Repeat after me: Power punchers are born, not made. Power punchers are born, not made. Power punchers are born, not made …
There is no specific body type, musculature or ring style that is the prototype for special punchers, the kind who elicit cold, stark fear in opponents. Oh, sure, there are training methods and exercise regimens that can marginally improve a fighter’s knockout ratio, but the force with which a punch is delivered is contingent on factors that seem to come naturally to some and not to others. The great Thomas Hearns was tall for a welterweight, a bit spindly and decidedly skinny-legged. It sometimes seemed like a stiff breeze might lift him airborne, like a kite. Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson were human fire hydrants, short and squatty with low centers of gravity. Earnie Shavers looked as if he had been carved out of granite. And George Foreman, particularly the older incarnation, was thick as a brick; his fortysomething physique lacked the sculpted definition of a Ken Norton or an Evander Holyfield. But if Big George in either phase of his career nailed you flush, as was the case with the aforementioned heavy hitters, it was off to la-la land for a 10-count nap.
WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, 6-7 and surprisingly sleek at 228 or so pounds (veteran fight writer Norm Frauenheim once opined that he “looks like a big Tommy Hearns”), is in no way a prototype of the young Tyson who terrorized the heavyweight division on his rise to superstardom. It is hardly a certainty that the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native will eventually be cloaked in that sort of transcendent aura. But it is the quality, not necessarily the quantity, of many of his knockouts that have stamped Wilder (33-0, 32 KOs), who defends his title against 50-1 longshot Eric Molina (23-2, 17 KOs) Saturday night in Birmingham, Ala., as the possessor of something that lies at the primal core of boxing. It is the same thing that separates baseball’s biggest boppers from slap hitters who consistently bat .300 but seldom go yard. They say chicks dig the long ball and, truth be told, guys do, too.
Wilder’s first ring appearance as the WBC champ will be televised by Showtime Championship Boxing.
“I don’t go in there trying for the knockout,” Wilder, 29, said of the 32-bout KO streak he pieced together at the outset of his professional career before it came to an end with a workmanlike, 12-round unanimous decision over then-WBC champ Bermane Stiverne on Jan. 17. “I let my hands go and if I get the knockout, I get it.
“I would prefer the knockout, of course. This is the heavyweight division. It’s all based on power. When people get dressed up and come out at night to a fight, they come to see knockouts.”
Should Wilder begin a new streak of swift, emphatic finishes against Molina – whose two previous defeats came on first-round blitzes– it won’t do much to move the needle on what the public already believes. But if “The Bronze Bomber” demonstrates he can continue to win while taking out a higher grade of opponents, the perception of him as a manufactured creation with no real bona fides will begin to change. There is a still-sizable group of skeptics who believe that Wilder has made his reputation by whacking out has-beens and never-weres, that his title is of the paper variety, that he will be exposed as fraudulent when he comes up against someone who is capable of truly fighting back and isn’t cowed by the his reputation as a dangerous dude.
Molina, the lottery-sized odds against him notwithstanding, believes he’s the fighter who will take Wilder to that place where the comfortable becomes the uncomfortable, where tables are turned and the hunter becomes the hunted.
“The pressure’s all on him,” Molina said of his perceived assignment of designated victim. “It’s not on me. Everybody in the world thinks I’m going to get blasted. So, he has to go in there and blast me, right? If he does, so what? It’s just what was expected. It’s his state, his commission, his everything. I got nothing to lose, and I’m coming in stronger than ever.
“Other than Stiverne, everybody Wilder has fought went in there thinking mostly that they didn’t want to get knocked out. It was almost like they were afraid to try to hurt him. I’m going to try to hurt him, and I know I can. I’ve hurt everybody I’ve fought, even in the two fights I lost. Wilder hasn’t dealt with anyone with the mentality I’m coming with. I’m going to put pressure on him. I’m going to try to knock him out. How will he react when he gets hurt? We don’t know. It hasn’t happened yet.”
