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LAS VEGAS — The one-time NFL coach Bum Phillips once said, “You fail all the time, but you aren’t a failure until you start blaming someone else.”
Phillips last coached the New Orleans Saints in 1985, and he died at 90 in 2013, so I doubt he was talking about former WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.
His words, though, take on special significance considering the aftermath of Wilder’s last fight. Wilder was stopped in the seventh round of his fight on Feb. 22, 2020, at the MGM Grand Garden by Tyson Fury. In the process, he suffered his first loss of any kind since the 2008 Olympic Games and surrendered his title in ignominious fashion.
He was outraged that his then-trainer Mark Breland threw in the towel, though just about every neutral observer who saw it believed it to be the right move. It took a long time for that outrage to cease.
Even in June, at an introductory news conference to announce the trilogy fight, Wilder couldn’t contain his rage even though he never said a word. He refused to answer questions, staring blankly at his phone with headphones on, leaving new trainer Malik Scott to speak on his behalf.
The staredown was a bizarre, six-minute long battle of wills, something in which neither man flinched.
Wilder has long been one of boxing’s good guys. He’s been an affable, accessible champion who has been outspoken on civil rights and has wanted nothing more than to give his children the things he himself did not have.
His reaction to the loss to Fury, though, has been bizarre by almost any standard. Two days after the fight, he did a series of one-on-one interviews with reporters to discuss his loss. The first was with Yahoo Sports.
Asked what happened, Wilder blamed the weight of the suit he wore during his ring walk.
“He didn’t hurt me at all,” Wilder said. “It was the simple fact that my uniform coming out, Kevin, was way too heavy. I didn’t have no legs from the beginning of the fight.”
He then accused Breland of spiking his water. And he made an accusation that someone had tampered with Fury’s gloves.
As excuses go, they’re pretty bad, but they’re a coping mechanism to help fighters who are used to winning explain away a loss or a bad performance.
The great Muhammad Ali once said, “No one knows what to say in the loser’s locker room.”
And Wilder simply lashed out at anyone he could think of to blame for what to him seemed an inconceivable loss.
He went into the Feb. 22, 2020, fight with a 42-0-1 record and 41 knockouts, believing for all the world that he had won the Dec. 1, 2018, fight in Los Angeles with Fury.
When he got so badly dominated in the rematch, nothing seemed to make sense to him.
The third fight was supposed to be in July but Fury got COVID and forced it to be pushed back to Saturday. Given that Wilder is breaking in a new trainer and needs to correct some fundamental flaws, the delay in the fight may have aggravated him, but it could also turn out to benefit him.
“The delay was actually a blessing for me,” Wilder said. “The more they delayed it, the more time we had to work on my craft and art, along with strategically going over the game plan we’re going to have on Oct. 9. It was obviously frustrating, because I was ready to go, and this is the longest I’ve been out of the ring. There’s something about the ring that calls you and draws you back. But I’ve used the time and benefited tremendously.”
Fighters who are 40 or more fights into their careers like Wilder rarely make substantive changes at this point. They are what they are, basically.
Wilder, though, is unique in that regard. He took up boxing late to be able to help his young daughter who was fighting a disease, and never has had great fundamentals. He’s one of the hardest hitters in the history of the division, but his power covered a lot of mistakes.
In Fury, he found a guy who not only could take it, but was fundamentally sound and fought back harder when he was hurt. And given that Fury was a master strategist, he recognized after the first fight that Wilder struggled to fight going backward.
So Fury came out in the rematch and pressed the action from the opening bell. It worked expertly.
Wilder vows mayhem vs. Fury in trilogy fight
If Wilder is the same guy he was in 2020, then the result will be the same. But there was so much to fix and Scott has been with Wilder virtually every day since the last fight.
Fury wouldn’t be surprised if Wilder has improved and learned new things in the 20 months since the second fight.
“You can go to college and get a master's degree in nearly two years, so for a boxer, that’s very easy to do,” Fury said. “But no matter what Deontay Wilder does, I’m still going to knock him the [expletive] out.”
The challenge is for Wilder to fix those flaws, to jab more, to have better head movement, to slip punches, to fight as he backpedals, while still retaining the ferociousness that made him the "king of the jungle" in the first place.
He’s back to being Deontay Wilder, which is a good sign. After not talking to the media for a long time, he’s back in his element. He’s vowing all sorts of mayhem will be inflicted upon Fury.
But most importantly, he insists he understands why he lost in the first place. If there is anything that is essential for him, it is understanding what went wrong so he could apply the right fixes.
“They say that things happen for a reason and that we don’t understand that reason until we get to a certain place in life, then we understand it,” Wilder said. “My whole team understands everything that has happened and we’re looking forward.”