While professional boxing unquestionably often involves two fighters hitting each other as hard as possible in order to win their match, it also often puts business first. It looks as if a lot of X's and O's are being moved around in two upcoming heavyweight title bouts, presumably as long-range setups for a blockbuster third fight between the winners.
This is a piece about what I'd do if I ran the boxing business. In other words, I'm giving you an entirely speculative read of events based on what makes marketing and financial sense for the two fights in question, one of which, technically, hasn't been signed or even officially mentioned yet. This is how they would be handled if the people putting them together knew what they were doing.
Maybe they do.
It's been my past experience that fighters who are being built up to be monsters with doomsday one-punch power, but aren't, at some level know. This knowledge sometimes sends them bizarrely around the bend. Last May, a video turned up on YouTube with Deontay Wilder beating up a smallish, terrified, mentally ill civilian at the Hollywood Boxing Gym.
Over two million people have watched the clip. It seems inconceivable that a professional fighter would do something so chickenshit. It's dumber still that anyone associated with him would allow it to be filmed and disseminated. Try to picture Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali beating up a citizen. Try to picture any real fighter doing it.
Let's talk plainly here: Deontay Wilder, who fights for the WBC title tonight, is no real fighter. But that doesn't mean he won't become heavyweight champion. Non-fighters have done it before, more than once.
Wilder, the US representative and bronze medalist at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (the result brought him his ring moniker, "The Bronze Bomber," a strangely prideful way to treat coming in third), has fought 32 times as a professional. He's knocked out all of his opponents—sometimes, but not always, hitting them in the process. Everything about him looks wrong: his body is constructed wrong for a boxer, his feet are placed wrong, his punches are delivered wrong. He wobbles every time anyone taps him. When a contemporary boxer, like Wilder, is lacking in fundamentals, his defenders usually brush it aside by adding the mitigation that the guy is "an athlete." You might as well say, "It's okay; the guy's a fantastic tattoo artist." It does no harm, but being a great athlete is parenthetical to being a great fighter.
Were Deontay Wilder to lose to Bermane Stiverne, the money that has already been spent to get him to the fight wouldn't be recouped by its purse. That's neither here nor there; big time investors in boxing routinely lose a million dollars on a heavyweight. But Wilder's future earning capacity, if his limitations were clearly exposed, would be chopped dramatically. And his aura would be gone. Would Wilder's people really risk all they'd worked for to roll the dice for a mere million-dollar fight against a legitimately dangerous opponent? It makes no sense. All Deontay would have to do is blow over a couple more pushovers, and Wladimir Klitschko would still be waiting for him a year from now. The reason you would have him beat Stiverne is twofold: to give him a title as leverage when negotiating with Klitschko, and to dispel the idea that he's a fraud. Accomplishing those things increases the value of the unification match tenfold.
Al Haymon, Wilder's promoter, is currently boxing's most aggressively acquisitive money man. Although he is employing innovative business strategies, he hasn't shown himself to possess good pure boxing instincts. That too might be neither here nor there. Like a poker player with a vast battlement of chips in front of him, Haymon can push out less capitalized players simply by going all in, forcing them out of the game. You take him head-on at your own peril.
The octogenarian Don King, perhaps not quite the force of old, is still the most astute poker player in the game, capable of sophisticated maneuvers in which he uses the remaining members of his stable like chips, employing them to strategically win or lose. The big question is how King wants to deploy Bermane Stiverne. There may be reasons why it would be best for everyone involved (including Bermane Stiverne) if on Saturday night Wilder walks away with the title. I think that King, cagey as he is, understands that, at this point, he's not going to beat Haymon in the big picture. But he may be able to join him in a limited way. It's possible that the smartest available move is to latch onto the tail of Deontay Wilder's comet. Grab a smallish piece of the big, big action. That would be King's asking price.
How could all this do Bermane Stiverne any good? Stiverne, a smart man and a talented fighter with an exciting style, is nevertheless a short-term investment. He's 36, has a somewhat questionable chin, and, although a live underdog, would probably get knocked out by Wladimir Klitschko in a unification bout that would have little mainstream marketing appeal. Because he holds the WBC heavyweight title, he's still King's biggest bargaining chip, since he allows the promoter to hold the title up for ransom. If his fight with Wilder were going to go to a decision, Stiverne could be bypassed, saving the people involved a lot of money. But if not, Bermane would have to be dealt with. Losing has to be made worth his while. There are ways to do that.
Although Wladimir Klitschko's next title defense is supposed to be against Bryant Jennings in April, it's unlikely that fight will take place as scheduled. The real fight in the pipeline is between Klitschko and his video skit partner Shannon Briggs, who have been hustling viewers on YouTube with their weirdly cinematic feud for the past year or so. The storyline is that Briggs despises the champion, thinks him a coward, and has been dogging him throughout the world, showing up "unexpectedly" wherever the champ is to hurl threats and imprecations.
Klitschko plays the part of the decent man pushed too far, and their inevitable encounter will be promoted as a grudge match. The Brooklyn-born Briggs, at 42, is at least a decade past being a genuine contender, but by far the most fan-friendly choice available, in terms of spectacle anyway, now that the champion has wiped out the rest of the division.
