Heavyweight who's been mistaken for LeBron may be boxing's next big thing

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Deontay Wilder and LeBron James

James and Wilder mod art

Deontay Wilder and LeBron James

LAS VEGAS – Deontay Wilder seems almost too good to be true. He's 32-0 with 32 knockouts, 18 of them in the first round. He's a dedicated father who has given tender loving care to his eight-year-old daughter, Naieya, who is afflicted with spina bifida.

He's big (6-foot-7), athletic and a good-looking guy who smiles easily, laughs a lot and enjoys hearing and telling a joke.

Deontay Wilder goes to a neutral corner after knocking down Malik Scott in March 2014. (AP)
Deontay Wilder goes to a neutral corner after knocking down Malik Scott in March 2014. (AP)
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For more than 45 minutes Tuesday, he held a small group of boxing reporters in the palm of his hand. He was engaging, entertaining and downright fun to be around as he spoke of his bout for the WBC heavyweight title on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden against champion Bermane Stiverne.

It sounds like heresy to say it, but it was almost like a young Muhammad Ali had returned. Wilder hasn't accomplished anything of note in the professional ranks, but a division with him on top would suddenly become so much more compelling.

He talked about his experience in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when he was the only American to win a medal by capturing a bronze in the super heavyweight division. But he didn't spend a long time analyzing amateur boxing and his Olympic run. Rather, he related an amusing story about being confused for LeBron James.

"I had to have security at the Olympics because they thought I was LeBron James," Wilder said. "I had security guards who used to work for the government. They protected the president before. I had fun with it.

"They [members of the Team USA basketball squad] wanted to come over to the [Olympic] Village and be with us, Kobe [Bryant], Dwight Howard and all of them."

Once, a group of tourists at Disney World saw Wilder. They, too, thought he was James, but none of them approached him. They were pretty sure, but not certain, that it was the greatest basketball player in the world they were checking out.

A boxing fan happened to see him and knew who he was, though, and asked for an autograph.

LeBron James undoubtedly wouldn't mind changing places with Wilder in the win-loss column. (Getty)
LeBron James undoubtedly wouldn't mind changing places with Wilder in the win-loss column. (Getty)

"I could hear the whispers – 'Is that LeBron James?' " Wilder said, laughing. "After it was over, they were like, 'LeBron! Hey, LeBron!' A person who knew who I was, I signed the autograph and that was like the confirmation.

"They were like, 'Yeah! That is him. LeBron! Hey LeBron!' "

He laughed at the memory and said he has a "silly, every day personality." It's the kind of personality that caused him to put on a wig with long braids similar to the hairstyle that Stiverne wears.

Whereas Stiverne was uncomfortable and spoke in a whisper, Wilder scored a clear victory in the media battle on Tuesday. The question, of course, is whether he can fight. He hasn't fought anyone who was regarded as a true test.

Stiverne, of course, is a legitimate test. Stiverne is big, strong and powerful, as well, and he's got decent boxing skills for a guy who stands nearly 6-foot-3 and weighs around 240 pounds.

Wilder needs to prove himself, as if the 32 knockouts in 32 fights don't count. However, until he beats someone who is a proven commodity, those previous wins count for little. Oh, they look great on a résumé, but they won't mean a thing if he can't win the ring. Or something like that.

He's been hounded about his competition level and about whether he can go on if the fight lasts any length of time. He didn't get angry when the subject was broached. Rather, he smiled and gave an answer which cut to the heart of the matter.

"It's totally ridiculous," he said. "It's ridiculous to me and a little bit of foolishness, if I could say that. Everybody expresses their opinion, so I'd like to express mine. On the one hand, I could see where they could come with it because they've never seen me go past four rounds. They have never seen me get flushly hit.

"But being the facts that are given, don't count me out. I'm a professional fighter. I do this for a living. I'm an elite athlete who does this for a living. Do you think I really train for four rounds? I'm not a journeyman. I don't train for no four-rounders like I'm a Butterbean or something like that."

Deontay Wilder (R) roughs up Nicolai Firtha. (USA TODAY Sports)
Deontay Wilder (R) roughs up Nicolai Firtha. (USA TODAY Sports)

Butterbean, of course, is the farm boy who appeared on a lot of Oscar De La Hoya undercards in the 1990s and was billed as "The King of the Four Rounders."

It's that kind of a touch that makes Wilder such a potential star. Stephen Espinoza, the executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports, referred to him as a game-changer.

That is as apt a description as any. The division is slowly, and finally, beginning to show signs of life after years of talent dormancy. And if it gets a charismatic and power-punching guy like Wilder as its face, it will mean a tremendous amount.

"I would describe this as a potential game-changer," Espinoza said. "And I don't mean that just for our network. It would be a game-changer for this sport. Having an American heavyweight champion, young, articulate, entertaining and funny, who looks the part, would go a long way with the casual fan. The potential Deontay has to do great things and boost this sport is, quite frankly, immense."

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