America's Heavyweight Boxing Champ Wants to Rewrite History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Bronze Bomber is set to come out swinging against Britain’s Anthony Joshua.
By Matt Foley
Two days before his sixth straight WBC heavyweight championship defense, this time against Bermane Stiverne, Deontay Wilder sits in the balcony of Manhattan’s Edison Ballroom, staring down at — no, through — the throngs of media waiting for him to speak. Moments later, onstage, he’ll stare through Stiverne too.
“Once I hit 15 knockouts in a row, I said, ‘We might have something here,’” says Wilder, dishing on his beginnings. And last November, at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Wilder added to that tally by xeasily dispatching Stiverne. Wilder, 32, punished the Haitian contender with piercing jabs that contributed to three knockdowns in a devastating first-round knockout. After the fight, the champion focused on bigger fish. ”I want [Anthony] Joshua!” he screamed from the ring. ”The world wants Joshua, the world wants Wilder.… Joshua, come and see me, baby. No more dodging, no more excuses. Make the date, don’t wait.”
Wilder drove a beer truck and worked at Red Lobster — assuming, like his father and grandfather before him, his would be a lifetime of thankless labor.
After two years of missing out on superfights because would-be opponents failed their drug tests, Wilder (39-0, 38 KOs) is obsessed with becoming the first unified heavyweight champion since Mike Tyson in 1988. England’s Anthony Joshua, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and current undefeated IBF, WBA and IBO heavyweight champion, is Wilder’s biggest hurdle. Boxing has experienced a resurgence of late, but news of that superfight would spark a fervor not seen in the heavyweight division for decades. First, though, Wilder must make it past Luis “The Real King Kong” Ortiz, a hulking Cuban heavyweight who has been out to upend Wilder for years. On March 3 at Barclays Center, Wilder and Ortiz will square off in a heavyweight rumble years in the making.
Wilder’s uncanny knockout power has not yet earned him a megafight, but not for lack of will. Rather, since January 2016, he has had to cancel four fights because of failed performance-enhancing drug tests by three would-be opponents: former WBA champion Alexander Povetkin, Andrzej Wawrzyk and Ortiz – twice. In turn, Wilder has crushed backup any opponents in his way, but he’s dogged by his reputation as an untested champion. To that, Wilder’s promoter, Lou DiBella, has one response: “It’s not Deontay’s fault for being injured for six months,” he says, referring to Wilder’s 2016 absence after suffering a broken right hand and torn biceps while defeating Chris Arreola. “It’s not his fault for having fights canceled even though he does everything right.”
Considering where Wilder came from, doing everything right wasn’t a prediction many would’ve made. Growing up in Tuscaloosa, the 6-foot-7 Wilder dreamed of playing basketball for the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. But at 19, he dropped out of Shelton State Community College to support Naieya, his infant daughter born with spina bifida, a rare birth defect. He drove a beer truck and worked at Red Lobster — assuming, like his father and grandfather before him, his would be a lifetime of thankless labor.
But those gigs wouldn’t cover Naieya’s hefty medical bills, so Wilder redirected his athletic prowess for profit. “[Naieya] is the reason I got into this [boxing] game,” he says.
Wilder proved a quick study, winning the U.S. Olympic trials in his 21st amateur fight and earning a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games. After turning professional, he knocked out 32 straight opponents from 2008 to 2014 and has since knocked out six more (including Stiverne). Meanwhile, his family continues to expand — Wilder now has two daughters and two sons, and his girlfriend is expecting his fifth child. “My father wasn’t able to inherit nothing from his father,” Wilder says. “I wasn’t able to inherit nothing from mine. But now, I can break those chains.”
A bout with Joshua would certainly add to that inheritance. But due to the ego-fueled nature of boxing negotiations, deals can crater, even when a sensational, big-ticket matchup is on the table. In the case of Wilder versus Joshua, both sides insist their fighter is the main draw. But, according to Dougie Fischer, editor of RingTV.com, there’s too much money on the line to risk delaying this fight for long. “Both sides know that they will lose all that dough if one of the heavyweight titans are upset before the unification bout can take place,” Fischer wrote in his weekly mailbag. “I believe that the heavyweight superfight will happen in 2018 … but I’d be surprised if Joshua-Wilder happened in early 2018.”
Both publicly and privately, Wilder says that no top heavyweight — not even Joshua — wants to risk catching his fists. “I don’t think [Joshua and his promoter, Eddie Hearn] want to see me,” says Wilder. “They’re making so many excuses that don’t have to do with making a fight.… A lot of people are finally realizing that he’s scared.”
Hearn begs to differ: He says that because Joshua’s massive popularity in England dwarfs Wilder’s stateside pull, and since Joshua sells out 70,000-seat football stadiums in London (versus Wilder’s 11,000 at Barclays Center), the fight must take place in England with a purse that favors Joshua. In New York to promote a recent fight card, Hearn went so far as to film himself asking Manhattan residents if they knew who Wilder was (they didn’t). For DiBella, the disrespect was transparent. “He’s supposed to be promoting another fight card,” says DiBella. “Yet he’s fixated on denigrating Deontay to make headlines.… He’s using Joshua to build his own company. If Hearn wants the fight next, he knows damn well the fight can happen next.”
DiBella lobs more ammo: “Joshua doesn’t have the reach of Deontay Wilder, he doesn’t have the jabs or the explosiveness of Deontay Wilder,” he asserts, growing agitated. “And one day, he will lose to Deontay Wilder.”
The Alabama Slammer predicts that he’ll fight another eight years, until he turns 40 — enough time to unify the belts and defend them several times. “Then, I’m out,” he says with a chuckle. He doesn’t want to fight “too long,” but says that is subject to change. “George Foreman became champion at 45,” Wilder points out. “So, I can definitely do 47, 50.”
For now, the future can wait; there’s more immediate business to attend to. A March 3 title defense beckons. After that?
“America will always be the mecca of boxing,” says Wilder. “It’s time to bring the unified belts home.”