The time has nearly arrived – The sequel to one of the most electrifying fights of recent times is about to take place in the MGM Grand tonight. The first installment was unforgettable. I remember the goosebumps and the heart palpitations I had when watching it live on screen. I could not believe the chutzpah of Fury, how he was able to stand in front of Wilder, hands down, slipping and sliding, goading him like some demented matador, and each time making the bull miss by inches. I have never been so enthralled or nervous watching a fight. Even as the strategy showed itself to be working flawlessly, there was never a moment of peace. Wilder was not deterred, and like a frenzied fiend, he kept in constant pursuit of the Gypsy King.
The dreaded first knockdown came in the 9th round, as I feared and desperately hoped it wouldn’t. But it wasn’t heavy and Fury made it through the round. He gave Wilder hell in the 10th, but Wilder too rode out the storm. Then came the 12th round. The memory of that round will endure as long as that of boxing itself. It was also a universal cultural moment, a heroic three minutes, for both men. Wilder never lost hope. He had been taunted, frustrated and bamboozled for 11 rounds. Yet he finally found what he was looking for when that right hand struck home with minutes to go. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat doesn’t quite cover it. It looked like Wilder had reached right down into the gullet of defeat and wrenched out the victory, panting and drenched in saliva.
Fury, having been hit with the bazooka right hand and a left hook as he was crashing to the canvas, lay motionless on the floor. I remember the moment vividly. I felt gut-wrenching anguish. The comeback story to end all comeback stories had been violently snuffed out. It was the boxing equivalent of Carlito’s Way.
But his head suddenly jolted up, he started to climb to his feet. He even did a little dance. But the panic was far from over. I feared he had merely delayed the inevitable and a patented Wilder poleaxing was moments away. Wilder bullied Fury to the ropes. Fury put up a high guard, blocking another potentially lethal right hand, only to be nailed flush by a left hook. He stayed up and held on. Soon he recovered enough composure to bait Wilder in, with his hands behind his back, making him miss and countering him with a beautiful right left-hook combo. He finished the round in the ascendancy, taking the fight to Wilder in an incredible role reversal.
The decision was in some ways predictable. Even if not in accordance with the strict letter of the law, it felt in keeping with the spirit of the occasion that a draw was awarded. Both men had played their part in a memorable evening.
For the record, I do think Fury won. It will also come as no surprise that I am a Fury fan. I make no pretensions to impartiality. What I have to say is inevitably influenced by that fact. I hope and think Fury will win the rematch. As is always the case with these things, it is difficult to know whether that opinion comes more from the heart or head. I believe I am being objective, but can I be sure of that? Well, here, in any case, are the reasons why I believe that Fury will prevail.
The new strategy
Fury has been asked repeatedly in the build-up to this fight, why abandon a winning formula? His elusive approach gave Wilder fits and it was only due to perverse judging that he was denied the victory first time round. Surely he can trust the judges to get it right the second time?
The problem with this line of thought is, firstly, they will be fighting in Las Vegas, and it is well known that Sin City judges favor the attacking fighter. A backfoot strategy this time round could easily lead to another injustice on the cards.
The second problem is that by remaining the same, you give the opponent the chance to catch up. In other words, if the other guy knows you will be fighting, in the same way, the second time around, he knows what adjustments he will need to make and can prepare better. Wilder was in fact already beginning to suss Fury out toward the end of the last fight. He came to the same realization as Wladimir Klitschko did in the last round of his fight with Fury. He altered the trajectory of his right hand, in anticipation of the fact that Fury would dip to his right to avoid it. Wilder’s team would no doubt tell him this time round to set up his right hand better, by using the lead hand more, going to the body (like Wallin did in fact) and using more feints. With subtle changes like that Wilder could probably defeat the Fury of the first fight. So instead of allowing Wilder to learn the lessons from the last fight and apply them in the rematch, Fury will have moved the goalposts.
Fair enough you might say, but isn’t it suicide to be aggressive with Wilder? Couldn’t you devise a new strategy that isn’t predicated on aggression? Going to the puncher, they say, will make his punches even more destructive. They have in mind something like what happened to Pacquiao in his third fight with Marquez. But those who doubt the wisdom of this approach should take a look at Andre Ward. His and Virgil Hunter’s philosophy was always to go to the puncher. When Ward fought Kovalev, a man famed for a strong right hand, he understood well that the last place you wanted to be was at the end of the punch. A strong straight right like Wilder and Kovalev possess needs distance and extension in order to flourish. It’s clear to me that Fury and his team understand that they want to deny Wilder his ideal range.
But coming forward and attacking is not Fury’s game, they say. He’s not playing to his strengths. Not true. The fact is, Fury is an excellent inside fighter and a more versatile one than he is given credit for. If you look at Fury’s fights against Cunningham and Wallin, you see that when he is losing the fight at range, he opts to maul up close. It is something he’s very adept at and something that only very experienced fighters can do effectively. Though ugly, it is most definitely an art form, and it’s one which Fury is very well-versed in. Wilder, on the other hand, has shown no aptitude for it. He is in fact physically unsuited to it. His leaner build is not designed for rugged trench warfare like this. It is the domain of heavier, stronger men. By going to Wilder, Fury makes it his style of fight.
