Deontay Wilder will aim to rekindle America’s love affair with heavyweight boxing on Saturday when he faces Britain’s Tyson Fury in a high-stakes showdown of undefeated fighters.
As the reigning World Boxing Council champion, Wilder is the latest custodian of a belt which has been worn by some of the heavyweight division’s most iconic names stretching back over more than 50 years.
Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson head the who’s who of Wilder’s predecessors, evoking an era when heavyweight boxing was an integral part of the US sporting landscape.
Yet as Wilder prepares for the eighth defense of a title he has held since 2015, he remains a virtual unknown.
At the age of 33, Wilder has compiled an impressive record which includes 40 victories, no defeats, with 39 knockouts.
But his unblemished record and undeniable punching power have yet to capture the imagination of American sports fans.
Even now, three years into his reign as champion, he is sometimes mistaken for NBA superstar LeBron James.
That could change on Saturday when the 6ft 7in Wilder faces off against Fury, the trash-talking “Gypsy King” who is also unbeaten, with 27 wins from 27 fights, 19 inside the distance.
For Wilder, Saturday’s fight at the Staples Center is an opportunity to announce himself to a significant audience.
It is the first time he is the feature attraction on a pay-per-view television card. An explosive display against Fury will burnish his box-office appeal.
‘The baddest man’
“America has a mighty man in me,” Wilder boasted at an ill-tempered press conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday. “America has the baddest man on the planet.
“I put in the hard work to make it here. I’ve grinded and worked. There’s no way I’m going to let a man come from another country and take what I’ve been building.”
Victory for Wilder or Fury will thrust them to the front of the queue to face Britain’s Anthony Joshua, holder of the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association and World Boxing Organization heavyweight belts.
While several obstacles would need to be overcome before a money-spinning Joshua fight can happen, the clamour for a unification bout could become irresistible.
For Joshua’s eventual challenger to be Wilder, he must overcome the imposing 6ft 9in frame of Fury, a man on a mission who returned to the ring in April after a two-year absence following a battle with depression, drink and drug abuse.
Three years ago, Fury stunned the boxing world after defeating champion Wladimir Klitschko to claim the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO and lineal titles.
The high of that victory however was to be followed by a descent into despair. Fury, who was subsequently stripped of those belts amid two failed drug tests, recently revealed he had tried to commit suicide.
“I just wanted to die so bad, I gave up on life,” Fury said.
But with his demons overcome, and his licence restored, Fury returned earlier this year, stopping Albanian journeyman Sefer Seferi after four rounds in April before outpointing little-known Francesco Pianeta in August.
Comeback too soon?
Whether those two fights are adequate preparation for the challenge of Wilder remains to be seen.
While former heavyweight champions such as Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson believe Fury has the skill and power to overcome Wilder, other fighters fear the bout has come too early in his comeback.
“I’m always going to be rooting for the Union Jack,” said British heavyweight Dereck Chisora. “But I believe Fury has taken the fight too early…when he gets hit by Wilder, it’s goodnight.”
Fury, true to form, is having none of it.
“I’m going to box his face off,” Fury said. “On Saturday night, Deontay Wilder is going to be known as the guy who got knocked out by Tyson Fury,” added the Briton, gleefully mocking Wilder for his relatively low profile amongst US sports fans.
“He needs me. He’s made seven defences but he’s still unknown in this country. I went down the street yesterday and asked 50 people if they knew who Deontay Wilder was and only two said they did, and they were boxing fans.”
Lewis and Holyfield, meanwhile, believe Fury’s chances of victory will hinge on his ability to take the fight into the later rounds while evading Wilder’s right hand.
Wilder, however, demonstrated he is more than capable of lasting over the distance with a gutsy 10th round knockout of the dangerous Cuban Luis Ortiz in March.
The American, who looked authentically angered by Fury in Wednesday’s face off, promised a brutal finish.
“I’m gonna beat his ass and then knock him out,” Wilder said. “I promise you this, he will go down. I don’t know when it’s coming. But it’s coming.”