As improbable as it is for a dominant heavyweight champion who's still at his best to take on a quasi-professional boxer who's had no meaningful wins since his knockout of a shopworn Ray Mercer in 2005, there are good business reasons for this matchup to take place. In a sport where the highest profile bad guys are Floyd Mayweather, a wealthy bore with nothing to say, and Adrian Broner, a vulgar loudmouth who people don't like not because he cultivates a negative persona but because he really is an asshole, Shannon Briggs, given a stage, projects a charismatic cartoon heel. He's got the thing down pat. Ripped to shreds and juiced near to bursting, all he needs is a talented foil to work off. Wladimir Klitschko, meanwhile, has so far done a good job of acting the often bemused and occasionally outraged baby face. Once they arrive in Brooklyn, they'll probably do a mutual turn, letting Shannon become the hometown hero to Wladimir's invading outsider.
Klitschko is deeply invested in finishing up his career by building an audience in the United States, where boxing fans have, until now, been at best lukewarm to him. He understands that Briggs will do more than his part to hype the fight and ensure a sold out Barclays Center.
It's evident that the various staged confrontations between Klitschko and Briggs are amusing to them and that they genuinely get a kick out of each other. It's possible that Wladimir feels some sense of responsibility for the inhuman beating Shannon took over 12 rounds when he fought his brother Vitali a little over four years ago. It's the kind of sustained damage with will surely tell on Briggs somewhere down the line, and something that the referee, the commission doctor, and Briggs's corner men should all be ashamed of allowing to happen. It's easy to imagine Klitschko thinking that, since Briggs did a lot of suffering for very little money, it'd be nice to put the karma right by reversing the ratio.
Shannon Briggs doesn't train to go rounds; Wladimir Klitschko needs a splashy return to the States after an absence of over seven years (and a particularly dull win over Sultan Ibragamov on that occasion). That means this is going to be a short, explosive night.
On paper, the fight is a mismatch: Klitschko clearly should be able to destroy Briggs. So why bother fixing it? You fix it because you can't afford for anything to go wrong, and Briggs punches hard, while Klitschko has a terrible chin. You fix it because Klitschko's legacy, so hard-won in light of fans' skepticism, would never recover from his losing this caliber of fight against this caliber of opponent. He is only now starting to be evaluated as one of the better heavyweight champions historically. So the deal should be straight: a fast night's work with a great final payday for Briggs in exchange for no funny business.
Would Briggs think funny business? Might he be tempted to move off script, sucker punching Klitschko and scoring a quick knockout? Would the promise of a second massive payday, combined with the pride of fighting in front of a partisan hometown crowd, prompt him to pull a double-cross? He's big, still quick-handed, and punches with serious power, especially early in this fights. No doubt Wladimir Klitschko would consider this possibility and prepare for it. It's ugly to contemplate the price Briggs would pay for a botched Pearl Harbor attack. My guess is that we would never see it.
Shannon Briggs wraps up his career with one last big score. He has the surprise distinction of having fought for the heavyweight title years after it would have seemed possible. Wladimir Klitschko gets a devastating early knockout in his return to the United States. This leaves him hoping that his former sparring partner Deontay Wilder, by now elevated to the Great American Hope, is the WBC World Heavyweight Champion in the late summer.
Which Wilder should be.
Both Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder have things to prove in their next fights.
Klitschko has to dispel the notion that he's a risk-averse robot, content to take safety measures even when it's clear that his opponent has no business in the ring with him. He has to wade in, bombs bursting, against a big, free-swinging nightmare who appears to be matching him in power and plenitude. The fight has to be short and combustible, and must end with Briggs counted out, flat on his back. That's Klitschko's gig for the night.
Wilder has to show people that he can do to a respected fighter and current champion what he has done to his previous 32 setups. He has to confirm the giddy hope that many American fight fans have already placed in him. The fight also has to be short and combustible, and must end with Stiverne seemingly unconscious, the referee frantically rushing to his assistance without bothering to count. That's Wilder's gig for the night.
Deontay Wilder and a typical opponent pose ahead of a fight in March, 2014.
It goes without saying that, if Klitschko and Wilder do their jobs, Briggs and Stiverne will have done theirs.
These two fights are the preliminaries. The real prize for their winners is what happens next. By winning concussively, the two champions are now ready to unify the titles. Not since the corpse of Mike Tyson fought Lennox Lewis in 2002 has anyone given a fuck about watching the heavyweight championship. Klitschko-Wilder changes that. It completely, if only briefly, reconfigures the boxing landscape. Casual sports fans will be able to name both heavyweight champions, and will have a rooting interest in who wins their fight. Klitschko vs. Wilder has the potential, if promoted creatively, to be the highest grossing boxing match in history, paying out the two biggest purses ever.
If it happens, it won't be fixed, and it won't be much of a fight. Because, sometimes, boxing is real.
Charles Farrell has spent most of his professional life moving between music and boxing (with a few detours along the way). He has managed five world champion boxers and has 30 CDs listed under his name. Farrell is currently at work on a book of essays about music, boxing, gangsterism, and lowlife culture; a boxing anthology edited by Mike Ezra and Carlo Rotella; and a TV series, Red House, based on events from an earlier part of his life.
Photos via Associated Press