NEW YORK -- Deontay Wilder folded his 6-foot-7 frame into a booth at B.B. Kings Blues Club & Grill on Wednesday, a wry smile creasing his face. He knew what was coming. When are you going to fight a legitimate opponent, Deontay? When are you going to get in the ring with someone that can fight back? Since Wilder turned pro in 2008, fresh off a bronze medal performance in the Beijing Olympics and with a booming right hand in his pocket, expectations were that Wilder could become -- or at least be in the conversation for -- the next great American heavyweight.
Five years later, those expectations have yet to be met.
At 28, Wilder has yet to face a significant opponent. He has been fed a steady diet of bums, washed up bums and bums who lost to washed up bums, and has knocked out every one of them. There was Owen Beck, a former title challenger -- if we can call a fighter who went three uninspiring rounds with Nicolay Valuev a "challenger" -- who had lost seven straight before his fight with Wilder. There was Kelvin Price, whose claim to fame was a win over (gulp) Tor Hamer. There was Audley Harrison, a 2000 Olympian who will un-retire to fight anyone for the right price.
Want more? How about Kertson Manswell, who had been in a few significant fights ... but lost every one of them. How about Sergey Liakhovich, whose career effectively ended when Bryant Jennings put him down last year but was coaxed into a 103-second beating against Wilder in August. How about Jesse Oltmanns, Damon McCreary and Matthew Greer?
On Saturday, Wilder (29-0) will take on journeyman Nicolai Firtha in a fight Showtime is willing to waste money on (Showtime, 9 pm). At a press conference, Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer touted Firtha (21-10) as an experienced fighter who has been in with the likes of Tyson Fury, Alexander Povetkin and Johnathon Banks. Of course, he was blown out by all three. If the fight with Wilder goes past the second round, it will be a miracle.
It's not unusual for a young fighter to be built slowly, and Wilder certainly was raw. In 2005, Wilder was driving a Budweiser truck, his dreams of becoming a college football or basketball player shelved when he learned that his daughter had spina bifida, a congenital birth defect, and he stepped up to support her. He became a boxer by accident, and after just two dozen or so amateur fights earned a spot on the '08 U.S. Olympic team.
But as a professional, Wilder -- who hasn't been past the fourth round in any of his fights -- hasn't faced an opponent that has made him better. One explanation, Wilder says, is because no one wants to get in the ring with him.
"A lot of guys are scared of me," Wilder told SI.com. "They are scared of my power. Every man that has stood in front of me has been down. My last fight [against Liakhovich] scared everybody. When you see a guy on the canvas twitching like they are seizing, it scares them. Fighters know I'm a risk to their career."
But do they? Seth Mitchell stopped 19 of his first 23 opponents, creating a buzz early in his career. Wilder bristles at any comparison to Mitchell, citing his amateur experience, but there are some similarities. Like Wilder, Mitchell was spoon-fed unimpressive opponents. When he stepped up, against the light hitting Banks, Mitchell was stopped in the second round. Two fights later, Mitchell was obliterated by Chris Arreola in less than one.
Wilder has yet to face an opponent of Banks's caliber, but in 2010 he was dropped by Harold Sconiers -- career record, 18-27-2 -- creating natural questions about his chin. After Wilder spoke on Wednesday, German promoter Wilfried Sauerland snickered that if Wilder was looking for a real heavyweight opponent, he represented four of them.
To his credit, Wilder says he is ready to fight anybody. He says he aggressively pursued a fight against Tony Thompson, but the money didn't work. He says he would love a piece of Jennings ("He's a base fighter," Wilder said, "He fights in his comfort zone. That's an easy fight for me."), Arreola ("Chris makes a lot of excuses. He's running.") and Fury ("Tyson said he wanted to fight me in New York. Let's do it.") And certainly money is a factor: Fighting on ShoBox shows and in the opening fight of tripleheaders don't bring the kind of purses that will attract high profile opponents.
"Some fighters will say they will fight," Wilder said. "But when their name is called, they ask for something unreachable."
In truth, boxing needs Wilder. He's a charismatic heavyweight with obliterating power and an Olympic pedigree. It has been 13 years since boxing had an American heavyweight standard bearer, dating back to when Evander Holyfield held a piece of the heavyweight title. Since then the division has been watered down by fringe contenders like Hasim Rahman, Shannon Briggs and Arreola. Wilder isn't just the latest U.S. hope; he may be the last for a long time.
Firtha will be win No. 30, another tuneup in a career full of them. He will win and move on, to a future everyone hopes is more compelling than his past.