Jay Deas, who along with former WBA welterweight champion Mark Breland is honing and refining Wilder’s skill-set, is cognizant of the thin line that sometimes separates acceptance and doubt. He insists that the path being followed by his fighter isn’t that all that different from the one trod by the young, emerging Tyson, with the exception, of course, of an obvious physical disparity and the vicissitudes of the times in which they rose to prominence.
“Deontay’s opponents are every bit as good as Mike Tyson’s opponents were at that stage, person-for-person and record-for-record, all the way up the chain,” Deas insisted. “Deontay has fought a very good level of competition coming up. People just didn’t want to believe it.”
Make that people with word processors and Smart phones who have the ability to influence public opinion, and are more prone to find fault than was the case when boy-wonder Tyson presumably didn’t face nearly as harsh a level of capricious scrutiny.
“I think the main difference between Deontay and that Tyson is in the eras they came up in,” Deas continued. “Back then, you actually had to have credentials to be a writer. You had to have gone to school, passed the courses, gotten the degree and had somebody think you were worthy of hiring before you could go and report on the fights. There was a level of vetting that is not so common these days. Anybody with a phone and a keyboard can call themselves a writer. They don’t need to have any training whatsoever. They can invent something called `badlefthooktotheliver.com’ or whatever, and all of a sudden they’re a reporter. But they’re probably living in their mom’s basement and typing away in their underwear.
“I had to deal with a lot of that stuff early in Deontay’s career. I was like a fish swimming upstream. I couldn’t get anybody to believe how good he is. But I was right, and I knew I was right.”
Without question, there has been a proliferation of social media, and often what is authored tends to be gossip, innuendo and speculation. But that doesn’t necessarily make the punditry inaccurate or unfair. It does bother Deas, however, when it is reported as fact that Wilder has made his reputation solely against a string of fall-down guys.
“Most punchers are born, but you can improve anybody with proper technique, timing, snap and an understanding of distance,” Deas said. “Those are things that can accentuate what’s already there.
“Deontay came to the table with remarkable power, no question about that. He’s always been able to punch. But it comes down to finding the right moment for the right punch at the right situation. That’s what he’s learned to do really well.”
There is another significant difference between Wilder and the young Tyson: the intent to scare the hell out of opponents who are mentally destroyed even before the first punch is thrown. The late-1980s Tyson spoke of driving nose bones into fighters’ brains, of taking their hearts and their manhood, of the satisfaction he derived from hearing them whimper like a little girl after they’d been hit to the body.
“You can see apprehension on some of their faces,” Deas said when asked if Wilder generated that sort of terror in the other corner prior to the opening bell. “But intimidation is not as big a thing as it used to be when Tyson was coming up. Guys now are, like, `I don’t care who you are. I’m bringing it.’
“I mean, so much of Tyson’s persona was about being a bully. Like a lot of bullies, once somebody stood up to them, and didn’t back down, you saw chinks in his armor. Deontay is not a bully. He’s a good guy and a smart fighter. He sees what’s happening in the ring and adjusts to it.”
One more difference between Wilder and the early Tyson: that Tyson could starch anybody with either hand; Wilder, for the most part, has relied on the overhand right, a devastating weapon that not only put former WBO heavyweight titlist Siarhei Liakhovich down and out in their fight on Aug. 9, 2013, but had his left leg twitching uncontrollably, like a hooked fish flopping on the deck of a boat.
Asked about Wilder’s less-dominant hand, Deas said, “He has no left hand at all. We’ve tried, but it is completely useless. No, just kidding.
“We actually hope people think that because Deontay is very gifted with his left hand. A lot of times he just hasn’t had the opportunity to show it off, like he did against Stiverne with his jab. But he has a tremendous left hook and a tremendous left uppercut. When the time is right, somebody is going to find that out.”
Photo credit: Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME®