By Cliff Rold
His Bronze Medal remains a positive sign.
For all the talk about the Olympic success being less a gauge of professional futures these days, the results don’t necessarily support the chatter. Guillermo Rigondeaux and Gennady Golovkin were Olympic medalists before they were pros. Andre Ward was as well. This fall, arguably the biggest fight the Heavyweight division can make (that hasn’t already been made) will take place between a pair of Olympic Gold Medalists at Super Heavyweight, Wladimir Klitschko (1996) and Alexander Povetkin (2004).
Between them was Audley Harrison.
The Olympics was never a guarantee of professional greatness. For every Ray Leonard who set the world aflame, there was a Howard Davis who couldn’t quite get to the title circles.
Fighters today who turn pro without bothering to chase Olympic glory don’t disprove the value of Olympic accomplishment. Mike Tyson, Marvin Hagler, and Aaron Pryor didn’t make the Games in their day. They made the professional Hall of Fame instead. Olympic glory is what it always was: a suggestion of future potential often realized.
Deontay Wilder is part of two unique parts of the Olympic tradition. He is the only medalist for the US in the last two Games. He is also a Heavyweight.
Heavyweight medalists haven’t all won titles as pros but a substantial portion of the future elite in the last 60 years did. Klitschko, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, and Riddick Bowe all medaled at Heavyweight or Super heavyweight.
Future beltholders Ray Mercer, Francesco Damiani, and John Tate did as well. Felix Savon and Teofilo Stevenson both would have had a shot as pros but the constraints of Cuba deferred those dreams.
Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, Leon and Michael Spinks, and Evander Holyfield all held the lineal Heavyweight crown after medal wins at lower divisions as well.
It is not to say Wilder will reach the heights of any of the men mentioned. David Price, Henry Tillman, Tyrell Biggs, Brian Nielsen, and David Tua all medaled as well. Tua is probably the best Heavyweight of the split title era never to win a belt; that is, for the sake of this discussion, not much different from just pointing out he didn’t win one.
But it is enough to know that Wilder, in winning the Bronze in 2008, at least has the beginnings of a pedigree. As a professional, he has the beginnings of a career. At 28-0, 28 KO, it couldn’t look much better on paper.
Eventually, paper doesn’t count anymore. A fighter is only judged by numbers for so long. Eventually they must make those numbers add up. Wilder has been carefully moved, projected as a project fighter even from the Olympic stand. Nearing the five-year mark of his career, knockouts over recognizable names like Owen Beck and Audley Harrsion, along with undefeated prospects Kelvin Price, show movement in the project.
Friday night is a critical next step. For the first time, Wilder will face a former titlist in the division. Sergiy LIakhovich (25-5, 16 KO) held his WBO title for only a few months in 2006. After winning what still stands as the last capital “G”reat fight in the division, a decision over Lamon Brewster, he lost his title right away in a dreary bout with Shannon Briggs.
It is fair to say neither Liakhovich or Brewster was ever the same fighter after that night. Liakhovich has only occasionally been a fighter at all. Five fights since Briggs have seen him go 3-2 with stoppage losses to Robert Helenius and Bryant Jennings (another, along with Andy Ruiz, vying with Wilder for American futures).
He is being brought in to lose on Friday. If he doesn’t, Wilder buzz will disintegrate before it ever really gets started. If he tests him, and still loses, skepticism about Wilder’s long-term chances will likely remain in the corners they exist in now.
But Wilder will keep moving forward.
And if he can impress with another booming KO early, there will the expected mix of hyperbole about the finish and chatter about the foe already being finished anyways.
But Wilder will keep moving forward.
American broadcasters have hoped for a new American Heavyweight to invest in since the start of the 2000s. Wilder’s combination of height (6’7), power, and hand speed are all part of the package one would hope for.
Lamon Brewster, Chris Byrd, Shannon Briggs, John Ruiz, Hasim Rahman, Roy Jones all won titles; Rahman briefly won THE title from Lennox Lewis. Brewster won the first of two bouts with Wladimir Klitschko. Some were more hyped than others.
None did anything to permanently alter the course of what was first the end of the Lewis era and then the twin dominance of the Klitschko’s. Just as the rest of the world watched the US own the heavyweight division for most of the 20th century, America now watches the rest of the world do the same to them.
Deontay Wilder will always have a medal to look back on. Friday, he takes another step towards finding out if he has a world title to look forward to.
And American fight fans and networks will be watching to see if they have anything to look forward to as well.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]