Deontay Wilder could revive heavyweight division and boxing, but does he have the desire to do it?

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Deontay Wilder faces former USC football player Gerald Washington on Saturday. (Getty Images)
Deontay Wilder faces former USC football player Gerald Washington on Saturday. (Getty Images)

He’s more than eight years into his professional career, 25 months into his heavyweight title reign and yet Deontay Wilder, the most charismatic, hard-punching heavyweight in the world, remains an enigma.

What is he, exactly?

As a seemingly bright new heavyweight era dawns, with fighters like Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker showing immense promise, Wilder almost seems to be treading water.

He’s finally left the proverbial “Land of the Misfit Toys,” the no-hopers that he feasted upon for the majority of his career after he won a bronze medal for the U.S. at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but he still isn’t in with A-list opposition.

He faced frighteningly poor competition on the way up, though that’s not much of a revelation. In modern boxing, that’s the modus operandi for most prospects. But by four years in, they generally seem to step up to the world-class level on a regular basis.

Not Wilder, though. He didn’t face a top-tier, in-his-prime opponent until 2015, when he lifted the WBC heavyweight belt from Bermane Stiverne on Jan. 17 in Las Vegas, more than six years after turning pro.

He’s gotten great exposure since winning the belt, fighting on Showtime twice, Fox once and NBC once. When he defends his belt on Saturday against ex-USC football player Gerald Washington, he’ll appear on Fox yet again.

He was injured in his last outing, a stoppage of a faded Chris Arreola, and hasn’t fought since that July 16 match in Birmingham, Ala.

“Everything is feeling really great right now but the real test will be when I get into the ring,” Wilder said. “We’ll see if I’m 100 percent. I’ve been giving it my all in training camp and we’ll really see how it holds up when my fist hits his face.”

Those words don’t make one optimistic that the fights everyone wants to see – Wilder versus Joshua, Parker, Wladimir Klitschko, Andy Ruiz, Luis Ortiz, even Tyson Fury – will happen soon, if at all.

It’s puzzling why he’s been moved so cautiously. He got a late start to his boxing career, but he’s long since proven his talent. He’s one of the best promoters in the game, has legitimate pop in both hands and has a passionate fan base.

But he’s been moved conservatively, almost protected, as he’s largely sat on the title. He spoke at a recent workout of making this the year he steps it up, to which one can only say, “It’s about time. What took you so long?”

“I think I’m close to unifying the belts,” Wilder said. “I think this year will be a big step forward. A lot of people are talking about it and my team is 100 percent on board with it. We’re taking the right approach to getting me in the position to get all the belts. There are going to be a lot of great heavyweight fights this year.”

After a disastrous year in 2016, during which many big-name fights failed to be made, things seem on the upswing this year. Already in the heavyweight division, Joshua has signed to fight Klitschko on April 29 in London. That is expected to have a crowd of around 90,000.

We can only hope that Wilder is in that mix of great heavyweight fights to come, because it would only elevate the division and the sport. Wilder has the ability to be that rare champion who transcends boxing and become an icon to the wider sports marketplace, though the clock is quickly ticking.

Wilder has everything it takes to be the most popular heavyweight in the U.S. since Mike Tyson’s prime, and that’s no exaggeration. But it takes health, big fights and the desire to do that.

We’ll find out about his health soon enough, and the big fights are clearly there for him.

It’s the desire we’ll have to see about. He’s a smart guy and has to know that he’s been slow-tracked. He should demand the big fights the moment the bell sounds to end the match with Washington.

Call out the Joshua-Klitschko winner. Call out Parker, Ortiz, Ruiz and Fury. Pick one, then campaign hard for the fight to be held.

Is he the guy to do that? I believe so, but we’ll only know for sure by his actions.

If he does so, he’d not only guarantee he’d become a rich young man in a hurry, but he could lift an entire sport with him.

That’s a pretty good incentive.

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