By Jake Donovan
At the time the fight was booked, it appeared to be just another show on the schedule. For the first time in years, boxing boasted a full lineup in August, in addition to the Summer Olympics.
Three key injuries later, Deontay Wilder suddenly has the stage to himself.
The unbeaten heavyweight takes his talents to the Gulf Shores, as he faces Kertson Manswell this weekend in Mobile, Alabama. The bout airs live on Fox Sports, marking Wilder’s debut as a network headliner, which has become a big deal in his home state.
“Everyone is excited about a live international broadcast in Mobile,” exclaimed Jay Deas, who has guided Wilder’s career from the first time he donned a pair of boxing gloves more than seven years ago. “It’s been almost 30 years since live boxing on TV has come out of Alabama.
“We hope the TV crew loves Deontay and want him back in 30 days, not 30 years!”
Wilder has been fun to watch in his four years as a pro. His 23 knockouts in as many fights fits perfectly in line with Golden Boy Promotions’ “no judges needed” tagline that seems to surround all of their events as of late.
There’s actually a touch of irony to his gaining that much more focus this weekend in light of the injury bug. His own bout was in jeopardy after original opponent Kelvin Price pulled out a couple of weeks ago. The matchup was an easy sell for the networks – both heavyweights tower over the competition, hail from the South and are unbeaten.
Once Price removed himself from the fold, the concern was that Wilder’s replacement would resemble more of the same that has come with his career thus far. A sigh of relief came when Manswell made himself available on short notice.
“It’s great to get a guy of his stature this close to the fight,” commented Deas. “Usually when you have a replacement you find guys that are 18-15, 21-19, and it’s (an unfortunate) part of the sport. To find a guy that’s 6'4", 260 pounds, 22-5 with 17 knockouts and went the distance with (former heavyweight titlist) Ruslan Chagaev earlier this year makes for a great TV fight.”
The change in opponents was drastic on several levels. Price was the rare opponent with whom Wilder can see eye-to-eye (both are 6’7”). Along with their both being undefeated heavyweights, there was the regional rivalry – despite the fight taking place in Wilder’s homestate, the venue was much closer to Price’s hometown of Pensacola, Florida.
Manswell doesn’t bring quite as much to the table in that regard. The Trinidad and Tobago-based heavyweight is a long way from home, but is used to traveling around the world in search of meaningful heavyweight action.
Wilder has long ago grown used to preparing for last minute changes. He’s still only four years removed from his days as U.S. Olympic heavyweight, serving as the lone member of the 2008 squad to capture a medal when he earned a bronze, hence the “Bronze Bomber” moniker.
In the amateur circuit, very little if any time is provided to prepare for an opponent. You simply prepare for a fight and then show up on fight night ready for anything.
“Changing opponents is nothing new to me. It’s happened several times in my career already,” Wilder says, still of the ready-for-anything mindset required to get through the blind-seeding format of many amateur competitions. “I just have to be prepared for whatever comes my way. Camp has been good and I’m ready to go!”
A big enough win this weekend should allow for Wilder to breakout from the protected prospect level and graduate to the budding contender stage. Granted, Manswell is no world-beater by any stretch.
The flip side to the selling point that he went the distance with Chagaev is that he also lost by a considerable margin. There was also his debacle against unbeaten Alexander Ustinov this past March, in which Manswell was battered and stopped inside of three rounds.
Still, it’s a refreshing change of pace from what he’s faced thus far. Despite his inspiring tale and medal-winning efforts, expectations were modest when he elected to turn pro in Nov. ’08. Now two-dozen fights later come this weekend, the jury is still out.
One thing that has changed from then until now is the slow but steady restoration of heavyweight glory. The long-time glamour division has been publicly bastardized in recent times, particularly in the states, which lacks proper representation at the top.
Thanks to outlets like EPIX and NBC Sports Network, the average American boxing junkie has once again become familiarized with what the division has to offer. The movement (however subtle it may be) comes at the right time for Wilder, who believes Saturday night as the first step towards an official run towards a major title.
“The heavyweights are coming on,” Wilder believes. “There’s the Klitschkos (lineal champion Wladimir and titlist Vitali) at the top and a lot of guys they've beaten under them. Now there’s a whole new crop of young, hungry guys like myself coming on. It’s going to get interesting real fast!”
BOXING ROYALTY ON HAND IN MOBILE
The Mobile Civic Center crowd won’t exactly be star-studded, but true boxing fans are always treated to past Olympic glory any time Wilder steps into the ring. The treat isn’t so much Wilder himself, but trainer Mark Breland, the 1984 Olympic Gold medalist regarded by many as one of the greatest amateur boxers of all time.
Also expected on hand is current welterweight titlist Paul Malignaggi, who will reportedly serve on the FOX broadcast booth.
“That should be hilarious; Paulie in Alabama,” commented Deas, speaking to the fighter’s rich New York roots (and attitude) sticking out down South. “It'll be like ‘My Cousin Vinny – ‘the two “yoots” in the ring!’”
WILDER ROOTING FOR HIS SUCCESSOR TO SURPASS HIM
The bulk of Fight Week activities will take place at the same time as Olympic boxing competition. Wilder had initially hoped to play a more prominent role with the 2012 team, but instead offers his fandom while training for a pivotal step in his pro career.
Chief among those on this year’s U.S squad for whom Wilder holds a soft spot in his heart is former amateur teammate Michael Hunter, who represents his country in the heavyweight division.
Wilder’s medal-winning effort in the 2008 Beijing Games came as a heavyweight, while Hunter failed to qualify for the super heavyweight slot on that same team. Hunter has since trimmed down to the 201 lb. amateur heavyweight division, and hoped to do no worse than duplicate Wilder’s feat in ’08.
Never one to wish his own achievement stand out above others, the 26-year old Wilder wished the very same for his old friend.
“I'm tight with Rau’shee Warren and Michael Hunter,” Wilder states. “I think they'll do well and bring home a medal. I don't really know the rest of the guys, but I'm pulling for them.”
Unfortunately, Hunter was beaten on Wednesday by Russia’s Artur Beterbiev.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox