As heavyweight world titleholder Deontay Wilder and top contender Luis "King Kong" Ortiz prepare for their rematch Saturday (Fox PPV, 9 p.m. ET) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, it's hard not to think what might have been the first time around.
Facing by far the most dangerous opponent of his career, Wilder (41-0-1, 40 KOs) defended his title against Ortiz (31-1, 26 KOs). Wilder, now 34, and Ortiz, 40, previously met March 3, 2018, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, in a much-anticipated showdown between undefeated punchers.
It was an awful fight before it would eventually emerge as a fight of the year contender. Things heated up in the fifth round when Wilder finally broke through in the final seconds, connecting with a right hand across the face that buckled Ortiz's legs before flooring him with another right hand.
Then came the drama of the seventh round. After more than two minutes in which they did little more than jab -- and elicit booing from the crowd -- Ortiz rocked Wilder with a right hook and nearly stopped him in an unforgettable onslaught. Wilder managed to survive the final frantic 45 seconds of the round, but took so much damage that all three judges scored it 10-8 for Ortiz, even though there had been no knockdown.
Wilder recovered and scored a spectacular knockout with a right uppercut in the 10th round.
This is the story, told by those involved, of the final hold-your-breath 45 seconds of the seventh round in which Ortiz came within a whisker of a knockout victory that would have given him a world title and altered heavyweight history.
Jay Deas, Wilder's co-trainer and cutman: Ortiz is a tremendous fighter, well-trained. His amateur background has served him well. He's smart, experienced and very crafty. He came into that fight convinced that he was going to win the title, absolutely convinced. If you hooked him up to 100 lie detectors and asked him if he believed he would win the heavyweight championship that night they would all come back truthful. He 100 percent believed he would win and he fought like it. Deontay was not 100 percent that night. He had a cold and flu-like symptoms. He was still spitting up mucus in the dressing room. We never had a thought of postponing the fight but his strength had not come back totally; 72 percent was about where we were.
Shelly Finkel, Wilder's co-manager: Going into the fight I knew this was a dangerous guy.
Deas: The thing I remember was Deontay had established control of the fight and I felt the fight would have ended in the fifth round if he had a little more time after the knockdown. We felt great going into the seventh that we were right where we needed to be.
Herman Caicedo, Ortiz's trainer: It was just [Ortiz] getting settled into the fight [in the seventh round], figuring out the style a little bit. He was boxing. He was just getting into his groove, as he does. When he does that he is very dangerous and that's pretty much it. After that, once he made the connection and he hurt him, then I felt like everyone else -- he was the new heavyweight champion.
Deontay Wilder: Looking at that round, even on TV, it was like, 'Oh, my God, the ref is about to stop this fight.' It was so intense. It was electrifying. It had you on the edge of your seat you couldn't even sit down. He threw everything and the kitchen sink and he could not get me out of there and I think that messed with his head mentally. The seventh round was an amazing time for me. It allowed me to see what I'm really made of. It allowed the world to see what type of champion and a true champion that they have in America.
With 45 seconds remaining Wilder and Ortiz landed shots at virtually the same time, Wilder a right hand and Ortiz a right hook. Ortiz's connected a tick earlier and started Wilder's trouble. Ortiz then landed a straight left and Wilder pitched forward into Ortiz, who landed a flurry of punches as Wilder tried to hold to keep from going down.
Luis Ortiz: As soon as I made the connection and hurt him and I saw him where he was and I knew I was going to finish him and that the fight was over, basically. I haven't had any other situation like that where I hadn't gotten a knockout in a scenario like that. So it's just a matter of putting some punches together and winning this fight. I don't really remember which punch it was. It's just like a flash. It was probably the right hook that did the damage, but after that I can't remember what was doing more damage.
Wilder: I was buzzed. Severely buzzed when he hit me, but I was far from hurt.
David Fields, the referee: I know Wilder got clipped with the shot. This is boxing, man. It stunned him a little bit, wobbled him a little bit. I had my eye on him. Sometimes a guy gets hurt or stunned and if you get the second big shot in he's knocked out or it's over. Ortiz didn't get the second shot in and Deontay didn't really slump down.
