 2:51 R7.
What’s interesting to contemplate is how much of what transpired on the Wilder side Saturday was, if not intentional, at least deemed acceptable by the fighter. Against Ortiz, the titleholder routinely took backwards steps, held his gloves high and … waited. Whether it was respect for the challenger or a new approach, it was a stark departure from Wilder’s past. He didn’t rush, demonstrated ever-better balance and continued to take the bend out of his punches. The punch that toppled Ortiz? It was one of the straightest right hands you’ve ever seen Wilder throw — and he never took a forward step, let alone lunged, to land it. Remember: Wilder came late to the game, and for all his ridiculous, cringe-worthy pre-fight and in-ring bluster, he reveals in unguarded moments that he’s still growing as a fighter. To think: Wilder (42-0-1, 41 KOs), already a top-50 heavyweight all time at age 34, is just starting to figure this shit out.
That’s no hot take, @BoxeoTMT69. Given the sum of his parts, Wilder inarguably ranks among the sport’s historically very good (if not yet with the all-time standard-bearers). We can agree that boxing’s sanctioning bodies aren’t collectively worth a stick in the eye while also acknowledging that Wilder matching Muhammad Ali’s 10 consecutive title defenses on Saturday is a nifty little benchmark. Sure, Joe Louis (25), Larry Holmes (20) and Wladimir Klitschko (18) each had a bunch more. And yes, the quality and depth of Wilder and his heavyweight contemporaries fall short of golden era levels. But guess what? They’re as high as we’ve seen since. Shades of gray are real. Nuance exists. Scorn all that isn’t historically great, and you risk missing out on the really goddamn good.
Andy Ruiz-Anthony Joshua II — the sequel to the Upset of the Year — is next. Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury is on the way. Oleksander Usyk, thank the Maker, is in the mix. Wilder, the oldest among them, could have another 3-5 prime years in him. We’re in a good place, people. You wanna see more big men bang? More apocalyptic knockouts? Quit bitching. Keep watching.
(Deontay Wilder photo: Sean Michael Ham/Mayweather Promotions)