In 1959, Ingemar Johansson traveled to New York and upset Floyd Patterson to win the heavyweight championship, knocking him down an astonishing seven times en route to a third-round TKO victory at Yankee Stadium.
Although Patterson regained the title by fifth-round knockout in an immediate rematch with Johansson and then knocked him out in the sixth round as they completed their trilogy in the next fight, Johansson’s status as a legend in Sweden had been sealed.
Swedish boxing hasn’t seen a superstar since, but Otto Wallin hopes to change that when he gets his shot to take the lineal heavyweight championship from Tyson Fury — the man who beat the man, who beat the man, etc., sans title belt — when they meet on Saturday (ESPN+, main card 11 p.m. ET with preliminaries beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET) at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
“Winning would be huge. It would make me a legend in Sweden,” Wallin said. “Boxing is not huge in Sweden, but it would be a really big deal.”
Wallin’s journey to this fight began in Sweden when he was 15, the age when his parents finally allowed him to box. Wallin’s father, Carl, who died at age 68 following a heart attack in May, had a handful of amateur fights and trained boxers. He was a huge fan of the sport, loved Muhammad Ali and Johansson, and regaled his three sons — Otto is the youngest — with stories of their fights.
Otto played ice hockey and soccer, but he also tagged along with his father and brothers Petter and Marten to the gym. In their kitchen, his father showed him boxing moves, continuing to pique his interest. Boxing was what Wallin wanted to pursue, but his parents made him wait until he was 15 to get started.
“It’s, of course, a bigger fight than any of the fights I’ve been in so far,” the 28-year-old Wallin said of the Fury bout. “But I’m just trying to be myself at all times. I’ve been waiting for a fight like this my whole life. People ask me how I deal with having a big fight like this. I tell them I’ve been fighting and training for this since I was 15 years old, so the time is here. I’ve been preparing for it and I’m ready for it.”
Wallin hopes to follow in the footsteps of Johansson, who died in 2009 at age 76.
“Ingemar came over here and showed that it’s possible to come out of Sweden and become heavyweight world champion, and I want to do the same for the kids growing up now and watching boxing,” Wallin said. “Ingemar is a big inspiration for me. And I hope to be a big inspiration for the kids.”
The fight will be Wallin’s second in the United States, where he has virtually no profile. Signed by promoter Dmitriy Salita, Wallin got a chance to fight on Showtime’s prospect-oriented series “ShoBox: The New Generation” in April, but the fight ended in disappointing fashion as a first-round no contest when opponent Nick Kisner suffered a terrible cut from an accidental head butt and was unable to continue.
Wallin (20-0, 13 KOs), a 6-foot-5½ , 230-pound southpaw, was scheduled to return to the series to face former cruiserweight world title challenger BJ Flores on July 12, but when Flores was denied a license because of a medical issue, the fight was scrapped.
A few weeks later, Wallin was offered the biggest opportunity of his career against Fury (28-0-1, 20 KOs) and quickly accepted the assignment.
“I wouldn’t take this fight if I didn’t think I can win,” Wallin said. “I think I have a good chance to win, but I’m a big underdog. I just got to go in there and dig deep and do everything I can and show all the sacrifices I have made all these years to get to this point. I want to leave it all in the ring.”
Wallin spends most of his time these days living and training in Manhattan under the guidance of trainer Joey Gamache, a former junior lightweight and lightweight world titlist who retired in 2000.
Gamache has pored over videos of Fury fights looking for any edge he can detect.
“I’ve studied a lot of Fury, night after night and day after day, watching him in different fights,” Gamache said. “He’s a top guy. We know that. Everybody can be beat because nobody is unbeatable, like when you see an upset like Andy Ruiz Jr. and [Anthony] Joshua, Mike Tyson-[Buster] Douglas, and we could go on an on about upsets.
“Comes down to the will. Comes down to a combination of skills, work ethic, discipline. I feel that my guy is that guy that’s not going there to lose. He’s going there to win. This was a once-in-a-lifetime offer and you have to take it. I feel like we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
Wallin, who has been knocked down only once — and that was as an amateur — also sounds as if he has absolute belief he can win. He doesn’t appreciate the comparisons some have made of him to Fury’s previous opponent in June, Tom Schwarz; in other words, that he is an unknown foe with no shot to win.
“I’m not trying to read too many comments or read too much about this fight. People never seen me fight before and they probably think I’m another Tom Schwarz because they had never seen him fight and Fury took him out in two rounds,” Wallin said. “I’m different because I’m going there to win. I got good basics. I got good offense, good defense. And I got fast feet and fast hands and I’m a good fighter. I got a big heart and I really want to do this.”
Top Rank, Fury’s co-promoter, had been on the hunt for a reputable opponent to face Fury, 31, of England, in his second fight with the company and wanted an upgrade over Germany’s Schwarz, whom Fury drilled in the second round on June 15 in Las Vegas.
Tyson Fury discusses names who turned down the opportunity to fight him on Sept. 14. For more Top Rank Boxing, sign up here for ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/.
Wallin was far from Top Rank’s first choice. According to Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti, former world titlist Charles Martin, former secondary titlist Alexander Povetkin and former world title challenger Johann Duhaupas were offered seven-figure paydays but turned down the fight.
Fury-Wallin is meant to be Fury’s last bout before a rematch with world titlist Deontay Wilder that is signed and penciled in for Feb. 22. Wilder, who fought to a disputed draw with Fury last December, also needs to win an interim fight, a rematch with Luis Ortiz likely to take place Nov. 23 in Las Vegas.
“Ideally, you wouldn’t be fighting a southpaw if you’re fighting (the right-handed) Wilder next, but Wallin is the guy who took the fight,” Moretti said. “Otto Wallin is a guy who’s in shape and a guy who doesn’t seem intimidated by the moment, so he’s got a chance against Tyson Fury.”
Wallin acknowledged that it is a massive step up compared to his previous opponents.
“Fury is probably the best heavyweight out there in my opinion, so it’s a huge step up,” he said. “I haven’t been on this level before and fought on an elite level, but I have in sparring. People tend to forget that.
“I’ve sparred Joshua, fought him twice [and lost] in the amateurs as well. I’ve been sparring Adam Kownacki, ‘Big Baby’ [Jarrell Miller], [Kubrat] Pulev, [Agit] Kabayel. I definitely hang with those guys. I’ve proved myself in the gym, so it’s finally time to do it in fights.”
A Wallin victory would be on par with the magnitude of the shocker Ruiz authored when he knocked out Anthony Joshua in the seventh round to win three world title belts on June 1.
“That would be crazy,” Wallin said of the potential of getting his hand raised on Saturday. “I can’t even imagine how that would be.”