For Deontay Wilder, Bermane Stiverne is The One That Got Away

Frustrated fishermen have long spun tall tales about it. So have forlorn lovers and members of law enforcement who are dismayed when they fail to nail the perpetrator of a dastardly crime who somehow manages to escape justice for years or even decades.

Thoughts of “the one that got away” at some point have invaded the sleep, like the appearance of an uninvited guest, of many people who toss and turn the night away. Such nettlesome visions are the wellspring of wistfulness, of good times gone wrong, of the fickleness of serendipity that sometimes make us victims of that portion of our fate we are never quite able to control.

With a 38-0 record that includes 37 abbreviated victories, it could be said that there really is no opponent, in a professional sense, that WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder has failed to hook and reel in. He is, until further notice, undefeated … perfect. But there is a smudge, however tiny, on his record in that Bermane Stiverne, the man whose title he claimed on a one-sided unanimous decision on Jan. 17, 2015, stubbornly declined to surrender when he fell hopelessly behind on points. Referee Tony Weeks also played a part in a Wilder fight that finally went to the scorecards when he chose not to intercede in a beatdown that saw the challenger from Tuscaloosa, Ala., in his 33rd pro outing, win by Grand Canyonesque margins of 120-107, 119-108 and 118-109.

Now, because of another failed drug test by his originally scheduled (and, quite frankly, more appealing) opponent, Cuban defector Luis “King Kong” Ortiz (27-0, 23 KOs), Wilder gets his opportunity to somewhat make amends for his sole non-KO or stoppage with a second try at Stiverne (25-2-1, 21 KOs) in the reconfigured, Showtime-televised main event on Nov. 4 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. This time, though, the task confronting Wilder seems much less problematic than it was nearly three years ago, when he went off as a slight (3-to-2) favorite.

Stiverne, a Haitian-born resident of Las Vegas, is now 39 years old (or will be on Nov. 1), and could have a coating of ring rust (just one bout in the interim, a 10-round unanimous decision over journeyman Derric Rossy on Nov. 14, 2015). Despite his seemingly implausible No. 1 ranking from the WBC and status as that sanctioning body’s mandatory contender, the Vegas sports books list Stiverne as a virtual no-hoper, a 25-1 longshot. Not that Stiverne, the figurative last centurion in the crumbling empire of 86-year-old Don King, views himself as just another of Wilder’s designated victims.

“At the time I fought Rossy I was still trying to digest the loss (to Wilder),” said Stiverne, who claims he was less than his best that night in Las Vegas because of an illness he did not disclose beforehand. “I might have been there physically, but mentally and psychologically that wasn’t the case. I lost the title because of my health, not because he was better than me,” said Stiverne, who was hospitalized after the fight for severe dehydration. “That was then and this is now. This is a different Bermane Stiverne.”

Like every knockout artist who has been obliged to go the distance the first time, Wilder – who fought Stiverne with a broken right hand (as later confirmed by the Nevada State Athletic Commission) from the third round on, now claims that his inability to put Stiverne down and out was a “learning experience,” an affirmation to skeptics that he really did have enough gas in his tank to go 12 rounds if need be. But, despite his protestations to the contrary, such rationalization somehow does not ring entirely true. In Wilder’s mind, his mission on each and every fight night is to seek and destroy, to end every assignment with an exclamation mark, not a period.

“The first time around, my heart desired the knockout, but in reality it (going the distance) was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Wilder insisted in a teleconference with the media when asked about the ending of one of boxing’s most impressive career-opening KO streaks. “To that point a lot of people doubted me, saying what I couldn’t do. When Bermane was able to last 12 rounds it was a blessing because I proved what I can do.”

It could well be that winning by decision alleviated some of the mounting pressure on Wilder to keep on flattening everyone he faced inside the ropes, but then almost every big bopper whose long knockout run ends knows what it feels like to face the future when a fight is at last determined by the opinion of three judges with pencils. The standard response is to say it’s no big deal, that a win is a win is a win. But perhaps a more telling pronouncement came a couple of weeks ago, when Wilder, at a New York press conference to hype his upcoming and not-yet-canceled date with Ortiz, spoke of a mindset that is never prepared to settle for anything less than total annihilation.

“It’s not going to be a fight that goes the distance,” he promised. “I’m thinking about three rounds. Come that night, it might even be in the first round. You never know. All the naysayers are putting more fuel on the fire ’cause I’m going to whip Luis Ortiz’s ass. I talk that talk so I know I have to walk that walk.”

Sometimes fishermen, after failing to land that whopper of their reminiscence, later haul in another big one that qualifies as a suitable and taxidermist-preserved consolation prize. The heartthrob who married your best friend often turns out to be divorce-bait, opening the door to true happiness with someone who happens along further down the road. And improvements in crime-fighting technology have heated up enough cold cases that a persistent cop can still have the satisfaction of slapping the cuffs on that previously unapprehended bad guy who has haunted him more than the creepiest Halloween ghoul ever could.

Some might find it curious that Wilder can offer assurances that he could and would have bombed out Ortiz — a very formidable, hard-punching southpaw whose reputation has now been sullied by having twice tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs — while hesitating to do the same in the do-over with Stiverne. But Wilder nonetheless is not hedging his bets, vowing to retire if he fails to win this fight by whatever means are necessary.

“The only thing that’s going to be different,” said the 6-foot-7 bronze medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, “is that it’s gonna be a much easier fight,” which pretty much sounds as if he’s predicting a knockout. What he did say, without equivocation, is that “if Bermane Stiverne beats me, I will retire. You can put that down. I will be out of the way. Boxing ain’t got to worry about me no more. I’m done.”

Wilder’s dissatisfaction is understandable, in a way. He was disappointed when his trip to Moscow, where he was to defend his title against another serial juicer, Russia’s Alexander Povetkin, was scrubbed when Povetkin tested positive a second time for PEDs. The same situation has played out again with Ortiz, leaving Wilder to wonder if maybe he should win more often on points, if only to convince would-be opponents that a date with him can lead to something other than a well-compensated visit to the nearest hospital.

“My power is a blessing and a curse,” he mused. “It’s a curse because so many guys have kind of ruined my career a little bit. It’s a curse to have so much power, to have a record like that because the best (possible opponents), they get fearful.”

It will be interesting to see what will happen when and if Wilder gets it on with IBF/WBA/IBO heavyweight champ Anthony Joshua (19-0, 19 KOs), a gold medalist for the United Kingdom at the 2012 London Olympics, who takes on late substitute Carlos Takam (35-3-1, 27 KOs) this Saturday in Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, which also will be televised in the United States by Showtime. Wilder will be watching that one, of course, maybe to ascertain for himself if the big Briton can punch as hard as he does and whether he can extend his own KO streak.

Even great fighters don’t always win, and devastating punchers don’t always win by knockout. Just how much of a shock to the system it is for those who are accustomed to short and spectacular nights to learn they’re not quite as invincible as they believe themselves to be is a question only those who have suddenly been made aware of their human fallibility can answer.

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