By Jake Donovan
Perhaps it’s the allure of being at home for fight week, or just the simple fact that he has a fight coming up at all. Whatever the case, there was something with Deontay Wilder that’s been missing for the past couple of months – a smile on his face.
It was present throughout his holding court during Thursday’s final press conference for his upcoming title defense versus Chris Arreola. The two collide this weekend at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, with Fox to air live in primetime (Saturday 8:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. local time).
The bout is a consolation prize to what ultimately left him angry to the point of deeply depressed, having wasted most of his springtime training for a planned heavyweight title defense versus Alexander Povetkin this past May in Moscow, Russia. The fight has been indefinitely postponed while the World Boxing Council (WBC) continues its slow-moving investigation behind Povetkin’s failed pre-fight drug test which killed plans for Wilder’s fourth title defense.
Even with his team hustling to put together a summer homecoming versus Arreola, it was still a struggle to even so much as fake a grin in public or speak with enthusiasm about anything boxing related. All he knew was that his next fight couldn’t require any travel.
“It's a great feeling,” Wilder (36-0. 35KOs) said to BoxingScene.com of once again fighting in Birmingham, which has hosted three of his last four bouts. “They always say home is where the hear this and it's true. I just wanted to stay close to my loved ones in light of everything that happened the last time we was supposed to fight.”
The comments came through a wide-eyed smile gracing Wilder’s face, feeling confident while decked out in a sharp looking blue suit and bowtie. He was dressed for success at the press conference and now prepared to continue what has been a largely successful title reign to date.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement, as well as to add to the collection.
If Wilder had his way, his next three fights could would come against any order of Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and Luis Ortiz. All three own separate portions of the heavyweight crown, but also have plans for the immediate future.
Fury – who is also recognized as the lineal heavyweight king in addition to the two alphabet belts he owns – is on the mend for a postponed title fight rematch versus Wladimir Klitschko, whom he dethroned last November.
Ortiz owns a secondary version of the World Boxing Association (WBA) title, one of the belts in Fury’s collection. Up next for the unbeaten Cuban is a mandatory defense versus Alexander Ustinov, which will likely take place this September on the Pay-Per-View undercard of Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez’ pursuit of a super welterweight title.
The one titlist he truly craves to face sooner rather than later is reigning unbeaten International Boxing Federation (IBF) titlist Anthony Joshua, the 2012 Olympic Gold medalist for Great Britain who has quickly emerged in 2016 as one of the top heavyweights in the world.
With Joshua having recently signed an exclusive U.S, contract with Showtime – one of the networks with which Wilder has frequented in recent years – it seems a future pairing was a natural fit. It could very well be one day, but apparently until the Brit and his team are ready to take that next career step.
“Beforehand, we was talking about maybe at the end of this year,” Wilder points out of such a boxing superfight. “Now that he got a title, they’re changing course. First they said they’d like to fight me one day, but now we hearing he’s looking at Bermane Stiverne. They’re going from wanting to fight me to looking to fight the guy whose career I’ve ruined.”
Stiverne was manhandled by Wilder over 12 rounds in Jan. ’15 to kick off his current title reign. This Saturday will mark his fourth title defense, three of which will have taken place in Birmingham, less than an hour from his hometown in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The lone road trip came this past January, when Wilder made the highlight reel with a one-punch 9th round knockout of Artur Szpilka at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Prior to that, he became a part of boxing history.
His 9th round stoppage of Eric Molina last June marked the first-ever heavyweight title fight to take place in the state of Alabama, playing to a sold-out crowd at Bartow Arena on UAB campus in Birmingham. Three months later, Wilder took the party a couple of miles away to the Legacy Arena, stopping France’s Johann Duhaupas in the 11th round of their NBC-televised bout.
Now this weekend he returns to the same venue, giving Birmingham its third heavyweight title fight in 13 months. Las Vegas is the only other U.S. city to have accomplished that feat for its weight class, which means as it relates to boxing in Alabama, Wilder has become the state’s one-man pro sports franchise.
“Every time we have a show here it gets bigger and bigger,” Wilder notes. “This was never a boxing state, we helped create (a commission) to become one. There was a point where they had fights here but we had to borrow other commissions. They cut that out and those commissions wanted us to go there. But we are making this a boxing state for sure.”
One day soon, the ultimate goal is for Alabama to become home to the sport’s first undisputed heavyweight champion in nearly 20 years. Boxing’s most storied division hasn’t boasted such a claim since Lennox Lewis scored a 12-round decision over Evander Holyfield in their Nov. ’99 rematch. It will be more of a task for Wilder to get there, having to get Fury, Joshua and Ortiz in the ring at some point.
The hope was – with a win on Saturday, for which he is more than a 30-1 favorite to retain the title – a third fight in 2016 would take place later this year against any of the aforementioned. Joshua was specifically targeted, while Fury was due to face Wladimir Klitschko earlier this month, only for their championship rematch to get postponed to sometime later this fall.
With Joshua having dusted off previously unbeaten Dominic Breazeale this past June, there are talks for a return early this fall before moving toward a mandatory title defense versus unbeaten Joseph Parker. Whomever he next faces, it likely won’t be Wilder, who has now pushed back his own timetable and personal expectations to next year, though such talks these days coming without a hint of concern.
“It’s smart that he steering clear of me for now,” Wilder says of the strategy being employed by the team behind the 2012 Olympic Gold medalist and reigning heavyweight titlist from Great Britain. “That said, sooner or later I’m coming for Joshua and all them.
“2017 is going to be a banger, though. My goal is to collect all the belts. Man, I'm so f***in' close. We need a unified champion. The sport needs one heavyweight champion. That's always been my goal and I can’t wait to have all them belts in my possession.”
That’s reason enough to keep smiling.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Follow his shiny new Twitter account: @JakeNDaBox_v2