The main event and the fights preceding it at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last night excelled the expectations held by everyone waiting to see Bermane Stiverne and Deontay Wilder put an end to their talking and throw down for the WBC heavyweight championship of the world. Boxnation TV in the UK aired three fights and they were all worth staying up for.
Kicking things off was the highly touted light-welterweight Amir Imam who scored a fifth round stoppage over Albuquerque’s Fidel Maldonado Jr. to bring his budding career record to 16-0 with 14 KOs. A lot of hyperbole was flooding out of the television as the announcers talked this guy up, likening his skills to the masters of times past like Joe Gans and Ray Robinson.
Those words were inaccurate based on this performance as he struggled to avoid Maldonado’s wild and persistent left hand out of the southpaw stance. He found it difficult to find a happy place in there until the very end of the second round when he slumped his foe with a crisp right hand. The next round began and it appeared as if Imam was about to find his rhythm when he found himself on the canvas having caught a clean leaping left to the jaw. It was game on. As if desperate to erase the image of his own fallibility, Imam endeavored to return the compliment to Maldonado and dropped him twice more before the end of the session, first with another short right and then with a barrage in the corner punctuated by a sweet left hook. The fourth was the only round where the two men stood off each other, eager for a break in the frantic pace they had set themselves but business resumed in the fifth. Imam laid on the ropes for almost half the round, rolling and trying to pick off shots while firing back his own. This approach looked to be only moderately successful until he launched yet another right to the jaw of his attacker who folded at the waist before succumbing to a sweeping left that dropped him for the final time. He tried to get up but the referee waved it off with just one second to go. This was a very exciting fight.
Next up was Leo Santa Cruz defending his WBC super-bantamweight title against Jesus Ruiz. Santa Cruz was 28-0 with 16 KOs before the bell rang and was expected to continue in similar fashion against an unheralded opponent. Ruiz was more game than many would have anticipated however, and focused on getting in close to sustain attacks on the champion’s body in the early stages.
Santa Cruz for his part looked labored at close-quarters but his class shone through the more distance he managed to maintain between himself and the challenger. His style of catching shots on the arms and gloves before firing immediately back, mostly with the straight right, was successful in the early part of the fight but only in spots. He got in to his groove in the fifth and noticeably pushed back Ruiz, almost running after him in spots and launching that long right arm of his constantly.
Ruiz came back strong in the fifth, doubling and tripling his hooks to the body and rough-housing in close, causing Santa Cruz to sustain a cut over his right eyebrow right at the end of the round. He never lost his composure and actually accelerated the pace and volume of his own attacks, throwing a large number of combinations to the head and finishing up with hooks to the body. By the end of the seventh Ruiz looked tired and Santa Cruz jumped right on him at the beginning of the eighth and blasted him in the jaw with a right hand that sent a wave of sweat from his head. Ruiz stumbled back to the ropes where Santa Cruz unloaded everything on him until the referee stepped between them and called the contest to a halt.
Santa Cruz looked better in this fight at mid/long range and when he let his combinations go, but he gave Ruiz an unnecessary sliver of hope by engaging on the inside with him. That said he was merciless when an opportunity to end the fight presented itself, and he has to be given credit for calling out each of the other champions in his division Guillermo Rigondeaux, Scott Quigg and Carl Frampton in his post-fight interview.
Now to the main event of the evening. I was giddy when the two goliaths made their way to the ring. The challenger Deontay Wilder donning an ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ golden mask and led by a wheelchair bound rapper, and champ Bermane Stivene looking stoic in his flamboyant gladiators garb, flanked by the American, Canadian and Haitian flags showing homage to the nations that have housed him.
Wilder began in an unusually wide stance and circling to his left, pumping and flicking out his long left jab Stiverne marched forward with his gloves forming a barricade around his cheekbones. He was slipping his head from side to side in sudden jerks but could’t avoid a straight right from Wilder that punctuated the opening stanza and looked to have him wobbled. The second round was going the same way until Wilder let go with a barrage of wide hooks just before time was called. Stiverne was shaken to his boots and actually fell to the canvas, taking Wilder with him on the way down by wrapping his bulky arms around Wilder’s spindly legs. They ended up in a horizontal embrace near the corner-post, and Wilder clearly took some confidence from dropping the champ, even if the referee didn’t officially rule it a knockdown.
But Stiverne refused to be cowed by the celebrated power of his adversary. From the third round on he stood up to the kind of punches that have decimated Wilder’s former opponents, continuing his march forward and launching powerful hooks to the head and body of the taller man.
That is pretty much how the fight continued. Wilder was putting out a far more consistent body of work. His jab was constantly in the face of Stiverne and he occasionally slammed the right fist in to his welcoming face. As this continued to happen, it became clear that Stiverne wasn’t going anywhere and I waited for Wilder to become alarmed by this man who dared to eat his punches and ask for more. Wilder would land a pristine punch that normally would decapitate a mere mortal, only for Stiverne to shout at him, “stand and fight b**ch.” I expected Wilder to wilt under some of the clean and powerful hooks that Stiverne launched and landed with the lanky Alabama man leaning back over the top rope. It didn’t happen. He stayed composed and he remained disciplined. He circled and jabbed and mixed in the left hook as the rounds wore on, always looking to finish things with the straight right, but never panicking when it didn’t come off. Not once did he appear to be tired. He completed a hard-fought twelve rounds in the same fashion as if it were the four round distance he has become accustomed to.
When the scorecards were read I don’t think anyone watching was surprised by the crowning of a new champion. What they should have been surprised by were how many points the judges had Wilder winning by. One judge didn’t give Stiverne a single session and scored a 10-8 round for the knockdown in the second, even though the referee overlooked it. That was disgraceful. Stiverne deserved more credit for the brave display he put on for a crowd that barely acknowledged him on his way to the ring.
Both fighters can take huge credit for their part in a fight that was far better than it had any right to be. It should have been a shootout with a quick conclusion that would have been anticlimactic even though it was expected. What we got was a hard twelve rounder where the former champion showed his heart and unwillingness to be intimidated despite his defeat, and the new king managed to rebuff all the doubts about him by completing the distance in a disciplined fashion and showing he can take a good shot. Wilder has done wonders for his own legitimacy, but I think Stiverne is one of my new favorite fighters.