NEW YORK -- Heavyweight world titleholder Deontay Wilder sent a message to the legion of critics who have dogged him for his soft schedule: So how do you like me now?
In a fight that went from sleep-inducing to sensational in the blink of an eye, Wilder retained his title for the seventh time, scoring a thunderous 10th-round knockout of division boogeyman Luis "King Kong" Ortiz before 14,069 on Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Ortiz nearly knocked Wilder out in a brutally one-sided seventh round, but Wilder kept himself together and stormed back for a sensational knockout to set the stage for a potential undisputed title fight with the winner of the three-belt bout between Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker on March 31 in Cardiff, Wales.
"'King Kong' ain't got nothing on me," a joyous Wilder said. "A true champion always finds a way to come back, and that's what I did tonight. Luis Ortiz is definitely a crafty guy. He put up a great fight. We knew we had to wear him down. I showed everyone I can take a punch.
"When he leaves tonight, Ortiz can hold his head high. He gave the fans a hell of a fight."
Ortiz had come within a whisker of stopping Wilder in the seventh round and was dejected by the outcome.
"I feel fine. I did receive a right hand, but I'm OK," Ortiz said through a translator. "I was listening to the directions that my corner was giving me. In this sport, any punch can end a fight. It was a great fight and I performed well. I thought I was up on the scorecard going in to the [10th] round, but it's heavyweight boxing, and you never know what's going to happen."
Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs) had spent most of his career telling anyone (loudly) who would listen that his desire was to face the best opponents the heavyweight division had to offer. He even signed to go to Moscow to fight dangerous mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin in May 2016, only to have the fight canceled when Povetkin tested positive for a banned substance. Wilder then signed to fight an optional defense against Ortiz (28-1, 24 KOs), considered even more dangerous than Povetkin, only to have their fight last November canceled when Ortiz tested positive for two banned substances -- the second time in his career Ortiz had been caught for having performance-enhancing drugs in his system.
When Ortiz was reinstated after the WBC accepted his story that the positive test last year was caused by medication he was taking for high blood pressure, Wilder insisted on the fight being rescheduled because he so desperately wanted to defeat a top opponent as a way to quiet the critics.
Wilder, who has knocked out every man he has faced, did just that in show-stopping fashion.
"The heavyweight champion is a man's man," promoter Lou DiBella said. "When he made it through that round, I swear to God I knew he would win the fight. I thought he would find a way to win. A round or two later he looked OK. He showed the kind of champion he is. He walked through the fire. He fought the toughest guy out there and came through it. He walked through the fire and knocked the guy out. That's what it's all about. I'm jacked up."
Said Wilder: "This is a fight I took with great risk so that I could prove to the world that I'm the best. We each put on a great performance and I think the fans were happy they were here. I always give the fans in Brooklyn a great fight."
But for several rounds the fight bordered on unwatchable as it was clear Wilder and Ortiz respected each other's power.
The fight opened with a tension-filled feeling-out round in the first as they circled and jabbed. Wilder seemed especially worried about throwing punches. He stuck his jab out often but with almost nothing on it, and when he finally released his money punch, the right hand, he hit nothing but air in the second round. The crowd booed the lack of action in the third round because the fighters feinted, pawed with their jabs and stared at each other for the most part.
Ortiz landed a couple of straight left hands in the fourth round while Wilder struggled to land much of anything in a fight that was nowhere near the kind of exciting fight most expected.
Wilder finally broke through in the final seconds of the fifth round when he lashed Ortiz across the face with a right hand that buckled his legs and then floored him with another right hand. But the round was over and he never had a chance to throw another punch.
Wilder, 32, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, didn't attack Ortiz to begin the sixth round to see how he had recovered from the knockdown, but he did land some solid punches as they finally got into an exchange late in the round.
Ortiz had a huge seventh round and nearly knocked Wilder out. He battered him with flush punches, and referee David Fields was looking closely as Wilder was in the biggest crisis of his career. He was wobbly, hurt and holding on. It was brutal and he barely made it out of the round despite taking massive punishment, including hard left hands to the head that did the biggest damage.
"He was hitting me with those furious punches, but they didn't have sting on them," Wilder said. "He was throwing combos that knocked me off balance. I just had to get my range back and my fundamentals back. And I was able to do that. I showed I was a true champion tonight."
Ortiz thought he had him.
"I almost had him and I think I would've if there were a few more seconds in the round," Ortiz said. "Wilder was definitely saved by the bell. I thought I had him out on his feet. But you have to give him credit, he weathered the storm."
Ortiz, a Cuban defector based in Miami who was bidding to become the first man from his homeland to win a heavyweight world title, was on the attack again in the eighth round, but Wilder managed to hang in there despite taking more clean punches. Wilder hadn't done much in the ninth round until landing a right hand that wobbled Ortiz in the final seconds. He attacked and landed another shot, but the bell rang to end the round.
In the 10th round, Wilder went after the southpaw and nailed a right hand. Wilder thought he had him hurt and sprang to action, rushing at him and eventually throwing him to the mat. That gave Ortiz a few extra seconds to try to recover, but it didn't matter. Wilder blasted him with three right hands for a knockdown. Then he finished him moments later with a massive right uppercut that dropped the limp Ortiz to the canvas as Fields waved off the fight at 2 minutes, 5 seconds while the Barclays Center's second-biggest boxing crowd (behind last year's Keith Thurman-Danny Garcia welterweight title unification fight) erupted.
"I don't think it was Deontay's best performance at all, but I thought it was his best show of fortitude and heart," DiBella said. "He doesn't have to have his best night to beat the best because he's the best out there. His punching power is ungodly."
According to CompuBox, Wilder landed 98 of 346 punches (28 percent), and Ortiz landed 87 of 363 (24 percent).
Wilder, who earned $2.1 million to Ortiz's $500,000, was ahead 85-84 on all three scorecards at the time of the knockout, with all three judges giving Ortiz a 10-8 round in the seventh even without a knockdown because it was so one-sided.
"I just showed that I can punch on the inside as well, too," Wilder said. "A lot of people don't think I can punch on the inside, but I showed them. Now I can say there's no man that stepped in the ring that I haven't put on their ass."
Wilder, a 2008 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist, went the distance with Bermane Stiverne to win the title in 2015, but when they met in the rematch in November -- Stiverne replaced Ortiz after the failed drug test -- Wilder destroyed him in the first round. It took him longer to knock out Ortiz on Saturday, but it was just as violent.
"Luis Ortiz was one of those fighters that everyone ducked -- even champions ducked him," Wilder said. "I wondered why it took so long for him to get a title shot, and now we know."
Now Wilder wants what he has always wanted -- a chance to become undisputed heavyweight world champion.
"I'm ready right now [for the Joshua-Parker winner]," Wilder said. "I always said that I want to unify. I'm ready whenever those guys are. I am the baddest man on the planet and I proved that tonight. This solidified my position at the top of the food chain."