Wilder still underappreciated as an elite fighter

Americans love stars of all kinds, and where there is no star, we desperately try to anoint someone a star. This is particularly true in boxing, where stars are the sport’s lifeblood.

Show me an engaging, media-friendly guy who strings together a few consecutive wins and I’ll show you a guy being dubbed boxing’s next big thing.

Then, of course, there is the case of Deontay Wilder, who as you may (or likely may not) know, holds the WBC heavyweight title, won an Olympic bronze medal in 2008 and sports a 40-0 professional record with 39 knockouts.

Wilder is fighting Tyson Fury, who holds the linear heavyweight title and who himself is undefeated, on Dec. 1 in a Showtime pay-per-view event at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Between them, they’re 67-0 with 58 knockouts, but good seats, as they say, are still available.

Wilder’s relative anonymity on the big stage is one of the business’ great mysteries. He’s a heavyweight who can punch, and that alone should get him plenty of attention. But he’s also a heavyweight with a charismatic and engaging personality. He has a celebrity significant other. He’s not hard to pick out in a crowd. And he has a touching back story, as he has a child with spina bifida.

He also has a series of rivals. In addition to Fury, who dethroned the legendary Wladimir Klitschko in 2015, Wilder has been on a campaign to take on Anthony Joshua, the IBF-WBA-WBO heavyweight champion who hasn’t been too eager to accept Wilder’s challenge.

Wilder, though, hasn’t resonated with the public at large. Earlier this year, Joshua promoter Eddie Hearn pulled a stunt in Manhattan, where he took a camera and approached people on the street, asking if they knew who Wilder was. Most — at least those Hearn showed in the video he released — did not.

That’s hardly an acid test, but it’s inexplicable how Wilder finds himself in this position this late in his career, and while coming off a thrilling and dramatic come-from-behind knockout victory over Luis Ortiz in March.

Deontay Wilder (L) defeated Luis Ortiz on March 3, 2018, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. (Getty Images)

For whatever his flaws as a fighter may be, he finds a way to get it done. And he is desperate to fight the best. He was willing to take a chance vs. Ortiz to get a fight done with Joshua, so much did he want that opportunity to prove himself.

It’s hard not to root for him, but one has to know him first.

He’s not worried about that now, because he’s finally at his professional peak just as the major fights beckon.

“I feel like I’m at my very best right now,” Wilder said. “Mentally, physically and emotionally, I’m ready to go. Everything is perfect. I just want to get in the ring and show action. Tyson Fury doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into.”

Wilder is a 9-5 favorite, but this is no easy task for him. Fury is by far the most gifted opponent he’ll have faced. Fury is also the first man Wilder will fight who is taller (Fury is 6-9 to Wilder’s 6-7) and with a longer reach (85 to 83).

Fury is quick and agile and can box, and Ortiz showed during their March bout that Wilder can have difficulty with boxers.

“Tyson Fury is kind of like a Rubik’s cube, but a Rubik’s cube can be solved,” Wilder trainer Jay Deas said. “Fury is a very versatile fighter who can move, he can box and fight from lots of distances. He’s the total package as a fighter, and on top of that, he’s strong-willed mentally.

“We have our hands full, but I know that Deontay Wilder is the guy to handle Tyson Fury. Deontay is the right guy to take over boxing and this is the first step in that.”

Wilder didn’t say it in so many words, but he believes his own ability to box is being overlooked. In many of his fights, he was able to overwhelm his opposition with sheer, raw power.

He’s not going to be able to do that to a well-schooled, world-class opponent like Fury. He’ll have to set his punches up and work to create openings. And so while he’ll be as aggressive as usual, he believes you’ll be shocked if you expect just to see him throwing wild shots and hoping something lands.

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