By Steve Kim
Deontay Wilder just might be the most important boxer in America. Mind you, I'm not saying the best or most talented, but the most important. There was a time when owning the heavyweight crown was the biggest honor in all of sports. The saying went, "As goes the heavyweight division, so goes the boxing business."
The heavyweight crown meant you were the "baddest man on the planet," and for the better part of a century, that made the U.S. the epicenter of the sport. John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield all made sure that the heavyweight title stayed in America. (And you thought U.S. Steel had a monopoly.) Yes, the lineage was broken at times by foreigners like Ingemar Johansson, but their reigns were short, the title handed back quickly to the likes of Floyd Patterson.
But something funny has happened in the last decade or so: American heavyweights have become afterthoughts.
Since Lamon Brewster held the WBO title from 2004 to 2006, no U.S.-born-and-bred big man has held a version of the heavyweight title. American heavyweights have been a forgetful lot, ceding control of the game's glamor division to the two-headed monster that is the Klitschko brothers and other European entities.
Forget Iron Mike or the Brown Bomber -- where have you gone, Buster Douglas?
Well, most likely to the NBA or NFL. Boxing once was, alongside baseball, the dominant sport in American life. Nowadays, boxing is a niche sport for the most part, struggling to get as many column inches in newspapers as the X-Games and the WNBA. Years ago, when boxing gyms were abundant all across the country, a strong amateur program consistently produced amateur standouts that would win gold medals in the Olympics, which then catapulted them to professional stardom. Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Michael and Leon Spinks and Evander Holyfield were all Olympians, and all eventually wore the heavyweight crown.
Many of these boxers of the past were African-Americans who, in a less liberated time, didn't have roster spots available to them in other sports. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and chances are that a large majority of our youth is taught to dribble a basketball, tackle properly or field a grounder before the consideration of learning how to parry a jab is ever broached.
The drought is so prolonged that there is no longer any talk of a Great White Hope from the media. We now yearn for any decent heavyweight.
Wilder, who faces Sergei Liakhovich this Friday night on Showtime, is the latest in a line of American heavyweights who came to the sport only after realizing that their chances at professional stardom were not going to happen with the Miami Heat or the Baltimore Ravens. The heavyweight standouts of the past were born and bred in the sport. Now, Americans in this division more likely are individuals who couldn't hit the slider, didn't grab enough rebounds or blew out their knees, turning to boxing only as a last resort.
This trend actually began with Ed "Too Tall" Jones, who took a sabbatical from his day job with the Dallas Cowboys to dabble with the Sweet Science. It was a short and controversial run that saw Jones go back to "America's Team" after missing just one season. Years later, retired New York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau had a farcical run as a prizefighter that included allegations of fight-fixing and opponents who were poisoned before their fights.
Once Alonzo Highsmith's knees no longer could withstand the rigors of playing fullback in the NFL, he turned to boxing and had a respectable run -- 27-2-1 with 23 knockouts -- against a carefully selected lot of opponents. Later on, the likes of Michael Grant, Derrick Jefferson, Derric Rossy, Lance Whitaker and Jameel McCline had various degrees of success in the sport. They were all cut from the same cloth, behemoths around 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and they had varying degrees of success before falling on the game's biggest stage to more experienced pugilists.
Now comes the next generation of athletes-turned-heavyweights: Bryant Jennings, who didn't find his way into a boxing gym till his mid-20's, despite being from the fighting city of Philadelphia. Then there's Seth Mitchell, who was a linebacker at Michigan State a decade ago, thought to be headed for big things until Johnathan Banks stopped him in two rounds last November. While he was able to avenge that defeat earlier this summer, the cautious manner in which he boxed left as many questions as he answered. Dominic Breazeale, who several years ago was a signal caller at Northern Colorado University but is now a professional fighter after representing the United States in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Deontay Wilder, meanwhile, has scored 28 knockouts in 28 professional outings. Promoted by Golden Boy Promotions and advised by the powerful Al Haymon, he seemingly has the tools for heavyweight stardom: requisite size -- coming in at 6'7" and a chiseled and athletic 220-plus pounds -- and a jack-hammer right hand. He is an engaging and personable individual with charisma. In boxing, they call it "promotability." You want to believe in the "Bronze Bomber."
So what's not to like?
Well, he comes from a similar background -- which is to say limited -- to his above-mentioned colleagues. More than that, I just can't get over what I saw on the night of October 15, 2010, when Wilder was matched against Harold Sconiers. Sconiers came in with the rather pedestrian mark of 17-20-2 but was able to floor Wilder in the 2nd round of their contest -- and this was no flash knockdown that could be brushed off easily as a fluke.
His handlers were so alarmed that his very next fight was against the rather, uh, shall we say, unimposing Danny Sheehan who had a ledger of 11-38. Since that point he has been winning against more formidable opposition. The only real problem he's had since that point is an altercation that landed him on the police blotter this past May, which somehow was swept under the rug, conveniently.
Liakhovich, Wilder's opponent this Friday night, is a steadily declining fighter who actually represents a step up of sorts for Wilder. The hope is that Liakhovich's experience will carry him into the late rounds against Wilder, but that his age and deterioration ultimately will leave him unable to prevail.
With that, Wilder will continue his rise up the heavyweight ranks, as will the expectations on this 27-year old from Tuscaloosa, Ala., a city more known for producing BCS National Champions than heavyweight champions. Can this version of the Crimson Tide go all the way?
We can only hope.
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Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at email@example.com and he tweets (a lot).