Deontay Wilder was in the Super Bowl media center in Houston a few days before the game when a somewhat familiar face walked by.
Wilder and his girlfriend recognized Andrew Zimmern, who stars in the “Bizarre Foods” show on the Travel Channel. More telling, perhaps, was that Zimmern recognized him.
“I’m a big fan, champ,” Zimmern said before engaging Wilder in a friendly chat and posing for pictures with the heavyweight champion.
A small thing, maybe. But to a fighter with a goal of making the heavyweight division must-see once again it was a promising sign of progress.
It’s no secret the state of the heavyweight division has been abysmal. Hijacked by the Klitschko brothers and in dire need of some punch and personality, it has become a forgotten part of a beleaguered sport.
Wilder believes he can change all that.
“We need to see who’s the No. 1 guy, who’s the baddest man on the planet,” Wilder said. “That’s the title I want, the baddest man on the planet.”
That title, of course, used to be held by Mike Tyson, who truly was the baddest man on the planet at one time. But that was more than two decades ago, and in the interim years you’d be hard pressed to find a heavyweight — champion or not — that most boxing fans could identify much less relate to.
“One man having all the belts is going to play a major factor,” Wilder said. “Even to me as a champion, it’s confusing. Who has what belt? And if it’s confusing to me I know it’s confusing to the average fan.”
Wilder won’t do much to advance his claim to the heavyweight crown Saturday when he defends his title against Gerald Washington, a fighter so unknown that even Wilder found it difficult to say much about him. That the fight will take place in Wilder’s home state of Alabama, far from boxing’s biggest lights, doesn’t help the cause much.
That’s not entirely Wilder’s fault, though the 6-foot-7 slugger has been criticized some for taking the slow road to the top since winning a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics. Study a list of his opponents, and it’s clear that his 37-0 (with 36 knockouts) record wasn’t exactly built against the best of what has been a bad division.
But he was on his way last year to board a flight to Russia to fight a hometown opponent when Alexander Povetkin tested positive for meldonium. He wants a big fight against England’s Anthony Joshua, but that will have to wait, too.
So Wilder is defending his title for the fourth time in Birmingham while continuing to dream of bigger things. It’s not easy being patient, especially when Joshua is defending his title against Wladimir Klitschko before an expected 90,000 people April 29 in London in one of the more fascinating heavyweight fights of recent times.
Wilder wants the winner for a title unification fight, though it’s unlikely to happen until spring of 2018 at the earliest. He hopes it is Joshua, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist for England who is already a big star at home, in a matchup of two fearsome sluggers.
“The fans, they want to see Joshua and Wilder,” Wilder said. “They’re not really worried about Klitschko. We could fight at the end of the year with a big unification bout.”
First, Wilder has some work to do against Washington, in a fight that will be televised by Fox Sports. Washington is undefeated himself in 19 fights, but the big story line figures to be how well Wilder comes back from a broken hand and torn bicep suffered in his knockout win last July against Chris Arreola.
Wilder admits he became somewhat depressed after Povetkin tested positive, and he lost a chance to make his name against him in Russia. He’s also been frustrated at the pace of his chase for a big fight against one of the other heavyweight champions.
“I’m just staying patient, which is the hardest part of this sport,” he said. “You can only control so much, so I don’t get my hopes up. The world would be perfect if everything went as the way we wanted it to go, but that’s not the case.”
Wilder did score a big win in a New York courtroom just after the Super Bowl when a judge ruled in his favor in trying to collect his $5 million purse for the aborted Povetkin fight.
But the former waiter at Red Lobster insists he is more worried about building a legacy than cashing in.
“I want my name to echo when it comes to boxing,” he said. “I want all those people to remember me for good instead of bad.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg