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Deontay Wilder: Hope or Hype?


imagesIt is fast approaching 90 years since an Englishman last won Wimbledon, with no end to the drought in sight.  They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder but, in reality, a paucity of that which we love can wring all sorts of emotions out of a lonely soul.

The thirst for one of their own to triumph on the green grass of SW19 has actually driven small pockets of the Home Counties to near madness as the years tick by.  The dearth of a true successor to Fred Perry has also seen the All England Club debenture holders seek solace from a delightfully eclectic band of bedfellows.

In the darkest days, some, most likely in Pims-induced stupors, went so far as to believe an awfully pleasant chap named Jeremy could deliver the holy grail.  Others adopted a big, game Canadian and let him gallop roughshod over the manicured lawns in search of glory.  A few have even cut their losses and now cheer on a Pict: though I imagine they die a little inside every time they allow a “Go on Andy” to escape in support of the independence-seeking, anyone-but-England-supporting, dour Scotsman’s dour Scotsman.

images (5)Thanks to the existence of a heavyweight boxing division, the United States of America now feels Berkshire’s and Surrey’s pain.  Though admittedly far from an 89 year famine, the US is undoubtedly feeling a little peckish as they wait impatiently for a genuine champion to carry the torch Evander Holyfield had extinguished and locked up for safe-keeping around the turn of the century.

They’ve had their own Bateses and Rusedskis and Murrays during this period of desperation.  The likes of Calvin Brock and Kevin Johnson made plenty of noise until a Klitschko jab shut them up.  Other highly fancied prospects, such as Chazz Witherspoon, Dominic Guinn and Eddie Chambers didn’t even get that far.  Then Seth Mitchell was the next big thing until Johnathon Banks sparked him out in a couple of rounds in 2012 and Chris Arreola did likewise in half the time a year later.

When Mitchell’s bubble burst, the heavyweight division was in real danger of being wound down Stateside and handed over to Eastern Europe to do with it as they pleased.  “Wladimir and Vitali can jab and hold their way to victories in Baden-Württemberg until they are 60 for all I care” was the general consensus.

Then, just when all hope seemed lost, a muscular, six foot six and a half, tattooed, Tuscaloosa phoenix rose from the flames with an Olympic bronze medal around his neck and a string of early knockout victories in his wake.

images (2)His name is Deontay Wilder and on Saturday night in Las Vegas he’ll attempt to become the first American heavyweight champion since Shannon Briggs ever so briefly held the lowly-regarded WBO title eight years ago.

Wilder is an athletic, charismatic, more marketable alternative to the motley crew of stoic Europeans, sideshow freaks and labouring old-timers that have populated what is traditionally regarded as the marquee weight class for the past decade.  His backstory of taking up the sport in order to provide for a daughter born with spina bifida also adds a degree of pathos to the narrative that further widens the demographic willing to get behind the latest Great Yank Hope.

Perhaps for the final time, American fight fans have allowed themselves to believe that they have in their midst the one true saviour.

And should he leave Nevada on Sunday with Bermane Stiverne’s WBC belt holding up his slacks, why stop there?  With one Klitschko now with his iron fists full as Mayor of Kiev, and the other pushing 40 years of age, surely the entire division is there to be unified.  Dare the US dream of its first undisputed heavyweight king since Riddick Bowe almost a quarter of a century ago?

images (3)Time for a deep breath.  The above Hollywood-esque script contributes to the sticky, web of hope that has captured the imagination of a portion of the American sports-viewing public.  The reality may very well turn out to be more Brothers Grimm than Disney, however.

Though few will deny that a contender like Wilder fully deserves his shot at a champion like Stiverne, the cynic may interpret that more as an indictment of the quality of the current crop of heavyweight fighters rather than any genuine validation of either individual’s status in the sport.

Wilder is 32 and 0 with 32 knockouts, all within four rounds of fighting.  While on the face of it that makes for impressive reading in anyone’s book, some of the lustre is removed when you scratch below the surface of his record.

His first 12 opponents had averaged less than eight fights, and less than four victories, each when they faced the Bronze Bomber.  The next ten may have had a little more experience but, with an average of eleven losses each, they were of a similar calibre to the opening batch of cannon fodder.

Although all fighters are reared on a diet of canned tomatoes in the infancy of their career, it is equally true that the quality of tomato tends to improve markedly year on year.  The fact that, four years into his career, and at the relatively ripe age of 27, Wilder was still feasting on discounted Asda own-brand when he should have already sampled Sainsbury’s Basic and been looking towards Tesco Finest, tinkled an alarm bell in some quarters.

images (1)There has been tiny steps up in his last ten outings but everything is relative.  Damon McCreary and Kelvin Price may have been unbeaten, but both were the wrong side of 35 and subsequent losses have proven their actual level.

In terms of match-ups against boxers you may actually have heard of, Audley Harrison performed as we expect Audley Harrison to perform before a semi-retired Liakhovich also fell at the first.  Malik Scott should have provided a test of sorts but a phantom glancing blow ended his night barely a minute in.

Then, as a final outing before he challenges for the championship of the world, Wilder was matched with Jason Gavern, a 37 year old journeyman who had lost nine of his previous fourteen fights.  In short, a roll call of his victims to date would struggle to strike fear into the heart of a timorous mouse.  Or Charlie Zelenoff.

Bermane Stiverne, meanwhile, has been quietly going about his business.  The champion is a tough, solid boxer who has proven he can both take and throw a punch. His last two outings yielded victories over the durable and reliable Chris Arreola and those fights alone are worth more in terms of ring experience than Wilder’s 32 knockouts combined.

images (4)He’s no Hall of Famer but then again, maybe he doesn’t need to be.  And therein lies the intrigue of this fight.  Much like last November’s Billy Joe Saunders v Chris Eubank Jr. match up, no one can really be sure whether Wilder belongs in this company.  Eubank, like Wilder, had looked devastating against limited opposition while Saunders, like Stiverne, was tried and tested against at a higher level.

The bookies have seen fit to install the challenger as an odds on favourite but seeds of doubt pepper the fertile minds of boxing fans and writers.  This has led to predictions ranging from a comfortable unanimous decision for Bermane to an early stoppage for the Deontay sprouting up across mainstream sites and blogs alike.  If nothing else, it has grown into a bona fide pick ‘em bout and that is enough for me to tune in at some Godforsaken hour on Sunday morning.

And hell, if it turns out Wilder was indeed more hype than hope, just another mirage in the desert of broken American heavyweight dreams, then the Haitian-born, Canadian-resident Stiverne is in the process of securing American nationality.  If the housewives of Kent could welcome Greg Rusedski into their hearts, then surely US fight fans will be able to accept big Bermane as one of their own.