This is not Deontay Wilder’s fault.
In December of 2013, Vitali Klitschko retired for the second time and left something called the WBC world heavyweight championship vacant. The WBC then decided to recognize the winner of a fight between Bermane Stiverne and Chris Arreola as their champion of the world. The two had previously met, Stiverne winning a unanimous decision.
Let’s be clear: this was preposterous. Arreola was an out of shape former Tomasz Adamek victim. Stiverne was a reasonable contender for Wladimir Klitschko’s title, but the idea of founding a new dynasty based upon his defeat of anyone other than Klitschko – never mind a defeat of someone unranked, who he had already defeated – was ridiculous. Wladimir Klitschko, generally recognized as the world heavyweight champion by the media, had dismantled everyone who took to the ring with him over the course of a decade.
The WBC has, of course, made a habit of the bizarre, although perhaps another word would be better suited were it not for the fear of litigation. Freakish decisions have poured from this organization, which was passed from father to son like a neighborhood grocery store.
The underqualified Stiverne triumphed over the unqualified Arreola for the second time in a year and the WBC handed him a belt which allowed him to bellow out his status as the world heavyweight champion. Nobody really took him very seriously – until Wilder appeared on the scene.
A puncher of note, Wilder had failed to match his undeniable hitting ability with opposition worthy of his attention when he got his crack at Stiverne in January of last year. He looked capable in that match and I was impressed with his disciplined approach to his first serious opponent; the shutout ruled on one judge’s card was not unreasonable. Rumors emerged after the fight that Stiverne had been ill going in, but I didn’t feel that mattered a great deal. Wilder had proved himself a viable contender for the top spot.
What he hadn’t done, was prove himself the heavyweight champion of the world.
“Deontay Wilder arrived home in Alabama Sunday as the newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world,” wrote no less a periodical than Time, “and the first American to lay claim to one of the sporting world’s most prestigious titles in eight years.” The article did not even have the good grace to name Wladimir Klitschko the legitimate world champion, contenting itself with noting that since the defeat of Shannon Briggs by Sultan Ibgragimov (later thrashed by Wladimir) “a majority of the world’s heavyweight belts have remained under the domain of Ukraine’s Klitschko brothers.”
Many boxing people understood what was taking place: the mainstream American press was working hard to give their readers what they wanted, an American heavyweight champion. So there is no way we can hold Wilder responsible for his perspective when he out-hit the plodding Stiverne.
“It’s wonderful for a real American to bring the heavyweight belt back to America,” he told Showtime after the fight. In the ring, after thanking God (and Al Haymon), and behind the promptings of a glowing Jim Gray, Wilder spoke about the deep meaning of what he had achieved. “I promised you when you were one year old I would be world champion!” he shouted down the camera to his daughter, watching at home. “We done been through a lot man, and daddy coming home with that belt!”
That belt is more a curse than a blessing.
Boxing Buzz went for the mouthy but satisfying headline “Deontay Wilder and the NBC Paper Bogus Champions Swindle.” In a more articulate effort for this website, Springs Toledo wrote that the belt Wilder wore “is quite literally bought and paid for…a fabrication…that had nothing to with Wlad Klitschko and therefore had nothing to do with the heavyweight crown.”
Springs is correct. And between winning the title and his latest defense against unranked “contender” Artur Szpilka this weekend, Wilder has begun to feel the burn. As the man once said, be careful what you wish for.
“I got what people want, I got the WBC belt!” he has protested. “I have the belt all the greats have had. I’ve got the belt. So I am the legitimate heavyweight champion of the world.”
It’s hard to remember one of the “greats” during their title reign protesting their status like this. I have never seen an interview where Joe Louis is called upon to defend his standing as champion. If you have to say it – it probably isn’t true.
Worse has been his symbiotic relationship with the WBC which happily christened two hapless heavyweights – Eric Molina and Johann Duhaupas — as legitimate defenses. Duhaupas “earned” his shot with a majority decision over the unranked Manuel Charr which came on the heels of a setback to 13-0 prospect Erkan Teper.
“I couldn’t have a better opponent to be defending my title against (than Artur Szpilka),” Wilder claimed, in a statement so freakishly strange it smacked of a WBC announcement. “This is an exciting fight, this is going to be a tough fight and I’m looking forward to it…I’m happy I’m leading the pack.”
And here’s the reality: Wilder could be leading the pack. The real world champion is the understandably sardonic Tyson Fury who, although often appearing unhinged, understands far more clearly than Wilder what is happening to boxing. His dismissal of the WBC and their alphabet cousins is a breath of fresh air in true and perfectly weighted counterbalance to Wilder’s bombast. But Fury is unproven as a champion. He might not pass his first test, an inevitable rematch with Wladimir Klitschko, the king he deposed. But if he does, there is no reason at all why Wilder couldn’t be the main man hot on the heels of a seemingly vulnerable champion.
That’s what Wilder should have been: an exciting, power-punching, athletically gifted contender to the legitimate world’s championship. Instead, he gets a fight for a strap without having ever defeated a legitimate opponent and then the organization that fostered him generously allows him to fight a pair of journeymen in defense of that title.
Wilder has made money, doubtless, but fistically he is going backwards. Staggered against 50-1 underdog Eric Molina and winning at a lackluster canter against Duhaupas, he looks less, not more impressive as a “champion.” Imagine Wilder, gripped by urgency, demanding tough fights, picking off top contenders in an attempt to force Fury’s hand or shame Klitschko into staging one more defense before retirement. It’s a stirring thought that has all the makings of sporting excellence. Instead, we get Artur Szpilka.
There is a clear lineage for the heavyweight title and it stops with Fury. So watch the fight; enjoy the fight. I will. But don’t forget what it is that you are watching – a sideshow, which may melt sadly into a freak show. Deontay Wilder is the champion of nowhere.