Matthews: Can Deontay Wilder Save the Heavyweights and Boxing?

There’s an old saying that as the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing, and as we all know, both the division and the sport have been going downhill for quite a while now.

Enter Deontay Wilder, a 6-7, 225-pounder from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who hasn’t managed to lose in 37 professional fights, all but one of which have ended early. Although you probably have never heard of him, Wilder, who calls himself The Bronze Bomber, is one of four men currently claiming to be the heavyweight champion of the world, a title that used to bestow the kind of wealth and fame on athlete that is these days enjoyed by lesser mortals such as baseball, basketball and football players.

These days, no one thinks of the heavyweight champion as the most famous athlete in the world, or even as the guy most likely to kick your ass if you were unlucky enough to run into him in a saloon and in a bad mood. In fact, of the four “heavyweight champions,” Wilder is by far the most legitimate: the IBF edition, Anthony Joshua has had all of 18 pro fights; the WBO champion, Joseph Parker, has fought all but a handful of his 22 bouts in his native New Zealand, and the Ring Magazine and so-called “lineal” heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury. hasn’t fought in more than year after failing a drug test and struggling with depression, and there are legitimate questions about whether he’ll ever fight again.

Wilder, at least, looks the part and has a resume to back up the look, even if it is populated with the names of guys you have never heard of. With one notable exception– back in 2010, in his ninth pro fight, Wilder fought a guy named Ty Cobb, who lasted all of 33 seconds.

But no matter. There are many reasons for boxing’s steady decline over the past two decades, including the decision by NBC to stop televising Olympic boxing matches in prime-time, the vehicle by which such all-time greats as Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks Brothers became household names, as well as the rest of network television deciding that pro boxing, once a staple of sports programming, was no longer profitable enough to carry.

Throw in the short-sighted greed of boxing promoters, who determined it was better to gouge a narrow swath of boxing fans who were willing to invest in a pay-per-view event than to attempt to rebuild a mass audience, and the result is what we have today, a niche sport that rarely commands the attention of the casual or even avid sports fan, save for the rare superfight such as Mayweather-Pacquiao. And boxing even screwed up that bonanza — the fight was such a snooze you can bet that many of the 4 million who invested $100 to watch it vowed never to make that mistake again.

But if there’s anything the history of boxing has taught us, it’s that nothing cures its ills so much as an exciting heavyweight, and preferably an American heavyweight. Back in the 20s, Jack Dempsey rescued the sport from the Jess Willard-doldrums. In the 40s, Joe Louis rekindled interest after the torpor of the Jack Sharkey-Primo Carnera-Max-Baer-Jim Braddock era. Frazier and Ali, of course, elevated the 70s to high art, and Mike Tyson came along in the mid-80s.

But since the decline of Evander Holyfield in the late 90s, heavyweight boxing has been on the bum, and it has taken the sport with it. Lennox Lewis was phenomenally talented but personally a bore. The Klitschko Brothers may have been compelling stories, but horribly soporific as performers. Plus, they rarely ventured out of Germany for a fight.

Now, that era is thankfully over and time is ripe for some new blood atop the sport.

Could Deontay Wilder provide that transfusion? It’s tough to say.

At a lunch in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday with a small group of boxing writers, Wilder was both forbidding looking behind horn-rimmed glasses, a furious-looking beard and intricately braided hair, as well as affable, articulate and funny.

He described his punch as “Alabama Country Power,” and indeed, it was on display last January at the Barclay’s Center, when after struggling with a spectacularly untalented Pole named Artur Szpilka for eight rounds, Wilder put a nice exclamation point on matters by starching Szpilka with a single right hand in the ninth. It was a fearsome shot; for some anxious moments, Szpilka looked to be badly hurt, if not dead.

“I really thought he died for about three or four or five seconds,” Wilder said.

The spectacle of it drove Fury, an interested observer, to stage an in-ring tantrum that had eyewitnesses rightfully wondering about his mental health. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fury has not been in a boxing ring since.

In fact, Wilder has found it increasingly difficult to get, and keep, opponents. Each of his last two prospective foes — Alexander Povetkin and Andrzej Wawrzyk — failed PED tests prior to the fight. The Povetkin bout, scheduled for last May, would have been a $5 million payday for Wilder, and his appearance at Wednesday’s lunch was delayed because he was in court downtown where he and his handlers are suing Povetkin to get paid anyway.

As busy work, Wilder will fight an unbeaten heavy named Gerald Washington on May 25 in Birmingham. Washington is an athlete first, a boxer second; a Navy vet, Washington was a college football star at USC and made it to the practice squad for a couple of NFL teams before turning to boxing at age 30. Now 35, he has had just 19 pro fights and is no doubt in way over his head.

Still, there are questions about Wilder. The Szpilka fight exposed his defensive deficiencies and amateurish tendencies, but his next fight, an eighth-round TKO of Chris Arreola was even more damaging; in that one, Wilder mangled his right hand, breaking a metacarpal and dislocating two fingers early in the fight, and tearing his right biceps later in the bout. Both injuries required extensive surgeries and by his own admission, Wilder hasn’t hit anything really hard since, although he is sure he will again.

“I consider myself like one of those legends, like Hercules,” he said. “I want to be the king of this division.”

Luckily for Wilder, the division, and the sport, are in the market for a new king, and the job is wide open.

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