Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder and the Psychology of The Virtual Void – Analysis by Donn K. Harris
Had you been watching pandemic boxing matches in makeshift rings set up in parking lots, shoved between the walls of two non-descript buildings with 20 people in attendance? Or in what looks like a spare conference room in a radio station’s under-utilized office building? These fights looked like those old computerized simulation fights: robotic, in a vacuum, with weird artificial lighting that is like nothing ever seen in the real world, and in fights with that isolating ambience the KOs seemed to come quicker, as if without a crowd the hurt fighter had no will to get up. Last November the normally durable welterweight Kell Brook simply collapsed against Terrence Crawford in the 4th Round after winning the first three; super-middleweight Edgar Berlanga was chasing opponents around the ring as they ran to escape the 1st round, and they failed 16 times before someone finally survived; the awful Daniel Dubois-Joe Joyce heavyweight fight looked more like an experiment in Artificial Intelligence than real boxers in competition.
In December 2020, heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, whose ability, desire, heart and toughness are the subject of conjecture and controversy, rendered mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev useless and finally knocked him out in the 9th round of their passionless fight – did the Bulgarian even land a solid punch? It looked like a fight on a Hollywood sound stage, and Pulev seemed awestruck. Pulev’s promoter, the ancient Bob Arum, insisted that Pulev would easily knock out Joshua and once-and-for-all expose the popular champ for the pretender he is. Joshua is an easy target: handsome, poised, presenting as a model citizen – his baffling and overwhelming knockout loss in June 2019 to Andy Ruiz Jr. makes challengers salivate.
CLASS, CHARACTER AND LACK THEREOF
But Anthony Joshua has shown himself to be a class act. The night he lost to Andy Ruiz Jr. in 2019 at Madison Square Garden, clearly something was wrong: an illness, a psychological trauma in another part of his life, an allergic reaction, a problem with his young child …….. something. But not a word sounding like an excuse came from Joshua. He said: ‘I lost. Congratulations to Andy and his team. I’m going back to the gym to prepare for the rematch.’ Quietly, without cameras or fanfare, the boxer went into a spiritual shell, worked on his game, emerged to do the fight promos, endured the gloating of Ruiz, the derisive analysis by his rivals, his own promoter’s description of the defeat as humiliating. There was a Sylvester Stallone film (One Night) that had celebrities commenting on his public destruction ……. and on rematch fight night he walked into the Saudi arena as the challenger, endured the endless intros, and then dominated Ruiz for 11 of the 12 rounds – technically, defensively, at distance. Offering only a few offensive flurries, stopping the overweight and lethargic Ruiz at every turn with a steady jab and the right amount of movement, Joshua regained his championship belts. Yes, he is vulnerable, and yes, wild man Tyson Fury may very well mash AJ into a pureed puddle when they finally meet. In this case, however, Joshua unfolded a new strategic mentality that may serve him well in the future.
And what’s more: the man showed dignity and character. I watch boxing for that, as do many. But I’m still waiting for the real story behind that night in Madison Square Garden. I believe there’s something we don’t know. Anthony Joshua looked haunted from the moment we saw him on camera, distracted and troubled at the very least. His clinical victory over Ruiz in the rematch, called a Master Class by promoter Eddie Hearn (not sure that’s a good description from a promotional point-of-view), carried that new vulnerability; large unanswered questions remain.
Contrast Joshua’s display of character with the ravings of former champion Deontay Wilder after Tyson Fury dismantled him in their second fight: Wilder claims he drank spiked water, his long-time trainer was a traitor, the armored costume he wore when entering was too heavy and drained his energy, a conspiracy of officials showed leniency with Fury’s hand-wrap and glove-lacing and this allowed Fury to maneuver his hands to an illegal advantage ….. in one memorable interview Wilder invoked Biblical prophecy, told us that he was the anointed one and had been guided from a very young age by his grandmother toward his own divine greatness, and that his enemies would connive and bedevil to deny his ascent to the throne. It seemed that Wilder had been studying Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekiel 25:17 monologue from Pulp Fiction for inflection and emphasis, perhaps preparing for his next career as a preacher or motivational speaker. It did him no good as a prize fighter.
