Deontay Wilder: America’s heavyweight hope…or hype?
Going into the eighth year without an American heavyweight titlist or champion in boxing, the longing for one in the United States couldn’t be at a higher demand. This Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, NV, Deontay Wilder will attempt to quench that public thirst for a serious American titlist with a win over WBC heavyweight titleholder Bermane Stiverne. The fight, billed “Return to Glory,” will be broadcast live on Showtime (10 p.m. ET/PT).
Shannon Briggs was the last American to officially hold a world title in the sport’s glamour division back in 2007 but his reign was nothing more than a drizzle as he failed to successfully defend it in his first try. In fact, there have only been scattered sprinkles of heavyweight titleholders from the U.S. since the new millennium. That can be attributed to the late success of Lennox Lewis and the dominant stranglehold the Klitschko brothers have had on the division. Wladimir, the current undisputed champion of the heavyweight class (WBA, WBO, IBF and The Ring magazine champion), still reigns supreme and is responsible for the current downpour of an eight-year, eight-month time frame consisting of 17 consecutive title defenses. It’s the second longest heavyweight streak next to American great Joe Louis’ regime of 11-plus years and the third most successful defenses to another statesman, Larry Holmes (20) and by Louis with 25.
Hailing from Tuscaloosa, AL, Deontay Wilder bears the similar moniker of “The Bronze Bomber” as an ode to Louis (“The Brown Bomber”), whom spent the first 12 years of his life in LaFayette, some 160 miles west of Tuscaloosa. Rather a tongue-in-cheek reference to the boxing legend, Wilder’s nickname attributes to the bronze medal he won in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the last time the American flag was raised in an Olympic medal ceremony for boxing. An overachieving accomplishment for a 23-year-old at the time, still wet behind the ears in terms of boxing experience. Wilder didn’t start boxing until the age of 20. Growing up in the Mecca of college football where the University of Alabama calls home, Wilder had dreams of playing for the Crimson Tide, either on the gridiron or the basketball court. However, in 2005, after his daughter was born with spina bifida, Wilder left school and because of his natural gift of size and superb athleticism, boxing became a viable option for him to provide for his family.
Turning professional toward the end of 2008, Wilder started out just like many prospects do, under the preconceived notion of winning against fighters merely looking to earn small paychecks. The early years of a boxer’s professional career are constructed to not only be a semblance of what a prospect can be but also a facade to an already distinguished fighter’s ledger. By 2012, Wilder was blowing through competition, knocking out 13 of the first 20 weekend warriors within the first round, the other seven were all finished by round four. A stat that would normally jump out at the unsuspecting onlooker but in a diluted heavyweight era in which many of potential American athletes rather take their shot on the University of Alabama football squad, those stats are otherwise meaningless. Because of that conjecture, Wilder wasn’t able to make much noise early on even though he was delivering much of what the viewing public likes to see – knockouts. That said, in 2013, Wilder did enough to get the attention of famed adviser Al Haymon and, in a popular move for boxers in this day and age and one that instantly strengthens their line of credit, Wilder signed with him.
Amassing a perfect, yet reluctant record up until today, Wilder, 32-0 (32), goes into this Saturday evening coming off a less-than-stellar 2014. Fighting only twice last year (his least active year to date), Wilder beat his best opponent on paper, Malik Scott, last March. It was an intriguing match-up beforehand and one in which we surely should have gotten some questions answered. Instead, after a one-two punch knockout (seemingly the only punches landed in the fight), Wilder stopped Scott in the first round. Yet the knockout itself wasn’t exactly a moment Wilder could lean on for future reference. A known friend and sparring partner of Wilder, Scott readily laid an egg that night in Puerto Rico and his performance was one that left conspiracy theorists sharpening their pencils soon after. Wilder stalled the rest of the year with the Stiverne fight up ahead. The fight was originally made and scheduled to be held before the end of the year but a hand injury to Stiverne postponed the bout. Wilder had one warm-up fight in the interim this past August against an out-of-shape and broken Jason Gavern. The 37-year old held his own when compared to the standard Wilder casualty but inevitably quit on the stool going into the fifth round of an absolute beating.
