By Jake Donovan
With his 12-round win over Bermane Stiverne earlier this year, Deontay Wilder became the first American boxer to own a portion of the heavyweight crown since 2007.
Fans can expect that much to be mentioned leading up to and during his heavyweight title defense versus France’s Johann Duhaupas this Saturday at Legacy Arena in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Viewers at home will also be reminded that they are witnessing the first heavyweight championship in primetime on NBC in more than 30 years. The fight headlines a Premier Boxing Champions card.
Those calling the action promise – at least for now – that it is where the hard sell will end once the cameras begin rolling. After all, Wilder is somewhere in the neighborhood of a 33-1 favorite to successfully defend his title for the second time in Birmingham, less than an hour from his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“I don’t think it should be an oversell,” NBC lead analyst Marv Albert promised during a recent media conference call to promote the event. “There’s no question, Wilder is a big favorite to win and I plan to say it’s a huge upset if Duhaupas pulls off the upset.”
With a win, Wilder is expected to move towards a showdown with mandatory contender Alexander Povetkin. Even the winner of that fight will still play second fiddle in the division to World heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, who of course has his own business to tend to as he faces unbeaten Tyson Fury next month in Germany.
Wilder has steadily insisted that it’s not a matter of if, but when he and Klitschko eventually collide. However, a lot has to happen before that fight materializes. As Klitschko prepares for Fury and whatever antics he plans to bring, Povetkin bides his time for a crack at Wilder by taking on Mariusz Wach this coming November in Kazan, Russia.
The odds suggest that Wilder, Klitschko and Povetkin should all prevail. However, it’s no secret that – on paper – Wilder has the least challenging task at hand. It’s the second straight time this can be said, although he turned a voluntary title defense versus Eric Molina into a more dramatic moment than his handlers would have preferred. The unbeaten American heavyweight survived a rocky 3rd round to score four knockdowns en route to a 9th round knockout this past June in front of a sold-out Bartow Arena in Birmingham.
If anything, the night highlighted the learning curve that still applies. Wilder is the last American fighter to have claimed an Olympic medal, capturing the Bronze despite his being the least experienced among the 2008 U.S. Olympic boxing team.
That said, he is seven years deep into his pro career and lays claim as a heavyweight champion, even if not THE heavyweight champion. Saturday night is all about bringing star power to the PBC brand, and creating a moment in modern American heavyweight boxing history by appearing in primetime.
However the broadcast team of Albert, legendary Hall of Famer and former five-division champ Sugar Ray Leonard and current cruiserweight contender B.J. Flores call the action, it will come with the understanding that better is expected the next time around.
“It’s a potential superstar we have in Deontay,” Leonard notes of what Saturday’s show means to the sport. “The fact that he is gearing up towards hopefully fighting Klitschko is extraordinary. He has the whole package; he just needs to put it all together.
“I’m excited naturally. It’s been a while since there’s been a heavyweight champion from the USA. Deontay Wilder is not that seasoned yet, but he has all of the tools; the height, the reach, the jab – all the bread and butter that goes into being a great heavyweight champion. What I see is a guy who has power, who has speed. He has charisma, he connects with fans. He’s the whole package.”
Such sentiment is echoed among the broadcast team, and in fairness among most who come in contact with the always-quotable heavyweight.
“Deontay Wilder is an incredible fighter and so likeable,” notes Albert, who at the same time recognizes Saturday as the starting point of something big, not the finished product. “As I look back in boxing history, it’s always a process. Johann Duhaupas is not a household name, perhaps even in Abbeville, France.
“It allows for Deontay to get ready, and once he goes up against Povetkin and Klitschko, that will get people excited again. It’s a step-by-step process. Hopefully it’s the last unknown opponent. I thought the Bermane Stiverne fight proved a lot. Hopefully this is the last and then he goes on to face Alexander Povetkin and Wladimir Klitschko.”
At the same time, what the PBC platform provides is means for fighters such as Wilder (and Flores, for that matter) to remain active and building brand awareness, rather than sitting around and waiting for one big payday.
“I understand how difficult these deals and procedures. To fight Wlad or Povetkin, there’s a process; there’s a lot you have to agree to in order to get them in the ring,” Flores points out. “I understand. Deontay next fight is going to be Alexander Povetkin. They’re negotiating that fight right now.”
While the potential is there for Wilder – with wins over Duhauapas and one day Povetkin – to further enhance his status as the face of American heavyweight boxing, the NBC team doesn’t plan to sidestep around the fact that all roads to heavyweight supremacy still run through Klitschko.
“That will be recognized,” Flores promises. “Wlad is the top guy in the division. It’s exciting to have heavyweight boxing in America, but we won’t oversell it. That’s my intention, anyway.”
The PBC on NBC telecast is set to air Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com.
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