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Deontay Wilder’s right hand propels him into status among all-time greatest punchers

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Earnie Shavers had long since established himself as one of boxing’s most ferocious punchers when he faced the legendary Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title on Sept. 29, 1977, at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Ali won the fight by unanimous decision, but when the bell ended, he knew he’d been in a fight.

“Earnie hit me so hard, he shook my kinfolk back in Africa,” the champion jokingly said after the bout.

One-punch knockout power is the great equalizer in boxing, much like the three-run home run in baseball that the late Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver used to favor so much.

The threat of a knockout is what sells tickets and gets fans to huddle around their televisions to watch, and it’s why in the old days, ring announcers used to say a fight was for 15 rounds or less. The “or less” portion was the nod to the fact that men like Joe Louis, George Foreman and Mike Tyson could end any bout within the bat of an eye.

Louis, Foreman and Tyson are all former heavyweight champions who are regarded among the most powerful fighters who ever lived.

Foreman — whose knockout of Michael Moorer in 1994 to win the heavyweight title at age 45 led to play-by-play man Jim Lampley exclaiming, “It happened!” — has great reverence for Louis’ power.

“I was a hard puncher,” Foreman said, “but not compared to Joe Louis.”

A new name has crept into that equation, and there are those with expert knowledge of boxing history who believe that he deserves to slot alongside, and perhaps above, those men as the greatest puncher in boxing history.

WBC champion Deontay Wilder, who on Feb. 22 will face lineal champion Tyson Fury at the MGM Grand Garden in a rematch of an epic 2018 fight, has been scoring so many dramatic KO victories that he’s beginning to join that elite class as the best ever.

Fury, who spent 36 minutes in the ring with Wilder in a split draw in Los Angeles on Dec. 1, 2018, and went down twice, is more than ready to anoint Wilder as the best.

“Wilder’s the biggest puncher there’s probably ever been,” Fury told Yahoo Sports before the start of a recent training session.

Biggest puncher ever? Boxing experts weigh in on Wilder

Former undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, who like Wilder and Shavers was born in Alabama, agrees with Fury. He said Foreman hit him harder than anyone he’d ever faced, but said what Wilder has done has been eye-opening.

Wilder has 43 fights as a pro, with 41 knockouts. He’s 42-0-1, and the other bouts in which he didn’t get a knockdown were his title-winning effort with Bermane Stiverne in 2015 and his draw with Fury in 2018.

Holyfield, who said “I have no idea how Fury got up after he got hit so hard,” by Wilder in 2018, said Wilder’s record alone proves he deserves to be at or near the top of such a mythical list.

“Every time he hits guys, they don’t move,” Holyfield said. “Don’t make it too complicated: That tells you what you need to know.”

Fury promoter Bob Arum has promoted boxing for more than 50 years, and saw many of the great punchers fight in person. He promoted Foreman in the second half of Foreman’s career, and also saw Sonny Liston fight live.

He saw Foreman do some remarkable things in the ring, and promoted the Ali-Shavers bout. He, too, is of the camp that with at least one punch, no one has hit harder than Wilder.

“Guys like George and Shavers, they were big, thunderous, strong guys who would concuss guys but didn’t knock them flat cold with one big shot,” Arum said. “Wilder is different. He’s this big, rangy guy who throws these punches from unorthodox angles that shouldn’t have any chance of landing, but do. He’s done that his entire career. Go back and look at his fights and see how many guys he hits on the chin — Bam! — and they’re out. I think he has the most power, the most one-punch power, of anyone.”

Deontay Wilder lands a left hook and knocks down Tyson Fury in the 12th round of WBC heavyweight championship on Dec. 1, 2018 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (Philip Pacheco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Jay Deas is Wilder’s head coach and co-manager. Wilder had no amateur experience when he walked into Deas’ gym in 2005 looking to learn how to box. Wilder’s daughter had been born with spina bifida and desperate for money, he decided to see if his street-fighting ability would translate to boxing.

