It is human nature, one supposes, to compare the Next Big Thing to a Former Big Thing. Oh, sure, it is a handy and sometimes useful tool to gauge a rising star’s progress against the statistical achievements of a predecessor, or to simply allow ourselves to experience the aesthetic rush that comes with believing that the hot prospect we are watching is capable of doing the same wondrous things that a favorite athlete once did.
But wishing doesn’t make it so, and never has. A lot of New York Yankees fans wanted to believe that Bobby Murcer would be as magnificent a centerfielder as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, but, alas, he was just Bobby Murcer – a pretty good player in his own right, but no Hall of Famer.
Deontay “The Bronze Bomber” Wilder will enter the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Saturday night for his Showtime-televised shot at WBC heavyweight champion Bermane “B.Ware” Stiverne (24-1-1, 21 KOs) shouldering the same sort of pressure that weighed upon Murcer, and many others, like a ton of bricks. With 32 knockouts in 32 professional bouts, the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native’s power with his signature overhand right is legitimate, enough to generate comparisons in some quarters to such renowned sleep-inducers as Mike Tyson, Earnie Shavers and a young George Foreman.
But, at 6-foot-7 and with the impressively lean musculature of an NBA power forward, Wilder is no physical prototype of the squatty Tyson, and his long streak of pastings of second-tier opponents hardly merits a place alongside Phase 1 of Big George just yet. A more reasonable measuring stick might be Shavers, a one-trick pony (the trick admittedly was pretty good) who was like a cleanup hitter who could smack a baseball 500 feet, but struck out a bit too often and was no Gold Glover on defense. For all the electrifying knockouts that Shavers registered, he’s also the same guy who never held a version of the title, had stamina issues and was stopped inside two rounds by both Randall “Tex” Cobb and Brian Yates.
To my way of thinking, the fighter to whom the 29-year-old Wilder should most be likened to at this critical juncture of his evolving career is Michael Grant, another 6-foot-7 Adonis with six-pack abs, a mighty punch and inflated expectations that caused quite a few of his followers to believe he was not only headed to greatness in the here and now, but to a level of immortality that is the destiny of only the best of the best. Don Turner, who trained Grant during his halcyon era when the suits at HBO had all but anointed him as a larger, potentially improved version of Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey, even went so far as to proclaim his fighter as having the capabilities of surpassing every heavyweight who ever laced up a pair of padded gloves.
But then Grant got his dream shot, at WBC champion Lennox Lewis on April 29, 2000, in Madison Square Garden, and the air went out of his balloon as swiftly as a punctured balloon. The pin prick in this instance was supplied by Lewis’ own thunderous right hand, which he employed to drop Grant four times before referee Arthur Mercante Jr. counted him out 2 minutes, 53 seconds into the second round.
Anyone can get caught – Lewis, a 2009 enshrinee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on merit (41-2-1, 32 KOs) – twice got nailed on the chin by underdogs Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, causing him to crash to the canvas like an imploded building. But when Grant also was starched in one round by fringe contender Jameel McCline in his next fight, on July 21, 2001, in Las Vegas, the hype machine that had previously been turned on at full volume wheezed to a halt.
Grant is now 42, still active with a 48-6 record that includes 36 knockout victories (and five losses the same way), and he can see where parallels might be drawn between Wilder and himself. Although Grant is a city guy (born in Chicago, long-based in the Philadelphia area and now a resident of Atlanta) and Wilder is from the less-urban environs of Tuscaloosa, where college football is king, both have multi-sport backgrounds and the physiques dreams are made of.
One distinct difference: Grant’s failed audition for greatness came against Lennox Lewis, who might have been the finest heavyweight during a very good era for heavyweights; Stiverne, on the other hand, is no Double-L. He would appear to is more like Bobby Murcer, if you’ll pardon the crossover comparison between boxers and baseball players, or maybe to Seth Mitchell, the former Michigan State linebacker who was talked up as the most recent Next Big Thing, until he came thudding back to earth with a KO2 loss to Johnathan Banks. Mitchell beat Banks in a boring sequel, and then got stopped by Chris Arreola (KO1) in 2013. He has all but vanished from the division’s big picture.
“I’ve sparred with Stiverne,” Grant told me last week. “He hung in there. I put some really big shots on him and he took them pretty good. He’s going to be a good, tough test for Wilder. Is he a really powerful test? Probably not on the level of a Lennox Lewis, or a (Wladimir) Klitschko.
And good, tough tests are not the same as all-or-nothing final exams.
“Andrew Golota and Lou Savarese (both of whom Grant defeated), they were good fighters,” Grant continued. “I was very comfortable developing my skills against fighters like that. But when I fought Lennox for the championship, that was moving up to a whole different level. You fight somebody like that, there is a different kind of pressure put on you. I wasn’t ready for it. I admit it.
“So many people thought I not only could win, but would win. They were telling me I was going to be a guest on `Oprah,’ that the City of Philadelphia was going to hold a parade for me. There was talk that Versace wanted me to be a celebrity endorser. That’s enormous pressure, man. I never had to deal with anything like that before. Looking back, I probably did allow it to get to me a little bit.
“Being on the big stage, or at least a bigger stage, might affect Deontay. Maybe it won’t; like I said, Stiverne is no Lennox Lewis. But if and when he steps up to the plate to fight Klitschko, it’s going to weigh heavy on him because Klitschko is on another level, like Lewis was when I fought him. I know Deontay is a big puncher and all that, but I can’t see him lasting more than a few rounds against Klitschko.”
