Ask anybody in boxing why Deontay Wilder isn’t a massive crossover star and you’ll get a shrug and some sort of variation with the words 'I don’t know' sprinkled within the conjecture.
After all, the 33-year-old stands at a towering 6-7, competes in boxing’s glamour division as a heavyweight and possesses earth-shattering power in his hands, as evidenced by his unblemished record of 40-0 with 39 of those victories coming by way of the sport’s great equalizer: the knockout.
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An American heavyweight with a knockout punch is what the sport has been missing stateside since the Mike Tyson era. Once the American heavyweights of the 90s — Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, etc. – rode off into the sunset, interest in heavyweight boxing in the U.S. evaporated. You’ll be hard pressed to find a casual boxing fan who can name an American heavyweight worth caring about after the turn of the century.
Yet, Deontay Wilder, in all of his bronze-bombing glory, stands right in front of us. A 2008 Olympics bronze medalist, who now holds the WBC heavyweight title, Wilder is, quite literally, America’s best chance at having a heavyweight rule the sport for the first time in two decades.
Aside from his in-ring prowess, Wilder is a ball of unbridled passion and charisma who can talk with the best of them. Impossible to miss standing in a crowd, when he talks, you listen. When you see him, his slim frame and smile suggest that you should know who he is, but you can’t quite put a finger on it.
Neither can his peers.
“I’m not sure why he isn’t known,” lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury told Sporting News when asked why Wilder still roams American soil as a virtual unknown in the mainstream.
The product from Manchester, England will face Wilder at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Saturday in what will easily be the biggest heavyweight fight on U.S. soil since a diminished Mike Tyson fought Lennox Lewis on June 8, 2002.
“Wilder needs me,” Fury said moments earlier at the final press conference before their weekend clash. “He’s been the WBC champion since 2015, he’s made seven defenses of his world title, but he’s still unknown in this country.”
Fury isn’t the only boxer who is baffled by Wilder being a virtual unknown. Other fighters Sporting News spoke with were equally dumbfounded. Nobody could quite figure it out.
Meanwhile, the biggest draws in combat sports all have something Wilder doesn’t — a built-in fanbase. Canelo Alvarez has the entire country of Mexico cheering him on. In the UFC, Conor McGregor’s record-breaking numbers were a byproduct of his massive Irish following. Before Canelo, there was Manny Pacquiao and the Filipino nation that pushed him into mega-stardom.
The outlier is Floyd Mayweather Jr., who lacked the debilitating knockout power of a Mike Tyson or a foreign country, which rested its hopes on his narrow shoulders. Instead, Mayweather tapped into the complexities of race in America and manufactured a villainous character who forced the hand of the mainstream to cough up money in hopes of seeing him lose. A brilliant plan, but also one that plugged into the dirty little American secret where Black athletes constantly walk a tightrope of acceptance. Either downplay your blackness for mainstream approval or run the risk of alienating an audience by addressing what everyone can see, but nobody wants to talk about.
Mayweather skirted the subject of race in conversation, but utilized the idea of the Black Buck stereotype — unintelligent, violent, crass and hot-tempered — in order to feed the imagination of a country that still chants “U.S.A.” when white fighters face an opponent in combat of another culture. The character Mayweather created made him the richest athlete in the world, but cultural integrity needed to be sacrificed in order for Mayweather to reach those peaks. The domestic transgressions that landed him in jail didn’t affect his drawing power. But had he taken a knee for police brutality, it’s almost certain that it would affect his marketability to mainstream America.
Deontay Wilder isn’t in the business of character creation to feed into stereotypes. And perhaps that is his downfall. It can be argued that had he acted like the polarizing Adrien Broner, he’d have far more mainstream appeal. But one thing that Wilder is unwilling to do is sacrifice his integrity in order to become a star.
Wilder wants to be heralded for his accomplishments, like his British counterpart and fellow heavyweight titleholder Anthony Joshua, who routinely packs arenas with fans to see him fight. Like Wilder, Joshua is a black fighter who is undefeated with a massive knockout punch. The difference is that Joshua is a rock star in the U.K., while Wilder, for all of his accomplishments, is relatively unknown outside of boxing circles in the U.S.
Wilder recently stated that fighters like Fury and Joshua didn’t have to work as hard to be respected overseas as he does in the States. Witnessing their success and listening to both Fury and Joshua question why Wilder isn’t respected in his own country has been needling at the 33-year-old, as he has tried to rationalize his lack of mainstream appeal.
And all of that came to a head at Wednesday’s press conference. There was the much-talked about melee went viral and brought about a renewed interest in Saturday’s fight, but how they got to that point is just as, if not more, intriguing.
For the past few months, Wilder and Fury have engaged in a war of insults. For the most part, the insults hurled led to nothing more than a few minor dustups that did more to help promote the fight than anything else. But as the fight inched closer, there was an underlying tension regarding Wilder and the rationale behind why he isn’t as respected in America as his opponent is in his own country.
“People don’t want to bring race into it, but it’s very alive and real,” Wilder said in an interview with BT Sport. “When you are a Black man in America, it’s hard. But when you are outspoken, people can’t control you or string you along and you are very dominant in what you do, people don’t want to see you succeed. They feel threatened.”
The undercurrent of race and cultural differences has been bubbling for quite some time as the clash of styles drew near. And it all boiled over when the two faced off.
It started with the usual insults and hyperbole and then dissolved into something different. Fury kept things relatively light-hearted, but you got the feeling that Wilder was fighting something more than his opponent. A line by Fury regarding his gypsy heritage and how he’s been treated differently because of his cultural background wasn’t taken lightly by Wilder.
"You say your people have been fighting for 200 years? My people have been fighting for 400 years and are still fighting to this day," Wilder barked back.
He was clearly the more incensed of the two. The shouting devolved into a scuffle, as both sides pushed and shoved. Order was restored, but Wilder wasn’t done.
A reporter — who happened to be African American — asked Wilder, “You said that your people have been fighting for 400 years. I just wanted you to explain what you mean by that?”
The inquiry caused the WBC champion to fire back.
“They’re your people, too!" Wilder roared. "You know what I’m talking about, you all know what I’m talking about!”
The exchange went viral and caused some eye rolls from media members who didn’t understand why race had to be brought into the conversation.
Even Fury was perplexed by Wilder’s aggression.
"I don't think we should bring this fight into a battle of races, or a battle of cultures or all that," he said. "This isn't a battle of who's been persecuted longest. This is a battle between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. It's not a battle of races or cultures."
To be clear, there are a number of factors that play into why Wilder hasn’t become boxing’s next big star. There’s the resume that is filled with no-names that served as merely cannon fodder for the first few years of Wilder’s career and the declining interest in American heavyweights.
There’s also the reality that he hasn’t been promoted properly. Sure, we hear about Wilder when there’s a fight, but shouldn’t the towering giant have a marketing vehicle behind him? He has a fantastic backstory that is much more than a poor black kid from Alabama who needed to find a way out. He took up boxing at 19 and was driven to succeed by his daughter, who was born with spina bifida. Boxing wasn’t a way out for Wilder, but a means to ensure that his daughter would live. That, in itself, is an easy story to push. Add that to the charisma that Wilder oozes outside of the ring and the savage knockouts inside of the squared circle and you have the ingredients to push him into the spotlight.
But there is truth in race being a factor in why Wilder hasn’t broken through into the mainstream. If he were from another country, he’d certainly have the backing of his countrymen. If he were white, he’d be treated like a novelty (see: Tommy Morrison and Gerry Cooney). But he’s black and proud to be black. And he’s unwilling to take on a villainous persona to generate public interest.
“People always try to make you explain things because they don’t understand it,” Wilder said when asked about his outburst. “They don’t live in the same world or come from the same culture. They don’t endure the same heartaches and pain. They see it every day, but are so blind to our reality. I never get too big-headed to realize what is going on around me. I come from that. It’s still going to this day and people ask, ‘Why are they so mad?’ If it happened to your culture, you would understand. But these people still act naïve.”
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Wilder has been scratching and clawing for respect for the day he laced up the gloves. Bringing home a medal from the Olympics wasn’t good enough. Knocking out every opponent he has stepped into the ring with hasn’t been good enough, either. What else can he do?
Deontay Wilder will face his toughest test to date in Tyson Fury on Dec. 1 in his first pay per view fight. He will have the opportunity to prove that he belongs in the conversation as the best heavyweight in the world. With it could come renewed interest in the heavyweight division. And, hopefully, more opportunities to market his magnetic personality.
There’s really no reason to look for boxing’s next big thing because it’s been right under our nose the entire time. His outburst going viral has brought a newfound attention to his story and a victory on Saturday night will hopefully garner him the respect that he’s long sought after.