Wilder awaits first heavyweight test

Prospect carries U.S. heavyweight hopes (and burden of proof) on shoulders

Updated: August 9, 2013, 6:14 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Heavyweight prospect Deontay Wilder carries a record as imposing as his crushing right hand.

The 2008 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist -- the last American man to claim an Olympic boxing medal -- is 28-0, having won every fight by knockout and never having heard the bell ring for a fifth round.

But even after five years as a pro and all of those knockouts, many of the highlight-reel variety, Wilder has yet to be tested. The universal criticism of Wilder -- or more accurately, of his representatives -- is that his opposition has been extremely weak, to put it mildly.

Wilder's most recent fight was on April 27, when he obliterated the long-faded 2000 Olympic gold medalist Audley Harrison in just 70 seconds in England. Wilder, however, makes no apologies for his résumé and says his career is right on track.

"I feel it's gone the way we planned on it to go," said Wilder, who didn't begin boxing until he was 21. "I knew we were gonna start slow, don't let anyone rush me until I'm comfortable."

Now Wilder is ready to step back into the ring, and although he isn't facing a serious contender, he is at least facing the most notable opponent of his career, the vastly more experienced former world titleholder Siarhei Liakhovich (25-5, 16 KOs), a 37-year-old native of Belarus who is living in Scottsdale, Ariz.

[+] EnlargeAudley Harrison
ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty ImagesDeontay Wilder destroyed Audley Harrison in just 70 seconds in April, but those hoping for the emergence of an American heavyweight contender are anxious to see him truly tested.

But this is a significantly past-his-prime Liakhovich, who held a belt for part of 2006 and has fought only twice since 2010, getting stopped in the ninth round both times, by Robert Helenius in August 2011 and Bryant Jennings in March 2012.

Wilder will face Liakhovich on Friday night in the scheduled 10-round main event of a Showtime tripleheader (10 ET/PT) at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, Calif., in another building-block fight for the fighter whom many view as the top American heavyweight prospect.

"I definitely feel I'm that guy," Wilder said. "You cannot bring up the heavyweight division and not bring up Deontay Wilder. I feel like I'm that one that America has been looking for, and knocking everyone out helps. My goal is to be 30-0 with 30 knockouts. After I reach that, I'll be happy but I'll still want more."

There are two other scheduled 10-round bouts on the telecast: 28-year-old junior lightweight Francisco Vargas (16-0-1, 13 KOs), a 2008 Mexican Olympian, facing southpaw Brandon Bennett (15-0, 7 KOs), 25, of Cincinnati, and junior middleweight Jermall Charlo (14-0, 10 KOs), 23, of Houston, taking on Antwone Smith (23-4-1, 12 KO), 26, of Miami.

Showtime also plans to show highlights of an undercard bout featuring featherweight Gary Russell Jr. (22-0, 13 KOs), of Capitol Heights, Md., against Juan Ruiz (23-11, 7 KOs) of Panorama City, Calif. Russell, 25, the 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year, is coming off a fractured left hand suffered in a March fight. Ruiz has lost six fights in a row and nine of 10.

Although the 27-year-old Wilder, nicknamed the "Bronze Bomber," knows he has yet to face elite competition or even be pushed into the middle rounds, he is confident in his ability because he already has been in the ring with the best heavyweight in the world.

Granted, they didn't meet in a real fight, but Wilder has sparred almost 50 rounds with champion Wladimir Klitschko. He served as Klitschko's chief sparring partner last fall when the champ was training for a November defense against Mariusz Wach.

The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Wilder, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., traveled to Klitschko's camp in Austria and put in serious work with the champion.

"It was a great experience to be in there with the champ of the world and see why he's the heavy[weight] champion of the world. Now I understand why," Wilder said. "I went over 45-plus rounds with him, and some days it would be just me and him sparring and that's it. It was kind of an honor to display my talent to him. There'd be five, six guys there ready to spar with him, and I'd be the first one he'd pick every day and sometimes the only he'd spar with that day."

Although Wilder's real opponents have been a collection of nobodies, he has experience sparring with other quality contenders. Wilder said he also has been in camps with former titleholder David Haye, Tomasz Adamek and Tony Thompson.

[+] EnlargeWladimir Klitschko
Fabrice Coffrini/Getty ImagesDeontay Wilder has sparred numerous rounds with heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, pictured, against whom he eventually wants a title shot.

"As far as learning the game, I've been in a lot of great camps," Wilder said. "They taught me a lot of things. Each and every day I'm studying my own sweet science, so when it's time for me to get under the lights I'm effective to do the things I planned to do so I can be the next heavyweight champ of the world."

Of all the camps Wilder has been in, though, he says Klitschko's was the best experience.

"Every time we sparred, we had an audience and when we finished the guys in the gym would give us a loud ovation," Wilder said. "It was almost as if we gonna have to fight one day, so we went at it. The things I was working on, if I can do it to him, I can do it to anybody. It was a ball every time. It was sparring, but I was coming to fight.

"Wladimir was definitely a cool guy, we clicked, we talked outside the ring. He was telling me he was happy and excited I was there. He thanked me for coming. He told me I'm the fastest guy he sparred with and the best guy he sparred with and the future of the heavyweight division."

Klitschko has said repeatedly over the years he hopes that a top American contender emerges so that it will make sense for him to defend the title again in the United States, where he hasn't fought since unifying belts against Sultan Ibragimov in 2008.

As far as Klitschko is concerned, Wilder very well could be that guy.

"Very athletic guy with the great energy," Klitschko said of Wilder. "I'm very impressed with his KO percentage as well. I'm sure, if he stays focused on the sport, he'll have very bright future. Absolutely, he gave me the best work."

If Wilder can move from impressing in sparring against top heavyweights to doing it for real when everyone is watching, maybe he has a chance to become champion.

"Two great things about Deontay are his willingness to learn and his work ethic," said trainer Mark Breland, a former two-time welterweight titlist and 1984 Olympic gold medalist. "He knows he's still learning and has the right attitude. He's hungry and works hard in the gym.

"This is another stepping stone, but there's no way we take Liakhovich lightly. There are still little things he can do that Deontay's never seen."

Wilder said he expects to be in a significant fight in 2014.

"I feel I'm six, eight months away, but definitely next year," Wilder said. "I got a strong team with Al Haymon and Shelly Finkel [who is also a Klitschko adviser], two of the most powerful managers. Most of the time they'd be competing against each other, so maybe I'm only three months away from a big fight. You never know. I want to put myself in position so when the shot comes I am ready.

"But I want a title fight. We want to do away with what people are saying, about how I've only fought low-level opponents. I want a Klitschko [either Wladimir or brother and fellow titlist Vitali]. I don't want to fight for a vacant belt and wait for them to retire. It's not gonna feel the same, because they have had the belts for so long, it would only be right to take it from them. I want to fight one of them before they retire.

"It's time to release the beast. I know the promotion game and it's hard to make these big fights. I know it just don't happen like that. But from this point, after beating Liakhovich, I'm looking for bigger and better guys. The question is: Are they ready for me?"

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