LAS VEGAS — Otto Wallin grins easily and shrugs his shoulders. He knows the deal. He was brought to the desert to lose on Saturday in his bout with Tyson Fury for the lineal heavyweight title at T-Mobile Arena.
Wallin looks the part. He’s 6-foot-6 and around 230 pounds, and doesn’t appear to be a man to trifle with.
This is Fury’s show, though, and Wallin’s role in Top Rank’s plan to build Fury into the biggest star in boxing is to be his foil, to take the loss and then disappear quietly into the night as Fury seeks bigger and more notable fights.
Fury is a -2500 favorite at the MGM Grand sportsbook, meaning if a bettor wants to win a profit of $100, he’d have to risk $2,500. But a $100 bet on Wallin would bring a $1,300 profit if Wallin were to win.
So unknown is Wallin, who is from Sweden, that promoter Bob Arum had to go back more than 60 years to come up with a story to tell. Sweden produces some of the greatest hockey players who ever lived — Niklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg, Borje Salming and Mats Sundin among them — and it’s not known for boxers.
The 87-year-old Arum told a story about the time that Ingemar Johansson won the heavyweight title by stopping Floyd Patterson, a bout that predated by seven years Arum’s entrance into boxing. He was trying to make the point, though, that it’s not impossible for a Swede to win the title.
“Floyd Patterson was a great champion, and suddenly [manager/trainer] Cus D’Amato was looking to get him an easy fight,” Arum said. “So he gets this Swedish guy, Ingemar Johansson, nobody ever heard of.”
Johansson was the 1952 Olympic silver medalist at heavyweight and was ranked No. 1 in the division when he signed to fight Patterson.
“[Johansson] comes over with his gorgeous wife and his gorgeous girlfriend,” Arum, the sport’s greatest storyteller, continues. “It was like a big joke in the papers, but not only does Johansson win the fight, not only does he knock out Patterson, he had him down eight times. You gotta watch these Swedes. They have a hell of a lot of fortitude and punching power. Otto is not going to be distracted.”
Then, as if to get assurance from Wallin that he’s not partying prior to fight night as Johansson so famously did, Arum turns to Wallin, grins and asks, “You didn’t bring two pretty ladies, did you?”
Wallin, who had sat quietly throughout Arum’s story, grabbed his microphone, grinned impishly and said, “No. I’m looking to pick them up.”
He was cool enough to deliver a perfect retort. Whether he can retain his cool once the bell rings and he has the 6-foot-9 Fury firing punches at him is another story, but he and his team of promoter Dmitriy Salita and trainer Joey Gamache have already won by getting to this point.
Salita was a welterweight boxer in the early part of the 2000s who compiled a 35-2-1 record with 18 knockouts. An orthodox Jew, he came to Arum’s attention in his second pro fight and Arum promoted him for several years.
Gamache won world titles in two divisions as a pro, but is most known for being injured in a fight with Arturo Gatti in 2000. He filed a lawsuit against Gatti and the New York State Athletic Commission, alleging Gatti was over the contracted weight at the weigh-in.
Gamache is convinced that Wallin can win, despite the odds. Though Wallin doesn’t have a lot of recognizable names on his record, he has sparred many elite boxers, including former unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, and has held his own.
Wallin has not looked out of place during fight week. A lot of times, fighters in his situation as massive underdogs have that deer in the headlights look to them, but Gamache hasn’t seen it.
“He’s ready for this moment, and I honestly believe that,” Gamache said. “Tyson Fury is a top fighter and we know all the good things he can do. But Otto has a lot of ability, too, and he’s got everything to gain and nothing to lose. Guys like Otto, I’ve seen it a lot, they get overlooked because people don’t really know them. He hasn’t fought [in the U.S.] a lot and people don’t know a lot about him. But he has talent and you often see these guys with talent who have no pressure or expectations step up and deliver a big performance.”
Salita has a chance to leave Las Vegas on Sunday as the promoter of the lineal heavyweight champion, which is almost hard to believe since his last fight was less than six years ago.
But Salita, who was 9-0 with six knockouts as a fighter in Las Vegas, began promoting shows in New York before he’d retired. His first show sold out and made money. Soon, fighters were calling him to be on his cards.
He noted that he had a good understanding of the business of the sport when he was a fighter, which has helped him as a promoter. He noticed that Don King was wildly success as a promoter because he focused so much on heavyweights, and heavyweights have historically been so popular.
Quietly, Salita followed suit, and in addition to Wallin, he has a number of quality heavyweights in his stable, including Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller and Jermaine Franklin. He’s also the promoter of two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields.
But if Wallin were to upset Fury, that would be the biggest thing that could ever happen to Salita Promotions.
“It’s huge for us to get to Vegas and be in this fight against probably the best heavyweight in the world,” Salita said. “Having the heavyweight champion of the world would be a life-changer. But I know Otto and I know the kind of fighter he is. I think he has a chance to win and do a great job against Tyson Fury. People are underestimating him because they haven’t seen him enough. He has a lot of ability and talent.”
Wallin changed his nickname for this fight, switching from Otto “Automatic” Wallin to Otto “All In” Wallin.
“We’re in Vegas and we’re all in,” Salita said.
Wallin’s motivation is not only personal, but also to honor his father, Carl, who died unexpectedly in May of a heart attack. It’s been difficult for Wallin dealing with the loss of his father, who introduced him to boxing.
It’s almost as if fate has brought him, along with Salita and Gamache, within one punch of the heavyweight title.
“It’s been very difficult in so many ways, as you can imagine, but what better way to honor [my father] than by going out and winning this fight,” he said. “We talked about being the champion and all that, and to do it for him is such a great motivator.”
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