Deontay Wilder’s Latest Loss Should Mark the End of a Complicated Career

The Alabama native was a fearsome heavyweight for much of his career, but Saturday’s defeat to Zhilei Zhang is another dent in his legacy.
Deontay Wilder suffered his fourth loss in his past five fights on Saturday against Zhilei Zhang.
Deontay Wilder suffered his fourth loss in his past five fights on Saturday against Zhilei Zhang. / Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Deontay Wilder crashed to the canvas, a pair of crushing right hands from Zhilei Zhang sending him there, and in that moment we were reminded that boxing ends are rarely graceful.

Kevin McBride battered Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao carved up Oscar De La Hoya, Joe Smith knocked Bernard Hopkins straight out of the ring. A violent sport leads to violent finishes and on Saturday, Wilder, stopped in the fifth round of his heavyweight showdown with Zhang, appeared to meet his. 

There was no official retirement announcement from Wilder on Saturday. He exited the ring without an interview and left Kingdom Arena without speaking to reporters. But the loss to Zhang was Wilder’s second straight. His fourth in his last five fights. He has won once since 2019—a first-round stoppage of Robert Helenius in 2022—and has been knocked out in three of his last five. All week, Wilder insisted that if he didn’t perform on Saturday, it was likely over. After landing 16 punches over four-plus rounds, it likely is. 

If this is it, Wilder leaves boxing with a complicated legacy. He’s a success story, a former football player turned boxer who got into the sport as means to provide for his disabled daughter. He served pancakes at IHOP, worked the grill at Red Lobster, drove a Budweiser truck all over Alabama. In Tuscaloosa he connected with his trainer, Jay Deas, an ex-TV reporter, who put Wilder on a path that led to the Olympics, the pros and eventually a heavyweight world championship. 

Wilder’s gift is his power, a snapping right hand that finished 42 of his opponents. “God given,” is how Wilder described it, and he was right. At 6’6”, Wilder rarely fought above 220 pounds, with a lean, chiseled upper body giving way to a pair of spindly legs. His advantage was his delivery system, the blurring speed with which his right hand landed on an opponents. Bermane Stiverne, Luis Ortiz, Robert Helenius—they all felt it. And when they did, they didn’t recover. 

Deontay Wilder, right, and Tyson Fury box in their third match in 2021
Wilder, right, and Tyson Fury combined for an epic trilogy, but Wilder never did come away with a career-defining win. / Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, when traveling to Tuscaloosa to profile Wilder before his title fight against Stiverne, I met a man with great ambition. Wladimir Klitschko, David Haye, Tyson Fury—he wanted all of them. Anthony Joshua was still climbing the rankings at that point but when he was ready, Wilder wanted him, too. “It's time to make my legacy," Wilder told me back then. "There is a movement going on in the heavyweight division. And I'm going to be a big part of it.”

Only he wasn’t. Wilder made seven title defenses between 2015 and ’18. He won a tough fight against Luis Ortiz but flanked it with one-sided beatings of Johann Duhaupas, Chris Arreola and Gerald Washington. He ended a rematch with Stiverne in one round. In 2019, Wilder rejected a nine-figure, two-fight offer to face Joshua, closing that year instead with a first-round blitzing of Dominic Breazeale and (another) stoppage win over Ortiz. 

Wilder did give boxing one of its best heavyweight trilogies, and he deserves credit for that. His first fight with Fury, in 2018, was thrilling, with Fury climbing off the canvas in the 12th round to secure a draw. The next two were captivating, back-and-forth, rock ‘em, sock ‘em brawls, throwbacks to different heavyweight days. Unfortunately for Wilder, he didn’t win either of them. Fury stopped him in the seventh round in 2020. A year later, he ended it in the 11th. 

That is part of Wilder’s legacy, that he didn’t get many big fights, and when he did, he didn’t win them. He lost a one-sided decision to Joseph Parker last December before being completely overwhelmed by Zhang, a 41-year old ex-title challenger coming off a loss to Parker of his own. In both those fights Wilder was reluctant to unleash his right hand. Perhaps the sustained pounding from the last two fights with Fury took something out of him. Perhaps, if he had faced this level of competition earlier in his career, he never would. 

We won’t know, can’t know, because for Wilder, this is the end. For years, Eddie Hearn stood as one of Wilder’s public rivals, slinging jabs at Wilder through YouTube clips and print stories. The two joined forces for this latest fight, the headliner in the Queensbury vs. Matchroom head-to-head, and Hearn was openly giddy about the union. He named Wilder captain, predicted a spectacular knockout, only to watch Wilder go out without much of a fight. 

“He is not letting his hands go, and that is what made him one of the most feared fighters in the world,” Hearn told reporters after the fight. “I just feel his belief is not there anymore. And you’ve got to ask yourself why? Is it just the time, is something else not right?”

It’s time. Years from now, when Wilder’s turn comes up in the Hall of Fame rotation comes up, there will be a spirited debate. Does an Olympic bronze medal, a five-year run as heavyweight champion and a 98% knockout percentage earn him a spot in Canastota? Or does a résumé devoid of quality wins leave him out? Wilder filled a hole in U.S. heavyweight boxing, some will say. Others will argue he should have done more with it. 

Regardless, Wilder had a career to be proud of. He packed a lot into two decades in boxing and will head back to Alabama with a pile of money to show for it. This wasn’t the end Deontay Wilder was hoping for. But in boxing, it never is. 


Published
Chris Mannix

CHRIS MANNIX

Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix has boxed with Juan Manuel Marquez, played guard in the NBA's D-League and even tried his hand at bull riding at the Sankey Rodeo School in Martin, Tenn. The latter assignment left him with a bunch of bruises and a fractured collarbone. "I liked all the first-person experiences, but fighting Juan was my favorite assignment for SI," says Mannix. "It was a tremendous experience that required brutal training and introduced me to a fear I never knew I had." Mannix has covered the NBA since he arrived at SI in 2003. He currently writes columns and profiles in the magazine and for SI.com and also serves as SI's NBA draft expert. Among the NBA stars he has profiled: Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Andrei Kirilenko. As a teenager Mannix was a locker room attendant with the Boston Celtics for eight seasons (1995-2003) and covered high school sports for the Boston Globe. "Working for the Celtics was like attending a different fantasy camp every game. I spent pregames D'ing up the likes of Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and yes, Michael Jordan. Last time I went one-on-one with MJ he beat me 48-0. I got one shot off … and it was blocked." Boxing is also one of Mannix's specialties. He has reported for SI on several championship fights, annually hands out SI.com's boxing awards and writes the website's "Inside Boxing" column. Mannix won the 2012 Boxing Writers Association of America's awards for Best Feature over 1,750 words and Best Feature under 1,750 words. In addition to his duties at SI, Mannix serves as host of The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio (Sundays 6–9 p.m. ET) and is a co-host of Voices of the Game, with Newy Scruggs every Wednesday from Noon–3 p.m. ET. In addition, Mannix is a ringside reporter for Epix and Fight Night on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and is a regular guest and fill-in host on The Dan Patrick Show and The Crossover on NBC Sports Network. He also regularly appears on sports radio shows across the country, including weekly appearances in Miami, Orlando and Salt Lake City.  Mannix received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Boston College in 2003 and graduated from Boston College High School in 1998 (which makes him a double Eagle). He resides in New York City.