Wilder gets this opportunity Saturday night against Stiverne by patiently watching his WBC ranking climb up to the No. 1 contender’s spot with every cab driver he disposed of and it’s the only sanctioning body that hails him as such. The next highest ranking Wilder currently has is from the WBO at No. 2 behind the UK’s Tyson Fury. Stiverne won the vacant WBC heavyweight title last May in a rematch with Chris Arreola because the previous titleholder, Vitali Klitschko, retired from the sport and effectively left the window open for another heavyweight to shake things up in the division without having to face his brother Wladimir. Stiverne stopped Arreola in the sixth to become the first heavyweight world titleholder of Haitian descent.
Truly Don King’s last vestige of relevance in boxing, Stiverne, 24-1-1 (21), likely wouldn’t be in this position without his boisterous promoter. Enjoying a long-lasting relationship with the WBC, King got Stiverne a shot at the vacant title by putting him in the ring only twice in two years going into the rematch with Arreola. Stiverne now has only fought once a year for his last three bouts and against just two different opponents, Arreola twice and Willie Herring. The one loss on his record to Demetrice King back in July of 2007 was arguably a farce. The referee that evening, Johnny Callas waved off the fight while Stiverne was on his feet, not visibly hurt but taking punches while shelled up. Regardless, it’s not a loss that has hamstringed Stiverne’s career. At 36 years old, Stiverne doesn’t exactly have youth on his side but is regarded as a very solid boxer who can take a punch and deliver knockout power with either hand. He’s spent the past 11 years in Las Vegas training at the Mayweather Boxing Club but has only fought in Sin City twice in his career, the last occasion coming in 2009 against Jerry Butler. Coming into the fight with Wilder, his opponent might be taking the heat for his less-than-impressive record but Stiverne’s ledger doesn’t exactly wow anyone either. It’s just another example of how diluted the heavyweight division is these days. One thing is for sure; Stiverne will be Wilder’s best opponent to date – without question.
The buzz, or lack thereof, for the undefeated Wilder is nothing compared to the last great American heavyweight prospect to grace us with his presence. Mike Tyson generated enough hype against much of the same type of jobbers Wilder has faced but did so quickly enough to earn himself the opportunity to become the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. By his 20th professional fight, Tyson was on the verge of stopping all 20 of his first opponents just like Wilder but “Iron Mike” ran into a pesky fringe contender in James Tillis, who weathered Tyson’s storm for 10 rounds though lost a unanimous decision. Just 11 days after being taken the distance for the first time, Tyson returned to the ring against Mitchell Green, a slight step-up from his previous opponent. Green also took Tyson all 10 rounds in a losing effort.
After a brief hiccup in his knockout streak, Tyson got back on the KO horse. After a memorable destruction of Joe Frazier’s son, Marvis (my favorite Tyson KO), Tyson earned the shot at becoming the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. Through tenacious knockouts and word of mouth, Tyson generated all this hype without social media and YouTube that can help boost anyone’s fame through controversy or shock value. Instead, Tyson and his team counted on a fast-paced effort to skyrocket his way to top contention. In just 20 months after first turning pro in 1985, Tyson got a world title shot in Nov. 1986 at the ripe age of 20 against then-WBC heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick.
To put it into perspective how remarkable that is, Wilder was only on the verge of his 12th fight as a pro 20 months after receiving his first paycheck as a boxer. It also took him three years to reach the 20-0 mark on his ledger while Tyson got there in just 14 months. Compared to the 20 months it took Tyson to get his first world title shot, it has taken Wilder six years.
It was a different time then and almost 30 years since “Kid Dynamite” took over the boxing world with every violent knockout he delivered. To this day, no American heavyweight prospect has ever captivated the public like Tyson did. Boxing then was much more of a mainstream sport and because of that, maybe Tyson’s emergence could have been helped in an era when boxing graced the front page of newspapers. Wilder, on the other hand, fights in one of the worst eras of boxing, especially in the heavyweight division. Although their status couldn’t be more different in terms of hype heading into their first world title shots, Wilder goes into Saturday night with some similar circumstances but no where near the popularity.
In the mid-’80s, HBO teamed up with three of boxing’s sanctioning bodies to organize a tournament in order to crown an undisputed heavyweight champion. After winning the WBC heavyweight belt in a unanimous decision win over Pinklon Thomas, Berbick, a Jamaican-born Canadian national, faced Tyson for his first defense in November of 1986 on a card aptly billed “Judgment Day.” It only took two rounds for Tyson to send Berbick flailing on the canvas like a newborn calf. On that fateful night at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, the hype was substantiated and a star was immediately born. Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a Haitian-born Canadian national, Bermane Stiverne will make his first defense of the same WBC heavyweight title against the unproven Wilder.
Comparing Wilder and Tyson at this point would be a mistake on anyone’s part and it’s not a comparison one should dare try to make. The difference between Tyson and Wilder on the brink of their first world title shots is astronomically different. Early in his career, Mike Tyson was a boxing virtuoso who implied a nasty ordnance of finely-tuned technique. He boxed early on and when you look at tapes of a young Tyson, you’ll notice the valuable teachings of Cus D’Amato and Teddy Atlas were already firmly instilled. But Wilder seems to be the opposite. Clumsy at times after trying to throw more than his typical one-two punch from the orthodox stance, Wilder looks like a guy who clearly didn’t grow up boxing. Tyson had a bulldog-type body, thick in every aspect of his 5-foot 10-inch frame. Wilder, nearly 6-feet 7-inches, has broad shoulders and a statuesque upper body but also has legs that resemble that of an ostrich. In short, Tyson passed they eye test while first glances of Wilder are still far-sided.
If there’s one thing about Wilder that we can say we know for certain, it’s that he has power that can wipe out any opponent. Albeit against less than mediocre competition, he also delivers the goods when it comes to being a television-friendly fighter. Ring IQ, ability to adapt to adversity and whether or not he can eat a big punch still remain the biggest questions when evaluating Wilder. Outside the ring, he has intangibles in his personality that many fans look for in their boxing stars. His confidence can come off as cocky and he has shown a glimmer of a flashy lifestyle. On Showtime’s “All Access: Stiverne-Wilder” special leading up to the bout, seeing Wilder get out of his tricked-out car with a mural of himself painted on the driver’s side door speaks volumes of one’s ego (plug in “Stiverne-Wilder SHO All Access episode” on YouTube to see for yourself). But that’s a good thing for a prizefighter seeking stardom (see Mayweather Jr., Floyd). He has the intangibles for prominence in boxing entertainment but one question remains: Is the hype for real in terms of the Sweet Science?
Other than coincidences of a pair of undefeated American prospects fighting for the same WBC heavyweight title against a pair of Canadian imports from neighboring Caribbean nations on their first defenses, comparisons of Wilder to Tyson are based solely on what could be. A convincing Wilder victory this weekend will make his hype grow more than ever but won’t fill the void of an absent American heavyweight champion. That’s because the winner of this bout isn’t the heavyweight champion – that title belongs to Wladimir Klitschko.
The winner of Stiverne-Wilder should theoretically (and I use that term loosely) be the next big opponent for the current heavyweight king as Klitschko looks to unify all belts within the division. A Klitschko-Wilder match-up would be an intriguing one (especially after a convincing victory over Stiverne) and the idea of an American taking down Klitschko has fans stateside foaming at the mouth. It would be a moment that would actually quench the thirst of those looking for the next American heavyweight champion. In order to fill that tall order, Wilder must first take a big step this Saturday night as a prelude for bigger things to come.