Deontay Wilder, Rowdy Alabama Crowd Bringing the Hometown Fight Back into Style

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 14, 2015

Deontay Wilder walks around the ring during the bout against Eric Molina during the WBC heavyweight boxing match, Saturday, June 13, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — If a garbage disposal registers at 80 decibels and a jet airplane hits 130, the sellout crowd of 9,347 at the Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, for WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder's title defense against Eric Molina must have approached 150.  

Cries of "De-on-tay, De-on-tay" rang out throughout the night whenever the champion appeared on the big screen, and fans remained enthusiastic even when the night's penultimate bout bordered on dull. Perhaps that allowed them to save their energy for Wilder.

"That may have been the most cheering the Bartow Arena has ever seen," Robert Carter, the associate editor for the Birmingham-based North Jefferson News said. "And that includes the days when the arena's namesake Gene Bartow was rocking the sidelines with some pretty good UAB Blazers basketball teams. It was amazing."

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

When the champion, making his first defense and the first-ever championship defense of any kind in his home state, hit the ring, the noise bordered on uncomfortable.

"Our table was shaking," Showtime announcer Mauro Ranallo said after the fight. "What a great, great atmosphere."

While boxing pundits expected Wilder to make short work of Molina, the challenger had different ideas. Using a sneaky right uppercut, he buzzed Wilder in the third round, much to the obvious discomfort of the partisan crowd. That gave the rest of the fight a delicious nervous energy, even as Wilder knocked Molina down in the fourth round and twice in the fifth.

"When I looked in his eyes I didn't see fear," Wilder said after the fight. "I said 'Yeah, he's coming to fight.' He kept getting up and getting up. That's what a true fighter is all about."

By the time a fourth knockdown came in the ninth courtesy of a sledgehammer right hand, referee Jack Reiss had seen enough, waving the fight off even as Molina struggled valiantly to his feet. The sense of relief and joy throughout the arena was palpable. As Wilder walked around the ring yelling "This is for y'all," you could see a star being born before your eyes. 

"He puts away the Auburn-Alabama rivalry, he puts away the wrongdoings that have happened in this state and he brings everybody together," local fan and boxing enthusiast Alec Lewis said. "He has definitely resonated and the people in attendance at fight tell the story. Young, old, black, white—it didn't matter and for many Alabamians, I think that's why they loved it so much."  

The bout was the first live boxing card for many in attendance. If the response was any indication, they'll be back the next time Showtime or Premier Boxing Champions comes to town.

"The history that was made tonight was huge for the state of Alabama," Wilder said. "It's just a dream come true for me. It really is...we finally got our first professional sport here. This is the reason I'm still here, guys. Because I get so much love and support from the state of Alabama. I'm looking forward to doing it again and again and again. This ain't no one-hit wonder. This is my home territory."

That's good news for all involved. There's something special about a bout where the fighters have clearly defined roles as hero and villain. As Ranallo pointed out, a fight like this one might not have survived an indifferent crowd in Las Vegas or New York. In Alabama, however, people cared. 

That matters.

"Wilder was born here, lives here, trains here, stays here and loves the state of Alabama," Carter said. "That means a lot to folks around here. Besides football, most folks down here don't have a lot to cheer for."

The result had people in the arena thinking big. Though mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin looms large, the name on the tip of everyone's tongue was a different European star—Wladimir Klitschko. Wilder's management has pegged that bout for 2016.

Why not, after this response, hold it right here in Alabama?

"Most people around here couldn't even pronounce the name of the guy who holds the other three belts. They just know we have a winner," Carter said. "We don't do Russian well. If there was a unification bout, they could fill (Alabama football's) Bryant-Denny Stadium."

 

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.