True Alabama Son Deontay Wilder Never Forgot His Roots

Deontay Olympics

This story was originally published July 26, 2016, on TeamUSA.org.

By John Blanchette

With three Birmingham fights under his belt – and that’s a World Boxing Council belt – Deontay Wilder has put on quite a show for the Magic City the last two years.

The Bronze Bomber’s latest bout, against Chris Arreola on July 16 at the Legacy Arena at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC) in Birmingham, was quite a spectacle, though perhaps not for the expected reasons.

Wilder did win by way of an eighth-round TKO after dominating Arreola for the duration of the fight, but due to a broken right hand and torn right bicep suffered mid-fight, he was forced to rely on his jab for the latter half of the bout.

Wilder is set to undergo surgeries on both of his injuries, and he’ll likely need to spend roughly six months recovering before he can fight again.

While Alabama’s boxing ambassador heals up, now’s the perfect time to reflect on what he’s done for the state of Alabama – and what his bright future may hold.

Wilder has spent the last 11 years proving himself in the ring, evolving from a raw puncher to an Olympic bronze medalist to the WBC heavyweight champion — and affirming himself each step of the way as a true son of Alabama.

Wilder’s pro career has taken him to fights in 12 states and three countries, but he always seems to come home.

The Arreola TKO was his fourth defense since taking the title from Bermane Stiverne in the former champ’s hometown of Las Vegas, and the third one in Birmingham — all within the space of 13 months. It doesn’t figure to be the last.

“It’s important for me to fight in Alabama for a lot of reasons,” he said. “I’m growing a great sport in this state. I’m bringing entertainment to Alabama — something that’s never been here before on this level. I like to make history, and I’m making history every time I fight in my home state.

“It’s important for people here to understand and know the heavyweight champion of the world is one of their own.”

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They’ve had connections before — Alabama birthed both Joe Louis and Evander Holyfield, two champs with disparate legends. But Louis’ family moved to Detroit when he was 12, and Holyfield’s to Atlanta at an even earlier age, and they gravitated to the sport in those cities.

But boxing wasn’t Wilder’s first love.

He was a little bit of everything at Central High School in Tuscaloosa — tight end on the football team, power forward in basketball, a baseball pitcher and a long jumper. At age 19, he found himself at Shelton State Community College, still thinking he’d be playing across town for the football program that’s the state’s passion.

“We may have a plan for our life,” Wilder said, “but sometimes God has a different plan.”

Then along came his first child, a little girl named Naeiya, born with spina bifida. Providing for her and seeing to her substantial needs immediately became his priority, and a friend suggested boxing might be his vehicle.

“I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the sport,” Wilder admitted. “I thought everybody who stepped into the ring made a lot of money, and I found out soon enough that’s not the case. I didn’t know you had to take it step by step.”

And that started by not making any money at all.

Wilder launched his amateur career in 2005 under veteran trainer, Jay Deas. Within the year, he’d won both the national Golden Gloves and USA Boxing titles at 201 pounds — his 6-foot-7 frame and 83-inch reach making him something of an Everest to challengers.

He had only two dozen fights behind him when he went to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where his quest for gold was ended by Italy’s Clemente Russo in the semifinals.

Wilder was a gem, but Olympic bronze or not, he wasn’t a polished one. He was athletic and had a powerful right hand, and best of all he had a taste for the work he’d need to put in to become great. But he had plenty of rough edges, too.

“I had a fighter’s mentality,” he insisted. “I used to get into a lot of fights, especially in middle school. I never looked for trouble, but it found me — and I always had the ability to fight. I was blessed with the ability to handle myself, but I had a lot to learn. It’s like going from street ball to organized basketball — it’s good to have that street mentality, but when you do things in a disciplined way you can see what your true talent is.”

If Wilder’s rise as an amateur was swift, his pro arc has been beyond deliberate. Only one of his 37 opponents has gone the distance, and Wilder has been criticized for not testing himself against better competition — but “the plan was always to go step by step,” he said.

He was 14 fights into his pro career before he got a chance to show his stuff in front of home-state fans — in his old gym at Shelton State, where he TKO’d DeAndrey Abron in the second round. Six years into the odyssey, he decisioned Stiverne for the WBC belt — his first million-dollar payday — and followed it up with knockouts in Birmingham over challengers Eric Molina and Johann Duhaupas before fighting Arreola.

The Arreola fight was a replacement gig — Wilder was supposed to take on Alexander Povetkin in Russia in May, but the fight was called off when the Russian fighter tested positive for meldonium, a banned substance. That cost Wilder a payday of more than $4 million.

Nevertheless, the Arreola fight was another chapter in Wilder’s ongoing Birmingham legacy – one that has turned the home of Olympians like Vonetta Flowers into an exhibition stage for one of the nation’s most storied sports.

And Naeiya? She’s 11 now “and doing great,” he said, and the Wilder brood has grown to four (Ava, Dereon and Deontay Jr.). Wilder still climbs into the ring with their welfare in mind — and a lot more.

“One day when it’s all said and done and I’m retired, or even passed away, boxing is still going to be alive in Alabama,” he said.

“And people are going to say Deontay Wilder brought this sport to the public’s attention here and made it what it is. All the future champions from here are going to carry on my legacy. They’re going to remember what I’ve done for this state I love. That’s another reason I do it.”

John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.