Deontay Wilder finally enters the big league Saturday vs. Luis Ortiz

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

If he’d been born in another era, they’d be measuring him for the bronze statue by this point. WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder would have been a household name, not a guy mistaken for LeBron James at Disney World.

Wilder’s situation shows everything that is wrong with 21st century boxing: the lack of depth in most divisions; the unwillingness of promoters to take risks with their fighters; the abhorrent lack of PR and marketing of its stars; and the willingness of so many to take shortcuts and turn to performance-enhancing drugs.

Wilder is 39-0 with 38 knockouts and a U.S. Olympic bronze medalist who has a charismatic personality, a TV star girlfriend and a punch that could drop a horse.

Had he had been a pro for nearly a decade with 39 fights by the early 1990s, it’s logical to assume he’d have already fought Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe and Tommy Morrison and maybe even “Big” George Foreman.

What’s notable about Wilder, who was 13 months old when Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion, is who he hasn’t fought: He’s never fought Vitali Klitschko. He’s never faced Wladimir Klitschko. Nor Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury. Nor Alexander Povetkin.

Is it his fault?

Well, you wonder, at least until you speak with him and then you realize that, no, this is a guy willing to fight King Kong if that is what it would take for him to gain public recognition and acceptance as the best heavyweight in the world.

He’s fighting the Cuban “King Kong” on Saturday in what, by far, is the biggest match of his career, when he takes on the unbeaten but hardly established Luis Ortiz.

Ortiz, 38, is a burly, bear of a man – hence, the “King Kong” moniker – who has won all 28 of his pro fights, including 24 by knockout. He is a guy, though, known more for his flirtations with PEDs than for anything he’s done in the ring. His biggest victory was a seventh-round stoppage of Bryant Jennings, a decent heavyweight, in 2015.

Ortiz tested positive after a 2014 first-round knockout of Lateef Kayode, and then again before a scheduled fight with Wilder last year. Boxing being the loosely regulated sport that it is, Ortiz has basically gotten away with next-to-no punishment.

Wilder could have said no and chosen not to give Ortiz another shot, despite Ortiz’s insistence that he didn’t cheat last year and that his positive drug test was because of medication for high blood pressure. But Wilder is fighting Ortiz because he’s sick of taking the blame for the anonymity of his opponents. He’s sick of being blamed for fights that haven’t happened because of his opponents’ failed drug tests.

World heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder is 39-0 with 38 knockouts, but hasn’t faced a major league competitor. (AP)

Is Wilder great? Well, we can’t say. It’s like saying that sweet-swinging 12th grader who is batting .750 with power to all fields will definitely be one of the best hitters in MLB. Until he faces major league pitching, you can’t make that determination.

The thing that is certain is that Wilder will see a major league fastball from Ortiz on Saturday. For all his other flaws, Ortiz can punch. He’s also feasted on a less-than-stellar list of opponents, but he’s finished 10 opponents in two rounds or less, 11 if you count the overturned win over Kayode.

Wilder took the fight because he needs Ortiz. Had he faced one of the Klitschko brothers, or Fury, or perhaps Joseph Parker, he’d have scoffed at Ortiz and not given the left-handed Cuban a second thought.

But Wilder hasn’t faced those guys and Ortiz represents, by a considerable margin, the best opponent he’s faced. And so Wilder essentially said, “Positive drug tests be damned, let’s do this thing.”

He knows that with an impressive win over Ortiz – let’s be honest, the only way it will be impressive is if it is, in fact, a knockout – he’ll make himself a far more viable option for the winner of the March 31 bout in Wales between Joshua and Parker.

“He definitely got away with murder, that’s for sure,” Wilder said of Ortiz and the 2017 failed drug test. “I chose to continue to have Ortiz because I saw the buzz the first time. People were very excited. People knew Ortiz. Even though his following is not big, they understand and know who he is. Everyone who keeps up with me was looking at Ortiz as ‘The Boogeyman,’ because that was spreading around.

“That was the word. That was the title. They gave him the title of ‘The Boogeyman’ of the division and I felt he was one of the best in the division. I think a lot of people would agree with me on that. So, in order for people to take me seriously, in order for me to really be about what I say, [I had to do it].”

And so while it’s not officially a single elimination, for Wilder, it almost is. It’s frustrating how much a loss hurts a fighter in modern boxing. If a fighter comes to fight and competes hard and happens to lose, it shouldn’t matter. But it’s different in this case, for reasons that aren’t all that fair. There are plenty of questions about Wilder, because he hasn’t beaten any known commodities. He hasn’t been tested. He looks good, like that .750 hitter in high school who has a first-round draft grade, but until you see him against major league pitching, it’s all just projection and opinion.

Wilder enters the major league on Saturday.

Don’t be shocked if it’s not just a home run, but a grand slam.

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