Monday, September 16, 2019
by Eddie Goldman
You hear it all the time, one of those empty boxing cliches that is casually ignored by anyone who has seen a few fights before. Anything can happen in boxing, especially with the big heavyweights, we are assured before each fight. But most of those same fights are the result of careful matchmaking which virtually guarantees who will win, without formally fixing them. Then what is expected and planned for usually happens, with the talking heads extolling the prowess of the all-but-predetermined victor. Already this year we have had blowout wins for Andy Ruiz over Alexander Dimitrenko, Deontay Wilder over Dominic Breazeale, and Tyson Fury over Tom Schwarz.
But it is still somewhat of a sport and not completely scripted like the fake "wrestling". At times, then, the best laid plans of mice and their two-legged cousins, the boxing promoters, go awry. Again just this year, Anthony Joshua was scheduled to fight Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller, who, after an exceptionally nasty press conference at Madison Square Garden, infamously failed three drug tests and was pulled from the fight. His late replacement, the rotund Ruiz, then on June 1, as we know, dispatched an untypically unenthusiastic and bewildered Joshua in seven rounds to capture his collection of heavyweight titles. Their scheduled December 7 rematch was also placed in a novel and highly controversial venue, Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, right outside the capital city of Riyadh -- assuming that the many bombings of that country by those fighting the Saudis in Yemen don't land too close to the Saudi fight site, or that a full-scale war doesn't break out.
This past Saturday, September 14, we had what was supposed to be an easy sparring-like session for Tyson Fury against the unbeaten but little-known Otto Wallin. This was a step in Fury's rehabilitation since his two-and-a-half year hiatus due to drugs, drink, and depression, followed by two warmup bouts and then a tough fight last December with Deontay Wilder, a split draw which most fair and unbought people thought Fury had won. The plan was for Fury to breeze through some rounds here, sing songs in the ring after winning, and have one more gimme fight in December before facing Wilder in a rematch February 22 of next year. Wilder is also said to be facing Luis "King Kong" Ortiz in a rematch sometime in November, or maybe not, as this bout still has not been officially announced just two months out.
The buildup to the Fury-Wallin fight was designed, to a degree, to heighten awareness of Fury in America. It was set in Las Vegas on the weekend of Mexican Independence Day, with Fury sporting the colors of the Mexican flag, donning at press events a lucha libre mask like those used by Mexican pro wrestlers, and during his endless ring walk wearing a sombrero, albeit backwards, while live Mexican music was played.
While the intent was to build Fury's American profile, this fight was shown in the U.S. not on the ESPN TV network, but on its newer and far less popular ESPN+ app, which at most only has a few million subscribers in total. This allowed for a field day for people who were posting illegal streams online, even as the ESPN police played whack-a-mole to try to get them taken down while others cropped up like flowers in a spring rain.
Despite all the theatrics before the fight and focus on Fury and his antics, Wallin, who almost exclusively had previously fought in Europe, was not intimidated. In fact, he trains in New York with former world champion Joey Gamache so was not a newbie to the strange ways of the Americans. Sure, he had nothing on his resume to suggest that he would be anything other than an opponent for Fury, and was way short on experience, having had an eight-round fight only last year and never facing even a top ten fighter before. The odds were long in Fury's favor, and sensibly so.
And then the fight started. Opinions are divided on who won the first two relatively uneventful rounds, with a few folks even giving them both to Wallin. Fury was largely inactive, unexpectedly not jabbing or going to the body that much, and giving up his height advantage. But feeling out rounds are common in boxing and often set the stage for the expected winners to cruise to victory or crush their foes.
And then round three commenced. In the final minute of that round, while the ESPN+ announcers were chatting about Deontay Wilder and such, the southpaw Wallin landed a left hand around Fury's right eye, on the eyebrow, and what would soon become a gruesome cut opened up. A little later the announcers finally noticed it, as Fury began pawing at it. A few rounds later Fury suffered yet another cut, this time on the right eyelid.
These cuts would change the entire trajectory of the fight. The sages of the Nevada State Athletic Commission ruled that the first and worst cut was caused by a punch, and not a clash of heads. But later when asked on the telecast about it, Fury's trainer Ben Davison said that the cut came from a head clash, meaning that the commission had informed the ESPN announcers of their ruling but not Fury and his corner.
The significance of this, of course, is what the verdict would have been if the fight had to be stopped because of the cuts. If a fight is stopped by a cut from a punch, it is a TKO victory for the fighter who threw the punch over the cut fighter, regardless of the scores at that point. But if it is stopped because of a cut caused by a head clash or another foul, then the scorecards come into play if the fight has gone past four rounds, in most jurisdictions. The partial round is scored and the winner is whoever is ahead on the cards. If fewer than four rounds had been completed, then it is a no decision and nobody wins or loses, except of course the fans and gamblers who lose.
Fury was able to soldier on, but for a few rounds looked rather listless. In the sixth round, with Fury's blood flowing more freely all over his face, Wallin, and referee Tony Weeks, the round was halted midway for the ringside doctor to check the cuts. After a brief visit, the doctor told the referee that the fight could continue, and it did. At this point, the scorecards were all over the place, but some had the determined underdog Wallin even with Fury or even ahead on points.
Suddenly with round seven Fury began to unleash his hands. Though he was still fighting a bit stooped over as he often does, he realized that this was no gimme fight and he had to change his gameplan to do his best impression of what a slugfest would look like. Fury would dominate rounds seven through 11, although he failed to drop Wallin.
