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The Tyson Fury–Deontay Wilder Trilogy

The third installment between the heavyweight fighters has been a long time in the making. Here’s hoping they don’t disappoint.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The final round of the first fight between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury featured two events that changed the course of modern boxing. The first is famous: Two quick, hard Wilder hooks landed squarely on Fury’s head, leading to a knockdown that everyone in the building—including myself—considered to be the end of the fight. Wilder is the hardest puncher in the sport. Fury got up and changed the course of both men’s careers. The next part was less miraculous, more subtle, but just as important. Fury, who was on defense for most of that fight, swarmed Wilder with punches in a flurry to end the fight, which ended in a draw. That sequence suggested, as Fury would say later, that the bully could be bullied. That you could go right at the most dangerous puncher in the sport and thrive. That Wilder could be pressured. Fourteen months later, in February 2020, Fury built on that game plan and stopped Wilder in the seventh round in an absolute blowout to win the WBC heavyweight championship.

Sports has a way of asking the same question over and over again: Are you the person you think you are? In the 19 months since their rematch, Wilder has probably not liked the answer. I’ve spent only maybe an hour with Wilder in my life, but in that limited time, I found him to be a charming, swaggering personality who carries a type of confidence that comes with knocking 40 people unconscious publicly. He has, at least for now, lost that confidence. It’s not just that Fury built a strategy around charging toward Wilder—something no one believed possible heading into the fight. It’s how Wilder took it afterward. Wilder’s first professional loss turned him into a wild excuse-maker. First, he said his pre-fight costume was too heavy. Then he was a conspiracy theorist, claiming that his trainer, Mark Breland, who threw in the towel in the loss to protect Wilder, betrayed him as part of a pro-Fury conspiracy to rob Wilder of his title. The referee, he said, was also in on it. Wilder claimed that his water was spiked with a muscle relaxer that mitigated his punching power. Last but certainly not least, he said Fury had loaded his gloves with “something the size and the shape of an egg weight.”

There was never any evidence for these claims, obviously, and Wilder seemed to move from one theory to the next pretty quickly without going into too much detail. I have never competed in a professional boxing fight, but I do try to study why teams and people win and lose for a living, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say Wilder’s reaction to this loss is among the worst I’ve ever seen. No one saw Fury kicking Wilder’s ass like that coming. Fewer saw the path it would put Wilder on. He has had a great career; he is still the best American heavyweight by a good distance; he has accomplished more than almost any fighter alive, but he is not the fighter he was before that night 19 months ago. The thing about invincibility is that when it goes, a lot of things go with it.

I happened to walk over to the tunnel the night of their second fight to get close to Wilder as he limped out of the Las Vegas arena. His face was busted open. He moved slowly—his legs were gone during the fight and they looked even worse after it—and I remember thinking that I’d seen a lot of defeated fighters, but few looked more defeated than he did then. Another former heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, once famously said that everyone said he got knocked down more than anyone else, but he saw it as getting up more than anyone else. That is heavyweight boxing. That is what cuts to the heart of Wilder-Fury III. Fury got up—he did it in the now-famous 12th round in 2018 when he thudded against a canvas in Los Angeles for about nine seconds. Can Wilder?

Fury maintained this week that Wilder is still the hardest puncher in the history of boxing. Wilder built an identity around that. He built his game plans around it—waiting for that right hand to show up while doing very little of anything else. Wilder’s refrain was that a fighter like Fury had to be perfect all the time and Wilder’s right hand just had to work perfectly once. Well, on that night in February 2020, Fury actually was perfect.

