Deontay Wilder desperately needs an A-level opponent to cement his place in history

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Trainer Mark Breland (L) puts WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder through his paces Wednesday in a workout at Gleason’s Gym prior to his bout on Saturday with Bermane Stiverne in Brooklyn. (Getty Images)

There is only one legitimate criticism that can be lobbed at Deontay Wilder these days: His level of opposition. The WBC heavyweight champion is 38-0 with 37 knockouts, but a Who’s Who of heavyweight greats is not on his list of victims. And that trend will continue on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn when he faces Bermane Stiverne in a fight televised by Showtime.

Wilder lifted the belt from Stiverne in 2015, winning a unanimous decision at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas and giving hope to those who thought a new, dominant era in heavyweight boxing had begun.

But Wilder hasn’t fought a truly significant bout since then, and he enters Saturday’s match wounded from the criticism he’s received. It’s not as if he’s ducking the top guys, but his luck couldn’t have been worse in terms of getting the elite heavyweights in the world into the ring with him.

When the conversation turns Thursday to the caliber of his opposition, there is an almost instant change in him. He sounds like a 12-year-old whose puppy had just died.

It’s not all his fault, of course. He was supposed to fight former WBA champion Luis Ortiz, who was 27-0 with 23 knockouts on Saturday in what was a heavily anticipated bout.

Ortiz, though, failed a drug test and was pulled from the bout.

Ortiz became the third Wilder opponent – or, should we say, potential opponent? – to fail a drug test. In January, Andrzej Wawrzyk failed a test and was yanked from a bout with Wilder.

The most significant was a May 2016 bout against Alexander Povetkin, the 2004 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist that was scrapped when Povetkin tested positive a week before the bout, as Wilder was in the plane on a tarmac about to take off for Moscow.

Wilder is so angered by fighters who use PEDs that he suggested a year in prison for those who fail multiple tests, like Povetkin and Ortiz have.

“They need to give stiffer sentences to guys who get caught,” Wilder said. “Six months and $25,000 fine? Come on. Six months, that’s just time to allow a broken bone to heal. If you get guys caught a second, third time, they have to go to jail. Put ’em in jail for a year and see how it goes.”

No matter how the punishments are ultimately worked out, the issue for Wilder is the impact not getting those fights has had upon him. Had Wilder scored wins over Povetkin and then Ortiz, the narrative would be significantly different. He has difficulty, though, bringing himself to speak about it.

He was asked what impact it would have had upon his career had he had the opportunity to fight those men, but he wasn’t up to it.

“I don’t know what it would have done because they cheated,” he said. “We can only imagine. There ain’t no use talking about them because they’re cheaters, plain and simple. I’ve been calling out the best and that’s really all I want, is to fight the best. When people told me these two were the best, I said, ‘OK, let’s make the fight. Get it done.’ But they obviously felt they had to cheat and so there was no fight.

“There are a lot of guys in boxing who say they want to fight the best, but their actions don’t back up their words. [WBO champion] Joseph Parker said that when he won the title, but what has he done since? Nothing. He’s the fresh face and everyone wants to talk about him, but then his actions are the opposite of his words. And I’m doing everything I can to get the best fights and I get blamed when it doesn’t happen. It’s tough.”

WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder is 38-0 with 37 KOs. (Photo by David A. Smith/Getty Images)

Promoter Lou DiBella is Wilder’s most passionate advocate, and he said it is not fair to point the finger at Wilder for a lack of compelling opposition when he went out of his way to fight the best and the fighters either failed tests, as in the case of Povetkin and Ortiz, or chose to fight someone else, as in the case of Wladimir Klitschko.

Klitschko lost his IBF, WBA and WBO belts to Tyron Fury in 2015 in a shocking performance. When a rematch fell through because Fury had personal problems, Klitschko’s team reached out to Anthony Joshua.

That fight drew 90,000 fans to Wembley Stadium and is the front-runner for 2017 Fight of the Year.

Wilder was hoping to get that fight, but Klitschko went in another direction, largely because Joshua’s extraordinary popularity in the U.K. meant it would be a far more lucrative fight.

DiBella praised Klitschko and his older brother, Vitali, as great boxers but referred to them as “foreign champions” and said the fact they didn’t fight often in the U.S. hurt boxing here.

“Deontay tried to get that fight but Klitschko went in a different direction,” DiBella said. “He wouldn’t give us the opportunity? How do you blame us for that?”

A boxer, though, can only be judged based on his competition. A college football team that beats Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma looks a lot better than one with the same record whose signature wins are over UNLV, Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern.

So Wilder continues to search for that signature win that will garner him the respect from the fans and the pundits, as well as open the door to other big fights. Joshua said a Wilder fight must happen in 2018, but Joshua promoter Eddie Hearn has been pushing Dillian White as a potential Wilder opponent.

That bout would do little to create interest in Wilder in the U.S.

“Boxing isn’t the most popular sport in America now,” Wilder said, correctly.

Wilder, who sounded despondent on a conference call last week talking about his issues losing opponents and failing to get a big fight, talked big when it got to the rematch.

Stiverne, who had rhabdomyolysis that hospitalized him following their first bout, said he’d “kill” Wilder in the rematch.

Wilder said he’s vastly better than he was when he met Stiverne in 2015 and is also fighting with a chip on his shoulder.

“I’m much smarter, I’m much slicker and my mentality is better,” Wilder said. “I’m more agile, more mobile and more hostile. I’m a starving lion. I’m hungry and I want to eat. Stiverne, he’s up so he’s got big trouble. I’m not only going to knock him out, it’s death to him. He said he’s going to kill me; well, I’m going to kill him.”

The sad truth for Wilder is that no matter how badly he beats Stiverne, he’s not going to get the respect and recognition he craves.

In the early 1990s, there were a slew of elite heavyweights. Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer, Shannon Briggs and Tommy Morrison were among a deep and talented group of big men competing.

There isn’t that kind of talent at the top now. The big fight is Joshua-Wilder, and Joshua holds all the cards.

Until he gets that major fight he so craves, Wilder is always going to be on the defensive.

He needs an opponent so he can prove his words aren’t just talk.

But it takes two, as they say, to tango. And so far for Wilder, those who are willing to tango with him aren’t the types of boxers who will enhance his reputation.

Only one man can do that. In a sense, Wilder’s reputation is in Joshua’s hands. For the good of the sport, hopefully Joshua does the right thing.

Deontay Wilder (R) punches Bermane Stiverne during their Jan. 17, 2015, fight for the WBC heavyweight title in Las Vegas. They will fight again on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the bout will be televised by Showtime. (Getty Images)