It has been nearly three years since Deontay Wilder defeated Bermane Stiverne to become the first American heavyweight titleholder in nearly nine years. He is 38-0 and has stopped 37 of his opponents, some of them, such as Siarhei Liakovitch and Artur Szpilka, in terrifying fashion with the kinds of knockouts that both thrill an audience and partly shame it for applauding such brutality.
Yet Wilder is, at 32 years of age and with five title defenses and a nine-year professional career in his wake, an American heavyweight titlist without a country behind him. That he is deeply resentful of that fact is plain upon speaking with him; that he wears that resentment with a sort of verbose, good-natured outrage as opposed to sulking, is to his credit; that it nevertheless eats away at him may become the defining characteristic of whatever remains of his time as a boxer.
"We know why I haven't fought the best. I've called out every name. They either went another route or got on PEDs."Deontay Wilder
"Is it because I'm black?" asks Wilder. "If I was any other nationality, I'd be the biggest thing around. If I was anything other than black, I'd be the biggest thing around." He anticipates your objection before you even raise it: "[Floyd] Mayweather already made his name coming up in the era when boxing was still legitimized. He was already in."
When Wilder gets going in this vein, his sense of grievance can take on a messianic tone.
"You have an American champion, anointed by God," he says of himself. Talk to him long enough and it can become difficult to tell where his feeling that he's been unjustly unappreciated ends and America's racial history begins, but of course, that's the point.
"Boxing has a history of looking for the next great white hope, and that goes back decades. I'd like to think in today's day and age that race isn't a major factor in evaluating someone's athletic accomplishments but that would probably be a little naive," says Showtime Sports Executive Vice President & General Manager Stephen Espinoza, who recently acquired some unexpected fame when UFC lightweight Conor McGregor called him a "little weasel" on the press tour for his boxing match with Mayweather
"Deontay has all the elements to be a superstar. He's funny and charming and personable and charismatic," says Espinoza. And when you meet Wilder -- tall and handsome, expressive, easy to engage with -- it's true. Espinoza would know, as legal counsel and now as a TV executive, he has been involved with the three biggest stars boxing has produced in the past 30 years, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and Mayweather.
Though he's not Wilder's promoter, as one of the heads of Showtime's sports wing, Espinoza has as much interest as anyone in making Wilder a star and financial draw. Over the phone with me, he quickly cuts to what he sees as the fighter's real problem, "the biggest factor is the lack of a career-defining opponent, that's what has really held him back."
Wilder has twice been matched against respected opponents, the Russian former world titleholder Alexander Povetkin, and the fearsome and technically sophisticated Cuban southpaw Luis Ortiz, only to have those fights called off because both men tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Ortiz and Povetkin have failed multiple drug tests in their careers.
Ortiz's latest failed test is the reason Wilder finds himself in his current position, days away from a rematch of the only fight of his career that didn't end in a stoppage, against a now 38-year-old Stiverne, who hasn't fought since November 2015.
"He [Joshua] ain't that special. If Joshua had my record and my résumé and I had his record and résumé, he would be looked at like a f------ god."Deontay Wilder
There are close observers of the sport who were not surprised when the Ortiz fight failed to materialize.
"When people say they know a fight is not going to happen most of the time it's because they don't want to see it happen. They don't want to see Wilder have a credible name on his résumé. Because if I do that and I'm successful, what else do they have to say?" Wilder asks, exasperated by the implication that he has been and is still being protected by his handlers.
"We know why I haven't fought the best," he says. "I've called out every name. They either went another route or got on PEDs."
That prizefighters try to cloak themselves in the illusion of invulnerability is a truism: When they're tired in the ring they don't pant. When they're hurt, they don't wince. When they're confused, they fight harder. But on the other side of that courage is their desire to be adored for the pain they suffer and the risks they take. And there is nothing more vulnerable than admitting that you want to be loved.
So, in the course of the same conversation, Wilder will admit the truth and then quickly retreat from it. The truth is he wants you to care; he wants you to see him as he sees himself, and to do that he needs to beat someone the public respects. "I can't prove it by myself. I need a body. I need the so-called best," he says.
He's talking about current WBA, IBF and IBO champion Anthony Joshua, the undefeated British heavyweight and burgeoning superstar who rose off the canvas this April to knock out former champion Wladimir Klitschko and now sits atop the division.
Here's the retreat: "I don't need him, I'm perfectly fine where I am. My family is going to eat and we're going to do what we want to do in peace, you feel me? My life is not going to stop if I don't get Joshua."
That assertion is also the latest in an escalating public negotiation between the two camps.
Eddie Hearn, Joshua's promoter, recently responded in an interview with IFL TV to the rumor that Wilder is demanding 7 million dollars for the fight. "It's not going to happen," he answered incredulously.
"He [Joshua] ain't that special," Wilder insists. "If Joshua had my record and my résumé and I had his record and résumé, he would be looked at like a f------ god." He dismisses Joshua's victory over Klitschko because the latter was essentially retired, and Wilder claims that Klitschko had previously ducked him.
He's also taken stock of what he thinks are Joshua's weaknesses. "He should fire his conditioning coach," say Wilder, commenting on Joshua's physique and what he sees as tendency toward fatigue. "The thing about Joshua though is that he needs to lift weights. It's a mental thing, if he feels like he's bigger than his opponents that makes him more confident in himself."
He's casually shadowboxing now, letting a few arm punches go as he weaves a bit in his chair and talks more about why bulging muscles aren't necessarily good for fighters. "He [Joshua] starts with his hands up but they come down each and every round and there's a trick in the ring I got for that too," he says.
Wilder and I spend much more time talking about Joshua than we do about his next opponent, Stiverne. Because absent a shock defeat against Stiverne, Wilder is headed for what feels like an inevitable showdown next year with Joshua, the one opponent who can vindicate Wilder's own view of himself, or expose him as a propped-up fraud.
"At their cores, as businessmen and more importantly as fighters, I think they both realize they need that fight," says Espinoza.
"I think about it all the time," Wilder confesses, before quickly correcting himself, "I wouldn't want to say all the time."