Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Deontay Wilder looks to bring back the ‘Bronze Bomber’ of old with big fights around the corner

Although he remains undaunted by the realization, former WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder couldn’t help but share his most recent observation entering Saturday’s return to the ring headlining a pay-per-view card in Saudi Arabia. 

“Nobody respects a guy that is at peace,” Wilder told DAZN cameras this week during a stidown interview. 

At peace is where the 38-year-old found himself in December when he looked to snap a long run of inactivity that saw him box just one round professionally in a two-year span. Fresh off of an ayahuasca spiritual retreat that gave the slugger new-found peace, it was the all-around flat performance that followed in a lifeless decision loss to rejuvenated former champion Joseph Parker that suddenly had everyone clamoring for the “Bronze Bomber” of old.  

“Only the strong survive in this business and if you don’t have that killer instinct and mentality, you’re not going to last long in it,” Wilder said. “They don’t want the peaceful Wilder. No one wants the peaceful Wilder. I got criticized so much [previously] for being the wildman Wilder so why do I need to express myself a certain way when I’m not being appreciated? When I do bring the peace, they say, ‘We don’t want him anymore.’ So, what the hell do they want?”

Wilder, who made 10 defenses of his WBC title from 2015-19, suddenly had just about everyone speculating that his 16-year pro career was about to be over. Even Turki Alalshikh, the chairman of the general entertainment authority in Saudi Arabia who has spearheaded his nation’s deep financial investment into the sport, sat Wilder down and requested that the aggressive version of old make an immediate return. 

Luckily for Wilder’s bank account, he listened. 

The native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, enters Saturday’s bout against former interim titleholder Zhilel “Big Bang” Zhang at a bit of a crossroads moment when the two touch gloves inside Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, headlining a “5 vs. 5” PPV card matching top stars from rival promoters Eddie Hearn (Matchroom Sport) and Frank Warren (Queensberry Promotions) against one another. 

Should Wilder win (or, at least, look great in losing, per Alashikh) against the 41-year-old Zhang (26-2-1, 21 KOs), who lost his own decision and WBO interim title in March to Parker despite dropping him twice, an equally difficult fight awaits him on Aug. 3 in Los Angeles when Alashikh makes his U.S. debut as a de facto promoter in Los Angeles and matches Wilder against unbeaten American prospect Jared “Big Baby” Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs). 

If that isn’t enough, a victory over both likely lifts Wilder to the one fight fans have clamored for but never received over the past decade: a showdown against two-time former unified champion Anthony Joshua (28-3, 25 KOs). 

Talk about pressure and motivation. A bad loss this weekend likely ends Wilder’s distinguished career while a win sets him further down the line on a path toward some of the biggest one-night paydays of his career given Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming investment in the heavyweight division. 

“We looked at all aspects of that situation [after the loss] and it was a lesson for me,” Wilder said. “I didn’t overlook [Parker]. I never look past an opponent but I do look through them at what is next. That loss is a lesson for me but it became a blessing when I got home. I became a gym rat all over again like it became a job for me.

“I knew immediately that we were going to [fight] again. I didn’t know where. Thank God I’m back again in the Kingdom so I can get that one back. It’s a different opponent but I want to show the people that I can deliver the man that they were expecting.”

The man they were expecting is one of the most devastating and feared punchers in the history of the sport. But not only were Wilder’s legs noticeably skinny and lacking muscle against Parker, he also seemed to lack the killer instinct that has made him so dynamic, despite how often critics took umbrage with Wilder’s controversial stance regarding his want to kill another man inside the ring with a punch. 

Once his ability to deliver said punches seemed to be gone against Parker, along with his care level while facing defeat, the urgent call was made by seemingly everyone to resurrect the warrior of old. And as a prizefighter first, Wilder answered the call.  

“I just have to go in there and be me. I’m going to do what I know to do,” Wilder said. “I trained hard for this. Last time, I knew what to do but I couldn’t pull the trigger. I saw some things but the body didn’t react. It’s going to be a different fight this time around and if it’s not a different fight, retirement is highly, highly considered.”

Wilder doesn’t hesitate to call the Zhang fight a “must win” and said he embraces the pressure that comes with that. And nothing short of a tense shootout is expected between the aging sluggers given the size and power that the 6-foot-6 southpaw Zhang brings to the table. 

Zhang was long considered merely a heavyweight project until a late career switch to trainer Shaun George helped the native of China find another level to his game. Although Zhang suffered his first pro defeat in a close loss to Filip Hrgovic in 2022, he instantly rebounded with a pair of upset knockouts against unbeaten Joe Joyce to announce himself as a legit contender. 

“I like his style. [Zhang] is a good puncher,” Wilder said. “I like everything about him, which is why I smile when I hear that name, ‘Big Bang’ Zhang. I love that name but when we get in the ring, I don’t like nothing about him. That’s how my switch is going to change. I can’t wait for the fight. I love to be in a good action fight, it’s like a good action movie. I love the thrill and suspense of it.”

Wilder remains a slight betting underdog against Zhang due to his inactivity and recent poor showing. But even though Zhang is a proven slicker boxer with legit knockout power in his left hand, he has had a history of fading late toward the championship rounds, where Wilder historically has carried his power. 

And in order for the “Wilder of old” to show up in place of the “old Wilder” who fought on Saudi Arabian soil in December, the threat of his dominant right hand is going to need to make its presence known early and often.  

“If I land this against the flesh of any face, whether it’s a human or it’s an animal or an extraterrestrial, something is going to happen,” Wilder said. “I have been blessed with the gift of power and God has blessed me tremendously. I’m not going to modify who I am anymore to please others but only to please myself because God blessed me with an ability and talent to be different and unique.”

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