When Robert Helenius looked at the black canvas at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, he saw a familiar face: former sparring partner, friend and opponent for the next (ridiculously unjustified) thirty-six minutes. He saw perhaps his last, perhaps only chance to gain access to the heavyweight elite, an informal and incomplete tournament whose prize remains one of the most respected in the sport. Perhaps Helenius had seen a man whose tendencies and tendencies he remembered, whose reputation had been confirmed by Helenius himself, even through so many ounces of padding carefully arranged to keep his connection to the waking world. Maybe he saw Deontay Wilder as a man who fell, an improbable champion who wanted to see what was left after consecutive and brutal knockout defeats.
What did Deontay Wilder see in Helenius? There was a striking resemblance to his nemesis: body mass, beard, baldness. Indeed, had the police rounded up a group of suspects in pursuit of a man who had escaped Wilder’s daylight twice, Helenius might have been among them, called to the front and asked to say the word “dosser” before stepping back beyond the interrogation spotlight. What Wilder didn’t see, and what Helenius couldn’t see, was the opponent chosen to recapture the mystery of boxing’s most feared boxer. Helenius was a victim; all Wilder had to do was finalize the process. And who deals with more extremes than Wilder?
Helenius must have felt good, encouraged in those first few minutes. Wilder bypassed him by throwing little, inviting Helenius to throw with something resembling – but not quite achievable – commitment. A pair of looping punches followed by a cross, a genuine act of aggression. Why not? There were only thirty seconds left in the round, twenty if the last ten were wasted, as is often the case. But Helenius forgot to bring his hands back to his chin; worse: he thrust his chin forward. What he felt afterward, Helenius might have had a hard time remembering and even harder explaining.
The blow went through the entire foot, fired without the kinetic help of a rotated hip or a pronating wrist. But the sound? The sound was proof enough of his strength. Wilder knew it, knew it as little else in life, knew that when he casually, almost trivially, speared his right hand into Helenius’s charging face, it was all over. Helenius, stiff on his back, looked as if he had just watched an apparition come out of the well and pass through the TV.
For everyone who wants to profile and pose
Rock you in the face, stab your brain with a nose bone
—Mobb Deep, “Shaken, Part II”
Some knockouts are peaceful: Manny Pacquiao anesthetized by Juan Manuel Marquez, Hero Graham snoring through shattered teeth for tempting Julian Jackson. The human machine shut down, keeping its secrets. Wilder doesn’t cut himself off from men. No, he sends them into crisis – hysterical spasms, panic on their faces, drowning on dry land. There is a poetic way to talk about ultra-violence like Wilder, and it can prevent you from pushing the boundaries of taste and sensibility when discussing a sport that consumes lives every year. But the sound of Wilder’s punches, the biting, flailing, rippling disasters born of that unmistakable crack call for a sharper tongue. When the cameras catch him in the stands shaking his right hand, Wilder flashes the gun. No, the “Bronze Bomber” should not be euphemized – he’s a headhunter, a first-class son of a bitch. If he’s nothing else, Wilder is.
What comes back with Wilder is the most exciting question in the division, strange because the answer is simple and vague: Can (insert fighter’s name) beat Wilder? The answer is simple because any fighter who can beat Wilder must survive his power. Wondering if a fighter can take this power is pointless: if Wilder hits you clean, he’ll ruin you, and the cumulative effect of even his punches that miss the target will shorten your night. However, there are ways to mitigate Wilder’s power, aiming for victory in the shadow of that risk. Bermane Stiverne played twelve rounds with Wilder when the latter was an even tougher version of himself. Most recently, Tyson Fury has used unparalleled mass to survive Wilder’s power, distributing that concussive force through his rippled torso like ballistic gel. He used the same weight to overwhelm Wilder by leaning on him and muffling his punches, which Wilder encouraged with his own extra muscle (a muscle he has wisely dropped since). But there is no other Fury in the division, so mentioning the exception to the rule is pointless.
The answer to the most exciting question in the heavyweight division is unclear because Wilder is not perfect. It’s easy to imagine Oleksandr Usyk punching him in the box, knocking him out of the south paw position. Usyk proved in two unanimous decision wins over Anthony Joshua that he had the heavyweight chin and stamina to use his confusing style for twelve rounds. And if any fighter can evade Wilder’s law, it’s Usyk, an extremely talented former cruiserweight who fights within himself until the moment calls for more. With his powerful tools, Joshua could also beat Wilder. That he seems less likely to do so rightly reflects what Joshua revealed in his losses, although the unflattering characterization of Joshua as a fragile and limited fighter relies too heavily on a cliche concretized by his predecessors. Perhaps no potential adversary is as enticing as Joe Joyce, the cast-iron bear of the man who inflicted a gruesome beating on Joseph Parker in September. Joyce is almost mesmerizingly slow, tending to ignore the leather-bound punishment for his style. A lumberjack hacks while a nest of protective hornets attacks him – that’s how Joyce fights. He’s as brutal as Wilder is explosive, and alchemists devising the future of the heavyweight division can’t create better magic than mixing equal parts of these ingredients.
In his post-fight interview, Wilder asked for Usyk as he remains extremely confident; he asked for stablemate Andy Ruiz as he remains a company man. Give him what he wants. Every name. If only because the Wilder is that rare warrior breed that will respond in nature.