Deontay Wilder blaming a heavy walkout costume for his performance against Tyson Fury might not be as absurd as it sounds.
According to several exercise science experts, it is plausible that the 40-plus-pound suit and helmet Wilder wore to honor Black History Month could have contributed to the heavy legs the boxer said he experienced during his seventh-round TKO loss to Fury on Feb. 22 in Las Vegas.
“Physiologically, it’s not crazy,” said Duncan French, the UFC’s vice president of performance.
Wilder told ESPN’s Dan Rafael earlier this week that his “legs were gone” by the third round due to the bulk of his elaborate outfit.
“I paid a severe price because my legs were how they were because of my uniform,” Wilder said. “My uniform was way too heavy. It was 40-plus pounds. We had it on 10 or 15 minutes before we even walked out and then put the helmet on. That was extra weight, then the ring walk, then going up the stairs. It was like a real workout for my legs. When I took it off, I knew immediately that the game had changed.”
Experts contacted this week by ESPN were split on whether or not they thought the costume could have an effect, but the idea certainly wasn’t dismissed outright.
French, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, said there are two main types of fatigue: peripheral and central. Peripheral hits the muscles, and recovery time might be only three to five minutes. Central affects the nervous system, and it could take up to 30 minutes to recover after a workout.
Walking while wearing 40 pounds of resistance is not necessarily impactful, French said. But Wilder said he walked around backstage with the costume on for about 15 minutes before making his way to the ring. So, it’s not completely out of the question that the boxer’s performance suffered.
“At first, I was like, ‘C’mon, man, this is a bit of a joke, you’re trying to find reasons for being dominated,'” French said. “But physiologically there is the potential for some central fatigue. I wouldn’t say it was a high-intensity effort in any way, shape or form, but a sustained kind of submaximal effort — of which is kind of one-fifth of his body weight — potentially could have some delayed effects of recovery on his nervous system.”
Deontay Wilder’s assertion that his costume affected his in-ring performance might not be as extraordinary as it might seem on paper. ETIENNE LAURENT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Karl Zelik, the co-director of the Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology at Vanderbilt University, agrees, adding that walking with the outfit on could have affected Wilder. Zelik cited a 2013 study written by Amy Silder, Scott Delp and Thor Besier that found carrying an additional 20% of body weight during walking “increased biomechanical joint torques in the legs by about 5% to 20%” and increased metabolic demand in the whole body by about 5% to 10%. The study showed that individual leg muscles — such as the quadriceps, hamstrings and calf muscles — showed even higher increases, 50% to 100%, in activity during “load carriage.”
“Carrying around a heavy suit of anything for any amount of time is going to tax your muscles, whether Mr. Wilder was a world-class boxer or just a regular guy working on a warehouse floor,” Zelik said. “Carrying extra weight costs energy.”
Wilder said in an interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast in December 2018 that he typically wears a 45-pound vest during “all” his exercises while training. A clip of that was shared on social media this week with the implication that Wilder should not have been affected by his walkout gear for the Fury fight because he trains that way. Not so, says Carl Valle, an Olympic-level track and field coach with an exercise science degree.
“There’s a lot of research supporting the use of wearable resistance as a possible way to improve performance,” Valle said. “But you don’t use it right before competition, because it’s fatiguing. We know that there’s research to defend that it is metabolically demanding.”
Not all experts agree, though. Keith Baar, a professor of molecular exercise physiology at the University of California, Davis, said an athlete at the level of Wilder should not be affected by carrying that amount of weight.
“It shouldn’t cause the fatigue of an elite athlete, if he’s trained and has the endurance capacity for the bout,” Baar said. “Any combat sport is an intermittent, high-intensity activity. So you need to go for three minutes and then recover. … I don’t know how a 40-pound outfit should really have an effect on somebody who is properly trained for such an event.”
Baar speculated that Wilder’s increase in body weight could have played a part in his fatigue. Wilder weighed in before the Fury fight at 231 pounds, the heaviest mark of his career. He weighed only 212.5 pounds for his first Fury fight in December 2018.
“If you’re adding 15 pounds of weight [to your body], you have to get 30 pounds stronger in the legs in order to support that weight and be able to run at just at the exact same speed,” Baar said. “That’s usually not what people do. They get bigger, because that’s just about combining the diet with some loading. But they don’t get as strong as they need to, so they actually drop off their performance. You see that all the time in the NFL.”
Shaun Chambers, a certified master trainer and former amateur boxer, said it’s plausible Wilder’s legs could have been deteriorated by the heavy getup. He said it seems unlikely, however, given what we know about Wilder as a championship-level boxer and how he looked against Fury.
“He is professionally conditioned as a champion to fight 200-plus-pound fighters — for what we’ve seen in his live fights — for up to 12 rounds,” Chambers said. “He is preconditioned as a fighter to sustain 200 pounds of resistance for three minutes of active work regularly. Forty-five pounds for what, a quarter-mile walk to the ring, if that? Not even. … That would not be enough resistance on a guy of that stature and of that strength — based on his conditioning regimen on a regular basis — to make his legs noodles, which we saw they were in the first, second and third rounds.”