Written by Haley Herfurth
Photography by Marc Bondarenko
It was the end of an Alabama August, the time of year when heat drapes over the world like a blanket, and Deontay Wilder was on his knees.
Less than a week had passed since the end of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, during which Wilder had earned the bronze medal in boxing—the only medal the United States brought home in the sport that year—and he was back at Skyy Boxing Gym in Northport, Alabama, paying his dues. The gym, usually a boisterous, loud place filled with sounds of jabs landing and buzzers dinging, was quiet, save for an unusual scraping sound. “I walked in the gym and heard this noise,” says Jay Deas, gym owner and Wilder’s trainer and manager. “I had seen Deontay’s car outside, so I figured it had to be him. So I walk around and look in the bathroom, and Deontay is in there on his hands and knees. He was re-tiling the bathroom floor.
“I asked him what he was doing,” Deas continues, “and he said, ‘I’m doing the bathroom floor. It needed to be done.’ I said, ‘Deontay, you just won the only medal for the U.S. in boxing. You’re about to make a lot of money as a professional boxer. You don’t have to do that.’” With a facial expression that Deas calls “that look that says ‘don’t mess with me,’” Wilder turned slowly to face his trainer.
“It needed. To be. Done.”
Wilder first stepped into Skyy Boxing in October 2005. Like many who grow up in the shadow of the University of Alabama, he wanted to play sports for the Crimson Tide; at Central High School, he’d been on the football, basketball, baseball, and track teams. But when he was a 19-year-old freshman at Shelton State Community College, studying in preparation for transfer to UA, his girlfriend told him she was pregnant. Their daughter, Naieya, was born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal column. Doctors said she might never walk.
So Wilder changed his plans. He dropped out of school and took various jobs, working as a cook at Red Lobster, a server at IHOP, and a beer truck driver for Budweiser. He joined the boxing gym, he said, after a friend suggested he try it out. It seemed the trouble he’d courted in his earlier youth—placement in a school for at-risk youth in seventh grade, the occasional brush with street fighting—could be put to use as he took on the newfound responsibility of caring for a family.
He was, in his own words, “ignorant to the sport of boxing then,” and the dream of winning a million-dollar purse was enough to get him through the doors of the gym that day. “I didn’t know that it was a process to getting there and making all that money,” Wilder says. “I was just thinking about my daughter, the things she’d have to go through, the expense.”
He met Deas on that first trip to Skyy Boxing, although beyond the trainer noticing Wilder’s height and muscular build (Wilder stands at 6 feet 7 inches tall and weighs more than 200 lbs.), Deas says there wasn’t much out of the ordinary. “Deontay told me he wanted to box,” he says. “I hear that every day.”
Wilder’s first workouts proved there was talent in him, Deas says, but he was no prodigy. “I showed him a few things and watched him from a distance,” he adds. “He was unusual because he worked just as hard when he didn’t think I was watching as when he knew I was watching. I thought to myself, ‘We might have someone that’s a little more serious than the average guy who says they want to do this.’
“He had will. He had ability. He had a good, strong punch,” Deas says. “But he had to work. If natural aptitude goes from zero to 100, zero being none and 100 being almost perfect, he was maybe a 24. The rest, the other 76, he worked for. I don’t think he’s ever been given enough credit for that.”
Deas scheduled Wilder’s first fight as a heavyweight boxer just two months after he began training; most fighters need at least six. But Deas said he had seen enough to know that Wilder was ready. In some of the new boxer’s initial sparring sessions, Deas had pitted him against journeymen professional heavyweights, who “had been around the world boxing, with winning records;” Wilder hit one and knocked him out. “The guy gets up with this grin,” Deas says, “and says [to me], ‘Whatever you do, keep him.’”
