LAS VEGAS (AP) — No one doubted Deontay Wilder could punch, not after knocking out his first 32 opponents as a pro.
Saturday night he showed he could box a little bit, too. And the payoff was huge.
Wilder became the first American to win a piece of the heavyweight title in nearly a decade, staggering Bermane Stiverne early on his way to a 12-round unanimous decision that kept him unbeaten in 33 fights.
Going deep into a fight for the first time in his career, Wilder controlled the bout with a big left jab, often followed by right hands up the middle as he piled up points early on his way to the biggest win of his career.
“Who can’t box? Who can’t box?” Wilder shouted at the ringside media as the fight ended
The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, who had never been past the fourth round in winning all 32 of his previous fights, had to go the distance in this one. But the payoff was the WBC heavyweight title and a chance to be a big man on a big stage.
One ringside judge gave Wilder every round, scoring it 120-107, and he won 119-108 and 118-109 on the other two. The Associated Press had Wilder winning 117-111.
“I’m going to bring excitement back to the heavyweight division,” Wilder said. “I’m not going to sit around. Whoever is ready, I’m ready.”
Wilder had stopped 18 fighters in the first round and had never gone past the fourth. But his opponents were a suspect lot, and Stiverne (24-2-1) was his first big test as a pro.
He passed it with flying colors, staggering Stiverne on several occasions and dominating the fight with his left jab.
“I think I answered a lot of questions tonight,” Wilder said. “We knew we could go 12 rounds, we knew we could take a punch.”
Ringside punch stats showed Wilder’s dominance, crediting him with landing 227 of 621 punches, including 120 of 420 jabs. Stiverne landed 110 of 327 punches, and only 38 jabs.
“You don’t win a fight not throwing punches,” Stiverne’s promoter, Don King, said. “He wasn’t active enough. Everybody could see he wasn’t active enough.”
It was the first heavyweight title fight at the MGM Grand since Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear in the infamous Bite Fight 18 years ago. Both Tyson and Holyfield were on hand to watch, as was Larry Holmes, who fought often on the big stage as heavyweight champion in the 1970s and ’80s.
And the Alabama native became the first American to hold a piece of the heavyweight title since Shannon Briggs in 2006.
“You’ve got to give it to him, he’s got a great chin,” Wilder said. “But I just wanted to show the world what Deontay Wilder is capable of and I proved it tonight.”
Wilder took some punches, but at 6-foot-7 with a huge reach advantage he was able to keep Stiverne on the outside most of the night and made him pay the price when he came inside. Stiverne was never knocked down but was staggered several times.
“I wasn’t myself. I felt 100 percent but I couldn’t cut the ring off like I usually do,” Stiverne said. “I was throwing hard punches but I could only throw two of them at a time.”
Stiverne was defending the title he won last May when he stopped Chris Arreola in the sixth round. The WBC title had become vacant by the retirement of Vitali Klitschko, whose brother, Wladimir, is considered the true heavyweight champion.
Even in uncharted territory past the fourth round, Wilder continued to control the fight, moving backward and throwing left jabs to keep Stiverne away. But Stiverne kept coming, and his punches started landing more often as the fight entered the middle rounds.
“Come on, fight” Stiverne yelled at Wilder after hitting him with a left hook in the sixth round.
The crowd of 8,453 was on its feet in the seventh round as Wilder staggered Stiverne yet again, landing a left jab followed by a straight right up the middle. Stiverne went into the ropes but managed to escape once more, yelling at Wilder to fight some more while throwing a right of his own that missed badly.
Both fighters tired toward the end of the bout, drawing some boos from the crowd. But Wilder was still able to use his left jab to pile up points.
Adding to the scene was the 83-year-old King, who also staged the Bite Fight. King, who promotes Stiverne but has largely been inactive in recent years, waved a variety of flags as he climbed into the ring with his fighter, a big cigar clenched between his teeth.
Like Stiverne, though, he left the ring disappointed.
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