LAS VEGAS, NV – JANUARY 17: Deontay Wilder wears a mask during his ring entrance for a title fight against WBC heavyweight champion Bermane Stiverne at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on January 17, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Wilder took the title by unanimous decision. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

One Night In Birmingham: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace The Champ

Deontay Wilder’s triumph over Eric Molina was one of the most divisive fights I’ve ever witnessed. Wilder knocked Molina down three times before vanquishing his challenger for good with one of his colossal straight rights, so it’s not like I’m split about the outcome. Rather, I’m torn about what I’m supposed to do next.

In my initial recap of the event, I was critical of Wilder’s in-ring performance. He was expected to overwhelm Molina and blow him out in the early rounds. Instead, Wilder struggled through nine rounds, looking vulnerable at times and relying on his uncanny one-punch power to bail him out on more than one occasion. As a result, Wilder’s first title defense re-established the same storylines that have followed the Alabamian throughout his career. He’s a KO phenom, but questions dog other aspects of his game and he’s fought a wholly underwhelming level of competition to this point.

But the continued assault on these dead horses misses on important detail: Last night was an absolutely wonderful night for the sport of boxing.

The energetic crowd of 9,347 that filled the Bartow Arena was a vibrant reminder that boxing doesn’t put on nearly enough fights in locations that can draw a sellout for local boxers. I can’t understate the emotion (and sheer fun) that the hometown audience added to the evening. While many seats were empty up until the co-feature, the concourse was full of fans socializing hours before the Showtime telecast began. Chants of “Roll Tide, Roll” broke out in between undercard fights. During the main event, Wilder’s ups and downs in the ring were matched by equally deafening roars — and a few anxious periods of silence — from the Birmingham crowd.

“[The crowd noise] is something you definitely can’t train for,” said Molina in a post-fight interview. “I’d compare it to the movie Gladiator. It was loud. There were some intense moments, but it’s something I’ll always cherish — the pride that Alabama showed for Wilder.”

“I think this was not only a dream come true for me, but for a lot of Alabamians,” said Wilder. “This is the reason I’m still here. I get so much love and support here in the state that I can’t see myself moving on.”

Before the fight, many spectators acknowledged their boxing naiveté. People enthusiastically admitted this was their first live fight. They acknowledged Wilder’s careful matchmaking with a shrug, hoping to see one of his storied knockouts for themselves, deferring any concerns over Klitschko until that fight is actually signed. Feverish insanity tonight, worries about “what’s next” later. It sure seems logical, doesn’t it?

At the post-fight press conference, Wilder didn’t avoid any questions about the adversaries looming ahead of him, either. “We want to do this again, maybe sometime in September, and get right back in there. People think back to the days and want to see more and more fights… I’ve got a mandatory lined up with Alexander Povetkin, and I’m looking forward to fighting that mandatory.”

When asked about a unification bout with Wladimir Klitschko, Wilder stated simply that it’s “a fight where it’s not ‘if ‘it’s going to happen, it’s ‘when’ it’s going to happen.”

“My dream is sometime in 2016,” he continued. “First I have this mandatory and have things that I need to get out of the way, then we’ll see what happens, but it’s not something you’ll have to wait on for years.”

Wilder-Molina also was an opportunity to bring a world-class event to a city that otherwise wouldn’t be on the world’s map. At the post-fight press conference, the champion touched on how proud he was to be able to introduce Alabama to a new audience and infuse the local economy with extra revenue. The challenger shared praise for local residents. “They said it’s going to be hostile territory down here, but I never felt that,” said Molina. “Everybody welcomed me and my team with hospitality and I couldn’t be happier to make history here in Alabama.”

The night was more spectacle than war. A celebration of a promise kept by a native son. Which begs the question: is there anything us boxing diehards can learn from last night’s novice crowd?

Wilder is an Olympic medalist. An American heavyweight belt-holder. A Southern kid with a humble background, witty personality and — most importantly — a prodigious right hand. There’s a lot to like.

So is it time that we stop panicking about Deontay Wilder and start enjoying — nay, supporting — what he’s bringing to the sport?

Photo credit: Steve Marcus/Getty Images