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Deontay Wilder needs some heavyweight competition

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Great heavyweights are a rare commodity these days. There is a serious debate about whether Wladimir Klitschko deserves to be called great, largely because he's had few really significant challengers.

But if for the sake of argument we agree that Klitschko is great, the painful truth is that there is no one else in the division who is remotely considered great.

And therein lies much of the problem with the way Klitschko is perceived. If there aren't great opponents for him to defeat, how can we measure his talent properly?

Sugar Ray Leonard was great because he defeated Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Muhammad Ali was great because he beat the likes of Sonny Liston and George Foreman and Joe Frazier.

Klitschko hasn't had those kinds of opponents available, and so there is a large segment of the boxing fan base, largely but not exclusively Americans, who question his greatness.

Deontay Wilder vs. Eric Molina isn't expected to be much of a fight. (AP)
Deontay Wilder vs. Eric Molina isn't expected to be much of a fight. (AP)

Casual fans still subscribe to the trite theory that as the heavyweights go, so goes boxing.

If that were true, however, boxing would have been dead and buried long ago, because the past 10 or 15 years have been one of the weakest eras in heavyweight history.

What boxing needs are stars, fighters who make not only the hard-core fans but also the casual fans want to tune in.

Mike Tyson fights were an event. When Tyson fought Peter McNeeley in 1995, the country was truly excited, even though McNeeley was only marginally better than Butterbean.

There are no stars in the division other than Klitschko, though Deontay Wilder gives reason to believe he could become one.

For some reason, Showtime agreed to broadcast Wilder's first WBC title defense on Saturday, when he meets Eric Molina, a total non-entity whose primary qualification to fight for the heavyweight title is that he is more than 200 pounds.

He's 23-2 with 17 knockouts, but he's faced frighteningly poor opposition. Worse, his two losses were both by first-round knockout. The first came in his pro debut to Ashanti Jordan, and the second came at the fists of Chris Arreola.

Frankly, how Molina got a shot at the heavyweight title is one of life's great mysteries. Ali-Frazier III, this fight is not.

This is nothing other than a showcase bout for Wilder, who won the title in January by scoring a clear decision over Bermane Stiverne. It's an opportunity for him to score a resounding early knockout in front of his hometown fans in Birmingham, Ala.

Wilder was criticized roundly before the Stiverne fight for his weak level of opposition. But when he handled Stiverne without much trouble, hope grew.

Wilder can talk a great game. He's quick-witted, personable and comfortable with the media. He's got the look at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, resembling a world-class athlete, and is often mistaken for LeBron James.

He'd hoped to be fighting Tyson Fury in his first defense, but when Klitschko showed interest in defending his belts against Fury, Wilder wanted to keep active.

The point is to gain exposure by fighting regularly on television. Now, I'm not sure how blowing out a no-hoper such as Molina will advance that cause, but Wilder believes that getting people to see him and know him will make a difference.

"As far as the boxing atmosphere, the thing is to be active, keep your face on TV," Wilder told Yahoo Sports. "I'm trying to become a household name. I want to fight constantly throughout the period of the year. I'm looking forward to this fight come Saturday, and if God so has it that I don't get injured, I plan to come back in September. And after that, I want to come back in December."

There are some parallels that can be drawn between Wilder and middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin, the knockout artist who is quickly becoming one of the sport's most popular fighters.

If Golovkin has come under any criticism, it's for his lack of big-time opposition. Since he began fighting on HBO in 2012, his opponents have not been the big, familiar names that some fans expect.

Deontay Wilder, left, celebrates winning the WBC heavyweight title against Bermane Stiverne in January. (Getty)
Deontay Wilder, left, celebrates winning the WBC heavyweight title against Bermane Stiverne in January. (Getty)

He's feasted on the likes of Grzegorz Proksa and Willie Monroe Jr.

Now, Golovkin has tried to get a match with the likes of Miguel Cotto, Canelo Alvarez, Julio Cesar Chavez, Carl Froch and Andre Ward, to name a few, to no avail at this point.

But what he's done is consistently go out and fight, score knockouts, pick up title belts and appear on television. It's made him a cult hero if not a big-time star. Fans greeted his arrival in the ring at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., for his win over Monroe last month by chanting, "GGG! GGG! GGG!"

Wilder has punching power like Golovkin. Wilder is 33-0 with 32 knockouts, and hit Stiverne so hard while winning the belt that he bent a metal rod he had inserted in his wrist during a previous surgery.

The perception about Wilder, though, diverts from Golovkin in one area: Golovkin is perceived to be chasing the best opposition possible, while Wilder is not.

It's something Wilder needs to address.

There is some talent finally on the rise in the heavyweight division. In addition to Fury, who is 24-0 with 18 knockouts and is an outstanding trash talker, there are a number of other talents who are on the verge of breaking through.

Chief among them is Anthony Joshua, the super heavyweight gold medalist in London in 2012 who is now 13-0 with 13 knockouts as a pro.

One of the problems for Wilder, in addition to level of opposition, is financial. Budgets are what they are and there is a reason the best fighters don't fight more than three or four times a year, at most.

Promoters can't afford to pay them what they demand, particularly if they aren't facing elite opposition.

But Wilder is banking on the fact that he'll be exciting and must-watch TV for those who tune in.

"People love big bodies, and they love big bodies especially if they get in there and give them a real fight," Wilder said. "I'm going to give them a show every time, no matter who I'm facing. A guy who is exciting as I am and who has the charisma and charm I do, people are going to want to see.

"One of the keys to this thing is to all push each other. All the top guys need to be out there fighting and pushing each other. People love guys with personality who come to fight. If I get a reputation, that's what I want: Every time out, I'm going to give you a show and make you feel like you got your money's worth."

And so Wilder will face a guy few have heard of and whom he is expected to defeat easily. He hopes that whatever highlights come from the fight with Molina, they will help him in his next outing.

There is no question that Wilder has the potential to not only become a star, but to be a difference-maker in the sport.

But to do it, the opposition level has to ratchet up significantly, or the public will soon tire of the act.

It's all in his hands now.