Wilder doesn’t actually have much of a defense. In most of his fights, he is the larger man who can escape to safety just by using his feet. He doesn’t employ an effective guard, and he doesn’t move his head. If Fury can let his hands go more often I can see him hitting Wilder at will. The jab worked well last time and if he stiffens it up, turning over his knuckles and firming up his wrist, he could hurt Wilder and set up some big rights. If he throws punches in bunches as well, I see Wilder getting hit often.
Some have doubted Wilder’s ability to fight on the back foot. I would put it differently. It is definitely better to put a puncher like Wilder on his heels. Wilder likes to spring into his right hand, which is to say, it requires a lot of forwarding momentum. That said, I think of what happened to Artur Spilka. He was caught coming in and knocked out cold with a single right hand. Something similar happened to Luiz Ortiz in the 10th round of his first fight with Wilder. It wasn’t a knockout punch but it undid the Cuban and set in motion the concussive climax of that fight. So Wilder clearly does have a potent counter right and Fury needs to be very mindful of it. The big difference of course with Fury is that he is taller than Wilder and has a longer reach. This means that when he closes the distance he can do so behind a solid jab, which reduces the risk a bit.
Going for the knockout is arguably less risky than targeting a points victory. It is naïve to think you can outbox someone for 12 rounds and not take a single solitary right hand. As Fury puts it, you can’t go swimming and not get wet. When you go swimming with Wilder, there is always the chance of a tsunami. Wilder will land his right at some point and most often it brings an end to proceedings. The most effective insurance against that eventuality is to ensure Wilder is not there to deliver it.
Some people have scoffed at the idea of Fury knocking out the Bronze Bomber. I say these people have a fundamental ignorance of boxing. The fact is, anyone can be knocked out. If you don’t believe me, then believe Andre Ward instead. He said the very same thing to Carl Froch before they faced off. Sure, he didn’t ko Froch in their fight, but the fact remains anyone can be rendered unconscious (or TKOed) if they’re hit right, and it is an even greater truism at heavyweight. Roach rubbished the theory that Fury lacks power. He revealed Fury was one of the hardest hitters he’s ever taken on the pads. He couldn’t understand why Ben Davison wouldn’t let him off the leash more; he was convinced Fury could knock Wilder out. Doubters should also look at Fury’s early career where he had a more swashbuckling take-no-prisoners style of aggressive fighting, that produced knockouts aplenty. There are a lot of veterans who fought a young Fury who vouched for the fact he is very heavy-handed.
Wilder is not invincible. He has been knocked out as an amateur and in sparring as a pro. I’m not one for overegging sparring stories but no one seems to be denying that Wilder was at the very least put down by Klitschko in Austria. Wilder was also badly buzzed by Ortiz. Now, of course, being buzzed doesn’t mean someone is weak. In fact, it is a testament to his fortitude that on that occasion, far from unraveling, he rallied and secured victory. But the point I wish to make is, he is not an iron man. He’s a man of a very light build for a heavyweight and Fury is a strong and heavy man. Fury can hurt or stop anyone and Wilder can himself be hurt.
Fury shines under the lights
I have always been a supporter of Fury. I admit to having been a doubting Thomas before both of his defining fights. I went to Dusseldorf to support him against Klitschko, but I thought Wladimir would ultimately stop him. Against Wilder, I thought he would fight valiantly but lose in the end. It nearly came to pass. But I learned from both these occasions that the Gypsy King is a man who truly thrives under pressure. He is made of very stern stuff. His two greatest performances occurred away from home and in the face of overwhelming doubt.
His performance against Wallin caused many to doubt him this time round against Wilder. But the fact that he was able to secure victory despite having suffered the most horrendous cut since Vitali Klitschko vs Lennox Lewis, speaks volumes. Many would have given up at that point and been content to lose and blame it on the cut. That’s the difference between someone like Joshua and Fury. When things were going wrong for Joshua, he succumbed to defeat. When things were going badly wrong for Fury he still pulled it out of the bag. It is a very rare quality and it is what sets apart champions from merely good men. Fury is a special fighter. This isn’t to say that Wilder is weak, because that is emphatically not the case. Nor am I even saying AJ is weak (far from it). I am just saying that Fury has a powerful lust for winning, an indomitable fighting spirit that never deserts him. He, like Andre Ward, is a formidable combination of the cerebral and the visceral.
I believe that whatever has happened before this fight, it will not have any bearing at all on Fury’s performance on the night. I don’t happen to believe the so-called rumors alluded to by Eddie Hearn. But let’s say for the sake of argument they are true and there have been some problems in camp, I simply say, it doesn’t matter. Firstly because this is boxing, camps are hard and injuries and mishaps routinely occur. Secondly, Fury has the mental fortitude to not allow such things to affect him.
So there it is. I think Fury will win because I take him at his word when he says he will fight aggressively. I think it is logically compelling. A sage of boxing and one of the most respected fighters of recent times, Ward, employed this tactic against renowned punchers. It is not a lunatic scheme cooked up by the feverish mind of the Gypsy King. Wilder will still be dangerous, even on the back foot but his defense is flawed and he is susceptible to being hurt. It’s important to bear in mind that when Fury says he intends to put it on Wilder, he doesn’t mean that he will forsake all defense and hurl himself recklessly into the path of hard punches. I take it to mean he will apply intelligent pressure and go for the knockout if he has Wilder hurt. In any case, all will be revealed soon. May the best man win!