Wilder: How it first happened is we threw a punch together but he landed before me and that's what buzzed me the first time, but it was like a slight buzz. And then I tried to bluff it, but I didn't bluff it. When I bluffed it I wasn't separating myself from him. I didn't have enough distance apart from him. I was pawing my jab just to let him know I'm still here. He was an experienced fighter and he caught on that I was buzzed and definitely he came again with the right hand and then that's when it became a severe buzz. I was never hurt. I think people use hurt too much. They throw that around too much because they don't understand the difference between buzzed and hurt. I understood everything that was going on with me. I was coaching myself internally. My inner voice was telling myself to keep going. Make sure the referee sees you. Make sure you just keep hitting him.
Deas: Deontay hurt Ortiz with a right hand and stepped in to try to finish him and he got caught with a right hand. Bam! Deontay tried to disguise it because you never want to show if you got hit with a good shot. Ortiz, being a veteran and a great fighter, he recognized the moment was there for him and did what he was supposed to do and opened up.
Ortiz: When I saw he was hurt, I went to work, doing what I do best, which is throw my punches until I ran out of gas.
With Wilder in rough shape, Ortiz kept swinging with about 30 seconds left. Wilder was grabbing Ortiz and holding on for dear life.
Fields: I was within seconds of stopping the fight. Had he got hit with another shot, or if the bell hadn't rang, possibly I would have stopped it.
Wilder: I didn't want to waste any unnecessary energy because I wanted to be able to recover. I hit him anywhere I could no matter where it was so that the referee could understand that I'm very active. I'm aware and I can still fight. I don't think I got enough credit for that. I stayed close to him. I didn't get no credit for the intellect that I had in the ring coming around in the seventh round.
Deas: I'm thinking, good! Jam him, jam him! My thought was Deontay is problem-solving. When you go from buzzed to hurt, you're not problem-solving. You're completely vulnerable and you can't defend yourself. He was definitely buzzed and taking some great shots but he was still problem-solving. Deontay was kind of nestling his head and jamming Ortiz, meaning get as close as you can. Hold him down, shorten the space between you and him, tie up, don't let him get the shots off with the most leverage. That's what he was doing even though Ortiz's job is not to let you do that. Ortiz was better than I thought he was at wrestling free. When we watched him on the film he didn't seem to be good at freeing his hand up and working in a tight space, but he did a good job.
Finkel: Ortiz landed a bunch of punches but Deontay was able to cover up to do enough so that the ref didn't stop the fight. We've talked about it and he told me he wasn't really hurt but he said he was buzzed.
In the final seconds, Wilder backed toward the ropes and Ortiz rocked him with a long left hand. Ortiz followed with about 10 unanswered punches, including a left to the face. Ortiz mixed in a few body shots and had Wilder against the ropes. He was unsteady and Ortiz nailed him with two right hands across the chin as the bell ended the round.
Wilder: He was hitting me with those furious punches, but they didn't have sting on them. He was throwing combos that knocked me off-balance. I just had to get my range back and my fundamentals back, and I was able to do that. I showed I was a true champion.
Deas: I remember thinking I hope [Fields] doesn't stop the fight; we're good. I hope he's seeing what I'm seeing, that we're still in this and we can come through this and he doesn't pull the plug. I'm not freaking out. We're still in this but this is obviously the biggest moment. It's difficult because you want to err on the side of caution but also give the guys a fair chance to compete.
Caicedo: I think the best thing that was going our way was him boxing -- getting behind a good jab, and just beating him to the punch and not allowing Wilder to just get crazy with his antics and come out swinging, wailing away. So, I think just being a little bit better on the technical side and on the basics. But it's very difficult with [Wilder] sometimes because he'll spin around and hit you with a back fist, so it's like you never know what could happen.
Fields: Deontay was staggered but some people say he was out on his feet. People who never boxed don't know what it is to be a fighter and take a shot. [Fields was a pro fighter before becoming a referee.] He did what you're supposed to do. If you're out on your feet, you don't know when you're out or what to do. He had the sense to grab. As a referee it tells me you're still in the fight.
Deas: I thought Deontay saw the left hand coming but it was a great shot. Here it comes and Deontay went back against the ropes and as long as he's seeing the shot, we're OK. It was a good idea on Ortiz's part to go to the body. If you hit the body, bring those arms down and come over the top and get a knockout right now. From our standpoint in the corner, what I'm looking for is the telltale sign that Deontay is still problem-solving. Even when you're in a tornado -- and he was in a tornado and buzzed -- if you're problem-solving you're still in it; you're still good.
Finkel: I was going, 'Oh, s---' when he was on the ropes and the punches were coming in, and I'm saying to myself this is not a fight that we needed. I remember when he was getting backed up and hit on the ropes, I was worried that if he wasn't doing anything and taking shots the ref could stop it. But then the bell rang and he went back to the corner and his recovery the next round was amazing.