Wilder’s first scheduled fights were in local Golden Gloves competitions, where boxers are required to fight opponents with similar experience levels; Wilder was a novice, a category for first-year fighters. He knocked out his first three foes. “The head of [the Golden Gloves] program came to me and said, ‘We’re going to get someone hurt. He’s going to have to fight more experienced guys,’” Deas says. “We did that. He kept winning. He only lost one fight of the first 15.”
The fighter who claimed that single success over Wilder had 60 wins, compared to Wilder’s four. He approached Deas after his hard-won win. “He said, ‘I’m going to tell you two things,’” Deas recalls. “‘No. 1, I’m never fighting him again. No. 2, I’m really glad I fought him now, because six months from now, he would have destroyed me.’”
The decade since those first fights has passed in a whirlwind of success for Wilder. In 2007, Wilder won the national Golden Gloves tournament, with fewer than two years’ training and 20 amateur fights to his name. In 2008, he made the Olympic team with fewer than 30. After bringing home the heavyweight category’s third-place medal, he earned the nickname the Bronze Bomber—a nod to fellow Alabamian Joe Louis, known as the Brown Bomber during his established boxing career in the 1930s and ’40s. In 2012, just four years after his post-Olympics professional career began, Wilder became the World Boxing Council Continental Americas Heavyweight Champion. He’s now up to a win ratio of 34–0 with 33 knockouts.
But the boxing ring isn’t the only place Wilder has faced opposition; in May 2013, while visiting Las Vegas to watch a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Robert Guerrero, a “tall man and bruised woman were taken into custody” by police outside a hotel on Vegas’s infamous strip. Wilder was arrested on a domestic violence-strangulation charge, which was later dismissed. “Deontay was under the mistaken impression he was being robbed,” explains Deas, an explanation that echoed Wilder’s attorney’s at the time of the arrest. “It’s since been dismissed and cleared. He’s had times where people did steal from him, people close to him, and he has a temper about that issue. Nobody wants to work as hard as he works, getting punched in the face for a living, and then have someone take something from them.”
The Bronze Bomber has also earned his fair share of criticism for what some have called a “lack of experience;” when he faced Bermane Stiverne in Vegas in January 2015 to fight for the WBC Heavyweight Championship belt, there was talk that he wouldn’t be able to keep up, since his previous 32 wins had all been KOs ending before the fourth round. But Wilder says he had promised Naieya when she was just 1 year old that he’d be a world champion, so there was little choice in the matter for him. He disproved the critics and kept that promise by beating Stiverne following 12 rounds of intense fighting, becoming the first American to earn the belt since 2006 and following in the footsteps of Atmore, Alabama, native Evander Holyfield, who held the belt from 1990 to 1992.
“You’re looking at a guy who nothing’s ever been given to in his life,” Wilder says of his successes. “The only thing that’s been given to me is hand-me-downs, and they only last a year or so and then you have to throw them away. I had to work hard for everything, every step, every moment.”
In June 2015, Wilder won his first title defense against Eric Molina at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Bartow Arena, knocking Molina out in the ninth round. Wilder was happy to bring the boxing world’s attention to Alabama, he says, because this is his home. “I had to go elsewhere to get the title,” he says. “What better place to defend it?” He is quick to tell anyone who will listen about his passion for bringing notability and success to his home state—even while in the ring. The June 13 fight ended with Wilder’s sweating, hulking form leaning close to a sprawled-out Molina as the champion shouted three simple words: “Welcome to Alabama.”
His team, led by Deas, is hoping to see Wilder fight again in September, perhaps even in Birmingham, but an official opponent and location have yet to be determined. “I know there’s more out there for me in this sport,” Wilder says. “I’m seeking that. My heart still feels like a contender.”
Naieya, the little girl who started it all, is 10 now and walking, despite her original prognosis. Much like her father, she has defied the odds set against her. “The journey has been good, but it has been challenging,” Wilder says. “But I love that. I love a test, because once I pass that test I can give someone else motivation for what they’re going to do. We are all going through the same things sometimes. We all have a purpose in life—we’re just trying to find it.”