The loss was so resounding that at age 35, Wilder was forced to undergo a near-complete overhaul of his game, retaining the power in his right hand but changing nearly everything else. He fired Breland for throwing in the towel during the last fight (his accusations that Breland was secretly on Team Fury came later) and hired Malik Scott, a former heavyweight fighter who Wilder defeated in 2014. Mark Kriegel, writing on ESPN this week, said Scott told him he was studying the second Evander Holyfield–Riddick Bowe fight, in which Holyfield avenged a loss by changing the rhythm of his fighting, as well as the second Joe Louis–Max Schmeling fight, in which Louis used more body shots to avenge a loss. Scott, Kriegel said, wanted Wilder to study the way George Foreman would approach a fighter he was trying to finish as if you’re taking out the trash. He wants to add calm to an energetic, frantic, and sometimes sloppy, fighter.

This would sound completely ridiculous if not for what we’ve already seen between these two fighters. Before their last fight, Fury reinvented himself as an offensive force, while Wilder looked nothing like himself and started bleeding from his ear. The only thing their first two fights had in common is that they both happened inside a ring. The question about Wilder isn’t whether he can learn new tricks—he’s clearly trying—it’s whether he’s talented enough to beat Fury with them. When Fury changed his game plan for their second fight, Wilder had nothing for him. There were no adjustments. He still couldn’t use his jab. He looked like the first boxer to be coached by Matt Nagy.

This is why Wilder-Fury III is still one of the most intriguing fights of the year. It’s cliché to say that you can’t count out a boxer with Wilder’s power, but it’s a cliché for a reason—it’s true. Wilder must adapt to a new game plan to become a new boxer. Before the second Fury fight, Wilder was considered so talented and ferocious that I’d used my Super Bowl column to compare Patrick Mahomes’s comebacks to Wilder’s right hand: capable of striking at any time, always dangerous, and basically inevitable. After that fight, the only Chiefs comparison to make for Wilder is with the offensive line against the Bucs in the Super Bowl. Things move quickly in boxing—Wilder has been a marvelous champion and is a charismatic and nice person. But boxing can leave you behind easily and that’s what he’s fighting against on Saturday.

Sports can be unfair, but it’s fairly obvious that when this era of boxing is over, the bold-faced names will probably be some combination of Fury, Oleksandr Usyk, and Wladimir Klitschko. Anthony Joshua will have his chance to reassert himself into this discussion even with two losses, and there is a chance Wilder leaves the sport without wins over any of them. A cynic can say, years later, that Wilder was a powerful but flawed fighter who never knocked out an elite fighter at their peak. Boxing is a résumé sport and without a big win sometime soon, Wilder’s will be spotty. Wilder is a wonderful fighter who has launched a million memes and viral videos with his knockouts, but that is not what boxing is based on. Every fight is a fight for your identity and legacy, I suppose, but rarely is that as clear as it will be Saturday.

I hate to be dramatic, but I remember reading a study about a convincingly high percentage of people born around the early 1900s who judged the spring and summer before World War I as the best time of their lives when asked after the war. This probably wasn’t true as they were living it, of course, but the entire world changed and the last normal thing people could remember became the best. You’ve probably noticed that we, as a species, have gone through a rough time as well since Wilder and Fury last fought in February of 2020. Because of this, two things about this fight have developed. First of all, the fight is considered a marquee event in retrospect—it will likely be the last time for a long time you’ll get Mahomes, Leonardo DiCaprio, Khalil Mack, and Draymond Green together in a carefree event on the Vegas strip. It was, temporarily, the last party. The second is that it was the last boxing event that truly happened as it was supposed to. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on boxing, not just from a health perspective, but also from an administrative one. The sport has no real governing body, so it has been hard to get intriguing fights done. A lack of gate revenue from diminished attendance means promoters didn’t want to stick their neck out on truly ambitious matchups. There have been big fights—fights in bubbles or literal back yards or football stadiums—but nowhere close to the frequency of a normal year.

