ON Saturday, for the first time in his professional career, Deontay Wilder will make his way to the ring as a fighter who no longer has an undefeated record. Whether or not he continues to believe he has never fairly been beaten is another matter entirely.
The sheer volume of excuses for why Tyson Fury so convincingly stopped him last February is cause for suspicion. They speak of a fighter struggling to accept a first defeat. It’s not unusual for fighters to struggle to understand and accept those emotions for the first time, and those struggles can lead to searching for any reason that preserves their self-esteem by offering an alternative to accepting they were beaten by a superior opponent. A common refrain is that they were beaten by “the better man on the night”, meaning they can hold onto the belief that they can be better in the future.
It will also be the first time he’ll have fought under Malik Scott. If Wilder truly believes being trained by Mark Breland was one of the reasons he lost, then he had to find a successor. Working with any new trainer offers a fresh approach to training and for change and improvement, which, based on his previous two fights with Fury, are necessary. But it also presents challenges. Have they had time to build the level of trust they’ll need? Have they agreed on the changes required – and have they been able to implement them? Even if the answer to all three is “Yes”, under the pressure there’s a risk of a fighter returning to old habits, or falling between what he was and what he is trying to become.
One of his excuses involved him accusing Fury of using illegal hand wraps, so his team will be closely watching Fury this time. This can enhance Wilder’s confidence, and his belief that he will be fighting an inferior opponent. It can also potentially test Fury’s composure, even if it’s likelier he’ll laugh it off or be verbally abusive towards them and then perform as expected.
If Fury lands, with power, early on, the protective shell Wilder developed via those excuses could shatter, and he could quickly be left feeling he can’t win. It’d be an interesting insight into his preparations if he revealed he’d experimented with any specific mental performance training since last February but, given he criticised Joshua for speaking to a sports psychologist before he lost to Andy Ruiz, he doesn’t seem willing to.
Essential for Wilder is where he can source his confidence from to fuel his belief. The biggest impact from losing is often on confidence, and the easiest and strongest source of confidence is the difference between knowing and believing you can win. Fury knows he can win. He convincingly won the rematch, and most thought he won their first fight. He’s also undefeated. It’s also positive that he occasionally highlights how dangerous Wilder is. Given that, and that he has felt his power, he’s unlikely to be underestimating him.
His character means that it seems unlikely seeing Joshua – the favourite and champion – lose to Usyk will have had much effect. More likely to influence Fury would be the loss of the big-money fight in which he could have unified the belts, but even that seems something that won’t affect his performance.
There are those who question whether Fury’s wider psychological challenges can undermine him ahead of a fight of this magnitude, but without being in his training camp that’s difficult to judge. The reality is that because he’s experienced those ups and downs, he should have developed the tools to cope with any struggles of that nature he might have encountered since he was last in the ring.