There has never been a French or a Mexican heavyweight champion, a drought prolonged in 2015 by the man on the other end of the phone, his voice as emphatic as the sound of one of his punches landing home. Now, Deontay Wilder looks to start the new year by denying yet another country its shot at boxing history. Poland, you’re up.
Last summer in his native Alabama, Deontay Wilder (35-0, 34 KOs) stopped Mexican-American Eric Molina and Frenchman Johann Duhaupas in his first two title defenses.
Next in line: come-forward Polish southpaw Artur Szpilka (20-1, 15 KOs), whom Wilder faces at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on Saturday in a non-Premier Boxing Champions bout that will air on Showtime’s free-preview weekend as well as be streamed live on the cable network's YouTube site (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
Like Wilder’s previous two opponents, Szpilka will be vying to be the first man from his country to win a heavyweight title.
“When you’re trying to be the first of your kind, you’re willing to die in the ring,” Wilder says.
He certainly speaks from experience.
Just look at the Duhaupas fight from September 26: Although Wilder hammered the marble-chinned Frenchman at will, Duhaupas just kept coming and coming, absorbing tremendous amounts of punishment before referee Jack Reiss eventually called the fight in Round 11. At that point, Duhaupas' face looked like it had been worked over with a meat press.
At the final press conference prior to the bout, Duhaupas gave Wilder a gift: a miniature Eiffel Tower with boxing gloves attached. The message was clear: Duhaupas wasn’t just fighting for himself, he was fighting for a nation, and he carried himself like it in the ring, refusing to go down despite the bludgeoning by Wilder, who landed more than 300 shots for a connect percentage of 56 percent, according to CompuBox stats.
Szpilka was far less friendly than Duhaupas at Wednesday's final press gathering at the World Trade Center, greeting Wilder not with trinkets from his homeland, but with shoves and F-bombs as he and Wilder nearly threw down.
The 6-foot-3 Szpilka will need to bring that same fire to the ring Saturday if he hopes to overcome Wilder’s four-inch height and six-inch reach advantages.
Despite the size discrepancy, Szpilka could pose problems for Wilder: He’s durable, having only been stopped once (by Bryant Jennings in January 2014); he’s skilled at pressuring his opponent and forcing the action; and he’s a southpaw, which Wilder hasn't faced since April 2013, when he blasted Audley Harrison in a single round.
Wilder doesn’t exactly see those latter two attributes working in Szpilka’s favor, however.
“Two things I love in boxing are southpaws and guys who like to pressure me,” he says. “Southpaws are just easy for me.”
That being said, Wilder acknowledges that it took a little time to get reacclimated to facing lefties.
“I haven’t sparred or faced a southpaw in three years, so when I got back into camp, it was like, ‘Oh,'” he says. “But one ability that I have is that I’m able to adjust, and I’m very smart in the ring. In camp, I was able to adjust back to the southpaw style in front of me and get them out of there.”
Nevertheless, Szpilka’s a cagey fighter crafty enough to disrupt his opponent’s offensive flow. He says he’s been studious in his preparations for Wilder.
“Every day I watch a different fight. Molina, Duhaupas—every day I learn,” Szpilka notes. “I know what he’s good at, what he’s no good at. You can learn from him. This is boxing. I know what I must do.”
What he must do foremost is find a way to deal with Wilder’s supreme athleticism, something Szpilka struggled with mightily against Jennings in his only loss.
Like Wilder, Jennings boasts excellent hand and foot speed for the heavyweight division, which caused Szpilka fits as Jennings outboxed him. Unlike Wilder, Jennings is on the small side for the division, while Wilder is tall and powerful with perhaps some of the longest arms in the sport.
And while Szpilka has faced quality opponents, including a victory over countryman and former 200-pound champ Tomas Adamek, this will be his first title fight.
“This is a totally different level for him,” says Wilder, who weighed in Friday at 228.7 pounds while Szpilka was 233.2 pounds. “At the end of the night, he’s going to know what different levels there are to this.
"When he fought Jennings, that was a certain level, but when’s fighting me, he’s going to realize that he wasn’t ready for this. I don’t think there’s any heavyweight more athletic than me, the things that I’m able to do, the angles I’m able to take.”
Moving forward, Wilder is eyeing a potential unification fight with the winner of the Tyson Fury-Wladimir Klitschko rematch, which is in the process of being made. The victor would have bragging rights at the top of the division.
Of course, Szpilka stands in the way of all of that. And so on Saturday night, Wilder doesn’t plan on leaving his opponent upright.
“I know he doesn’t like body shots, he doesn’t like a guy to bring the fight to him,” Wilder says, eyeing an early knockout. “And that’s what I’m coming to do.”