The curious case of Deontay Wilder will continue on Saturday night at the Barclays Center, where the best American heavyweight of his generation will engage in two fights at the same time. The first will take place against Dominic Breazeale, who is both Wilder’s opponent and the object of his scorn.
The second? That’s the confrontation Wilder faces each time out now, the scrap for relevance—for himself, his place in boxing history and no less than the heft of the heavyweight crown. It’s a fight he’s winning, mostly, with the usual it’s-boxing caveats of stalled negotiations and unrealized match-ups, the focus as much on the promoters as the fighters they are tasked with promoting.
It’s how many look at Wilder that’s wrong. Here’s a boxer with 39 knockouts in 41 career bouts. Here’s an undefeated champion with only one draw. Sure, his record features some weaker opposition, particularly early into a career that began far later than most start. That was a fair criticism a few years ago; it’s less and less fair now.
On Saturday, Wilder will make his ninth-straight title defense that began after an eight-year drought without an American heavyweight champion, the longest such spell in boxing history. Muhammad Ali never defended any belt more than 10 times; Joe Frazier never made more than nine defenses; same for Mike Tyson. (That is not to suggest Wilder and Ali belong in the same boxing neighborhood, relax.)
Consider that and Wilder’s 2018, where he ranked No. 34 on ESPN’s “World Fame 100” list, the highest of any boxer. That’s also the year where he engaged in two of the more entertaining bouts in recent heavyweight history: the first a comeback stoppage of Luis Ortiz in March, the second a knocked-his-opponent-nearly-unconscious draw with Tyson Fury in December.
It used to be that boxers who took on the top-shelf opposition that fans clamored for (like Ortiz) or fellow undefeated champions (like Fury) were celebrated whether in victory or defeat. These were true champs, the thinking went, who didn’t duck opponents or wait until they aged or catch them before they had fully matured. Fighters like Arturo Gatti, Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao come to mind. All three lost fights, spilled blood, tasted canvas and made comebacks. None of that changed why fans were drawn to them in the first place—what made them vulnerable made them exciting, too.
Wilder is as susceptible as any of them and his right hand packs as much power as any punch in modern boxing. Many argued he trailed Ortiz before the stoppage. Many also argued he dropped as many as nine rounds to Fury, while twice upending the Gypsy King, the latter with a spectacular shot in the 12th round that Fury barely recovered from. If the knock on Wilder before 2018 was that he lacked a career-defining fight, his last two performances should have disabused most of that notion. “And people sort of shrugged and asked, OK, what’s next?” says Stephen Espinoza, the boxing czar at Showtime, the network showing Wilder’s fight on Saturday.
To Espinoza that notion—what’s next—says something about both fame and celebrity culture for athletes in 2019. Namely, can someone like Wilder, someone who is charismatic, open and accessible but doesn’t necessarily seek the limelight or trade in negativity, be appreciated for simply being entertaining? “Like does it take a Tom Brady level of accomplishment for him to get his due?” Espinoza asks.
And where the undefeated champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. was often criticized for both who he fought and when he fought them, for not challenging himself in ways that might expose his flaws (if, in fact, they existed), Wilder faces criticism of the opposite sort. He becomes too flawed, even when his vulnerability is the very thing that makes all of his fights appointment–television viewing.
This is where Breazeale comes in. He might be the perfect opponent for Wilder, for right now, with bigger bouts looming on the near horizon (should, of course, they ever actually be made). There’s a built-in storyline that centers on a 2017 incident at a Birmingham hotel, where Breazeale says a “mob” of 20 Wilder associates attacked both him and his family. Wilder calls Breazeale’s assertions “bogus” but says they led to “the best camp of my whole career.”
Of course, boxers like to say such things, but Wilder made actual changes. At his property in Tuscaloosa, he turned the basement level into a gym/health center, adding weightlifting equipment and recovery devices. Rather than visiting his masseuse, there’s space at his home for Wilder’s team to come to him. “I’ve never invested this much in myself,” he says, predicting an early knockout.
Still, much of the focus in recent weeks centered not on who Wilder was fighting but on who he wasn’t. Fury signed with Top Rank in February, scuttling the immediate rematch that fans wanted. Wilder chalks that up to Fury’s own hesitance, saying the Gypsy King had five days to sign a proposed deal and crossed the street instead. “He did believe his own gossip,” Wilder says. “He didn’t want that fight.” Same, Wilder says, for Anthony Joshua, the undefeated British champion. He and Wilder have not been able to come to terms, while lobbing accusations back and forth over who’s more at fault over the stall.
All that said, despite boxing doing its boxing best, it’s not hard to envision two scenarios, one typically bad for the sport, the other portending a few interesting years upcoming in the renewed heavyweight division. 1) Wilder beats Breazeale, easily but not spectacularly and subsequent negotiations with Fury and Joshua drag on for years. Could happen. Or, 2) Wilder wins by knockout, bolstering his status near the top of the division and growing the clamor for both a Fury rematch and a series of bouts with Joshua. He may not win all of those fights but that’s part of the beauty about what’s possible for the heavyweights. Another golden era, perhaps, is within reach. But promoters and network executives have been saying that for years now.
“We had a fundamentally sound, traditionally skilled, low-risk heavyweight era with the Klitschko brothers and no one cared,” Espinoza says. “There was no excitement, no risk and no drama. Now, we have all three.”
In recent years, Espinoza says Wilder “has witnessed a sea change in terms of his popularity, awareness and visibility.” Strangers recognize him more often. Companies continue to reach out for advertising opportunities. The television show Billions cast him in an extended cameo. “People won’t appreciate my career until I retire or I die,” he says, cryptically. “I want to smell my roses now.” The key is sustaining that momentum and that begins on Saturday, when Wilder resumes fights on two fronts. He’s likely to beat Breazeale; it’s the other fight that remains less certain.