The cuts were still grotesque, though, as ESPN curiously avoided showing a camera angle which displayed Fury's very bloody right side. Wallin rallied in the final round, but for most observers it was too late for him to capture a decision win.
The final tallies were of course mostly way too wide in favor of the house fighter and money maker Fury, who won unanimously by scores of 118-110, 117-111, and 116-112, with only the latter one resembling what happened in the ring.
While Fury performed his act in the in-ring, post-fight interview, calling out the "bum" and "big dosser" Wilder, he did admit the cuts played a major role. He said that for the majority of the fight he could not see out of the left eye, although it was around the right one where he was cut and the blood drenched that side of his face. He probably meant to say the right eye, but even if it was an inadvertent slip after an unexpectedly tough 12-round fight, he never told the referee or any official that his vision was impaired at all. Had he done so, the fight would very likely have been stopped, as is more or less protocol.
Fury did not attend the post-fight press conference, as he was in the hospital getting a reported 47 stitches from a plastic surgeon. His trainer Ben Davison, called "Dan" by promoter Bob Arum, was though, and he admitted the same thing as Fury had. After the fight Davison was quoted as saying, "Obviously he was struggling to see, but he had to make it look like he wasn't struggling to see."
Of course, it is debatable whether or not the cuts should have led to this fight being stopped. Fury saw well enough to dominate the second half of the fight. While hideous in appearance, the main cut was on the brow, and may have looked worse than it actually was as the blood and sweat mixed as they dripped down Fury's face. And this is big stakes, professional heavyweight boxing. But the lack of sustained interest by the ringside doctors in checking the cuts and Fury's ability to see is worth noting.
Also after the fight, John Fury, Tyson's father and former trainer, ripped into his current trainer Davison and the preparation for this fight. The elder Fury was watching on the BT Sport Box Office broadcast in the U.K., since he is barred from entering the U.S. following a 2011 conviction for gouging another man's eye out and serving four years in prison for it. John Fury said his son looked weak as a kitten, looked out of shape and weight-drained, had no snap on his punches and no movement or timing, and was very lucky to emerge with a win. He implied that this was the result of major problems in the training camp for this fight, again only three months after the Tom Schwarz two-round blowout. And he called for his son to fire Ben Davison. Some of this may be professional jealousy between trainers, but even these charges, however exaggerated, have grains of truth.
So now what? Clearly scratched is any plan for Fury to fight another tuneup in December before facing Wilder on February 22. While his promoters assured the world that Fury will be all healed up and ready to train for this rematch with Wilder, no one should be surprised if the cuts or other problems cause this fight to be postponed again. It was originally planned for this past May, but right before signing for this fight Fury signed a lucrative deal with ESPN and Top Rank as his co-promoter, reported to be for about $100 million, and instead scheduled a series of these tuneups rather than facing Wilder next after their December 2018 battle. Now with his face all chopped up, another delay would hardly shock anyone. And that doesn't even take into account the unwieldy plan of having the rematch shown in the U.S. as a joint pay-per-view of rival networks ESPN and Fox.
Wilder's plans also appear to be in flux. We have been told for months that his next fight will be a rematch with Luis "King Kong" Ortiz. This is also a potentially dangerous fight against the aging Ortiz, who almost stopped Wilder in their first encounter last year. Even if Wilder wins, as we saw with the victorious Fury, heavyweights cut and get cut, creating chaos for long-term scheduling of fights. Whatever factors have led to the delay in formally announcing this fight, perhaps involving once again rival TV networks like Showtime and Fox, now there is yet one more reason not to have it at all. Ironically, though, a delay for Fury-Wilder 2 could actually improve the chances of it occurring, since if it takes place in November there will be more than three months for Wilder to return to face Fury. But it also was mentioned on the BBC that there were whispers this week in Las Vegas that Wilder-Ortiz 2 will not take place at all, so we shall see.
As a standalone fight, the Fury-Wallin fight was indeed dramatic and compelling. It made for entertaining viewing for the fans whether in the arena or watching on TV or via streams. Wallin certainly proved he had been severely underrated, and quite likely earned himself some more big fights and paydays. All night the fight was the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S., although it has not been revealed how many people actually saw it legally in the U.S. on ESPN+.
But the reported attendance at Las Vegas' 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena was only 8,249, and we have seen before that these early and unofficial numbers have been inflated by the promoters. That same Saturday night, a larger crowd of 17,760 saw the Detroit Tigers, last place in the American League Central, defeat the Baltimore Orioles, last place in the American League East, by a score of 8-4 in 12 innings, and each already with 100 or more losses.
With the winning teams in baseball still in heated races to get to the playoffs and World Series in October, and with the NFL and college football gobbling up the sports TV ratings in America, what is next in the top tier of boxing's heavyweight division is unclear, unsettled, and unknown. The promoters and fighters are trying to fill this void by intensifying their trash talk about one another, but those are not the kind of fights the fans pay for.
With all this chaos and uncertainty, the goal of crowning an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world is as remote as ever. The promoters and networks will declare with straight faces that all their fights are great. But an historical opportunity to have one world heavyweight champion is slipping away, and as it does, so might the interest of the paying public.
(Photo of Tyson Fury by Mikey Williams/Top Rank.)