This Friday night, the WBC World Heavyweight title is on the line at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York as champion Deontay Wilder (35-0) defends his belt against the challenge of Artur Szpilka (20-1).
It has been a year since Wilder captured the vacant WBC belt with a defeat of Bermane Stiverne, and Wilder successfully defended the belt twice in 2015 to go (3-0) for the year. On a wider level, Wilder also gave the Heavyweight division new life on the American scene, as he became the first fighter from the USA to carry a piece of the world title in almost 10 years.
But in some circles Wilder is still criticized for the quality of his opponents, and whether by chance or design, he has avoided Russia’s Alexander Povetkin (30-1), who is the WBC’s #1 mandatory challenger and has been since Wilder won the belt last January.
Povetkin last fought in November, when he defeated Mariusz Wach, another Polish fighter, in an event held in Kazan, Russia. Though Povetkin vs Wilder for the January 16th date was talked about, Povetkin’s schedule was not aligned for that date and the match went by the wayside. Wilder set his sights on the WBC’s #2 rated contender Vyascheslav Glazkov.
And this is where things begin to get funny in today’s Heavyweight boxing scene. After defeating long-time divisional alpha-male Wladimir Klitschko this past November, the lineal champion and holder of many of the most highly regarded world titles was Tyson Fury of the United Kingdom. The IBF decided to strip Tyson Fury of their world title when he refused to face Glazkov, who the IBF rated as Fury’s mandatory challenger. Glazkov and his manager Kathy Duva elected to fight IBF #2 challenger Charles Martin for the vacant IBF title rather than face Wilder for the WBC belt. Were they taking the easier work and avoiding the difficult match with Wilder? Martin and Glazkov will fight at the Barclays Center on the same night as the co-main event of the evening.
At the end of November, Wilder was still looking for an opponent for January 16th. Wilder would have you think that he is a feared champion, and that people would prefer to fight other opposition than to face him. His detractors argue that Wilder is not really respected and the general consensus is that Wilder needs to step up and fight world class competition in order to prove himself.
The deal with Szpilka was made when he rose above a field of potential opponents that included 44 year old Shannon Briggs and veteran Steve Cunningham among others. Szpilka is 26 years old and he comes with a solid record of (20-1). A southpaw, he has 15 stoppages in his 20 wins, and the lone blemish on his record came at the hands of Brandon Jennings. He has a hard-nosed reputation and he has been sent to the canvas in his fights and he has gotten back up and gone on to win. That Szpilka accepted the fight without the benefit of a full training camp adds to his gritty and tough reputation.
But a win over Szpilka will not be the career defining win that Wilder needs. The lines at the sport books have Wilder a (-1250) favorite, with Szpilka returning at (+800). The WBC has endorsed Povetkin as the mandatory challenger who awaits the winner of Wilder vs Szpilka. Povetkin has been in the media stating he would accept a meeting with Wilder in the United States sometime in the spring. People are looking past Szpilka.
Wilder has advantages of height, reach speed and athleticism, and his 34 KO stoppages in 35 fights gives him a much higher rating as far as power is concerned, so his status as favorite in this fight is justified. But to rule out Szpilka outright could be a mistake. The biggest win of Szpilka’s career came against fellow countryman Tomasz Adamek in November of 2014 when he faced the then (49-3) Polish hero in a fight where Szpilka was also under-estimated.
Szpilka will need to land punches on Wilder and do damage, but Wilder’s recent outings against Eric Molina and Johan Duhaupas showed that Wilder is hittable. Duhuapas especially left Wilder with a swollen face, and he came close to shutting Wilder’s eye. If Szpilka can manage some offense against Wilder and leave a mark, it opens up a lot of possibilities.
And a win by Szpilka could very well kill the current interest in the Heavyweight division as far as the American fanbase is concerned. Szpilka would still be facing a mandatory challenge from Alexander Povetkin. Povetkin has expressed interest in fighting Wilder in the United States, but a win by Szpilka would likely see Povetkin lure the new champion to Russia with the title on the line.
Come January 16th, Deontay Wilder will enter the ring with a lot of work left to do to truly capture the American market. His two title defenses came in his home state of Alabama, and Wilder sold out a five thousand seat arena on those occasions. Though those are terrific accomplishments he still has his doubters, and frankly, there are still vast amounts of average Americans who have not seen him fight. The challenge of headlining in New York and building upon that to become a major star still faces Wilder. It all starts with a win against Szpilka, anything short of that on the part of Wilder and it will be a huge setback to the American Heavyweight boxing scene.