Why heavyweight boxer Deontay Wilder still isn't a star

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

There is a heavyweight title fight on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn that promises to be moderately entertaining. The unbeaten Deontay Wilder will defend his WBC championship against Bermane Stiverne in a bout televised on Showtime.

It’s not Ali-Frazier, Foreman-Lyle or even Holyfield-Bowe, but it’s a bout that carries the potential for an entertaining 36, or less, minutes.

The problem, though, is that the champion still hasn’t captured the public’s imagination, despite a 38-0 record, 37 knockouts, a quick wit and a charismatic personality.

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Wilder still hasn’t had that signature bout that would put him over, but he also suffers from plenty of self-inflicted (or at least team-inflicted) wounds.

There is precious little promotion done for Wilder, particularly by his management company, Haymon Boxing. Wilder should be everywhere, in front of everyone, and reporters should be having to beg out of any more calls from publicists representing his management team.

Such, though, is not the case. The big fight that could – and should – occur is a unification bout with Anthony Joshua, the WBA-IBF heavyweight champion.

Eddie Hearn has Joshua under contract and holds all the cards, because Joshua has done what Wilder could but has yet to accomplish. Joshua has a signature win over future Hall of Famer Wladimir Klitschko in a bout that remains the frontrunner for 2017 Fight of the Year.

Deontay Wilder hasn’t caught on as a mainstream attraction despite an unbeaten and dominant record. (Getty)
Deontay Wilder hasn’t caught on as a mainstream attraction despite an unbeaten and dominant record. (Getty)

That event also sold 90,000 tickets. Joshua’s fight last week in Cardiff, Wales, when he defeated late replacement Carlos Takam, was in front of nearly 80,000 fans.

Boxing is arguably the second-biggest sport in the U.K., and Hearn expertly promotes his brand and his fighters. He created a brand with Joshua, who won the 2012 Olympic gold medal at super heavyweight on home soil before an adoring crowd at the London Games.

Boxing isn’t remotely as big in the U.S., and the truth is Wilder hasn’t fought in front of 170,000 in his past 10 fights combined.

As a result, Hearn holds the cards, and he’ll have the largest say in when, and where, a potential Joshua-Wilder fight occurs.

It should be next, though Hearn’s reticence to do it is understandable given Wilder’s lack of name recognition in the U.S.

Haymon Boxing founder Al Haymon is, arguably, the most powerful man in the sport, but he doesn’t speak to the media and is rarely seen. As a recluse, he’d have given Howard Hughes a run for his money.

There is no one – no one – at Haymon Boxing a reporter can call to get information on Wilder. Sure, when he has a fight lined up, there are publicists aplenty, but it takes more than just a conference call and a handful of interviews before a fight to make a guy a star.

Wilder has what it takes. He has a touching backstory as he takes care of his daughter, who was born with spina bifida, and he’s a delight to be around. He’s well spoken and insightful and the kind of guy the media at large would love.

It’s standard practice in public relations for the publicists who are working an event to put their names and email addresses at the bottom for reporters to contact them. And there are plenty of publicists’ names and contact numbers at the bottom of the releases about the Wilder-Stiverne fight. The interesting, thing, though, is that the Haymon Boxing representative’s name includes no phone number. The message is unmistakable: Just like the boss, don’t call me.

And so Wilder sits in this odd spot, a champion who still craves respect, who is annoyed that his record is scrutinized and called out by reporters. There is no Wladimir Klitschko on Wilder’s résumé. The biggest name, by far, is Stiverne’s, whom he defeated in 2015 to win the belt.

Stiverne, though, isn’t much of a name himself. If Joshua is Tom Brady, then Stiverne might be Landry Jones. In other words, a win over Stiverne isn’t going to excite the masses.

Wilder was supposed to fight Alexander Povetkin, certainly no Klitschko but a credible heavyweight who won the 2004 Olympic super heavyweight gold medal in Athens. Wilder was on a plane on the tarmac ready to fly to Moscow to fight Povetkin when he got word that Povetkin had failed a drug test and that the fight was off.

Wilder was supposed to be fighting Luis Ortiz, the power-punching unbeaten former heavyweight champion, but Ortiz failed a drug test and was replaced by Stiverne.

And it’s all getting to be a bit much for the champion to take.

“Well, my head is in a peaceful state of mind,” Wilder said. “I still sit back now and still just analyze my career and I’ll just sit back and just think. I’m like, ‘What have I done? What have I done so wrong to get the bad end of the stick with every fight that comes in? All I ever wanted was to fight the best. When I say I am the best, it shows not only on the record but all the way around as a person. It just saddens me. Man, it just saddens me. It makes me re-evaluate my career. It almost made me lose the love of boxing for a little bit as well, because of certain things and activities that has been known in this sport with these guys avoiding or wanting to get on bad substances when they know they’re not supposed to be taking it in the first place.

“That’s the thing about it. You take it in the first place, and you make up excuses, and then the blame is pointed at me. It’s starting to sicken me. I don’t want to feel this way about boxing because I was once in love with it and it’s starting to make me rethink my career. Am I better out of this sport than in this sport because of this stuff that’s going on? Am I that dangerous to other fighters’ careers that they feel they have to do certain things when it comes to Deontay Wilder? I just want to be proven wrong, man. I just want to be proven wrong.”

Questions linger about whether Wilder can fight, as in really fight. You only prove that when you face the elite competition. Riddick Bowe had such questions swirling around him after his Olympic career, but he beat Evander Holyfield in 1992 in one of the great heavyweight fights in history and the questions ended on the spot.

And they’d end on the spot if Wilder stood opposite Joshua and put on a show.

But this being boxing, who knows if it will occur in a timely manner or at all?

Wilder may forever be remembered for what might have been, a guy who had the tools who didn’t get the push or the opportunity to prove himself.

There are a lot of people to blame for Wilder’s plight, and little, if any of it, is Wilder’s fault personally.

This is boxing, though, and that’s how boxing has been run for years.

And it’s a reason why, even when there are good fights and great attendance, you never really believe the sport has taken that next step.

There is always the case of someone like Deontay Wilder to remind you that it will never change.

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