The first fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder was a close affair. Most of the rounds were Fury’s, some dominated but many merely controlled by him, each one a testament to the grace and agility that bely his Frankenstein frame. Two of the rounds were indisputably Wilder’s, with a knockdown in each, the second one so dramatic that no sane observer expected Fury to get back up. Certainly Deontay Wilder was surprised when Fury proceeded to do just that. Known for being the most dangerous puncher in a division defined by punchers, Wilder must also have been shocked when Fury survived a brief onslaught only to come back swinging, dominating the rest of an incredible final round.
Their rematch last weekend was a different story entirely. Tyson Fury promised to knock Wilder out in the second round, and while he missed the mark by a good five frames, he fought just as if he meant to put Wilder away as quickly as possible. The first two rounds were cautious only in comparison to the rampage that followed. Fury sent Wilder to the canvas with a right hand on the ear in round three, and again with a body shot in the fifth. In round six, he stuck out his tongue and played at lapping the blood dripping down an exhausted Wilder’s neck. And in round seven, he slipped Wilder’s last futile efforts before walking him down and calmly, coolly dispatching him.
It was the most concerted pressure Fury has ever delivered in the ring, entirely different from any other fight he’s ever fought. He walked Steve Cunningham down an awful lot, and put plenty of pressure on an overmatched Christian Hammer, but never has Tyson Fury spent an entire fight driving his opponent onto his heels and bullying him against the ropes. It was also the first time anyone had done this to Deontay Wilder and, not at all coincidentally, it turned out to be the one approach to which the Bronze Bomber’s frightening power could not answer.
This was a victory of pure strategy, one in which Tyson Fury defied not only Deontay Wilder, but his own instincts. In this piece, we’re going to break down three of the tactics most critical to the new lineal champion’s victory. So let’s take a cue from the Gypsy King himself, and get straight to it.
Feints & Awkward Entries
Deontay Wilder is not much of a counter puncher. Like Sergey Kovalev, who collapsed under the brunt of a very similar strategy from Andre Ward, Wilder’s power works best when he has the initiative. Jabbing and feinting to expose openings, Wilder varies his speed, tempo, and trajectory to get that infamous right hand to the mark.
Put on the back foot, his only reliable option are same-time counters—like the one with which he splattered Artur Szpilka all over the canvas. Obviously, these counters are more than enough to endanger any opponent who recklessly walks Wilder down: even a simple trade of punches will favor him. With power like Wilder’s, no exchange is ever even. But these counters still require that Wilder be able to accurately judge distance, and time his opponent on the way into the pocket.
Fury needed to take those measures away, and he did—with feints.
Fury started the fight feinting. He’s well known for his awkward, herky-jerky movement, and it was in full effect from the opening bell. Stalking Wilder, he gestured with his hands, stamped his feet, tipped his head, dropped his shoulder—a whole banquet of feints to keep Wilder’s hungry eyes occupied. Before the end of the first round, Fury was putting powerful, committed attacks behind those probing movements, anticipating and neatly circumventing Wilder’s slapdash defenses.
By round three, Fury was in full control. Wilder had ceded the initiative, and Fury never once let him take it back.
Here, you can see Fury entering range behind a series of befuddling feints. Extending his left hand (which both informs him of the range and helps sell the feint), he jolts his way into range, then immediately sends a genuine jab into Wilder’s face. Wilder jabs back, but the feints have him throwing half a beat too late, and Fury gets his head out of harm’s way. Wilder starts to retreat, his balance looking a little shaky, and Fury keeps the pressure on. Another quick jab draws a counter left hook from Wilder, but once again his way off, and he leaves himself wide open for a recounter. Fury is all too happy to oblige, pressing forward with a one-one-two—the normal one-two’s sophisticated older brother. The first jab is fully extended, and fairly hard. It pops Wilder in the face, and buys Fury a split-second to hop-step his feet into range. The second is quicker, and deliberately short-armed: jab number one has already put Fury in striking distance; all number two has to do is keep Wilder from realizing it. Take special note of the tempo of this combination. If the space between jabs one and two comprises a full beat, then the final right hand seems to follow at least a half beat too early.
It wasn’t only feints that allowed Fury to neutralize Wilder’s limited counterpunching. Equally important was his unique rhythm. Fluid and awkward all at once, Fury is powerfully dangerous to any man who lets him lead the dance. For Wilder, who so often substitutes raw power for craft, the fight was lost the moment he started guessing what Fury would do next.
In many ways, commitment is the word which defines Fury’s whole performance. He and his team devised a winning gameplan—one which bears little resemblance to any other Tyson Fury fight—and he stuck doggedly to that approach till the final bell. In this case, however, we’re talking about commitment in a far more granular, literal sense. Because, notably for a fighter who excels at maintaining the long range that suits him so well, Fury committed heavily to virtually every power punch he threw. One might even say “overcommitted,” if only it hadn’t worked so well.
The logic was simple. If Wilder was going to counter, he would do so in middle distance—in “the pocket.” Not only is this the range where he is most comfortable, but the one that best suits his particular brand of power. Wilder is not “heavy handed” so much as he is lightning quick. His power is more like that of Earnie Shavers than George Foreman—more BANG than BOOM, to paraphrase Ron Lyle, who fought them both—which means that Wilder’s killer right needs at least a couple feet of room to gather momentum.
