Deontay Wilder's first defense of his heavyweight title wasn't without a few tense moments against heavy underdog Eric Molina on Saturday night.
But in the end, Wilder's massive right hand proved one heck of a great equalizer.
Wilder scored four knockdowns in his Alabama homecoming and overcame a gutsy effort from Molina to score a ninth-round knockout at the Bartow Arena in Birmingham.
Despite the wide margins on the scorecards at the time of the knockout, Wilder showed moments of vulnerability throughout and had his cardio tested by the game Molina (23-3, 17 KOs). The native of Texas wobbled Wilder in Round 3 and never stopped fighting to win despite most experts believing he wouldn't survive past the opening rounds.
"To be honest, I definitely was surprised," Wilder said of Molina. "It does my heart so good even just standing right here in front of him to say, 'This guy has got heart.' All of the critics doubted him. All the naysayers said he wasn't here to last, but I'm so proud of him and he has my support."
In the first championship boxing match in the state of Alabama, Wilder (34-0, 33 KOs) closed the show with a bang, flooring Molina with a vicious counter right hand in Round 9. Referee Jack Reiss waved off the fight without a count at 1:03, causing protest from Molina, who appeared to be knocked cold as he lay on the canvas.
"I respect the referee; he has a job to do and I respect his stoppage," Molina said. "This was my dream to fight for the heavyweight world title. Deontay Wilder is a good fighter, but I want him to be great now."
Wilder, who suffered a stress fracture in his right hand in January when he outpointed Bermane Stiverne to win a world title, was often tentative in the early rounds against Molina while testing his hand. But his hand passed the test in a big way, often saving him in times of trouble.
"I wanted to test my right hand," Wilder said. "I got some shots in, and it held up pretty good."
Wilder, who was visibly leery of Molina's counter shots, explained his cautious approach by describing himself as a thinker in the ring.
"We like to think in the ring and don't like to rush in," Wilder said. "I was calm, cool and collected, and as you could see I tried to think with my shots. That's what it's all about. I used to be wild because of my last name Wilder, but right now we are just trying to be a technician."
Molina, on the other hand, excelled by being wild and stayed in the fight with a combination of toughness and awkwardness. The wider his punches were, the more success he had by tagging Wilder with a series of looping power shots.
Not only did Molina test the champion's will by aggressively going to the body, his unorthodox approach created a few tense moments for Wilder, whose awkward reactions left him open for counter shots.
"I'm definitely still a work in progress and I always tell myself that once I stop learning, I don't want to be in the sport no more," Wilder said. "I'm annoyed when there is nothing else to learn. That's no fun. I think I'm still going to be a work in progress after I collect all the belts. I'm going to keep learning until I retire."
Molina broke open a tense, cautious fight early by wobbling Wilder with a left hook, right cross combination in Round 3. But Wilder recovered well, closing the round with a hard right uppercut.
Wilder, 29, responded in a big way in Round 4, knocking Molina down with a left hook in the corner. The 6-foot-7 slugger then appeared on the verge of ending matters in Round 5, scoring two more knockdowns on a flurry of shots, each time with Molina partially turning his back on the action, which drew an earful from Reiss.
But Molina not only survived the round, he kept plowing forward to the body in Round 8 against a visibly fatigued Wilder, who finished the fight one round later.
"I told you I was going to come in and give everything I got, and I did," Molina said.
Wilder said after the fight that he looks forward to facing mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin in the future. He also had plenty of praise for the efforts of Molina.
"Because this is the first title defense of any weight division in Alabama, I needed a tough guy that had heart," Wilder said. "I needed a guy that was going to get dropped and still get up and fight and Eric Molina, I got that out of him.
"I respect him and I thank him for the opportunity to come, accept the challenge and put on a great show for the state of Alabama."
Pedraza decisions Klimov
Jose Pedraza showed the full arsenal over 12 rounds to thoroughly dominate his way toward winning a vacant junior lightweight title.
Pedraza (20-0, 12 KOs), a native of Caugas, Puerto Rico, switched stances throughout and showed Andrey Klimov just about every possible look in winning a unanimous decision (119-109, 120-108 twice).
"I'm very grateful. I've been waiting 14 years for this big event," Pedraza said. "We are a small country, but have great fighters. Since I was very small I wanted this and wanted to follow in the footsteps of guys like [Miguel] Cotto."
Whether he was outslicking Klimov, 32, early as a southpaw or walking him down in the middle rounds from the orthodox stance, Pedraza, 26, looked spectacular. In between, he lived up to his nickname of "Sniper" by landing one clean counter shot after another to bloody Klimov's nose.
Klimov (19-2, 9 KOs), a native of Klimovsk, Russia, never stopped coming forward despite suffering a badly bruised and swollen face.