Wilder: I knew what I was doing and when the bell rung, as you can see, I knew exactly where I was. I went right back to my corner and I still was talking s--- going back there, too.
Ortiz: I almost had him and I think I would've if there were a few more seconds in the round. Wilder was definitely saved by the bell. I thought I had him out on his feet. But you have to give him credit, he weathered the storm. I have no quarrels with the referee. At that time [Wilder] was a [six]-time defending world champion and he should have been given the opportunity to defend himself and obviously fight and I felt like the referee probably did the right thing.
Deas: In the corner, we're the pit crew. We've heard the 10-second warning. Now we're getting the corner ready. Get the ice ready, get him seated. I didn't see those last two shots because I typically don't see the last few seconds. I'm checking my Vaseline, cut medicine, making sure the stool is in place, I have my ice. I have the checklist to handle the corner.
Wilder: I wouldn't say the bell saved me because he still had 40 seconds. How many seconds did I have in the fifth round to finish him off? He had 40 seconds and he couldn't do it. He threw everything. Everything. If you know anything about the flu, it makes you weak mentally, physically, emotionally and he couldn't get me out. He threw everything.
Fields: You could say the bell saved him. Who knows? But he was OK to continue. He didn't fall down. He wasn't getting hit with two, three, four shots in a row. I don't know what's going through his mind, but he knew enough to hold Ortiz.
Deas: When the bell sounded to end the seventh, the most telltale sign was Deontay walked directly back to our corner. If he was on the ropes or went to the wrong corner then that would be a bigger concern. I was concerned, of course. It was a tornado. You never want to see your guy buzzed or taking shots. But I had no thought of stopping the fight. The things you never know about a fighter are their heart and chin. You can only find out about it when those things come into play. But I never had a doubt about Deontay because he showed it in the gym and throughout the amateurs. I thought that would never be an issue. It's just the way he's made.
Wilder was a bit unsteady walking to his corner but seemed clear-headed and attentive during the one-minute rest. When the bell rang to begin the eighth round, Fields called timeout per the direction of the ringside doctor so he could examine Wilder, which is how the New York State Athletic Commission operates in these situations. Wilder received several extra seconds of recovery time.
Fields: Wilder was a little shook. I walked him back to his corner. I got my eye on him. I don't want nobody to get hurt, but at the same time I'll give any fighter, whether a champion or a four-rounder, every possibility to continue. But I got my eye on you. At the start of the eighth round, one of the doctors, he comes to me and he tells me he wants to examine Wilder when the bell rings. They let the corner work the 60 seconds and then they want a timeout. The doctor instructed me to call a timeout, so I called a timeout because the doctor said so. I can't go against the doctor. I told Ortiz's corner when the bell rings to send him to the neutral corner because the doctor wants to examine Wilder.
Deas: I thought he had weathered the storm. It thought Ortiz had pretty much exhausted his resources. He had opened the floodgates and thrown everything he could throw. In the corner I told Deontay I think [Ortiz] left it all in the seventh round. I told him [Anthony] Joshua had his moment overcoming adversity [in a knockdown] against [Wladimir] Klitschko and I told him this was his moment to overcome adversity. I really felt like the eighth round would be the most important round of the fight if we could just get through it. Didn't matter if we won it or lost the round, just get our bearings. I thought we were good coming out for the eighth round and Ortiz was breathing very, very heavy. The timeout gave them both a little more time, but I thought we were fine.
Finkel: I know he turned it around in the eighth round and he started to land and hurt Ortiz and I was saying he's going to get him. That seventh round maybe mentally finished Ortiz because he couldn't stop Deontay, and maybe physically he also punched himself out. I was concerned but I wasn't having flashbacks to some other fight where my guy got stopped. I knew Deontay had balls. When he was a young pro and he was in Germany training with [then-champion] Klitschko, [late trainer] Emanuel [Steward] said to me, 'This kid is going to go all the way. He took some big shots from Wladimir and he came right back at him.'
Wilder: With that seventh round being under the conditions that I was under, I was very proud of myself to be able to handle those situations. To be able to go into the fire like that for one thing, plus just taking the fight going into the fire like that with the flu. You know proper protocol is to cancel that and wait to a later date until you are healthy. But being me, I'm hard-headed. I always do things that many boxers don't do and I think that's part of wanting my legacy to be different from the rest. I don't want the same old; I want to be different. That's why I do the things that I do.