By Jake Donovan
Prior to last June, never before in the history of boxing has the state of Alabama hosted a heavyweight title fight.
By July 16, it will have hosted its third, all coming in a span of 13 months.
Deontay Wilder is the constant in each event, returning to home state on July 16 for a voluntary title defense versus Chris Arreola. The bout will take place at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, less than an hour from his Tuscaloosa hometown and also the site of his last in-state appearance, when he stopped France’s Johan Duhaupas in 11 rounds last September.
Prior to that came a piece of boxing history for Sweet Home Alabama, when Wilder made the first ever heavyweight title defense in state. The event came last June, surviving early rocky moments to stop Eric Molina in nine rounds last June, at Bartow Arena on UAB (University of Alabama-Birmingham) campus.
“The most remarkable thing is that this is the third heavyweight title fight in just over one year in Birmingham, Alabama and that is because of Deontay Wilder,” Gene Hallman, president and CEO of Bruno Event Team noted of the upcoming show, which will air live in primetime on free-to-air Fox TV. “The only other city that has ever done this is Las Vegas, Nevada.
“Birmingham is right there with them with a unique mark in boxing history.”
The city of Birmingham was right there for Wilder (36-0, 35KOs) at his time of need. The unbeaten titlist was due to travel to Moscow, Russia, where he was to face mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin. The scheduled May 21 event would have marked the first time in boxing history for an American to defend the heavyweight title anywhere in Russia.
Wilder, whose boxing career – pro and amateur – has been a series of milestones, was denied that chance when pre-fight random drug testing revealed the banned substance Meldonium in Povetkin’s system.
The matter is still being investigated by the World Boxing Council (WBC), whose title Wilder has held since a rousing 12-round unanimous decision over Bermane Stiverne last January. In the meantime, permission has been granted for the 6’7” heavyweight to enjoy a voluntary defense for the sake of remaining active.
“When the Povetkin fight was called off, we were gutted, our team was in shambles,” admits Jay Deas, Wilder’s manager and co-trainer who has been with the heavyweight since he first laced up gloves as a teenager.”Then we were told we could have a fight and do it soon. We were already in shape so when we heard about a fight, we could take it.”
For a brief moment, the question was where.
“Within 30 minutes of learning we were planning to fight in the summertime, (Birmingham) Mayor Bell called me. He asked where we were planning to fight. I told him we had offers in Brooklyn (where Wilder knocked out Artur Szpilka in nine rounds in his last fight this past January), Biloxi, Miss., Los Angeles… and that Birmingham was in the mix. Mayor Bell told me, ‘We don’t want to be in the mix, we want the fight in Birmingham.’ Another 45 minutes later, he called me and told me the Legacy Arena would be made available.
“Just like that, the fight was made. This is how Birmingham works and this is WHY Birmingham works. They don’t hold meetings just to schedule another meeting. They put the foot on the gas pedal and get the job done. I thank the city of Birmingham and everyone involved in his event. It is going to be fantastic.”
Wilder will be making his fourth overall title defense, three of which will have been staged in Birmingham. The homecoming of sorts is the perfect remedy to what he admits was a brief battle with depression as he struggles to move past the fallout of not being able to face Povetkin.
“We love working with the Legacy Arena and Birmingham,” noted Wilder, whose usual multi-million dollar smile was absent from most of the press session held on site Wednesday afternoon. “Each and every time, we add to history. People have been waiting for this, to have another fight here. It is crazy how you can seed and watch the love grow and now its blooming.
“People are hungry for boxing here. They're excited. Those that missed the first title fight, came to the second. Those who missed the second are going to come to this one. We are going to sell out the venue.”
Early indications suggest it to be more truth than typical pre-fight hyperbole in order to “scare” patrons into buying tickets in advance.
“I truly believe that this will be substantially bigger than the other two heavyweight title fights here,” insists Hallman, whose Bruno Event Team beats the streets as the leading events management company in the region and who has been involved with all three Wilder title fights in state. “We went on sale (Tuesday) and we are far ahead of the pace that we were at last year. Fans from around the country are buying tickets.”
The last time Wilder was in town, several portions of the venue were closed off, in part due to make space for the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) ‘Wall of Thunder’ for the NBC primetime event, but also because the show came during the heart of college football season. Wilder often refers to himself as Alabama’s one-man pro sports franchise, but the truth is he’s forced to share headlines with Auburn Tigers college football squad as well as one of the most successful programs in history, the Alabama Crimson Tide, whose campus is also based out of Tuscaloosa.
In staging this event in July, Wilder has the city to himself. All seats will be made available, priced to attract the local market
“You can see these guys fight for 20 dollars,” Deas points out. “With an undercard of 15 fights, you're talking about a dollar and some change per fight and it’s going to be live on FOX for the entire world to see.”
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Follow his shiny new Twitter account: @JakeNDaBox_v2