In prior writings I have praised Wilder as a man of goodwill and authentic spirituality. His love and devotion to his daughter born with spina bifida; the consistent attention to his family and community; the graciousness he showed tough opponent Luis Ortiz, to whom he gave a second fight, helping the Cuban with a payday for his own daughter’s medical issues, despite the real risk Ortiz presented in the ring; his prior respect for Tyson Fury before and after their first fight draw …. I take none of that back. These were his actions and I admired them and credit him. Defeat may have rewired him; someone may have gotten into his soul (Don King?) and planted the seeds of conspiracy and blame; or he may need this as an injection of confidence. ‘I’m so good they have to cheat to beat me,’ Wilder insists. The fight didn’t require an infusion of this circus-like foolishness, and certainly not at the cost to Wilder’s own reputation and legacy. Fury refused a third fight back in December 2020 and claims that Wilder’s team missed a contract deadline. With all the speculation leaning toward a Fury-Joshua two-fight battle to begin this summer, Wilder prevailed in court, and Fury-Wilder III, after a delay when Fury tested positive for COVID-19, will be held in Las Vegas in October. Joshua will fight former Undisputed Cruiserweight Champion and #1 WBO contender Olexandr Usyk on September 25 in London.
Deontay Wilder seems to be the current winner in this juvenile drama. Despite his histrionics and unfounded accusations, he forced Fury into a third fight. Interestingly, Wilder’s defeat, while complete and at times frightening, escaped the humiliating label that was put on Joshua’s loss to Andy Ruiz. Ruiz is not Fury – that may be part of it. But Wilder looked as addled, as helpless and even more dominated than Joshua; bleeding from ear and mouth, stumbling around on colt-like legs, bullied by the aggressive, massive presence of the otherworldly Tyson Fury, who in Round 6 actually licked blood and sweat from Wilder’s shoulder with a darting, flicking, almost Satanic tongue action that defies any human explanation …….. still, most observers and analysts would have said at the time that Joshua’s was the more personally damaging defeat. I don’t exactly disagree, although explaining it is difficult. Wilder seems crazy now, Joshua honorable but ………. soft? Is it that Joshua fell from a more exalted place? That Wilder was seen as a gritty Alabaman for whom getting whupped was less of a comeuppance?
Joshua’s defeat of Pulev was a step toward a new style that holds some power and presence, but the Bulgarian was wooden and showed no sign of being able to hurt Joshua. Tyson Fury would still be a huge favorite against his fellow Brit, as Joshua’s main weapon – a crushing right hand – is considered less lethal than the Deontay Wilder punch that floored Fury in their first fight, and from which Fury rose, steadied himself, and fought to the end of the fight and the strangely satisfying draw.
In that fight, most everyone, myself included, believes Fury outpointed Wilder. I scored it 9-3 in rounds, 115-111 in points, giving Wilder only rounds 2, 9 and 12. And in Round 12, after getting up from the 1-2 punch that would have sent any other human being on this planet into a coma, with more than a minute to go Fury seemed to win the remainder of the round. The knockdown still gives the round 10-8 to Wilder to create the draw, but Fury’s rise has evoked Biblical references to Lazarus and the Resurrection.
In the second fight, Fury’s dominance was apparent from the opening bell. Word is that Wilder looks fantastic in the gym under friend and new trainer Malik Scott, and that he has diversified his arsenal, but Wilder’s unhinged response to his loss does not inspire confidence. If boxing had a conduct-unbecoming clause in its contracts, Fury would not have to fight Wilder again. Fury could have personally refused the fight based on Wilder’s defamation of his character, citing the loss of endorsements and future earning power he suffered because of Wilder’s reckless and malicious accusations, and possibly gotten a court to listen to a legitimate argument about a third fight’s effect on his economic future.
In any event, be on the alert for something strange to happen in Fury-Wilder III – a weird foul, a controversial call, a long or short count on a knockdown, a clock or mechanical malfunction, bad rule interpretation, a crowd disruption, divine intervention …….. Wilder, in the extended period following the second fight, has become the Zab Judah of this era. The referee should get a combat pay stipend, as there may be extreme corner activity, loud and physical fan reactions, and possibly an attempt to avenge the wipeout and alleged foul play from the second fight, and that would include resentment on the part of Fury fans for Wilder’s accusations of conspiratorial shenanigans against their fighter. My prediction: Unanimous decision for Fury, with one round in which Wilder almost puts Fury away but falls short, and a rule controversy that Wilder spouts for the rest of his life.
In retrospect, pandemic boxing in a vacuum was weird and less than fully satisfying. It may play into some of what Anthony Joshua needs in the future – less distraction and a reduction in immediate scrutiny. He seemed comfortable and confident as he walked into the empty sound stage for the Pulev fight. Can his team temper the raucous environment now that crowds will be returning? Is Anthony Joshua that fragile?
These pandemic fights gave us camera angles that were shot way too close, probably designed to minimize the look of emptiness and the echo of the parking lots and maintenance shafts that served as venues; again, they looked like the old computer-simulated “fights.” I remember seeing “Ali” and “Marciano” go after it in virtual space with “Ali” declared the winner. It didn’t matter: the simulations give you no sense of who was physically dominant, who was beginning to crumble, where the ebb and flow was taking the fighters. There was a similar lack of flow in the pandemic flights. Perhaps with a full arena the crowd amplifies the action for us, and we’re a little flat without it. The commentators often came off as near-hysterical doing pandemic fights, over-compensating for an incomplete product.
Tyson Fury continues to spew engaging nonsense, although it is clear his disdain for Joshua is real. I don’t see him as resentful of the public adulation heaped on Joshua, which would be an obvious motivation. There is nothing obvious about the emotional world of Tyson Fury. When the determined Swede Otto Wallin, giving Fury a surprising challenge and opening up a cut above Fury’s eye, smudged the injury and the eye with the thumb of his glove mid-fight as the referee was separating them, Fury said nothing, and at the end of the fight praised Wallin and offered condolences for the Swede’s recently departed father. Fury wants to see fire in people, does not understand a measured approach to anything, let alone the fight game.
Before their championship fight in Germany, when Fury was a challenger, a heavy underdog in the champion’s home country at the time, he ridiculed Vladimir Klitschko, heavyweight champ for a decade at that point, as boring and a detriment to boxing, promising to rid the sport of Vladimir and his similarly buttoned-down older brother Vitali. Fury puts Anthony Joshua in that category – photogenic, but too measured and careful, devoid of personality or individuality, and for that reason not championship-worthy, despite their previous accomplishments.
Hopefully we’ll get to see Fury-Joshua in 2022 to make some sense out of the uneven heavyweight division. There are many obstacles to clarity besides Deontay Wilder – the Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk is lightning fast and tricky, and could possibly confound the sometimes unimaginative Joshua. There is also Dillian Whyte, demanding of a title shot, erratic and dangerous; a few unknowns and head-scratchers with pieces of belts: Mahmoud Charr (champ in recess), Trevor Bryan (regular), the massive Finn Robert Helenius (something called a Golden Belt), an interim championship tag inexplicably given to Daniel DuBois, last seen taking a 10-count, blinking frantically as he knelt in the center of the ring and suffered his first loss at the hands of Joe Joyce, whose rise to prominence is baffling. Slow, plodding, standing straight up to make an enticing 6’5” target, Joyce’s best asset appears to be his chin, never a good sign.
THE ERRATIC PSYCHOLOGY OF THE VOID
Still, the key factor in the near-future of the heavyweight division is the psychological shadow cast by or on or within Anthony Joshua. He seems vulnerable, both physically and psychically; we saw him decompensate the night in New York when a single third round punch concussed him and left him in a daze that Andy Ruiz ultimately exploited.
Joshua is thoughtful, polite and empathetic. When asked about Jerrell “Big Baby” Miller after the Brooklynite – just before his fight with Joshua – tested positive for three different steroids, Joshua said: ‘You don’t kick a man when he’s down.’
“Big Baby” was about to take that illegally-pumped-up body into the ring against Joshua, with the potential of causing life-altering physical damage. In the pre-fight build-up, Miller trash-talked Joshua in profane and demeaning ways, made weird innuendoes about Joshua’s mother, and he shoved the champion hard during the traditional face-off. Joshua should have walked out the way Oscar de la Hoya did when the Nicaraguan Ricardo Mayorga let loose with a tirade against Mexicans and made a crude comment about Oscar’s wife. The proud Mexican fighter stood, signaled his entourage, and said to the shocked Mayorga as he departed, in Spanish: You went too far now. You insulted the two things (dos cosas!) most important to me: my country and my wife. I’m going to knock you out. And two nights later he did, spectacularly, and resisted the temptation to stand over the fallen loser, gloating.
But none of this is Anthony Joshua. Through it all, Joshua did not disparage “Big Baby” publicly even after the disgraced blowhard was pulled from the fight. Is that restraint, class, or too much respect for a vile operator who was ready to cheat you out of your hard-earned championships, possibly cripple you for life, and insinuated ugly things about your mother?
That’s the fight ultimately won by Andy Ruiz, who had called Eddie Hearn after Miller’s removal and said, ‘I’m your man.’ He was, and Andy Ruiz became immortal that night. We’re fortunate it wasn’t “Big Baby” Miller; boxing has enough baggage to overcome. I was born in Brooklyn; the man doesn’t represent anything I want to endorse.
Boxing has many glaring flaws: too many champions, many unworthy, with “interim” and “franchise” titles adding more confusion; inexplicable scoring differences within the same bout; and promoter-driven matches that take years to develop. There are also more than a few truly unlikeable characters, historical and current – Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, the 310-pound loudmouth, his Brooklyn faux-tough guy bravado hiding a chemically-infused coward; Antonio Margarito and his Plaster of Paris glove inserts, used in an unknown number of fights before he was caught; the imploding end to the sad career of bitter British heavyweight David Price. But then it has compelling stories like Tyson Fury’s transformation from suicidal depression to mentally tough world champion; Andy Ruiz’ unlikely ascension to the throne, and his quick return to the court jester role; the current lightweight quintet of Teofimo Lopez, Vasily Lomachenko, Devon Haney, Ryan Garcia and Gervonta Davis promising years of fascinating bouts and personal, very public growth from boys into men with their fathers playing large roles, Floyd Mayweather filling that role capably for Gervonta Davis, whose personal – along with pugilistic – growth under Mayweather’s tutelage is unmistakable; Daniel “Miracle Man” Jacobs’ recovery from cancer and the fatherhood he displays interacting with his son in the ring at the end of his fights:
C’mon Nate, we’re going to tell Triple G, good fight.
He won, huh, Dad?
Yes, he did. But we fought good too. You always say, good fight.
………… and through it all, the most fascinating question in the sport remains:
Is Anthony Joshua too cerebral and mannered to beat Tyson Fury, the shark who tastes human blood recreationally, whose heat-seeking sonar zeroes in on the hidden recesses in his opponents’ psyches?
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Crowds have returned and fighters no longer need to master the strange world of near-silence and echoing emptiness and lighting experiments in the void. The pandemic gave us a world where Joshua vs. Pulev didn’t seem any less skilled or dramatic than virtual Ali vs. Marciano. Let’s hope no one has the idea to produce George Foreman 1973 vs. George Foreman 1990, or Joe Frazier vs. Mike Tyson. Some things were never meant to happen, fights without crowds and avatar boxing among them. Now Spence-Crawford, Fury-Joshua, Haney-Lopez, Beterbiev or Benavidez-Canelo, Gervonta Davis-Ryan Garcia, Inoue-Donaire 2 ……… that’s the way to emerge from the void. There are seven phenomenal fights here – how many will see their way to the ring by summer 2023? These should be our measuring sticks telling us about the health of the sport.
The talent is prodigious, the characters compelling. The promoters need to think about legacy first, then dollars, as there’s enough of the latter to keep everyone in steak and champagne; the sanctioning bodies need to create legitimate rankings and the State Commissions professionalize the stable of judges, as they have with the excellent referees at the top level; there needs to be a standard contract clause that curbs the outrageous slander of a Deontay Wilder, whose ravings hurt the sport. The Gypsy King should have considered the defamation angle, maybe shut up Adrien Broner too as a side benefit.
The pandemic is under enough control to bring back mega-events. The strengths and flaws of the sport are clear, and a time of greatness may be upon us if the latter can be addressed. But the last few steps from very good to great are always the most difficult, and coming out of the pandemic is both added fuel and added baggage. It’s up in the air which is the stronger force, and how far the sport’s current leadership can take this fascinating wave of athletic talent and human drama.