LAS VEGAS – Over the years, Bermane Stiverne has become close with a number of Miami Dolphins football players.
Stiverne, the WBC heavyweight champion, would hang out with the players and see them besieged by fans. There would be autograph and photo requests and people who just wanted to hang out and be in their presence for a few moments.
But those people could never quite figure out the identity of the big, thick guy with the long braids. Time after time, Stiverne would pass through the crowds as something of a mystery man.
No one knew him.
And now, even as he prepares to defend his title for the first time when he meets Deontay Wilder on Saturday in a Showtime-televised match at the MGM Grand Garden, he's still bidding for recognition.
Stiverne is a quiet, soft-spoken sort who will never say five words when one will do.
"We'll be out at dinner and we pretty much won't talk," said Don House, Stiverne's vastly underrated trainer. "Bermane is just one of those quiet guys."
He was once a highly regarded prospect. When he first arrived in Las Vegas, he did so amid much fanfare.
He won his first 12 fights before he was stopped unexpectedly by Demetrice King.
House, though, saw the warning signs. The easygoing Stiverne, he found, was easygoing even in the ring.
"The first time I saw him, I said, 'This guy has the ability to be the heavyweight champion of the world,' " House said. "I really believed that. He started off good, but somewhere along the line, he started to get complacent.
"I finally had to leave him for a while. He was one of those guys, he sparred lazy, he fought lazy. He never seemed to really care. I told him, 'Don King can't sell you this way.' Mike Tyson had the speed, the power and the aggression. Bermane had the speed and the power, but he didn't have the aggression like Tyson. If he did, he could have been champion five years ago."
House seemed to care more and believe in Stiverne's ability more than the fighter himself. It took House parting ways with Stiverne for a few fights before Stiverne finally got it.
House returned to work with Stiverne for the Ray Austin fight in 2011. Though it wasn't Stiverne at his best, he came on late to stop Austin and essentially started on the path back toward contender status.
King, of course, never lost faith. Heavyweights often take longer to develop than smaller fighters, and King made his career with successful heavyweights.
One punch could change not only a fight, but a career, and there was no question Stiverne always had the punching power that would bring people out of their seats.
Stiverne didn't always give King a lot to work with, but King didn't give up hope. He knew the American boxing public wasn't enthralled with either of the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir or Vitali, and he was convinced that at some point or another, Stiverne would finally find the magic elixir.
"The Klitschkos went to Europe and as you know, they wouldn't come back out of Europe," King told Yahoo Sports. "They fought in Germany. They were the heavyweight champions of Germany, and if you didn't do right over there, you had little or no chance to win. People didn't want that. You have to give people what they want.
"People love the heavyweights because the fight changes in an instant. Bang! Ka-Pow! And it's over. I call this fight a return to glory, because it's a throwback to yesteryear when Mike Tyson and them were bringing the excitement. And I believe Bermane can be that guy like Tyson was."
Eventually, Stiverne finally came around to that way of thinking. He faced a big fight against Chris Arreola on April 27, 2013. Arreola is a tough, durable, hard-hitting guy who comes to fight. He may not always take training seriously, but no one ever accused Arreola of lacking toughness. The one thing you could count on in an Arreola fight was that he'd make it a fight.
Stiverne went in and, perhaps for the first time in his career, showed the full package. He's quicker than he looks. He's faster than he looks. He's a good counter-puncher. He has a lot of power.
He throttled Arreola that night, winning a unanimous decision. He badly broke Arreola's nose in the third round and Arreola struggled to breathe. Arreola used it as an excuse for why he couldn't come back to win, but Stiverne's people realized what it was they'd seen: Their fighter had just come of age.
"When he beat Chris Arreola in that fight, that's the first time he truly believed, 'Wow, I can become the heavyweight champion of the world,' " House said. "We knew he had it in him, but when he started to believe it, it turned things totally around."
Arreola was the bigger name, and so he got a rematch when he healed, but the rematch was for the title. Stiverne stopped him in the sixth round in a highly impressive performance.
Finally, he was the WBC heavyweight champion and fulfilled the long ago predictions so many experts made.
Stiverne, born in Haiti, received a call shortly after the fight from Haitian President Michel Martelly, offering congratulations.
It was a big enough boost that the soft-spoken champion did a little – just a little – boasting.
"I've got his number in my phone right here," he said. "I could call him right now."
He didn't, because like House said, he's not one for chit-chat.
But he's done his share of talking about Wilder. Wilder is 32-0 with 32 knockouts and has been getting the lion's share of media attention.
Stiverne seems a bit miffed and he's vowed to make a statement. Both men have promised to end the fight within four rounds.
"After this fight, you'll never, ever hear about Deontay Wilder again," Stiverne said.
For Stiverne, that's about as nasty as he gets. But his pride has been bruised by all of Wilder's taunts, and he at least wanted to make his point.
"It's going to be a real fight, a fight like you've never seen before," Stiverne said. "I'm no cab driver. I'm no one-hit wonder. This is the real deal. This belt here isn't going anywhere."
House couldn't agree more. Wilder is the favorite, but it's because Stiverne remains a mystery even after winning the title.
"It says 12 rounds on the contract, but it's not going 12," House said. "Bermane is going to see an opening, he'll counter-punch him, jab the guy and he'll do something to end it early. From Bermane's own mouth, and he doesn't often talk like this, but he said it's not going to go four rounds.
"When my fighter is that confident, I'm going to ride him. He's got the speed, power, the experience, everything he needs to beat Wilder and make a statement on Saturday night."
And if he does, he might be recognized by the crowds the next time he's hanging with some of the Dolphins.