Since 2013, Deontay Wilder has steadily picked up steam as "the next great American Heavyweight boxer". And why not? Wilder has all the attributes you look for in a big Heavyweight star. He has the pedigree (Bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics), the flashy record (35 fights, 35 wins), the big KO power (all but one fight ending before the final bell, many by highlight reel KO), and the outsized, dynamic personality. But standing in his way has always been a roadblock. Specifically, a giant Ukranian roadblock.
With his 10+ year lockdown on the Heavyweight division, Wladimir Klitschko was often seen as an impassable obstacle, the kind of fighter any Heavyweight could not possibly overcome, Deontay Wilder included. Sure people hoped The Bronze Bomber would topple the champ, but there was always a feeling that this was largely just wishful thinking - a desire to see the Klitschko era end, and, for those who grew up with stories of great American Heavyweight champions like Ali, Foreman, Frazier, or Tyson, to see it ended by a man ready to bring that sense of excitement and dominance back to the American Heavyweight boxing scene. Wilder could be that man - but the reality is few thought he could get past Wladimir.
Enter Tyson Fury. The unlikely new Heavyweight king took Klitschko apart, bringing his reign down in a single surprising fight. And suddenly, the future of the division looks very different.
This Saturday, Deontay Wilder enters the ring for the first time in the post-Klitschko era. And like every Heavyweight fight these days, the stakes are so much higher now. No longer is Wilder fighting for the chance to be offered up to Klitschko for the benefit of the German fans - now he's fighting to become the champion. Not just the WBC champion, an alphabet title Wilder claimed from Bermane Stiverne last year, but the true Heavyweight king. To do that, he needs to earn a shot at Tyson Fury, and then take him out. (Of note: that is, of course, assuming Fury defeats Klitschko in their yet to be scheduled rematch. If Fury fails there, then it's back to Klitschko, but a considerably more vulnerable Klitschko.)
This fight with Artur Szpilka is an important step on that path for Wilder. Ring Magazine currently has Wilder as the #3 Heavyweight contender, behind only Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin. With his belt, his ranking, and his many other star-quality attributes, Wilder seems primed for a big title shot, and another win here - particularly another KO win - only makes his case stronger.
At this point, perhaps the biggest roadblock to Wilder's ascent is Wilder's own team. So far, they have been very cautious in managing his career, building him up slowly with carefully chosen opponents. There was a very recent time when Wilder was seen as something of a can crusher. His defeat of Stiverne helped erase that perception, but there's still a sense of caution to his fights. You can see that caution in evidence through Szpilka - a decent fighter, but not one who should give Wilder any trouble.
Interestingly, a tougher fighter can be found on this very card as the #7 ranked Vyacheslav Glazkov opens the broadcast against Charles Martin. Wilder vs. Glazkov would still make Wilder the favorite, but would bring the odds much closer. Instead, Wilder is almost certain to cruise to victory here.
So yes, Saturday night likely makes the prospect of Wilder vs. Fury that much more appealing. But it also shows that his team may still be a few steps away from pulling the trigger on that fight, waiting until the demand is even higher before taking that jump. That is, in many ways, a wise business play, but it's also a dangerous one. All it takes is one underdog to come through, and those grand plans fall apart. Saturday, Szpilka tries to become that underdog and spoil the Wilder party. Can he do it? It's not likely - there's a reason Wilder is the -1000 favorite. Which means the real drama Saturday night might come in the post-fight speech. Will a triumphant Wilder set his sights on the champ, or will he remain cautious? That's the true question to be answered this weekend.
Deontay Wilder vs. Artur Szpilka headlines Showtime Championship Boxing this Saturday January 16 at 10:00 p.m. ET live on Showtime. As a reminder, this is Showtime's free preview weekend, so the fight will be available for all fans.