Following last night's win over Johann Duhaupas, American heavyweight star Deontay Wilder is now faced with the most difficult ask of his pro career, as the WBC heavyweight titleholder will likely be forced to make his mandatory defense in his next fight.
The mandatory challenger is Alexander Povetkin, the Russian standout who has lost just one pro fight, to Wladimir Klitschko in 2013. The question now is whether or not Wilder (35-0, 34 KO) is ready for that challenge.
For some, it seems the 29-year-old Wilder can't do enough. When he was smashing nobodies in a round or two, he was being protected. In reality, his team was still working on refining his game. Sure, there was protection involved in that, as they didn't want to send Wilder out against top opponents while they still knew there was so much improvement to be made, but the goal wasn't simply to hide him from credible foes. It was development.
This year, Wilder has shut out Bermane Stiverne to win the WBC belt, and dominated and stopped both Eric Molina and Duhaupas in a pair of home defenses in Birmingham, Alabama. Molina kind of hurt Wilder at one point, which was enough to set off a billion alarms for the skeptics. Otherwise, Wilder totally owned that fight and beat Molina down en route to a ninth round knockout. Last night, Duhaupas didn't crumble inside of three rounds, so Wilder's one-sided thrashing of the Frenchman is also being seen, somehow, as a disappointing performance, at least in some circles.
The prevailing thought that Molina and Duhaupas were not serious contenders is quite valid, but it shouldn't totally discount what Wilder did against both of them. Sure, they're not exactly elite heavyweights, or even close to it, but both of them showed toughness and some sort of plan for staying upright against Wilder, while also clearly exhibiting respect for the big man's punching power. Duhaupas came out early with his forearms up high, ducking down on his way in, as if he were approaching a live bomb. He had the right game plan, and did as well as he could have. He also didn't win a single round, and was systematically broken down by Wilder over the course of the fight, as Deontay established a jab in the early going before opening up with more reckless abandon later on, once he felt he had any danger from Duhaupas neutralized.
Duhaupas was not a top-level opponent. But what top-level opponents has Povetkin beaten? His best wins have come against Eddie Chambers (2008), Ruslan Chagaev (2011), and Carlos Takam (2014). None of those wins are/were more impressive than what Wilder did against Stiverne, another second-tier heavyweight. When Povetkin fought Klitschko, he was smothered by the champion's exceptionally ugly tactics, losing on unanimous scores of 119-104, with Klitschko deducted a point in round 11. It was a shutout, and Povetkin was dropped four times, too.
There's no doubt that Povetkin (29-1, 21 KO) has looked impressive since that loss. Against Manuel Charr, Takam, and Mike Perez, he's shown more aggression and some real raw power. Last time out, he finished off Perez in 91 seconds.
Wilder is a better fighter than Charr, Takam, or Perez, though, and with his height and reach advantages, he could be significant trouble for Povetkin, at least in a "styles make fights" sort of way. Wilder has looked more relaxed and comfortable in his more recent bouts, sort of settling in and gaining confidence in what he can do. The fact that he's taken some good shots from some big heavyweights has probably helped, too. He knows he can get hit. His jab has become a much better weapon. And he possesses power in both hands.
Povetkin would have to work his way inside against Wilder, and while that would in theory be easier than doing it against Klitschko, there are differences between the way Wilder and Klitschko fight that could make it just as difficult, but in a different way. In fact, it might be more dangerous trying to get inside on Wilder than it was on Klitschko. Whereas Wladimir was content to grab, hold, shove, push, hug, and grapple, the threat of wading in against Wilder is that he's actually going to throw significant punches sometimes, including an uppercut that isn't exactly perfected yet, but is something that could end the fight in a flash if landed clean and at the right time.
Alexander Povetkin is a really good fighter. He's established himself as the deserving No. 2 heavyweight today. But Wilder is no worse than No. 4, and while skepticism is healthy for a boxing fan, given that fighters and fights are built on lies meant to take your money away from you, Deontay Wilder is receiving a lot more than he's earned. He's had a very good year, and his last three wins have been as impressive as Povetkin's last three wins, which are just as easy to pick apart and dismiss, if you want to do so.
Povetkin could definitely beat Wilder. I said last night during the fight on Twitter that Povetkin is "really bad news" for Deontay at this stage of his career. But after thinking about it, and delving deeper into the matchup than a quick tweet necessitates, I started to wonder why I thought that. What has Povetkin done that is so special that he'd be such a clear favorite against Wilder? The more I thought about it, the less evidence I saw that Wilder isn't "ready" for Povetkin. The more I thought about it, the more evidence I saw that Wilder can absolutely beat Alexander Povetkin.
Maybe Povetkin deserves to be the favorite in this matchup, if and when it happens. But this isn't some Mayweather-Berto situation, or Klitschko-anyone. It's a better fight than you might believe, and I don't see an inevitable outcome.