Where does Fury v Wilder II belong in the pantheon of classic heavyweight rematches?
One of the most anticipated rematches in boxing for many years gets underway on Saturday 22 February (Sunday 23 February in the UK) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. It pits one of the hardest hitting heavyweights of all time, Deontay Wilder, against Tyson Fury — a giant of a man who moves like a middleweight and, if Wilder is to be believed, punches like one. However with Fury making clear his intention of going in to the rematch looking for the knockout, Wilder’s claim that his opponent lacks power is guaranteed to be tested, injecting an extra shot of intrigue into a fight that already contains the ingredients required to produce a classic.
And if a classic is indeed what does unfold, Fury v Wilder II will take its place among an illustrious litany of classic heavyweight rematches that pepper the sport’s history.
Let’s look back at some of them now.
Gene Tunney vs Jack Dempsey — 27 September 1927, Soldier Field, Chicago
Gene Tunney, The Fighting Marine, dominated the first fight the previous year in Philadelphia to win by unanimous decision. In the process he upset the odds against one of the most popular American icons of the roaring twenties, Jack Dempsey, whose gnarled and rough persona was the very opposite to that of Tunney, one of the most cultured and refined men to ever grace a boxing ring.
The rematch was fought over ten rounds and once again Tunney emerged victorious by unanimous decision against his more experienced and popular opponent. However the second fight was shrouded in controversy due to the ‘long count’ that was afforded Tunney by the referee after Dempsey put him down in the 7th round.
Momentarily forgetting the rule that had just been introduced, requiring him to go to a neutral corner before the referee starts the count, the four precious seconds it took before Dempsey did so gave Tunney fourteen instead of the usual ten seconds in which to get back up.
In his own later account of the long count, Tunney, a man who counted among his friends the likes of George Bernard Shaw, F Scott Fitzgerald and Somerset Maugham, wrote: ‘I have often been asked — could I have got up and carried on as I did without those extra four seconds of the long count? I don’t know. I only say that at the count of two I came to, and felt in good shape.’
Controversy sells and the controversy surrounding the long count in the rematch fed public demand for a third fight. It was not to be though. Tunney, who would retire to a life of wealth and privilege in 1928 after 68 fights, was eager and willing but Jack Dempsey demurred. Where Tunney was a ring technician, Dempsey was a brawler who took a surplus of punishment throughout his career. After the Tunney rematch he decided that enough was enough and retired.
Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling — 22 June 1938, Yankee Stadium, New York
‘Listen to this, buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling’.
So wrote sportswriter Bob Considine after witnessing the Brown Bomber dispatch Schmeling in the first round of the rematch of their initial encounter two years earlier, fought at the same venue and which the German had won by KO in the 12th round.
The rematch took place amid a swirl of portent surrounding Hitler’s expansionist aims in Europe and his persecution at home of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and others deemed to exist out with the circle of human worth which he and his followers had established in service to the god of fascism.
Schmeling thus was viewed by Hitler and Nazi propaganda to be less a prospective champion of the ring and more an existing champion of the master race, carrying into the ring against for the Louis rematch the expectation that the same outcome as the first fight was certain against a racially inferior black opponent.
Hitler and the Nazis were given cause to think again, though, as by now Louis existed on an entirely different plane than Schmeling and every other heavyweight of his era. At 25 he was in his prime and since losing to the German two years earlier had gone on to win the world title before successfully defending it three times.
The difference told from the opening bell when Louis went straight on the offensive, unleashing crunching combinations against Schmeling’s body and head. The German had no answer to the barrage and went down after just 90 seconds. When the action resumed, Louis picked up where he’d left off, again sending his opponent to the canvas. Schmeling dragged himself up whereupon Louis jumped on him again, the German now defenceless in the face of the Brown Bomber’s onslaught.
Mercifully deciding to spare their fighter further punishment, Schmeling’s corner threw in the towel. Referee Arthur Donovan proceeded with an eight-count regardless, after which he declared the fight over.
