Since Deontay Wilder turned pro in 2008 after a bronze-medal performance in the 2008 Olympics, he has been steadfast about what he wants to accomplish as a professional fighter.
Wilder would tell anyone who would listen — and continues to do so — that he wanted to face the best opponents and become the undisputed heavyweight world champion.
And while Wilder spent the first several years of his career developing and facing unthreatening opposition, when he stepped up for a serious fight to challenge for a world title in 2015, he easily outpointed Bermane Stiverne.
When he signed a contract to go to Moscow to face dangerous top contender Alexander Povetkin, the May 2016 fight was canceled because Povetkin tested positive for a banned substance less than two weeks beforehand.
Tired of being so heavily dogged for his mediocre opposition, Wilder signed to fight an optional defense against dangerous power-punching southpaw Luis “King Kong” Ortiz in November, hoping a win would quiet the critics. Then that fight was also canceled, because Ortiz failed his second drug test in three years, causing Wilder to face Stiverne in a mandatory rematch on short notice. Wilder destroyed him in the first round.
What Wilder really wanted was a unification fight with two-belt titleholder Anthony Joshua, but that was not realistic for either side at the moment, so, with Ortiz reinstated, Wilder decided to give him another chance.
He will make his seventh title defense when he takes on Ortiz in a fight between two of the top four heavyweights in the world on Saturday (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET) at Barclays Center in New York.
In the co-feature at the Brooklyn venue, interim super middleweight titlist Andre Dirrell (26-2, 16 KOs), a 34-year-old southpaw from Flint, Michigan, will make his first defense in a mandated immediate rematch with Jose Uzcategui (26-2, 22 KOs). In the first fight, Dirrell won the vacant belt by highly controversial eighth-round disqualification on May 20 in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where Uzcategui, a Venezuela native based in Mexico, knocked him out with a punch ruled to have been thrown a split second after the bell ended the round.
A fight against a top opponent has been a long time coming as far as Wilder (39-0, 38 KOs) is concerned.
“The reason I wanted this fight is not only do I think Ortiz is one of the best technical fighters in the division but he’s the boogeyman that everyone is running from,” Wilder said this week. “Champions have avoided him, and I’ve always said I was the best and this is my chance to prove it. This result isn’t up to anyone but myself. Every time I get under the bright lights, I give the fans what they want to see. This is the best versus the best, and that’s what boxing deserves.”
Few would have faulted Wilder had he decided to fight somebody other than Ortiz, given his history of failed drug tests. Wilder has been an outspoken critic of fighters using performance-enhancing drugs, but he still very badly wanted to fight an opponent the public viewed as dangerous. Hence, he agreed to put their fight back together.
“I had all the excuses in the world to run away from this fight after he failed the test. There are a lot of good, up-and-coming heavyweights out there, but I wasn’t interested in them,” said Wilder, 32, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “This fight is how I prove that I’m the baddest man on the planet.
“On Saturday, with all the personal things put aside, it’s going to be an honor to fight Luis Ortiz, man to man and father to father. I know that family is his motivation, just like it is for me, and that’s why I blessed him with this opportunity.”
Despite his drug test issues, Ortiz (28-0, 24 KOs), 38, is easily Wilder’s toughest test, at least on paper. Ortiz, a Cuban defector fighting out of Miami, was a star amateur, amassing a record of 343-19. As a pro, he owns one-sided knockout wins against former world title challengers Bryant Jennings and Tony Thompson.
“Deontay Wilder put everything aside to face one of the greatest amateur heavyweights in the history of boxing,” promoter Lou DiBella said. “This fight is happening because Deontay is that good and he’s that proud. Deontay is ready to prove that he’s the baddest man on the planet.”
Ortiz is seeking to become the first Cuban to win a heavyweight world title.
“This fight is not only important for my family but for Cuban boxing history,” Ortiz said. “My only focus right now is on the strategy I will need to defeat Wilder, but I know this fight has a lot of significance. I’m going to make history for myself and my country when I knock out Wilder.”
The previous times a Cuban has fought for a heavyweight world title, each was knocked out: Jorge Luis Gonzalez by Riddick Bowe in 1995, and Juan Carlos Gomez (in 2009) and Odlanier Solis (in 2011), both by Vitali Klitschko.
When Wilder-Ortiz was canceled in November, Ortiz claimed the failed drug test was because of medication he was taking to control high blood pressure. The WBC said it investigated and agreed with Ortiz, so it reinstated him into its rankings, allowing the fight to be made again.
Ortiz, a former interim titlist, knows he has a mark against him with the boxing public because of his drug history but said he has done nothing wrong and aims to take the belt from Wilder.
“This is my opportunity. This is my time. Deontay is a great champion, but this is my chance,” Ortiz said through an interpreter. “This is going to be like two trains on the same track about to collide. I’m going to win, and I’m going to take his belt. Deontay is scared. He’s talking a lot of nonsense. He’s worried about what I’m going to do. This is my time. I’m going to show everyone.
“I’m going to be the first Cuban and the first Latino born outside the [United States] to win a [heavyweight] title. Saturday night will be historic. The public gave me this opportunity to fight for the title. I’m going to make the most of my chance and knock Deontay Wilder out.”
Although Wilder and Stiverne went the distance in their title bout, Wilder knocked him out brutally in the first round of the rematch. That means he has knocked out every opponent he has faced, a record he aims to continue.
“I have knocked every opponent out for a reason. I plan on continuing my knockout streak. That’s what I do, and that’s what I’m best at,” said Wilder, who is predicting a third-round knockout win. “This is the best fight right here in boxing that can be made. Saturday night will be bombs away.”
The winner will emerge with a world title, a possible shot to unify with the winner of the March 31 Joshua-Joseph Parker unification fight and a very significant win on his record.
If the winner is Wilder, it will go a long way to validating his career.
“The titles are great, but these fights are about something else. They’re about legacy,” said Stephen Espinoza, the president of Showtime Sports, who was instrumental in making the fight.
“When people look back and ask, ‘What kind of fighter was Deontay Wilder?’ this is the fight that they will talk about. More important than knockouts and unbeaten records, this is why fighters are remembered.”