Perhaps Wilder will continue to ratchet up the excitement level starting to cling to him like lint on Velcro if he makes the 36-year-old Stiverne knockout victim No. 33. Or he could get starched himself, which would promptly drop him into the lower category where guys like Shavers and Grant reside – and maybe even further down than that, to the discount bin of crushed dreams where more obvious pretenders like Mitchell and Faruq Saleem have been assigned. And if you don’t remember Saleem, he’s the big (6-7, 257 pounds ) heavyweight from Newark, N.J., whom the late Butch Lewis steered to a 38-0 victory with 32 knockouts, against a lineup of opponents more odious than the ones Wilder has dispatched so emphatically. The 34-year-old Saleem was stopped in four rounds by someone named Shawn McLean on Sept. 23, 2009, and immediately called a halt to his phantom ring career.
“If he were a welterweight or a middleweight, I’d be real concerned right now,” Lewis said in 2009, before Saleem got his come-uppance from McLean. “But come on now. We’re talking about the bleeping heavyweight division. Every bleeper-bleeper whose name anybody recognizes is older than 34, damn near. And nobody’s a killer. There ain’t no bleeping killer nowhere. I mean, who’s the killer?”
Well, there’s Klitschko, a legitimate assassin inside the ropes. But “Dr. Steelhammer” is 38 and has to be winding down sometime, given the more ravaging effects the aging process can do to someone’s body than a few quick ’n’ easy rounds against the no-chance challengers he’s been handling with almost ridiculous ease.
Which brings us back to Stiverne-Wilder, which is what passes for a major heavyweight bout in these diminished times. The winner will be held up as the last semi-legitimate threat to Klitschko’s dominance, but the guess here is that that man will chart a course as far away from the Ukrainian as possible until he joins his older brother Vitali in the safe arms of retirement. If the captain of the Titanic had it to do all over again, you’d have to figure he would go slower and keep a keener eye out for icebergs. Stiverne is the last horse in promoter Don King’s thinned-out stable capable of a reasonably brisk trot, and Wilder’s manager/adviser Al Haymon is as adverse to risk as was Mayberry deputy Barney Fife.
Still, a reasonable degree of hype – one way or the other – can be justified, if only because fight fans desperately want something more from boxing’s big men than the same-old, same-old. Even a younger version of Michael Grant, the one who was exposed against Lewis, would look enticing in the present heavyweight lineup.
Asked who would win if the 29-year-old Grant could somehow be paired with Wilder, ESPN2 boxing analyst Teddy Atlas – who, it should be noted, trained Grant for a time – went with his former pupil.
“Grant was more athletic,” Atlas said. “He could do more things. He had a better left hand. There’s only one thing Wilder does reallywell, and that’s to punch like hell with the right hand. It’s really all he does.
“The most important difference between Grant and Wilder, though, is that Grant was around – unfortunately for him – when a guy named Lennox Lewis was around. Lewis was a truly dominant heavyweight. Deontay Wilder comes along when there’s nobody around, other than Klitschko. Wilder has an option, an alternative, to avoid Klitschko. He can fight Stiverne. Change them around and if Michael Grant had Stiverne to fight instead of Lewis at the same stage of his career, he very well might have been heavyweight champion of the world. But Lewis was there, Grant wasn’t ready for him and that was that.”
Despite his misgivings about Wilder, however, Atlas is picking him to dethrone Stiverne, and with an exclamation point.
“I don’t think Deontay Wilder is all that great,” Atlas opined. “But he’s got that big right hand and he’s in a situation where he’s fighting Stiverne – who’s a good puncher, too – and is also a guy that’s been knocked out once in his career. Stiverne likes to counterpunch and he needs you at a certain distance to be effective. Because Wilder is tall and long and can bang with the right hand, I think the style matchup is horrible for Stiverne.
“I look for Wilder to keep Stiverne on the outside and catch him before Stiverne ever gets close enough to catch Wilder. I think Wilder will knock him out in one or two rounds.”
For his part, Wilder – the pressure on him now might be even a bit heavier, given the fact that his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide was upset by the underdog Ohio State Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff semifinals – doesn’t like to be compared to anyone, be it Grant, Tyson, Shavers, the young Foreman or whomever.
“I don’t like people to compare me to anybody, even if it’s the greatest fighter in the world,” Wilder said. “It don’t do me no justice to say I have a style like this guy or that guy. That ain’t doing me no good. What Michael Grant done, that was his legacy, his journey. My name is Deontay Leshun Wilder. Nice to meet you.
“I don’t care what Michael Grant done. I’m on a totally different path. I’m making my own legacy.”
Not that I’m sure it went down this way, but I’d guess that Bobby Murcer probably said more or less the same thing the first time someone attempted to link him to DiMaggio or The Mick. The gaps between contention and championship and legendary status are wide, and getting wider, and fans keep trying to fill in those gaps by building up the Next Big Thing as something bigger than it might actually be.
NOTE FROM FERNANDEZ: My original story contained an error and I wish to apologize for that. Mistakes such as this are far beneath the standard I have set for myself, and which I would like to believe TSS readers have come to expect of me. I offer no excuses, but perhaps an explanation is in order. The night before I wrote, a relative had a seizure and I spent a good chunk of that evening in a hospital emergency room. I should have been better-rested, more-prepared and more-diligent when I sat down to do the piece, instead of trusting my memory, which proved to be a mistake. I will regard the matter as a flash knockdown, from which I will get up and resume punching. One more thing: I think I speak for all TSS contributors when I say it is an honor and a privilege to put my (usually) best effort on the site for inspection for such knowledgable and discerning boxing people such as yourselves. If I have let you down in this instance, rest assured I will do my utmost to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.