Boxing needs a heavyweight champion who can take an opponent out with a single punch. Boxing needs a heavyweight champion who comes into the ring looking like a well-conditioned athlete. Boxing needs a heavyweight champion who doesn’t play around, who goes about his business with bad intentions and who ends his night quickly, efficiently and decisively.
In short, boxing needs a heavyweight champion like Deontay Wilder.
But boxing does not need any more matches, or should I say mismatches, like the one Wilder engaged in Saturday night at the Barclays Center, in which he knocked out an overweight, undermotivated and thoroughly non-competitive Bermane Stiverne in the first round.
The outrage was not so much in the result of the bout. Any knowledgeable observer who had seen Stiverne – who incidentally, turned 39 two days before the fight — weigh in at an unsightly 254 pounds on Friday afternoon knew his time in the Barclays ring would be a short one.
In fact, everything about this fight, from the deconditioned opponent to the brevity and one-sidedness of the action was reminiscent of another farce, Riddick Bowe’s first-round KO of Michael Dokes at Madison Square Garden in 1993. That one lasted two minutes and 19 seconds, or 40 seconds less than Wilder-Stiverne.
No, it wasn’t the outcome of the bout that was to be lamented, nor the reaction of the enthusiastic Barclays crowd, which was clearly wowed by Wilder’s punching power and by no means disappointed when referee Arthur Mercante Jr. waved the bout over as Stiverne went down for the third time with one second left in the round. No one asked for their money back.
But the outrage was committed six weeks before the main event, when the WBC, having designated Stiverne its No. 1 heavyweight contender, ordered Wilder to fight him when Wilder’s original opponent, unbeaten Luis Ortiz, failed a pre-fight drug test.
True enough, Stiverne had held the title for eight months, having won the vacant title with a knockout of Chris Arreola in May of 2014, and lost it by decision to Wilder in January 2015. And of all his dubious qualifications for the bout, he had least could say he was the only one of Wilder’s 38 opponents to have lasted the distance with him.
But other than that, Stiverne had no reason to be in the ring Saturday night. He had not fought in two years, and judging by the gut he carried into the ring with him, hadn’t trained more than two weeks for the bout. And oh yeah, did I mention he just turned 39 years old?
Still, he carried the WBC’s imprimatur and came promoted by Don King, who although he hasn’t had a decent heavyweight in 20 years still obviously carries enough weight with the WBC to get his fighters ranked.
Once he arrived in the ring, draped in an outfit that looked like leftover wardrobe from a cut-rate gladiator movie, Stiverne hardly moved a muscle until the bell rang. And he hardly moved afterwatrd, either.
It took a full minute, and 17 Wilder jabs, before Stiverne even attempted a punch, half-hearted jab that fell short of Wilder’s body. With 49 seconds to go in the round, he crashed to the canvas from a perfect straight right to the chin.
At that point, the outcome of the bout was assured, although there was still time enough for Wilder to display the flaws that make you wonder if he can do more than just punch. Free of the burden of fearing anything dangerous from Stiverene – the challenger wound up attempting four punches, all of which missed – Wilder began flailing wildly at his reluctant opponent, dropping him a second time with the kind of swinging right you might see in a schoolyard brawl but you should never see in a heavyweight title fight.
Then he finished Stiverne off with a four-punch combination ending with a wild left hook while Stiverne had his back against the ropes. It was artless but effective.
Still, it was the kind of match that reminds casual fans of why they gave up watching boxing and forces diehards to come up with justifications for why it doesn’t really matter.
But the truth is, the heavyweights are the engine that drives this sport, and if boxing is to return to anything near the global phenomenon that it was 30 years ago, when Mike Tyson was in his prime and Evander Holyfield was stalking him, it needs to up its game from fights like this.
Circumstances forced Wilder to accept a lesser opponent when Ortiz disqualified himself, but politics forced Stiverne upon him and the boxing public.
“I take 100 percent of the blame,’’ WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman told me after the fight, when, of course, it was too late.
Because even though the Wilder-Stiverne mismatch provided the Barclays crowd with three minutes of sadistic thrills, it told us nothing about Deontay Wilder that we didn’t already know.
We knew he was big, strong and athletic, and he could punch like a wrecking ball.
We also knew he was untutored, undisciplined and at times, amateurish.
But we still don’t know how he will stand up to a fighter who can exploit his wildness with a sharp jab, and we still can’t be sure how well he can take a punch. And, as in the case of most fighters who end many of their fights early – 33 of Wilder’s 38 knockouts have come in four rounds or less – we have no idea how he will respond to an opponent who takes him into deep water. Tyson, of course, is Exhibit A.
A fighter like England’s Anthony Joshua, who struggled somewhat with his own substitute opponent, Carlos Takam, last week, might provide answers to those questions, or at least a legitimate test for Wilder to pass.
What boxing needs is for Wilder and Joshua to meet in a ring in 2018, preferably without any other “fights’’ such as Saturday night’s in-between.
What boxing does not need is another mismatch like WiIder-Stiverne.
It is a disservice to the fighter and a slap in the face to the fans.
And for a sport that is perpetually on the respirator, another farce like that might just yank the plug for good.