There was a time when Deontay Wilder would have been one of his country’s most famous sportsmen, which makes the 34-year-old among the biggest casualties of boxing’s retreat toward the margins of the American mainstream.
There is no good reason why Wilder, a crowd-pleasing knockout merchant in a chiselled 6ft 7in package who is unbeaten in 43 professional fights, with 41 wins inside the distance, should not be a household name by now. He has made 10 heavyweight title defences in the five years since winning the WBC’s version of the championship, one more than Mike Tyson and Joe Frazier in their reigns.
So why has it not happened? Some of it is down to boxing’s decision to throw itself behind a paywall amid an explosion of entertainment alternatives. Some can be attributed to the emergence of four sanctioning bodies, an alphabet soup that has fractured a championship that was once handed over cleanly from one to the next. A bit more can be chalked up to plain old lousy promotion.
Mainly, though, it is down to competition. Specifically, Wilder’s lack of a big-name rival as a yardstick of how good he really may be. In Tyson Fury, he has found one. This very odd couple will come together for the second time in 15 months on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where they faced off one final time at Friday afternoon’s weigh-ins.
The impeccably fit Wilder came in at a career-high 231lb and Fury tipped the scales at 273lb before a rollicking capacity crowd squarely behind the challenger, the latest nod to the American’s baffling domestic conundrum. Fury has been open about his intent to pack on ballast for the rematch, eating six meals and drinking eight litres of water daily in search of a size advantage against the lighter American. It’s a bold tactic for a fighter who weighed 256½lb in their first encounter and in the same range for interim bouts against Tom Schwarz (263lb) and Otto Wallin (254½lbs), yet the 42lb weight difference on Saturday night will be two pounds less than when they fought in December 2018.
Afterward, both fighters pointed and barked at one another from a distance for two minutes rather than come together for the traditional staredown, which the Nevada Athletic Commission banned following the shoving match at Wednesday’s final press conference. “I just told him, ‘24 hours, 24 hours,’” Wilder said. “He’s nervous. Nervous energy as always.”
When the waiting is over the two unbeaten giants with 71 professional wins between them, the two best fighters currently in boxing’s prestige division, will meet in the most important heavyweight championship fight since the second fight between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield in 1999. The big-fight atmosphere on the Las Vegas strip has offered a throwback to those days: Fans queued outside the arena since early Friday morning to catch a brief glimpse of Wilder and Fury on the scales, with the state fire marshal locking down all entrances due to the excessive crowds at least an hour before it started.
With a win, Wilder will take his first step into the discussion of the all-time great heavyweights. Make no mistake: this is a legacy-defining fight on both sides. Should the Gypsy King win back the title, it is not hyperbolic to say it would complete one of the greatest comebacks in modern sporting history given the depths of his very public bout with addiction and mental illness, which saw him balloon to nearly 25st during a 31-month layoff.
But Fury, who did not make a single defence of the IBF, WBA and WBO titles he won from Wladimir Klitschko, says he plans to fight only three more times even if he wins on Saturday night. For Wilder, the sky is the limit. He has already been called the biggest puncher in the history of boxing (with apologies to Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers), but at the moment, his career-best win is against the Cuban veteran Luis Ortiz. Until he adds a top-flight name like Fury to his ledger, it is all barroom theory.
Wilder must solve the enigma who left him looking ordinary for long stretches of their first meeting in downtown Los Angeles, when the 6ft 9in Fury spent most of the evening racking up points and using every trick in the book to negate Wilder’s heat-seeking right hand. The American finally scored a knockdown in the ninth round and an even heavier one in the 12th, which left Fury seemingly unconscious on the way down, but the challenger somehow made it to his feet and to the final bell, where the ringside judges handed down a stalemate.
But, rather than go into an immediate rematch, each took a pair of fights in the interim.
“Round 12 has been on his mind since day one,” Wilder said this week. “That’s why he stayed away from the [immediate] rematch. Round 12 has been living in his head for a while.”
Fury has made no secret of his intention to go for a knockout in Saturday’s fight, even if the tactics fly in the face of conventional wisdom. But Wilder, on several occasions during the final run-up, has said he does not believe a word that comes out of the challenger’s mouth.
“I’m not worried too much about what he says, I just want to see what he does,” Wilder said. “I am a man of action.”
Should Wilder win, all conversation will turn to a unification showdown with Britain’s Anthony Joshua, who holds the other three belts in boxing’s prestige division. That could mean an opportunity to crown the first undisputed world heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis in 2000. Regardless, “I just want to let the world know that we have a badass named Deontay Wilder here in America, and he ain’t going nowhere for a very long time,” Wilder said.