Fans of a certain age remember Mark Breland’s trail of destruction in capturing a then-unprecedented five consecutive New York Golden Gloves titles. Between 1980 and 1984, the mantis-like Breland went 21-0 in the tournament and starched 19 opponents – including 14 in the first round.
Many of those fights unfolded the same way. After the towering 6-foot-2 welterweight spent the first few moments probing with long, range-finding jabs, he suddenly lashed out with a cobra-quick right that, more often than not, anesthetized his opponents and thrilled his audiences.
As he approached the end of his legendary 110-1 amateur career capped by a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Breland’s mythology grew to the point that some credible observers declared him the second coming of Sugar Ray Robinson.
Nearly three decades later those same observers must have experienced déjà vu this past Saturday while watching Deontay Wilder’s 103-second annihilation of onetime WBO heavyweight titlist Sergei Liakhovich. One Wilder right hand bomb electrified the boxing world and as Wilder’s trainer, Breland had one of the best seats in the house.
The Breland-Wilder pairing was no accident, for had Breland been born a heavyweight he would have looked much like Wilder. At 6-feet-7 and owning an expansive 84-inch wingspan, Wilder has the anatomical gifts to apply the Breland blueprint while his lean and athletic 224-pound physique cuts a similar silhouette, especially when compared to their respective opponents.
But the one asset that binds the pair in history is the massive, monstrous single-shot power in the right hand. Their crosses didn’t just stop opponents, they savaged them. Because of their similar frames, the Breland-Wilder pairing seems a perfect fit and the partnership has been beneficial and productive for both.
Most observers believed Liakhovich was durable enough to at least extend Wilder to the middle rounds, for while the veteran Belorussian had lost four of his last six fights, all five previous losses had gone nine rounds or more. To this point Wilder had yet to see the fifth round and though he was a heavy favorite to prevail it was thought that some answers regarding his stamina would be revealed.
So much for that.
With a single blow to the jaw line just below the left ear, “The Bronze Bomber” bronzed Liakhovich like no other fighter ever had. After Liakhovich fell heavily on his back, his legs kicked and gyrated wildly as if he had just been tasered. The frightening knockout reminded many of the immediate aftermath of Nonito Donaire’s one-punch knockout over Fernando Montiel in February 2011, a result that catapulted “The Filipino Flash” toward the top of the pound-for-pound rankings.
Even members of Wilder’s camp were surprised at the sudden finish.
“The game plan was to box, to wear the guy down, establish the jab and to mentally destroy him before finishing him,” said John Medeiros, an accredited Class 1 coach with USA Boxing who is also one of Wilder’s best friends. “We believed that since he was such a veteran that he would take it into the later rounds. But Deontay still doesn’t understand the power that he has. It just comes along and it happens. We didn’t anticipate a first-round KO. No one has lasted four (with Deontay) and I thought the fight might go three just because of Liakhovich’s knowledge as a fighter. It’s always nice to get him out in the first, though.”
Scoring first round knockouts has been routine for Wilder. Seventeen of his 29 fights have ended in the opening session – or 58.6 percent of his total fights. His 29 consecutive knockouts to start a career is longer than those compiled by fellow heavyweights Vitali Klitschko (27), John L. Sullivan (25), Alex Stewart (24), Mac Foster (24), Herbie Hide (22), Frank Bruno (21) and Mike Tyson (19). His run also exceeds the best overall knockout streaks of George Foreman (24), Rocky Marciano (16), Ken Norton (14) and Sonny Liston (11).
Wilder also is climbing the ladder in terms of knockout streaks in all weight classes. The Liakhovich stoppage vaulted him past Carlos Zarate and Jesus Pimentel and tied him with Alfonzo Zamora and Acelino Freitas, both of whom achieved their strings from the start of a career. Ahead of him are, according to Boxrec.com figures, Bob Allotey (30), Wilfredo Gomez (32), Billy Fox (36) and Lamar Clark (42), though the 1985 Ring Record Book and Boxing Encyclopedia credits Allotey with 33, Fox with 43 and Clark with 44.
But of all the stats, this one is particularly stunning: Through 29 fights, an average Wilder outing lasts just 227.1 seconds, or slightly longer than the average commercial break on prime-time TV. For the record, Tyson’s first 19 fights averaged 253.3 seconds per bout, so in that respect he’s ahead of “Iron Mike’s” pace. Whether he duplicates Tyson’s accomplishments is another question indeed, but so far, so good.
The Liakhovich blowout opened some eyes but doubters remain. They say, and not without cause, that his degree of difficulty in terms of opponents has been low, especially since Wilder’s pro career is nearing the end of its fifth year. That certainly was the case early on, for his first 16 opponents had a combined record of 92-109-13 (.430), including a 35-43-6 mark (.417) in the immediate fights leading up to their matches with Wilder. That’s usually par for the course during the grooming process. But in Wilder’s last 13 fights, the opposition had a combined 277-75-4 (.778) record and 43-34-1 ledger (.551) in lead-up fights, a considerable improvement at least in terms of aggregate records. One positive sign is that the more ambitious schedule has minimally affected Wilder’s efficiency: 1.4 rounds per fight over the first 16, 2.0 rounds per fight over the last 13.
While the numbers and the optics are impressive and overwhelming, several questions remain as far as determining whether Wilder is “the one” to break the European stranglehold on the heavyweight championship.
As spectacular as the Liakhovich knockout was, and though the former titlist represented a step up in difficulty, Liakhovich was still a 37-year-old veteran who was coming off two straight TKO defeats. Moreover, Liakhovich was coming off a 17-month layoff – the second-longest of his career – because in that last fight Bryant Jennings had shredded him in nine rounds. Those circumstances mitigate Wilder’s accomplishment somewhat, but for those who are half-glass-full types Wilder not only got the expected knockout victory, he did so in extremely impressive – and terrifying – fashion.
