WBC champ Wilder returns against unbeaten Washington

In this Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, photo, unbeaten heavyweight contender Gerald Washington works with his training staff in Burbank, Calif. Washington takes on WBC heavyweight champion Deontae Wilder on Feb. 25 in Alabama. (AP Photo/Greg Beacham)

Deontay Wilder is trying to emulate Larry Holmes, both in becoming the world's dominant heavyweight champion and in cultivating a pinpoint left jab while sidelined by a right hand injury

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. β€” Deontay Wilder is trying to emulate Larry Holmes, both in becoming the world's dominant heavyweight champion and in cultivating a pinpoint left jab while sidelined by a right hand injury.

Returning from a pair of injuries to his right arm and flush from a court victory, the WBC heavyweight champion returns to the ring Saturday night against unbeaten and mostly unknown Gerald Washington (18-0-1, 12 knockouts) at Legacy Arena. He's hoping it's the start of a year when he begins adding belts to the one he's dubbed "Sophie."

Washington is a 34-year-old former Southern California tight end and defensive end. He is also a former Navy helicopter mechanic who turned pro less than five years ago.

The 31-year-old Wilder (37-0, 36 KOs) is making his fifth title defense and fourth in Birmingham, about an hour from his Tuscaloosa hometown. He had surgeries to repair a broken right hand and torn right biceps sustained in last summer's fight against Chris Arreola. Trainer Jay Deas said they quickly returned to the ring even with that arm in a sling, working on his left, a la Holmes.

"Holmes had a very average to decent jab until he broke his right hand," Deas said. "When he broke his right hand early in his career, he spent 6-8 weeks just on the left hand and became arguably the greatest (jabber) in heavyweight history. We took a page out of that book."

The 6-foot-7 Wilder predicts a lot of jabs in the fight with the 6-5 Washington, both tall, athletic fighters.

Holmes and fellow former heavyweight champions Evander Holyfield and Earnie Shavers β€” along with WBO titlist Joseph Parker β€” are expected to be on hand at Legacy Arena.

The undercard features Jarrett Hurd (19-0, 13 KOs) against Tony Harrison (24-1, 20 KOs), both 26, for the IBF super welterweight title vacated when Jermall Charlo moved up to middleweight.

Then Wilder enters the ring for what he's hoping becomes another steppingstone to unifying the title. If he wins, he expects next to fight WBO champion Joseph Parker this summer and then, he hopes, the winner of the April bout between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko. Parker is first scheduled to fight Hughie Fury, Tyson Fury's cousin.

Wilder's recent path has taken unexpected turns. He was on his way to board a flight for Russia last year when he learned opponent Alexander Povetkin had tested positive for meldonium. Wilder instead turned to Arreola , whose corner stopped the fight after the eighth round. Wilder had fought half the fight mostly relying on his left hand following the injuries.

Washington is a late substitute after Polish challenger Andrzej Wawrzyk also failed a drug test. Wilder, who has been a vocal critic of boxing cheaters , already scored one big victory recently, winning a unanimous verdict in a New York title seeking the $5 million he was scheduled to receive for the Povetkin fight last summer.

Wilder said Washington is a better opponent than Wawrzyk and perhaps the most athletic he has faced. The WBC champ said he's focused on Washington while also "window-shopping" for future fights .

"I am the man to beat," Wilder said. "I don't care what other heavyweight has what title and what country they're from. Deontay Wilder is the man to beat."

Now, the man he has to beat is Washington, who had a fourth-round knockout of former title challenger Ray Austin on the Wilder-Arreola undercard.

Washington got emotional at the pre-fight news conference, tearing up at the podium as he talked about his dream opportunity that arose four weeks ago. He said he's gained confidence and learned from every fight along the way despite a late start following his football and military careers.

Washington thinks playing on three Rose Bowl teams for Pete Carroll's talent-rich USC program taught him not to shy away from competition. But he also knows that there are people saying he doesn't have much chance against Wilder.

"The whole world is saying that," Washington said. "That's what I love about it. Our back is against the wall. We're against all odds. We're in his back yard. I love that. I embrace that.

"I'm not one to shy away from competition. I'm used to competing against the best in the country, and the best in the world. Now I get to do that on the boxing stage for the most prestigious title, the WBC heavyweight championship of the world."

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