Wilder won’t name the fighter, but he said he knocked out an established pro not long after he arrived.

Deas said there was never much doubt Wilder would punch hard enough.

“He’s always had power and lots of it, but he’s refined it a lot since then,” Deas said. “He has improved his technique on things like the timing and the spacing and the positioning and the distance that allow him to land. As he’s gone along, it’s been game plan No. 1 from everybody he’s fought to not get hit by him. 

“It’s difficult when they know you have the power and they make it a priority to avoid it to land it, and your technique comes into play there. He had that God-given power that he could just generate tremendous force. I think you can work on it to improve it, but not more than maybe 10 percent. It’s mostly God given and he has that gift for sure.”

Foreman: Hold off on anointing Wilder hardest puncher

There are, though, questions about Wilder’s technique. He’s not the smooth, traditional puncher that people are used to watching. Kevin Cunningham, a former St. Louis police officer who is now one of boxing’s best trainers, raved about Wilder’s power, but said he needs to work on his technique.

Cunningham wouldn’t call Wilder the greatest puncher ever, but said he belongs in the conversation. But he said refining his technique could only help.

“If I was training a guy with that kind of punching power, my main focus would be on working with him on setting up the power and disguising the power,” Cunningham said. “If the power is there, which it most definitely is for Deontay, then it’s all about how do you deliver the power and how do you run your opponent into the shot you want to land? We all know that once he lands, he’s doing damage, but it’s a matter of setting that power up.  

“I’d like to see Deontay working on some fundamentals to hide the power and set his opponents up for the power. Every opponent who fights Deontay Wilder, their whole goal in life is to avoid that right hand. It’s on Wilder and his team to find different ways of setting that right hand up.”

Foreman picks Wilder to knock Fury out, but he’s not ready to label him the hardest puncher ever.

That, Foreman said, belongs to Louis, whom Deas noted was able to knock guys out with a short punch on the inside that traveled no more than six inches or a foot.

Foreman, who once lifted Joe Frazier off of the canvas with a punch en route to a second-round knockout in a title-winning effort in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1973, noted that Wilder’s big right hand that knocked out Luis Ortiz in November was in a rematch.

“I loved his delivery of that right-hand punch, though,” Foreman said. “To compare Wilder with the likes of Joe Louis and [Rocky] Marciano is out of place. … Let’s give Wilder a little while longer before putting ‘hardest puncher’ on his résumé.”

Why Fury isn’t afraid of Wilder’s right hand

Hardest puncher or not, Fury’s job will be to neutralize the right hand in the rematch. He said that while he absorbed those big punches from Wilder in 2018, it’s not like he felt them.

It’s a topic people often broach with him. 

“People will often say to me, ‘What’s it like to be punched in the face by Wilder?’ and it’s really no different than being punched in the face by anyone else,” Fury said. “The thing is, when he hits you with a proper shot, you don’t feel anything. You just wake up on the floor. So yeah, there’s no pain.”

But Fury, who is widely regarded as the best pure boxer in the heavyweight division, said those who criticize his rival as being crude are mistaken.

Fury heaped praise on Wilder’s skills and said he is doing something correctly to keep winning all of these fights, particularly since everyone is game-planning to detonate the power.

“Deontay Wilder is obviously a great boxer,” said Fury, who is even money to Wilder’s -120 at the MGM Grand Sports Book. “He’s 42-0-1 and the man is unbeaten in 43 professional contests. Who are these people who are giving him criticism? I want to see their records. I want to see who they’ve fought and I want to see their boxing ability. 

“Who are we comparing him to, Sugar Ray Leonard? This guy is a heavyweight, 6-foot-7, 210 pounds, 220, whatever it is. I’m not sure who they’re comparing him to with boxing skills, Sugar Ray Robinson or [Floyd] Mayweather? Not good compared to who? Even on his worst night, he still managed to win fights and knock opponents out. He’s doing something right.”

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