Medeiros is well aware that skeptics remain and when asked how he would address them, this was his reply:
“One of the misconceptions is that everybody – the media, the people and the fans – doesn’t believe. It’s because he makes it look too easy. Those are 29 grown men across the ring from him and they’re not anticipating getting knocked out. Liakhovich thought this fight could rebound his career and he didn’t go in to lay down. But when Deontay touched him with that jab or with the little hook it was wearing him down mentally. His speed and his footwork are not easily seen because all people look at is his size, but other big men would tell you, ‘holy smokes.’
“When he shadowboxes he doesn’t throw slow punches; they go like a welterweight or middleweight,” Medeiros continued. “He also reads opponents extremely well. He uses feints and double-feints to assess their reactions and when he sees what he needs to see he lets it go. What you see in the ring is the result of extremely hard work combined with a strong team and it all adds up to the explosion in the ring.”
Medeiros said the sharpness and power resulted from an unusually long three-month camp, a camp that fed into Wilder’s already well-honed work ethic.
“He’s had a long camp because of the fact he was supposed to box on the Bernard Hopkins-Karo Murat fight July 19,” he said. “At one time, it was thought he and (Dereck) Chisora were supposed to meet but that fell through. He kept working through all that and you can see what the camp did for him. This guy out-works everybody to the point that he has to call people in. He’s a gym rat; he will work out in the gym three or four times a day, two hours at a time, and he loves what he does.”
Besides the extra work, Medeiros said another secret weapon helped him prosper in this fight – former three-time title challenger Jameel McCline, who was one of Wilder’s sparring partners.
“Deontay and Jameel were in a training camp together in Austria when Wladimir Klitschko was training for Mariusz Wach and they developed a relationship there,” he said. “Jameel’s size, knowledge, experience and friendship were really helpful. Those side conversations as to what to expect were really something that Deontay needed to hear and experience. Jameel went online and declared no one had ever hit him so hard or had the speed and skill Deontay has.”
As for the immediate future, Medeiros said the key word would be “activity.”
“He wants to be the busiest heavyweight out there,” he said. “He wants to bring the division back on the world scene; he doesn’t want just to fight in America, he wants to showcase his talents to the world. The way it looks now, we’re talking about fighting the winner of Chris Arreola and Seth Mitchell, hopefully at the end of the year. The winner of that fight would be boosted to the top in the rankings. We believe we’re number one already, but it’s a process. If following that process gets us toward the title, so be it.”
Another fight Medeiros said Wilder yearns for is Jennings, with whom he has engaged in a Twitter war.
“We are at war with Jennings, we want him,” Medeiros said. “Jennings thinks he’s on an elite level and he’s using Deontay’s name to lift himself up. He’s not on Deontay’s level. When Bryant gets touched with some power he’ll be mentally destroyed. Against Bowie Tupou he admitted he was knocked down and he got up a little woo-woo. If he thinks Bowie Tupou can hit, just wait until he feels D’s power.”
When pressed about when such a fight would take place, Medeiros hinted it might be down the line.
“If the fans want it and if the terms are correct for both boxers, it’s going to be great for as long as it lasts,” Medeiros said. “We’re not fighting for small potatoes; the terms have to be right. If Bryant gets a title and D gets a title, and that fight could lead up to a fight with a Klitschko it can happen. I believe it can happen.”
Is Wilder the man who can revive American interest in the heavyweight division, and, by extension, in the sport of boxing among casual sports fans? If he can, it’ll mark the end of a historically long drought.
It has been more than six years since an American fighter has held a major heavyweight title of any kind and nearly a quarter of a century since a U.S.-born fighter put together a dominant reign in boxing’s most glamorous weight class. Given America’s dominance between 1892 and 1992, a span that spawned just eight non-U.S. claimants among the 47 men crowned, today’s Eurocentric landscape seems nothing short of unfathomable.
Ever since James “Buster” Douglas shockingly ended Mike Tyson’s initial reign of terror, the last 10-plus defense title tenure by an American, several U.S. names have dotted the roll call of titleholders but most of them were fated to remain periods in a world that demands exclamation points. Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko have been the kings of the heavyweight mountain – Little Brother since April 2006 and Big Brother since October 2008 – and their vice-like grip on the four major belts has been, to this point, unbreakable. Could Deontay Wilder be the man to finally break through?
He has the size and power to earn their respect and his amateur experience will help him deal with fighting outside the U.S. – something he’ll likely have to do should he fight one of the Klitschkos. However, while we know he can generate exciting offense, his defensive skills and his chin are still unknown simply because they haven’t faced a severe test yet. In other words, we know he can hit, but we don’t how he handles being hit.
The Liakhovich victory should mark the end of Wilder’s extended “Godzilla” phase. He’s more than ready to tackle meatier challenges; skyscraper-versus-skyscraper matches with Tyson Fury, Tony Thompson and Robert Helenius would be interesting as would the winner of the Mitchell-Arreola fight. All are winnable bouts because each has obvious flaws that can be exploited but have tools that could provide a clearer picture of Wilder’s skill set. Jennings also would be a fascinating test because he’s also been on a roll and their war of words would add spice to the build-up.
The Liakhovich fight will be an indelible part of Wilder’s highlight reel and it will be intriguing to see how the final print ends up turning out.
Photos / Tom Casino-SHOWTIME, THE RING, Scott Heavey-Getty Images, Harry How-Golden Boy, AFP
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last three years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for autographed copies.