LAS VEGAS -- Deontay Wilder has come a long way from the days when he was a waiter at IHOP making around $70 a day in tips and then later worked for $400 a week in a Red Lobster kitchen, having been forced to drop out of school to earn money to take care of his ill daughter.
Now his daughter is doing well and Wilder is the proud owner of a world heavyweight title after turning in a superb performance in a one-sided decision victory against Bermane Stiverne on Saturday night before 8,454 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Wilder was in total control for most of the fight, winning 120-107, 119-108 and 118-109 as he went past four rounds for the first time in his career in a fight almost everybody was sure would end in a knockout. ESPN.com also had it for Wilder 117-111.
It might not have ended in a knockout, but Wilder, a 2008 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist and the last American male boxer to medal in the Olympics, won decisively. In doing so, he brought a heavyweight world title back to the United States for the first time since 2006 -- and on Muhammad Ali's 73rd birthday, no less.
"I'm so excited. I'm excited to bring this belt back to America, officially," Wilder said. "It's going to mean a lot."
Wilder came into the fight with many questions to answer. He had never been pushed deep into a fight and had been moved into position for a mandatory title shot by knocking out all 32 of his opponents despite facing a long list of no-hopers and has-beens.
"I think I answered a lot of questions tonight," Wilder said. "We knew we could go 12 rounds. We knew we could take a punch. All the hard work was done in camp. I had fun. I'm just excited."
Wilder (33-0, 32 KOs), 29, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, became the first American to win a heavyweight title since Shannon Briggs, who lost in his first defense to Russia's Sultan Ibragimov seven months later. Since then, the belts have resided in Europe, mainly with the Klitschko brothers.
"He proved everyone wrong," said Jay Deas, who co-trains Wilder with Mark Breland. "Can he go 12 rounds? Yes, he can. Does he have a power punch? Yes, he does. Can he beat adversity? Yes, he can. Can he be the next heavyweight champion of the world? And yes, he is."
Deas' excitement is understandable, but although Wilder now owns a world title, most will view him essentially as the junior varsity heavyweight champion. That is because Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko, owner of the three other major alphabet belts and the lineal title, has dominated every opponent through 17 title defenses against all comers during his historic, nearly nine-year title reign.
When Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir's older brother, relinquished his belt and retired at the end of 2013, Stiverne won the vacant title by knocking out Chris Arreola in the sixth round in May and was obligated to fight Wilder in his first defense. But the deal took months to make, and the fight wound up being pushed into early 2015.
"I think I spent too much time in the gym," said Stiverne, who lives in Las Vegas, grew up in Canada and is the only Haitian-born heavyweight titleholder. "We started training in August. I was ready in November, and then we had to cut things back a little bit. That had an effect on why I wasn't myself tonight."
While Wilder landed 227 of 621 punches (37 percent), according to CompuBox statistics, Stiverne landed just 110 of 327 (34 percent).
"Wilder definitely won it. He did a great job," said Don King, Stiverne's promoter. "He was having fun. I'm very surprised he won so easily. But you can't win a fight without throwing punches. This is not a waltz. I've seen it happen many times before. It's just the way it goes. I have to take off my hat to Deontay. Stiverne wasn't active enough. All praise to Deontay Wilder."
Wilder displayed a strong left jab and connected with many of his powerful right hands. Stiverne (24-2-1, 21 KOs), 36, had a good chin and took the shots. When he landed some solid shots, Wilder's previously untested chin stood firm.
"I definitely showed the world what I am capable of," Wilder said. "I really didn't think it would go four rounds, but he could take a great punch, so I thought we might be in for the long haul."
They began to trade and jaw at each other in the second round before Wilder appeared to stun Stiverne in the final seconds. Stiverne lurched forward and they wound up toppling to the mat, but referee Tony Weeks did not rule a knockdown.
Hard punches were exchanged in the fifth round, and the 6-foot-7, 219-pound Wilder wobbled the 6-2, 239-pound Stiverne with a right hand. When Stiverne connected with a clean left hook in the sixth, Wilder did not budge.
As the fight wore on, Wilder began to move more and Stiverne was obviously frustrated, shouting at Wilder in the sixth round, "Stand here and fight!"
Wilder had a huge seventh round, hurting Stiverne and sending him into the ropes with a right hand. In fact, Wilder landed several of them and Stiverne somehow managed to stay on his feet even though Wilder outlanded him 23-4 in the round.
"We knew he would try to come, and we knew he was tough. He got a great chin," Wilder said. "I appreciate him accepting the challenge. I just wanted to show the world what Deontay Wilder was capable of. I don't want anyone to doubt me anymore."
Stiverne continued to walk into Wilder's right hand in the ninth. His head would snap, and his eyes were swelling. Clearly in need of a knockout, Stiverne tried to press Wilder in the 12th round, but he seemed too tired to do any real damage.
"I felt 100 percent, but I couldn't cut the ring off like I usually do," Stiverne said. "I have to go back and look and see what happened and what mistakes I made. I was throwing hard punches, but I could only throw two of them at a time. I have to figure out what happened. I wasn't able to do what I wanted to do in the ring tonight. I don't want to take anything away from him. He fought a great fight, but I was not ready."
When the fight was over, Wilder came to the ring ropes and shouted at press row, "Who can't box? Who can't box?"
It is not clear whom Wilder will fight next, because his mandatory challenger, Philadelphia's Bryant Jennings, is close to a deal to challenge Klitschko on April 25. Whomever Wilder faces next, he wants to stay busy.
"I want to bring excitement back to the heavyweight division," he said. "And I don't want to sit around. I want to fight four times a year. Whoever's ready, I'm ready."
Fight fans who have been searching for a American heavyweight champion surely are also.