Essentially, Fury’s strategy was “all the way out, or all the way in.” He spent the majority of the fight either at long range, where at least Wilder would have to commit himself to something to connect, or in close, where Wilder’s power is all but totally neutralized. As long as Fury didn’t linger in mid-range, Wilder would have precious few opportunities to hurt him.
Here, Fury feints his way into range, and uses the long frame of his left arm to line Wilder up for the haymaker right. A wary Wilder sees this one coming, however, and Fury’s swing goes wide. He is left exposed, falling out of his stance and into the pocket. In this instance, Wilder’s feet are in no position to counter once he evades the right, but Fury presses on regardless. The next punch is a backhand, right-handed jab, improvised to suit the southpaw stance into which Fury has fallen. The final blow, a sweeping southpaw left, doesn’t even connect. Fury is so eager to close the gap he smothers the life out of his own punch, and crashes into a clinch against the ropes.
Here we really ought to appreciate the distinction between strategy and tactics. Because, on a technical level, Fury’s tactics are plenty flawed. Even for a fighter who shifts between orthodox and southpaw as comfortably as Fury, it is always risky to lose balance in the midst of an exchange. Throwing bombs from extreme range only to stumble in after them is an open invitation for a devastating counter. Strategically, however, it made perfect sense to commit heavily to these punches, and maintain forward momentum. Again, Wilder is not the type to let a wild swing roll off his shoulder before slipping in a precision counter. As you can see in the sequence above, he is far more likely to incapacitate himself getting out of the way. And the moment Wilder throws himself off balance, there is a narrow window to throw oneself in after him before he can get his feet set again.
In mid-range, Tyson Fury would have amounted to a big target with a power disadvantage. All the way outside, however, he had the reach and the skills to trouble Wilder like no one else ever has. And as for the inside, well...
Tyson Fury has always been an excellent in-fighter. He is one of those tall men, like Riddick Bowe or Alexis Arguello, who excels at using his frame in close range.
There were many, many clinches in this fight. For the first half, most of these were pretty damn ugly. Fury would collide with Wilder, who repeatedly placed his head under Fury’s armpit and let the bigger man drape his bulk over him. For all of Wilder’s lamentations about the heavy costume he wore to the ring, and the far more reasonable theories that he was unprepared to carry the 20 pounds of muscle he packed on for this fight, it was Tyson Fury’s weight that made the difference. At one point during the broadcast, Andre Ward wondered why Fury was smothering so many of his punches, but the results of the frequent, messy tie-ups spoke for themselves. After three rounds, one knockdown, and a dozen grimy clinches, Wilder’s legs were gelatin.
Still, it isn’t this Klitschko-esque draping that makes Fury a top-notch in-fighter. He is a sharp phonebooth technician when he wants to be. Fury excels at using head position to keep his opponents from getting underneath him, or standing up tall to leverage uppercuts when they persist in trying, and handfighting to off-balance and create openings in their defenses. Despite the best efforts of referee Kenny Bayless, Fury did manage to show off these tactics in the latter half of the fight.
Here, Fury grabs the clinch after missing on a counter left, quickly getting his head close to Wilder’s chest, and even flaring his left elbow to deflect any rabbit punches that might come from that side. After trading a few blind body shots, Fury buries his forehead under Wilder’s chin. Just as it does in wrestling, this head position acts as a sort of frame keeping Wilder upright, and allows Fury to continually chase the angle. As long as he keeps his forehead pressed to Wilder’s cheek, Fury can rest easy knowing that he is facing his opponent, while his opponent is not facing him—more or less the definition of an advantageous position. Wilder tries to soften Fury’s leverage by bending down, but with that strong angle and the line of sight it provides, Fury has the right uppercut ready and waiting for him. Once that connects, Wilder tries to hide his chin against Fury’s shoulder, driving into him. Fury is prepared to counter that, as well. He hooks his glove around Wilder’s right triceps and, stepping off to the side, yanks the weakened fighter off balance. Once again finding himself at a strong angle, only now with a few extra inches of space, Fury raps Wilder on the ear with a short overhand right. Then, sensing Wilder’s right hand coming in answer, he does exactly what Wilder failed to do a moment before, pressing his head into Wilder’s left shoulder. Not only does this posture completely smother the punch, it gives Fury a few moments to lean on him against the ropes for good measure.
So that was the gameplan. Move forward constantly, keep Wilder hesitant, and don’t spend time in the range where he finds his finishes. It’s a fairly simple strategy; most good strategies are. But what really stands out about this one was what it demanded of Tyson Fury.
A fighter’s style is not merely a collection of convenient techniques; fighting style is foundational. It is an outgrowth of personality, not physicality, having far more to do with the way a fighter thinks and feels, more to do with his conception of himself and the nature of fighting, than it does the way he’s built or the punches he’s taught to throw. New tactics cannot simply be bolted on to the old chassis. To change one’s style, even if only for a single fight, requires a change of outlook, a total paradigm shift. And given the way that Tyson Fury usually fights—slippery, evasive, playful—there was something profoundly counterintuitive—and thus profoundly impressive—about the methodical ferocity he brought to this fight. Fury walked right up to the most feared puncher in the division and, however cleverly, outright bullied him into submission. That’s what happened.
Keep fighting like that, Tyson, and you can sing “Sweet Caroline” as long and as loud as you like. Or, you know, maybe just through the first chorus? Just a thought.
For more on the finer points of face-punching, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, featuring boxing analyst and historian Kyle McLachlan.