Reporting on the fight was famed black novelist Richard Wright. Here he describes the scenes of celebration in Harlem which took place after the fight: “Men, women, and children gathered in thick knots and did the Big Apple, the Lindy Hop, the Truck — Harlem’s gesture of defiance to the high cost of food, high rent, and misery. These ghetto-dwellers, under the stress of the joy of one of their own kind having wiped out the stain of defeat and having thrown the lie of ‘inferiority’ into the teeth of the fascist, threw of restraint and fear.”
Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier — 28 January 1974, Madison Square Garden, New York
The first fight in 1971 Frazier had won by unanimous decision after an epic 15 round war to successfully defend the world title he’d won in 1970 against Jimmy Ellis. Billed as the Fight of the Century, it was the first of what would end up a famous trilogy between two fighters whose enmity inside the squared circle was more than matched outside it.
By the time of the second fight, Frazier had experienced destruction at the hands of a younger, fiercer George Foreman on the way to losing his title. Evidence of consequent physical decline was present in his performance against Ali on this night, Frazier lacking the ‘smoke’ that had previously defined his come forward marauding style.
Ali was content to jab and grab for much of the fight, wary of Frazier’s potent left hook, a punch to which Ali was susceptible given the way he fought with his right hand down at his waist while circling to his right.
Ultimately the rematch, which Ali won on points, proved a pale imitation of their first encounter and also of their last in the Philippines in 1975. Afterwards Ali famously described this third fight of the trilogy, the Thrilla in Manila, as the closest thing to death he’d ever experienced.
Mike Tyson vs Evander Holyfield — 28 June 1997, MGM Grand, Las Vegas
In a 2017 article analysing one of the most controversial fights in the sport’s history, Wallace Matthews writes, ‘Boxing has had its share of great fighters doing inexplicable, self-destructive things in the heat of battle. Jack Dempsey stood over Gene Tunney in their 1927 rematch, possibly costing himself a chance to regain the title in the famous Battle of the Long Count. Roberto Duran impulsively quit on Sugar Ray Leonard in the eighth round of their 1980 rematch, introducing the words “No mas’’ into the sports lexicon. But never has a fighter done what Mike Tyson did that night.’
Matthews was referring here, of course, to Tyson biting off a part of Holyfield’s ear in the third round.
It was the second time they’d fought in seven months. In the first fight Holyfield pulled off a huge upset with a vintage performance that saw him run Tyson ragged, bullying the bully. The result was the so-called baddest man on the planet being subjected to 11 torrid rounds of combination punching, repeatedly forced back against and pummelled until the referee stepped in and stopped it.
Holyfield’s victory, the manner of it, ended forever the aura of invincibility which Iron Mike had possessed throughout his career and had retained despite losing to Buster Douglas in 1990.
In truth Tyson was never the same fighter upon getting out of prison in 1995 after serving a three year sentence for rape. By the time he fought Holyfield he was drowning in self-loathing and rage at a world that had seemingly turned on him.
Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder — 22 February 2020, MGM Grand, Las Vegas
Writing after Muhammad Ali’s astonishing feat in stopping a prime George Foreman in Zaire in the 8th round, Hugh McIlvaney averred, ‘We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old resurrection.’
If Tyson Fury manages to stop Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas tonight it will mark the culmination of his own resurrection, one that will more than match Ali’s on that legendary night in Zaire in 1974.
The Gypsy King goes into the fight as a monument to the redemptive powers of the human spirit. From a man who just a few years ago had all but given up on life and walked hand in hand with depression and dark despair, to a heavyweight who currently sits at the apex of the sport both in terms of skills and popularity, who else but a Shakespeare or a Chekhov could conjure up a fitting interpretation of what his journey back from hell says about the human condition?
In Deontay Wilder, the Bronze Bomber, Fury faces an opponent who carries kryptonite in a right hand that has achieved the highest KO ratio of any heavyweight ever. Both men are in their respective primes and both enter the ring undefeated.
The stage is indeed set for a classic.
John’s upcoming book, This Boxing Game: A Journey in Beautiful Brutality, is out on March 16 and is currently available to pre-order online from Pitch Publishing and all major booksellers.