By Jake Donovan
BIRMINGHAM -- It was everything you could have wanted in a history-making title fight in the state of Alabama. Even if the fans in Alabama were forced to sweat out the scariest moment of their hometown hero's pro career.
Deontay Wilder survived a rocky third round to floor Eric Molina four times en route to a 9th round stoppage Saturday evening at Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Alabama. The bout was the first heavyweight title fight ever in Alabama, providing plenty of thrills of the sold-out crowd of 9,347 on hand for the event.
The perception heading in—and really from the moment the fight was first signed—was that Wilder was given an open lane layup for a first title defense. The unbeaten fighting pride of Tuscaloosa brought home a heavyweight title following a wide points win in a tour-de-force performance over Bermane Stiverne in January.
The win saw Wilder—already the last American boxer to win an Olympic medal—become the first U.S. heavyweight to lay claim to a heavyweight belt since 2007. His title reign has now extended through one successful title defense, which was more than can be said for the last heavyweight titlist from America, as Shannon Briggs' reign was one-and-done.
For a few brief and very scary moments in round three, there existed a fear that the belt would change hands. Molina, who wisely stayed the hell out of Wilder's way through in the early going, saw an opening and went in for the kill.
Wilder had his bell rung, needing a moment to clear his head while Molina had upset on his mind.
"I definitely was surprised," Wilder would later admit of the sequence and his challenger's performance in general. "This guy's got heart. All the critics doubted him, but I'm so proud of him."
From the moment the round ended, so too did any threat of what would have easily been the most shocking result in years.
Then came round four, and from there a natural course correction. Wilder scored the first knockdown of the evening, flooring Molina hard towards round's end. There wasn't enough time left on the clock to properly follow up, but that didn't prevent Wilder from swinging for the fences in subsequent rounds.
Two more knockdowns came in round five, both courtesy of right hand temple shots. On both occasions, an emotionally-charged Wilder felt the need to talk trash to his fallen foe, prompting referee Jack Reiss to get tough and order the defending titlist to back off and show proper sportsmanship.
Molina received stern yet supportive feedback from his corner, which included Oliver McCall—one of two former heavyweight champions in the house. The other was Alabama-born Evander Holyfield, the former cruiserweight and heavyweight king seated at ringside and wildly entertained by the action in the ring.
McCall and his cornermen weren't quite as amused, but also not ready for their fighter to mail it in. Molina managed to avoid punishment for the next two rounds, enough time to come back full strength and enjoy pockets of success in round eight.
There was less drama in the round than was the case earlier in the fight, as Wilder knew better than to once again get caught with a stray. It was enough to allow him to close the show. An overhand right put Molina flat on his back in round nine. The manner in which he collapsed to the canvas prompted the referee to immediately waive off the contest, despite Molina miraculously recovering and offering a mild protest.
The official time was 1:03 of round nine.
Wilder moves to 34-0 (33KOs) with the win, though improving only in ring record. The spectacular ending sent the crowd home happy, or perhaps just relieved.
For the defending titlist, it was just a matter of taking the bad with the good, in that order.
"I was calm, cool and collected, and I was picking my shots," Wilder insisted. "I used to be wild because my last name Wilder."
A tamer performance would've provided more relief to his adoring public, but it wouldn't have brought out a crowd like the one that came out Saturday night.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox