Once Deontay Wilder acknowledged boxing’s dangers, he was halfway out the door

WHILE many will rightly point to recent allusions to retirement as the reason why Deontay Wilder struggled being Deontay Wilder last night (June 1) in Saudi Arabia, the explanation for the “Bronze Bomber’s” recent downturn in form probably goes back further than that.

It is true, yes, that a boxer hinting at retirement typically leads to a certain kind of performance – usually, a loss – but Wilder’s fears of late have been concerned with more than simply regression or The End. In fact, whereas once he was the man of whom violence was expected, now, in what is perhaps the cruellest of all twists, Wilder has become the man whose awareness of violence, be it his own or in general terms, has somewhat inconveniently affected his ability to be himself.

It started, this doubt, around the time of arguably his most violent act: a one-round demolition of Robert Helenius in 2022. That night, when many were pondering how Wilder would look following a lengthy layoff, the former WBC heavyweight champion left his Finnish opponent, a former sparring partner, twitching on the ring canvas following one of the most devastating right hands in a career full of them. The manner of this particular win, about as conclusive as a win can get, served to not only reintroduce Wilder to the heavyweight fold but also, and unexpectedly, take something from him he would never be able to get back.

Afterwards, in a press conference, Wilder spoke of his respect for Helenius before then touching on the tragic fate of Prichard Colon, a boxer whose career ended and life changed irrevocably in 2015. As he did so the world watched Wilder become uncharacteristically introspective, emotional, human. Fighting back to tears, he showed a side of himself many had never before seen and plenty who saw it found this version of Wilder – someone who, let’s not forget, previously claimed he wanted “a body” on his record – as endearing, positive, preferable.

And yet, in so many ways, that, for Wilder, was the beginning of the end. After all, in openly showing this hidden side of himself, he was revealing not just an awareness of his sport’s severity, and its stakes, but also the shifting of his own attitude and, in turn, his intent. That is to say, if before Wilder possessed a necessary ignorance and lack of feeling, now he suddenly seemed grown up; albeit in the worst way possible for a boxer.

Cautious: Wilder in the ring during his fight against Joseph Parker (Richard Pelham/Getty Images)

Indeed, perhaps the only thing worse than a boxer afraid of the damage potentially being done to them is the boxer who fears both the damage that can be done to them and the damage they can do to their opponent. This, however you cut it, is essentially what Deontay Wilder has become since that night against Helenius. Impacted, too, by his own innate flaws, natural deterioration – he is, remember, now 38 – and the fact he has, in Joseph Parker and Zhilei Zhang, been sharing the ring with quality opposition, it is still true to say that the Wilder we see today is nothing like the Wilder of old. Everything about him, in fact, is different. The look in his eyes when he is being outworked by an opponent is different, for example; for it is no longer the look of a man seeking opportunity but instead the look of a man wondering when he can catch his next breath. Even more concerning, however, is the look on Wilder’s face when attempting to land shots of his own, for no longer are these shots thrown with the aim to secure “a body” but instead simply shift momentum or deliver respite. That difference, although encouraging in some respects, has clearly taken something away from Wilder, the fighter. Moreover, for a fighter whose entire game was his attitude and his belief in his ability to render a man unconscious, even the slightest hesitation or doubt in this regard both deforms and destroys the monster of old.

We saw evidence, again, of this versus Zhang. Like Parker before him, Zhang was able to stalk Wilder, work him over, and do so with zero fear of what would come back at him. Quite the luxury really, especially when you think of the terror on the faces of previous Wilder opponents, Zhang was free to use his significant size advantage (68 pounds heavier than Wilder at the weigh-in) to manoeuvre Wilder around the ring, trap him in corners, and then throw punches whenever he wanted to throw punches. This, for a man as economical as Zhang, was pretty much ideal. He ensured he was winning rounds without doing much, or taking much, and he knew that there was forever a pressure on Wilder to improve, take more risks, and, ultimately, leave himself open to something big landing.

Which brings us to round five, the rough in which Zhang clipped Wilder with a perfect right hook counter before then finishing him with a second hook moments later. These two shots – the first spinning Wilder around, and the second laying him out – came as no real shock, admittedly, yet still we must appreciate how surreal it was to see such a feared heavyweight get dealt with so easily. It happens to the best of them, of course, particularly the big punchers, but what, I think, makes Wilder’s swift demise so interesting is how complicit he has been in what has happened to him. Whether meaning to or not, Wilder has, in growing old in the sport, both matured and at the same time moved away from what made him such an unpredictable, devastating and scary proposition for any heavyweight sharing a ring with him. He has, in accepting the reality and consequences of both his own damage and the damage inflicted upon him by others, become both half the man he used to be and twice the man he used to be; a paradox no good for any boxer in need of eradicating their human side in order to become, on fight night, a machine capable of hurting another person with a beating heart and a loving family. “Once a thing is known, it can never be unknown,” wrote Anita Brookner. “It can only be forgotten.”

Certainly, when he fights now, Wilder, he sees and feels different things. If, for instance, he isn’t seeing Prichard Colon being retaught how to live, he is seeing images of himself folding against Tyson Fury under extreme duress in either 2020 or 2021. If not that, he is seeing images of Robert Helenius stiff as a board following a right hand delivered by him, its aim to achieve exactly that goal.

Whatever it is Wilder sees these days, the images arrive with emotions and feelings that were never there before. They are now three-dimensional, these images. They can be touched, smelt. Carrying them with him, like pictures of a dead relative, Wilder is now not so much the cold and callous destroyer with whom the boxing world fell in love but instead the retired army general forced to come to terms with inhumane acts he hoped had been consigned to the past.

Only memory – and indeed complicity – does not work like that. While, yes, a boxer may for a time be able to either forget or compartmentalise, a human being has neither the same luck nor opportunity. Rather, it is in the end a human being’s inability to forget and compartmentalise that is often the reason why they either do something or don’t do something, the explanation for their very character. In the case of Deontay Wilder, suddenly more human than ever, an inability to forget explains the delay, the hesitancy, and the defeats. It also explains the need, a now pressing one, to fully transition from professional boxer to civilian, at which point emotion can become something positive as opposed to the thing currently putting him at risk; at risk, that is, of one day forgetting everything.

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