By Jason Keidel
You may hear a boxing wakeup call when Deontay Wilder fights Luis Ortiz next weekend at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Boxing has been kept afloat by the stable of wildly gifted fighters at lighter weights, anywhere from lightweight to middleweight, where the sport is still quite fertile. For all the headaches he brought, Floyd Mayweather Jr was vital to boxing, as was Manny Pacquiao, Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, and others who have passed the baton to Canelo Alvarez, Terence Crawford, Keith Thurman, and others.
It raises a two-pronged question. Why is there such a dearth of dominant heavyweights? And why hasn’t that talent shortage touched the welterweight division?
First, we haven’t seen a loaded heavyweight division since Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and Riddick Bowe made a most formidable quartet for a few reasons. But the main reason is that team sports have poached the gifted 220-pound athlete, who can play power forward, first base, or free safety for more money and sans the incessant punches to the face and subsequent brain damage. Even with the emergence of CTE in former NFL players, we see myriad former football players remain alive and lucid deep into their golden years. Not so much with boxing, where the dim lights of dementia seem to touch virtually any and every boxer who has a few dozen bouts under his belt.
Second, you will always see great fighters from middleweight dow,n because gifted young men between 120 and 160 pounds don’t have the same options we see in much larger men. Sugar Ray Leonard was never going to get a football scholarship from Notre Dame. Boxing is the only sport designed for athletes of all contours.
Still, the ancient boxing maxim says that the sport is only as strong as the heavyweight division. That’s not entirely true, but there is some merit to it. And it also helps to have an American preening from the apex of the sport.
Enter Deontay Wilder, the 6-foot-7 behemoth who not only has the size but the resume to capture our nation’s attention. Wilder has fought 39 times, won 39 times, and knocked out his opponent 38 times. This Tyson-esque dominance doesn’t come with the same fear or fanfare it did in Iron Mike’s day, for two reasons. First, the sport isn’t as big as it was 30 years ago. But perhaps more important, Wilder hasn’t fought someone the nation knows. Only hardcore boxing devotees can name a handful of Wilder’s foes, and no one is clamoring for a third fight against Bermane Stiverne, the only fighter Wilder has failed to floor.
In order for Wilder to become front-page material, he needs to fight someone of considerably more cachet. Wladimir Klitschko has surrendered his crown and retired. But British heavyweight sensation Anthony Joshua — the man who just defeated Klitschko in a classic brawl — as an opponent would be the one bout sure to get the media and masses pumped up. Many pundits think Joshua is the next great heavyweight champion.
And while most fighters — well, at least their promoters — like to draw out a fight’s promotion, now is the time for Wilder v Joshua. At 6-foot-6, Joshua is every bit as big, and every bit as gifted, as Wilder. And, at 28-years-old, Joshua is four years younger. Which presents the greatest reason the bell needs to ring on this bout. Wilder, at 32, is in his absolute prime and will not get any better from here on.
Provided he beats Ortiz on March 3, Wilder doesn’t need any tune-up fights, no bum of the month clubs, a la Joe Louis. No more ducking or dodging or subterfuge. In fairness to Wilder, or any boxer of his talent and temerity, it’s almost never the fighter’s fault when a big bout doesn’t take place when it should. It’s most often the promoters who try to squeeze every dollar out of these fights. The boxers themselves are willing to fight anyone, anytime.
But when the avarice of promoters, handlers, and other sycophants take over, no one wins. Look at MayPac. The most anticipated fight of this young century went off five years too late. So we missed seeing Pacquiao in his absolute prime taking on Mayweather. Oscar De La Hoya didn’t become truly respected or iconic until he shed his “Chicken Da La Hoya” image and began to take charge of his career, fighting Felix Trinidad, Mosley (twice), and Bernard Hopkins. De La Hoya got more love and respect losing to a much bigger Hopkins than he ever got beating an ancient Julio Cesar Chavez. Likewise, Wilder needs to pine for Joshua now, not next year, while both men age and one could lose.
If Wilder wins on March 3, he will be king of New York for a night, and perhaps America’s top heavyweight. But he needs to defeat England’s best boxer to prove he’s the king of the boxing world.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.