The journey to get to this fight has been a mess, even by boxing standards, which puts it in the running for the biggest messes on Earth. Let’s start from the top: After Fury destroyed Wilder in February of 2020, the next logical move was a megafight with fellow Englishmen Joshua, who had regained his title against Andy Ruiz Jr. two months earlier and thus avenged the only loss of his career. There was, however, a rematch clause that Wilder could exercise to ensure the next fight would be Fury-Wilder III. After pandemic-related delays, Fury’s team argued the clause lapsed and in the spring, announced a two-fight deal against Joshua. This would net both fighters hundreds of millions of dollars. In May, however, an arbitrator ruled the clause was still valid and Fury had to fight Wilder. Fury proclaimed he’d simply beat Wilder in the summer and move on to Joshua afterward. The original July date was postponed when Fury caught COVID-19. Meanwhile, Joshua lost last month to Oleksandr Usyk, a talented Ukrainian who is now the owner of Joshua’s heavyweight titles. This means that in order to unify the belts, the winner of Wilder-Fury would have to face Usyk, not Joshua, in a significantly less high-profile fight than originally intended. Usyk outclassed Joshua—the result was not a fluke—and this calls into question pretty much everything in the heavyweight division. Boxing is what happens when boxing promoters are making plans, and all of these plans are now scrapped. Joshua needs to build back his résumé before getting anything close to the money or attention for a fight that he would have gotten if he’d fought Fury earlier this year.

It’s easy to say that the past 18 months have considerably muddied the waters of the heavyweight division, but you have to understand that in boxing, the waters are always muddy, and there are literally dozens of examples in the past decade of weight classes being extremely clear and big fights not happening anyway. A confusing, frustrating, and illogical division is not special—it’s simply boxing. Right now, Fury and Wilder can answer some questions (or create new ones); Joshua can start to rebuild his legacy with a rematch against Usyk; Ruiz, who mailed in his rematch against Joshua and lost badly, can keep working to get back to the top; and then a handful of fringe contenders can lay waiting for their chances. But let’s put a pin in all of that until Sunday. Boxing is moving at a glacial pace at the moment, so even if Usyk is deemed next for the winner of Saturday’s fight (presumably after a Joshua rematch), I’ll believe it when I see it.

One thing that did happen in the past year is that Jake Paul has become a boxing star who has called for big fights and is an unlikely voice for fighter’s rights. Paul has made, against all odds, a series of good points about fighter pay and visibility—many, it seems, just to piss off people he doesn’t like, such as UFC president Dana White. Paul is promoting one of the top women’s boxers in the world, Amanda Serrano. Not surprisingly, Paul has inserted himself into this particular fight week by setting the terms to potentially fight Fury’s half-brother Tommy. If I have to have this information in my brain, you do too: Tyson Fury said that if Tommy loses to Jake Paul, Tommy would have to change his last name. Because of this, the contract Paul is drawing up includes a clause that Tommy Fury would change his name to Tommy Fumbles for a year. The sweet science, ladies and gentlemen.

But Paul is holding a mirror up to the sport, and if the sport doesn’t like it, it’s their own damn fault. If your sport can be disrupted by a Paul brother, you deserve what’s coming. The reason Paul was allowed to become a star is in part because the sport’s traditional stars have abdicated their responsibility by fighting worse fights or not fighting at all, a trend that started well before the pandemic but accelerated during it. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix has made this point more eloquently than I, but the point is that Paul is flourishing because boxing is a mess and that fighters simply aren’t giving people what they want.

Still, people want Saturday’s fight. I do. Boxing can be a cruel sport—for the fighters, especially, but also the fans. You spend hours a week reading about fights that will never happen or fights that are announced and then scuttled for reasons that make no sense to anyone. There are only a handful of marquee fights per year that can even be considered close to 50-50 fights. If you spend more than five seconds reading about the politics of the sport you’ll need a shower. I look at it much like I do college football: If you spend time trying to figure out why Maryland and Rutgers are in the Big Ten, the abyss will stare back. The only way to truly love the sport is to learn to appreciate when good fighters are in the ring together because it happens very rarely. This fight is not perfect. This fight took too long to happen. But it is two great boxers in the same ring and each has a lot to lose. There’s a reason you put up with the mess.