The most dangerous place in sports is a few inches away from Deontay Wilder’s right hand. That hand is the last thing that 40 boxers saw before bad things happened. Aside from trash cans in the Houston Astros dugout, nothing in sports gets drubbed more reliably than the boxers who get near that hand. That is what made Saturday so shocking: Tyson Fury, the new heavyweight champion of the world, was in the most dangerous place in sports and he wanted to be there. He thrived in it. He built a game plan around it. This is not just going into the lion’s den—this is going in, moving all your stuff in, and signing into your Netflix account while the lion just watches. This was not supposed to happen.
Fury beat Wilder by way of a seventh-round stoppage on Saturday night in Las Vegas after Wilder’s corner threw in the towel to stop a fight that was never turning back in Wilder’s favor after two knockdowns, the most notable coming in the third round, and a handful of slips. Wilder was wobbly; he was bleeding from his ear and had trouble balancing himself. This was not a fluke. In one of the biggest rematches in recent boxing history, Fury changed his game plan to move forward, walking down Wilder and swarming him with punches. Fury connected on twice as many punches as Wilder and three times as many power punches. Fury beating Wilder is not some massive upset—their rematch was seen as a tossup. Fury beating Wilder by stoppage, with Wilder’s corner calling it a day after the best puncher in the sport struggled to find any power—that was the shock. Fury is, and we mean this gently, a weirdo. He licked Wilder’s blood during the fight. Afterward, he sang “American Pie” in the ring and asked the crowd to join in (they did). But nothing was more surprising than Fury publicly telegraphing his game plan before the fight and then doing exactly what he said he was going to do: take the fight to one of the biggest badasses in the sport, whose right hand no one wants to be anywhere near.
Fury is the new WBC champion, becoming the first boxer in history to end two title reigns that lasted more than 10 defenses (he beat Wladimir Klitschko in 2015). He is unbeaten, and for the first time, Wilder is not. The former champ left the ring looking off-balance and eventually headed to the hospital, while Fury celebrated raucously in the ring with a mostly British crowd in Las Vegas. The most disrespectful thing a fighter can do is not knocking another man out. That happens. It’s singing karaoke afterward. I watched from my seat as Wilder, still moving awkwardly, shuffled out during an arena-wide singalong. This was not a normal fight.
The fight was supposed to be simple: Wilder was better than anyone on the planet at knocking people out, and Fury was elite at avoiding being knocked out. Fury dodged and escaped nearly everything Wilder threw at him in their first fight, which ended in a draw. When Wilder did connect in that 2018 meeting, sending Fury to the mat with a nasty knockdown, Fury miraculously rose, cementing the mythical status of the fight. Conventional wisdom, which has a pretty good hit rate in boxing, pegged Saturday’s rematch as either a Wilder knockout victory or a Fury points win. Instead of getting a true sequel, we got a very different reboot with the same actors.
Wilder’s trainer, Jay Deas, said, incredibly, that he disagreed with assistant trainer Mark Breland’s decision to throw in the towel to end the fight. Deas said that Wilder’s power means that he is always in it. This is ludicrous. It was not going to get better for Wilder. In fact, it looked like it was getting much worse. The famed boxing trainer Teddy Atlas has compared Wilder’s fights to the composition of the film Jaws. There is a lot of dead air—a lot of boats rocking quietly and gently on the water, and what lurks just below the surface, beyond sight, is what keeps you nervous the whole time. It was tantalizing to think Wilder’s right hand was going to be unleashed. It never happened. The fearsome version of Wilder was gone by the early rounds. The shark was not working.
Wilder often says that boxers need to be perfect for 36 minutes against him, while he needs to be perfect for only two seconds. It’s a good argument: He’d knocked out almost every opponent he’s ever faced before Fury. Wilder failed to knock out Bermane Stiverne in a win in 2015, but two years later, in their rematch, he knocked Stiverne out in the first round. Everyone Wilder ever threw a right hand at was knocked out by it until Fury. Wilder is still right: He does need to be perfect for only two seconds. His problem is that he never got those two seconds, and Fury was perfect the whole fight.
Fury, with a new trainer, had a better game plan, and his punches landed harder. In the first fight, Fury avoided Wilder’s right hand. He understood how Wilder used his left hand to set up his right, so Fury ducked under the left. It was a brilliant defensive tactic, but one Wilder figured out as the fight went along, hence his domination in the later rounds. If Fury tried this again, Wilder probably would have blasted him into the new Raiders stadium down the way from the MGM Grand. Instead, Fury went against type and used his jab and right hand in an offensive onslaught. Both fighters gained around 20 pounds for the fight: Wilder at 231 pounds and Fury at 276. Wilder looked slow at his record weight, although it’s hard to tell if that was the extra weight or the impact of Fury’s punches. Fury looked powerful, and he used his weight advantage to his benefit. “You don’t fight a puncher dancing away,” Fury’s promoter, Bob Arum, said after the fight in praising Fury’s game plan. “If you do, you’re playing with fire.”
Wilder looked like he wanted to land the right to the point of parody—think of the biggest baseball home run hack you’ve ever seen with the bases loaded. He simply didn’t have the power or the pinpoint accuracy (perhaps because of the ear injury) needed to connect on the head of a fighter like Fury, who plays the angles so well. Wilder may always be in it, as Deas says, but Wilder was not Wilder after Round 3.
So. More fights. The next fight seems obvious: a showdown between the two British world champions, Fury and Anthony Joshua. Joshua’s promoter said as much on Twitter. The problem is that Wilder has a 30-day window to exercise an option for a third fight with Fury. This clause, until Saturday’s result, was a good thing. It ensured that the winner couldn’t duck the loser and hold up the heavyweight division. After Fury so thoroughly trounced Wilder, there might be little appetite for a trilogy. However, it always comes back to one thing with Wilder: He has to be perfect for only two seconds. If he catches Fury with a shot, it could upend the entire heavyweight division again. As it stands now, Fury is a better boxer, and there’s not a lot of debate about that. But 36 more minutes might create some. If Wilder triggers the clause and Fury wins again, he would unify the belts against Joshua presumably in a soccer stadium in England in late 2020 or early 2021.
Wilder’s star will dim for the foreseeable future. He will have to either beat Fury in a trilogy fight or find a way into the conversation to face the winner of a potential Fury-Joshua match down the road. It will take a lot of knockouts and signature wins for Wilder, age 34, to regain the aura he had on Saturday afternoon: an undefeated knockout lord whose fights were packed with celebrities. Draymond Green embraced Khalil Mack in the hallway before the fight. Patrick Mahomes took it in. Leonardo DiCaprio is probably not coming back to a Wilder fight for a while. Lance Armstrong was there for some reason.
Fury and Wilder’s rematch had the attention of the world. Thousands of British boxing fans flew in. Tickets were wildly expensive and hard to find—the gate was almost $17 million, the most for a heavyweight fight in Nevada. Their first fight, in Los Angeles in December 2018, was not nearly as big of a deal (I bought two tickets from the venue the day of the fight and went as a spectator). But their epic battle, combined with Anthony Joshua’s loss to Andy Ruiz (since avenged), made Saturday not only the fight of the year but one of the biggest heavyweight fights in years.
Fury, now the undefeated heavyweight champion, becomes an even bigger star. The center of the boxing world is England. For the first time since 2014, Wilder is not a champion. No American heavyweight is. This English-American clash created one of the best live atmospheres I’ve witnessed. Wilder had a smaller, but loud contingent of fans at the fight, though most of them showed up on Saturday. Fury was polling at about 100 percent throughout Vegas in the week leading up to the fight. At Friday’s weigh-in, when Wilder was loudly booed, I saw Fury mouth, “Wow,” at one of his team members and raise his eyebrows impossibly high. English fight fans really like Las Vegas.
Fury’s star is different than Wilder’s or Joshua’s. Wilder’s appeal was simple: he was an assassin who created iconic knockouts. It did not take a boxing diehard to see what made him great. There’s a case to be made that Wilder was the perfect star for our current moment: most of his brilliance could be distilled into a short clip of some helpless opponent getting knocked unconscious in nice, memeable chunks. Fury is Fury, which means he is a star who leads the crowd in song. Before his “American Pie” adventure, he sang an Aerosmith song after beating Klitschko in 2015. He entered the ring via a throne, lip-synching “Crazy” by Patsy Cline. Fury did a Gladiator bit Saturday night. He showed up to the post-fight press conference wearing a tie with no shirt underneath (but, crucially, a blazer decorated with pictures of himself). Let me stress again: Fury is Fury, a concept that can be defined only by itself.
Wilder still has his right hand, and now he has to build a comeback story. Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bishop reported that Wilder needed seven stitches inside his ear before being transported to the hospital. Fury this week compared Wilder’s power to giving a 7-year-old an AK-47, in that “he is easy to control but could let rip any time.” This is a bit harsh—Wilder, mind you, had knocked out every single person he’d ever faced at some point (and could still knock out Fury)—but it’s not a stretch to say Wilder saw the limits of his talents on Saturday. He can do one thing better than anyone on the planet. Fury never let him do it. In fact, Fury did it to him. And boxing is much different for it.