Saturday night will see two of the top four heavyweights in the world, Deontay Wilder and Luis Ortiz, do battle for the WBC’s green and gold belt. No titles will be unified but even so, we will edge a step closer towards the Holy Grail of crowning a single, undisputed heavyweight champion when either “The Bronze Bomber” or “King Kong” is knocked off the board. No matter how you look at it, Wilder vs Ortiz is good for the heavyweight division and good for boxing.
With Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker set to unify the WBA, IBF and WBO belts at the end of March, one excellent piece of matchmaking would see the respective winners facing off later in the year to crown the first ever four-belt heavyweight champion. Depending how much merit you give Tyson Fury’s “lineal” title claim (or how optimistic you are that we will see him in a boxing ring again), we are potentially just two steps away from achieving true, unequivocal divisional supremacy, something we haven’t seen since Lennox Lewis defeated Evander Holyfield almost 20 years ago. Are we asking for too much? Maybe. But in a matter of weeks we could be just one fight away from having what we want. And the process begins with Wilder vs Ortiz.
Aside from the wider appeal of moving towards anointing a single heavyweight king, this Saturday’s showdown stands on its own merits. A grudge match that has been simmering for months between two top, undefeated heavyweights is never a bad thing, and when you throw in the contrast in styles and the history of their feud, it’s an intriguing contest indeed.
First, take the strange case of Deontay Wilder. Here we have an Olympic medalist and undefeated American heavyweight titlist with a 97% knockout ratio. Not long ago having such a name on a promotional contract would be a license to print money but somehow Wilder’s career hasn’t caught fire the way one might expect. So while his British counterpart, Anthony Joshua, is busy drawing the better part of 100,000 fans to UK football stadiums and earning tens of millions, “The Bronze Bomber” last fought in front of a crowd of 11,000 for a reported $1.4 million purse – a nice pay packet, for sure, but comparative chump change for an established heavyweight champion.
The lack of wider public admiration for the American may stem from the failure to match him with a more recognizable or truly formidable opponent, something which isn’t entirely under his control. Wilder can’t be held responsible for the paucity of high profile names in the heavyweight ranks, or the readiness of contenders to step through the ropes without an unfair chemical advantage, most notably Alexander Povetkin and Ortiz himself, both of whom fell foul of doping rules and scuppered big fights with Wilder in the past. Still, the fact that Chris Arreola remains the most recognizable name on Deontay’s record after six defences of the WBC title goes some way to explaining his lack of popularity.
Then of course there is the issue of Wilder’s ungainly technique. Considering that only one opponent out of 39 has ever made it to the final bell against him, it could be argued that the ends justify the means, the finer points of pugilism be damned. And there’s certainly no doubt that the American has the kind of frightening power in his fists that can end any match in his favour. That said, his raw, frenetic swings and cumbersome footwork are unlikely to ever earn him an endorsement from the boxing purists, while one can only imagine what the average sports fan must think when tuning in to find the world’s heavyweight champion wind-milling his way to victory.
In short, what we essentially have in Wilder is someone who, considering his skill-set, shouldn’t really be an undefeated heavyweight title-holder, yet he is. At the same time he’s also someone who, considering the fact that he is an undefeated heavyweight belt-holder with a 97% KO ratio, really should be setting the sports world alight, yet he isn’t.
Meanwhile “King Kong” Ortiz has all of the pugilistic tools to be considered one of the most dangerous heavyweights in the world for several years already, but he has failed to take part in a meaningful fight against one of the champions. This is partly explained by the fact a 6’4”, 240 pound southpaw with knockout power, who also happens to be a product of the world-class Cuban boxing system, is the epitome of a high-risk, low reward opponent. In other words, Ortiz is exactly the kind of boxer any promoter looking to extend his own fighter’s win-streak would understandably avoid.
In large part though, Ortiz only has himself to blame for his inability to land a marquee fight. In 2014 he defeated Lateef Kayode by first round knockout to win the WBA “interim” title, but was subsequently stripped and suspended for eight months after a pre-fight urine sample tested positive for the steroid Nandralone.
In 2016 Ortiz then briefly teamed up with UK promoter Eddie Hearn in the hope of securing a big-money showdown with one of his British-based heavyweights. However, following a dull points win over an unwilling Malik Scott and a stoppage win over domestic-level David Allen, most felt “King Kong” had done little to further his case as the most deserving contender in the division, and the partnership with Hearn ended.
Returning to the U.S. in 2017 and signing with adviser Al Haymon, Ortiz finally got the big fight he had been chasing when he was slated to face Wilder last November, only to drop the ball again when his “failing to declare medications for a blood condition” led to the bout being scrapped. Now, at last, Ortiz and Wilder get the opponent they both want and, more importantly, give the sport a fight it needs. Clearly, for all concerned, it’s not a moment too soon.
If “King Kong” triumphs on Saturday night, he will not only become the second best heavyweight in the world and leading rival to Anthony Joshua, he will also have the honour of becoming Cuba’s first ever heavyweight champion. Despite that nation’s proud history in the sport, with amateur boxing legends Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Savón each winning three consecutive Olympic gold medals, success in the pro ranks has so far eluded them, with Jorge Luis Gonzalez, Juan Carlos Gomez and Odlanier Solis all failing in previous attempts to capture a heavyweight belt.
Success for Wilder, meanwhile, would leave him with a record of 40-0, including seven defences of the WBC heavyweight belt. Rather incredibly, statistically this moves his record close to matching some very respected heavyweights in history. And while those stats are not going to lead any serious boxing historians to give much credibility to Wilder’s place among the great heavyweights of the past, at least a victory over a fighter with Ortiz’s pedigree would finally give his title reign some credibility over the heavyweights of today.
Ortiz’s reputed age notwithstanding (he’s listed as 38 years old, though many have questioned whether this might be a tad generous to the Cuban), he ought to be precisely the kind of boxer able to exploit the holes in the American’s “bombs away” approach with his experience and more polished technique. And yet, despite the noted criticism of Wilder’s lack of punching finesse – with a plethora of gifs ridiculing the American’s style on the boxing Twitter-sphere – it is the American who starts as a significant betting favourite, with most odds-makers listing him at 1 to 3, and the Cuban a 12 to 5 underdog.
Personally, while I would not be surprised to see the American’s naked aggression overpower Ortiz, I think those odds underestimate the Cuban’s awkward but less explosive style, and the real risk his skills pose. Assuming he can get through the first inevitable wave of attacks, he can start to nullify the American’s raw swings and drag him into a more measured, slower-paced contest, before capitalizing on his defensive lapses and playing the matador to Wilder’s bull.
Regardless of the outcome though, what really matters is that we are getting a contest between two of the highest ranked fighters in the division, one that will help lay the foundation for a mega unification fight later in the year. It’s been a while since we had this much movement in the big man division and it’s been a very long time since we’ve had the kind of clarity that bolsters the credibility of the entire sport. In other words, Wilder vs Ortiz is a highly significant heavyweight boxing match with some serious ramifications. Here’s hoping both men rise to the occasion. — Matt O’Brien