Why Deontay Wilder is the right heavyweight champion at the right time for the division

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

LAS VEGAS — On Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden, Deontay Wilder will defend his WBC heavyweight title against Luis Ortiz in a matchup that he did not have to take and, in many ways, does not make a lot of sense.

Wilder has already signed to defend his belt in a rematch against lineal champion Tyson Fury in a bout that is expected to be held Feb. 22 in Las Vegas. That bout has the potential, perhaps even the likelihood, of being Wilder’s first pay-per-view to exceed one million sales.

It’s expected to be a joint PPV offered between Fox and ESPN, which provides several massive benefits to the promotion given the timeframe of the fight. Fox will broadcast the Super Bowl on Feb. 9 in Miami, just two weeks prior to Wilder-Fury II. Given that, expect extraordinary promotion during Super Bowl week and on the game night broadcast.

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Wilder and Fury are also terrific promoters in their own rights and it is not at all inconceivable given the entertainment value of their first fight that the rematch will catch fire with the public.

So that leaves one wondering why Wilder is, in fact, facing Ortiz yet again. 

And while this is something that probably will only be seen as a positive in hindsight when his career is over, the fact that Wilder sought this fight is an example of why he’s the right guy at the right time to lead the way to the promised land in the heavyweight division.

Ortiz is a big puncher, with 26 knockouts in 32 fights, and is a left-hander who can box. Not many fighters are eager to take on someone with that combination of attributes. Ortiz at times outboxed Wilder in their first fight 20 months ago, and Ortiz had him in deep trouble in the seventh round.

Deontay Wilder (L) defeated Luis Ortiz on March 3, 2018, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. (Photo by Edward Diller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Deontay Wilder (L) defeated Luis Ortiz on March 3, 2018, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. (Photo by Edward Diller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Wilder managed to survive that difficulty and went on to stop Ortiz in the 10th round in the defining victory of his career to this point. He’s willingly coming back to it, and risking the lucrative Fury rematch, by taking on Ortiz again when there were no calls for it to happen. Had he simply announced after knocking out Dominic Breazeale in the first round in May that he was going to rematch Fury in his next bout, there would not have been a whit of criticism put forward. Wilder, though, is setting a standard that hopefully others will follow by taking a difficult, risky fight.

“This is what it's all about in the heavyweight division: The big boys,” he said on a recent conference call. “It’s the heavy hitters, where one hit can end everything no matter how hard a person has worked, no matter how many weeks, how many months [he has prepared]. One fight, one night, one blow can end it all. And we already know I’m the hardest hitter, probably in boxing history, period.”

Wilder, whose career has been dogged almost from its inception by accusations of weak opposition, is about to go onto a stretch that will prove definitively whether he’s clearly, as he claims, the best heavyweight in the world.

If he gets past Ortiz on Saturday, he’s already signed to fight Fury twice. If he ran that gauntlet and won both Fury fights, he’d be perfectly positioned to take on the winner of Ruiz-Joshua for the top spot late in 2020 or early in 2021.

Ruiz knocked out Joshua in June to win the IBF, WBA and WBO belts. They’ll rematch on Dec. 7 in Saudi Arabia in a fight streamed on DAZN. 

It may not play out perfectly with all the given mandatories — as an example, the IBF has ruled that the Ruiz-Joshua winner must fight No. 1 contender Kubrat Pulev next — but the fighter who survives these matches will be recognized as the champion regardless of the IBF belt.

And it’s no sure thing that the Ruiz-Joshua winner would dump the IBF belt. Because they fight Dec. 7, and Wilder and Fury are going to fight twice, the Ruiz-Joshua winner could make a defense against Pulev in the middle of the two Wilder-Fury bouts. 

So the possibility exists that by late 2020 or early 2021, all four belts, as well as recognition as the lineal champion, would be at stake in one fight.

This is what Wilder has been chasing for years. To use his phrase, it should be one face, one name, one champion.

With the heavyweight division as strong as it has been at any time since the mid-1990s when Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer and Tommy Morrison were competing, the heavyweight revival could do much to bolster interest in boxing.

“When we were in the Mayweather run, people weren’t even thinking or talking at all about the heavyweights,” said Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe, who is promoting Saturday’s bout. “But now, the heavyweights are on fire and there are a lot of great things happening in it. The heavyweights are back in a big way.”

The fact that major platforms such as Fox and ESPN will be heavily involved in pushing the success of the bouts figures to maximize fan interest and thus fighter compensation. Things are less likely to go off the rails when the three most powerful entities in boxing — Top Rank/ESPN with Fury, Fox/Premier Boxing Champions with Wilder and DAZN/Matchroom Sport with Ruiz and Joshua — are each involved in this series.

Wilder deserves much of the credit for making this happen. He desperately sought a fight with Joshua, and when it couldn’t be made, reached out to Fury. That turned into a major event and a memorable bout and increased the profile of both fighters.

After that Wilder inexplicably turned down a $120 million offer from DAZN for three fights that would have had him fight Joshua but excluded Fury. Wilder decided to bet on himself and believes he will keep winning and not only make the $120 million guaranteed he was giving up, but exceed it.

By going the way he’s gone, he’s not only helping himself, he’s making an investment in the future of his sport. A quality and active heavyweight division is always great for boxing and it can create interest in fighters in other divisions if the promoters are wise enough to do things correctly.

Wilder faces a long and difficult 18-24 month period, but the dream he laid out for himself more than a decade ago is finally now in sight and has a chance to come to fruition.

This is the stuff of legends, and Deontay Wilder is making himself a legend before our very eyes.

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