Deontay Wilder captured the hearts and imaginations of many in the boxing public on Saturday night by becoming the first American to hold a portion of the heavyweight championship of the world since Shannon Briggs held the WBO title back in 2006.
Wilder earned a clear decision win over Bermane Stiverne at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas by being just about everything he and his handlers hoped he could be when the 6’7” former football player from Alabama turned pro in 2008 after stunningly capturing the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics.
When I talked to Wilder’s manager, Jay Deas, back in 2011, Wilder was three years into his prizefighting career but still lacked the necessary tutelage to move past anything tougher than the local show circuit, something that had begun to frustrate many boxing fans and media alike.
To Wilder’s credit, the late starter knew what he was up against. When he turned professional in 2008, he told ESPN.com he knew he still had a lot to learn about the sweet science. After all, he had just walked into a boxing gym for the first time back in 2005 when he was 20 years old.
“My game plan right now is take it slow,” Wilder said. “I’m just turning pro. …I’ll learn some different things.”
Despite being as green as he was back then, Wilder showed promise at the 2008 Olympics. He earned a bronze medal in the super heavyweight division, and remains the last American male to earn boxing hardware at the Olympic Games.
There was a lot to like about Wilder. He was tall, had long arms and ridiculous power. Maybe even more importantly, Wilder was legitimately a great athlete. He wasn’t just a chiseled frame. He possessed superb reflexes and hand-eye coordination, the kind which any boxing trainer would salivate over.
It’d be easy to put such a natural physical specimen, especially one who managed to do so well on the world stage as an amateur after such a short period of time, into deep waters too early. But Deas and company, including co-manager Shelly Finkel and trainer Mark Breland, knew better than that. They knew they didn’t just have a decent heavyweight who could earn a few bucks here and there. No, they knew they had a fighter who could one day become heavyweight champion of the world.
So they got him rounds, and they did it anyway they could. It was a difficult task. Wilder knocked out every opponent he faced before defeating Stiverne, and all within four rounds. But they didn’t let his success make their plan a failure. They sent him packing whenever and wherever to be a sparring partner for world-class fighters such as Wladimir Klitschko, David Haye and Tomas Adamek.
It wasn’t just something they wanted him to do. It’s something they needed him to do. Back in 2011, Deas told me Wilder’s total time inside a boxing ring overall was a paltry four hours.
“He’s only had about 30 amateur bouts, and his amateur and professional actual ring time total is about four hours,” said Deas.
So Deas and company were patient. They built Wilder up. They had him fight often and while his competition wasn’t stellar, it allowed them to mold Wilder into a legitimate heavyweight contender. The work of Breland in particular seems to have paid huge dividends. Wilder went from barely having a jab at all to using what appears to be one of the better jabs in the division to sting Stiverne all 12 rounds on his way to becoming WBC heavyweight champion. Moreover, he went from looking like a clumsy, newborn baby dear to a swift-footed boxer who knew his way around a boxing ring.
Of course, Wilder is a champion now, but he’s not THE champion. Wladimir Klitschko is the WBA, WBO, IBO and IBF titleholder, as well as The Ring Magazine and Transnational Rankings champion. That makes him ‘The Man’ at heavyweight, and the latter belt distinguishes him as the division’s lineal champion.
And despite his exceptional progress, Wilder isn’t quite ready to take on Klitschko yet. While his win over Stiverne was impressive and important to his development, it was the 29-year-old’s first tussle with world-class opposition.
With the belt secure now, and advisor Al Haymon’s recent inroads over at NBC, Team Wilder would be wise to remain patient with their fighter. When I talked to the new champion last week, he told me he would target a defense against Tyson Fury next, possibly in the UK. Fury is exactly the kind of competition Wilder needs now. He’s accomplished, world-class but also appears flawed. The division is rife with the types: good but not great fighters, the likes of which has made Klitschko’s reign long and easy.
Bouts against heavyweights like Fury, Dereck Chisora, Steve Cunningham, Mike Perez, Vyacheslav Glazkov and Tony Thompson, would further Wilder’s cause. The competition would make him a better fighter, and give him the experience he needs to really give Klitschko a run for his money. And having some or all of the bouts on Haymon’s NBC cards would make Wilder America’s heavyweight darling.
If you’re the impatient type, think about his: how big would a Klitschko-Wilder unification bout be in 2016 if Wilder came into the bout with wins over Stiverne, Fury, Thompson and Glazkov, the latter three featured in primetime on NBC?
History tells me Team Wilder will be patient moving forward with their fighter. It also tells me it’s probably the right move, because Wilder’s talent and ability would only have gotten him so far. He needed a great team for the rest of it, a smart and patient one who really had his best interests at heart. So give credit to Wilder for being America’s legitimate heavyweight hope, and the rest of Team Wilder for helping make it possible.
Photo Credit: Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos