The curious undervalue of Deontay Wilder
There are few things more sobering than a man with ambition, who is baffled by the inadequacy of his present circumstances. It’s one thing to yearn for something that seems deserved and achievable, yet understand why it hasn’t been obtained. Yet yearning for something that seems deserved and achievable, while having no idea as to why it’s not happening, is its own special form of malaise. Unfortunately, it is this very position of limited understanding that WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder seems to find himself in. In an interview before his early November embarrassment of former heavyweight beltholder Bermane Stiverne, Wilder gave voice to his feelings of befuddlement. Brendan Schaub of Showtime Sports asked Wilder why as the only American heavyweight champion whose ‘draw isn’t there yet’ – basically inferring that Wilder’s star power is underperforming. Wilder responding by saying, “I don’t get it either. It’s mind-boggling to see Americans support others before supporting their own.”
The “others” to whom Wilder was referring weren’t entirely clear. Was it current IBF, IBO and WBA heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua? Joshua hails from the United Kingdom but has never fought in the United States, which would make him an odd choice for whom to compare U.S. popularity. Maybe Wilder was having visions of the U.S. crowds attracted by IBF, IBO, WBA and WBC middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin (who hails from Kazakhstan). Or maybe Wilder was reflecting on the packed American arenas that go hand in hand with former middleweight and junior middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez (who hails from Mexico). Either way, by Wilder’s estimation, boxing fans should view their fandom as President Donald Trump views trade deals – America first.
This is a silly notion, of course. American boxing fans aren’t obligated to support a fighter because of shared nationality. They aren’t going to spend their hard-earned money on pay-per-views, hotels, flights or fight tickets for patriotic nourishment. They will spend their money to be entertained. And in order to be entertained, they simply need fighters who have captured their imaginations and match-ups that have the potential for the highest levels of dramatic combat. Foreign-born fighters like Golovkin, Alvarez and Manny Pacquiao, as well as Puerto Rico’s Miguel Cotto, gained followings in the U.S. through the work of their promoters and their performances in the ring. American-born fighters like Roy Jones Jr., Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya were supported in the U.S. not because they were Americans but because how their careers unfolded and blossomed.
There have been plenty of American fighters whose careers have failed to resonate with American fight fans. If Deontay Wilder needed any examples, all he would have to do is read down the list of his Premier Boxing Champions stablemates. And instead of wishing for blind nationalistic support, he would do well to study the careers of the aforementioned foreign and U.S.-born fighters who have reached the proverbial boxing mountaintop. Any differences or discrepancies he discovers among those noteworthy careers and his own would lead him toward the answers he seems to have trouble finding.
There is great truth in the notion that Wilder should be more popular and well-known in the United States than he is. As a gifted, 6-foot-7 athlete with swagger, looks and punching power, Wilder would be a dream for most boxing promoters. Not to mention he represented the U.S. at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and won a bronze medal in the heavyweight division. In addition, Wilder’s authentic devotion and affection for his daughter Naieya is a story that should warm the heart of even the most cynical of observers. Born with spina bifida (a rare spinal disorder), Wilder’s daughter would require multiple surgeries from birth just to allow her to walk. The love for his daughter and the desire to help her overcome her physical challenges was the catalyst for Wilder embarking upon a career in the sport of boxing.
It should also be noted that Wilder has had some run-ins with the law, a 2013 domestic battery incident in Las Vegas (of which he was seemingly cleared) and a marijuana possession arrest last June. Wilder was also accused of instigating an ugly brawl with fellow PBC heavyweight Dominic Breazeale in a hotel lobby, after both fighters appeared on a February PBC fight card in Wilder’s home state of Alabama. Despite these incidents, Wilder has not been publicly branded a “bad guy.” Right or wrong, Wilder’s publically affable personality has become the face of his character.
Wilder’s in-ring abilities can sometimes be generously described as questionable. His windmill-like punches and awkward moves seem better suited for a YouTube video of a backyard brawl, rather than the heavyweight championship of the world. Since Wilder won the WBC heavyweight title in 2015, his technical discipline has seemed to erode. However, this might be due to the quality of his opposition, for sometimes an athlete can perform up or down to its level. Yet whatever technical boxing skills Wilder displays (or doesn’t), there is one consistent attribute he has in his favor: He is a physical specimen who usually viciously knocks his opponent out.
So based on all of this, it seems Deontay Wilder is right to be dismayed with his current place in the boxing universe. He is an undervalued commodity in its marketplace. He has faced bad luck, in terms of rivals self-destructing (former heavyweight champion Tyson Fury) and bouts being scuttled, due to failed drug tests by opponents (former heavyweight champion Alexander Povetkin and heavyweight contender Luis Ortiz). Yet the responsibility for his position ultimately resides with those shepherding his career. They’re responsible for maneuvering their man into the warm embrace of popularity.
Being from Alabama, it makes sense for Wilder to fight in his home state. Yet it does seem a bit odd that those who guide his career have chosen to make his “home away from home” the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, rather than an arena in Houston, New Orleans or Atlanta. Wilder has gained a bit of a following in Brooklyn but one would have to believe his desires would have been better served had his career been built closer to where his core fan base resides. Irregardless of where Wilder has fought, how many times he has fought also matters. Since 2014, Wilder has fought an average of two fights a year. Just as a loose comparison, in the year he won his first world title (1986), Mike Tyson fought 13 times. The circumstances are vastly different, of course, but the fact remains that, if you want fans to want to watch you fight, you actually have to give them ample opportunities to see you fight.
In any case, despite what would (or could) have been, Wilder is where he is. He is on a collision course with heavyweight standard-bearer Anthony Joshua, without capitalizing on his full potential, since he won his title. Joshua’s career, in the United Kingdom, is light years ahead of Wilder, in terms of drawing power and money making. Thus any negotiations between the two camps will be heavily tilted in Joshua’s favor. If Wilder has any notion of a 50/50 split in revenue between the two, he would be wise to reconsider, for a 50/50 split in a fight with Joshua represents the payoff of a career handled properly, not a reward for what might have been. Desires and wishes are fine for storytelling, yet they are not very useful in fact-based financial negotiations.
Funny enough, the coming story of Joshua-Wilder negotiations seems like a rerun. The story elements are eerily similar to the situation that unfolded leading up to WBA “regular” middleweight Daniel Jacobs challenging Gennady Golovkin last March. Jacobs’ career was undervalued, going into those negotiations, which lead to difficulties. Jacobs, like Wilder, seemed to wonder why he wasn’t receiving the support he felt he deserved from boxing fans. Jacobs would ultimately get the Golovkin fight and perform well in defeat. Yet after continued dissatisfaction with his position in the sport, Jacobs left those who were promoting his career. The ultimate quality of that decision remains to be seen. But judging by the fact that he made that decision, one has to infer that Jacobs gained some insight into what was hindering his growth and marketability.
Maybe one day, Jacobs can share that insight with his former stablemate Deontay Wilder because it can’t be any fun to be heavyweight champion of the world, yet still feel like you haven’t received what you deserve.
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