Deontay Wilder and the Return of the American Heavyweight

This Alabama-born knockout artist just won the WBC title belt, but can he beat Wladimir Klitschko?

Deontay Wilder became the first American to win a heavyweight title in nearly a decade Saturday night after outboxing Bermane Stiverne on his way to a dominant 12-round unanimous decision at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Which begs the next logical question: Does the 6’7″ Wilder’s freakishly long reach and formidable power give him a decent shot of toppling heavyweight kingpin Wladimir Klitschko, or is he doomed to become another casualty of the Ukrainian’s historic streak of title defenses?

Most boxing observers wouldn’t wouldn’t bet against Klitschko, but Wilder would seem to have the best chance of any current heavyweight to defeat “Dr. Steelhammer.” Though this being boxing, there’s no telling when they would face off in a title unification fight that could finally inject some excitement into the backwater that used to be the sport’s marquee division.

Wilder, a 2008 Olympic Bronze medalist who has been widely criticized for his pillowy-soft opposition while compiling an undefeated professional record of 32 quick knockouts, took a big step up by snatching Stiverne’s WBC title belt and quieting critics who had suggested Wilder might be another in a long line of over-hyped American heavyweights.

The Tuscaloosa, Alabama fighter showed that he can do more than unleash devastating first-round KOs against no-name palookas and faded fringe contenders with Saturday’s decisive victory. And now Wilder, a former Budweiser delivery truck driver, is basking in the glory of being the first U.S. heavyweight title-holder since current Klitschko tormentor Shannon Briggs lost the WBO belt in 2007.

Wilder piled up points with his long left jab and surprisingly solid boxing technique, mostly avoiding Stiverne’s bull rushes and controlling the pace of nearly every round. Wilder couldn’t knock down the rugged Stiverne, who’s never hit the canvas in 27 pro fights, but he staggered the Haitian-born slugger several times while winning a wide decision on all three judges’ scorecards.

“Who can’t box? Who can’t box?” Wilder shouted at the ringside media as the fight ended, within earshot of a VIP section that included Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, whose ear-chomping fiasco in 1997 was the last heavyweight title fight held at the MGM Grand. Larry Holmes, the longtime American heavyweight champion in the late 70s and 80s, was also in the crowd to witness Wilder’s coming out party.

“I think I answered a lot of questions tonight,” Wilder said after the Showtime-televised main event. “We knew we could go 12 rounds, we knew we could take a punch.”

Wilder’s WBC title was previously won by Stiverne after he beat Chris Arreola in a fight for the belt vacated by the retirement of Klitschko’s older brother, Vitali. Klitschko, 38, is considered the true heavyweight champion, with 17 title defenses over a nearly ten year reign, second only behind Joe Louis’s all-time record of 11 years, 8 months and 8 days. 

Klitschko’s ruthlessly scientific style has rarely evoked the excitement of Tyson or Holyfield or even Lennox Lewis, but he’s certainly been the dominant heavyweight of this century. Though it’s not like Wlad is unbeatable—just ask Corrie Sanders, who knocked him out in a shocking 2003 upset. But the Ukrainian star (and Hayden Panetierre baby daddy) has become far more seasoned since then, easily overwhelming scores of hapless opponents with piston-like jabs and pulverizing right hands.

Wilder, 29, had hoped to play in the NBA or NFL before becoming a prizefighter. Most U.S. athletes who possess Wilder’s explosiveness, power and towering physique dream of team sports glory, not training to be a gladiator in a dank, sweaty gym (Wilder had hoped to play both basketball and football at University of Alabama, before his daughter was born with spina bifida and he was forced to abandon college to pay the medical bills).

Wilder is a rare success story in a heavyweight division littered with the twitching remains of would-be American saviors. From Mexican-American contender Arreola, who was stopped by Vitali Klitschko in 2009 and beaten twice by Stiverne, to Seth Mitchell, the former Michigan State linebacker destroyed by Arreola in the first round of their 2013 fight. You could even go back to Michael Grant, the former Fullerton College defensive end who was supposed to take over the division back in in 2000, but then Britain’s Lennox Lewis annihilated him in two rounds.

Don’t look for Wilder to get the chance to bring the lineal title back to America anytime soon—a unification clash likely wouldn’t happen until late 2015 at the earliest. Klitschko’s 18th title defense is set for April 25 against Philadelphia’s Bryant Jennings at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

It’s unclear who Wilder will fight next, thought he has expressed interest in a bout with brash British loudmouth Tyson Fury later this year. He’ll probably defend his title at least once before trying to take on Klitschkho. But after Saturday’s victory, he vowed to stay busy, so we can only assume that bout is looming.

“I want to bring excitement back to the heavyweight division,” Wilder said. “And I don’t want to sit around. I want to fight four times a year. Whoever’s ready, I’m ready.”​

Follow Maxim Editor-at-Large Chris Wilson at @iamchriswilson

Photos by AP Photo / John Locher