The Next Big Thing? Knockout Artist Deontay Wilder a Star in and out of Ring

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterOctober 24, 2013

Photo courtesy of Tom Casino/Showtime

When Deontay Wilder hits another man, bad things happen. Awful things. 

When the 28-year-old heavyweight boxing prospect connects just right, in fact, Wilder says he can actually feel his opponent's facial bone structure, a tactile sensation in his hand that is a puncher's one true joy. At 6'7" and 225 pounds, when Wilder lands a big right hand, it's more than a punch. It's a serious, life-changing event.

"Every guy I touch, it's the same result," Wilder told Bleacher Report. "When I land it's like seeing one of those preachers on TV. When I touch them they fall out. God definitely blessed me with power. I still don't know the limits of my own power. Working with one of the best strength trainers in the world, I'm getting more dangerous. I'm getting stronger and stronger."

Case in point? Siarhei Liakhovich. The Belarussian heavyweight had been in the ring with some of the division's top heavyweights, even giants like 7-foot Russian Nikolay Valuev. None had hit him like Wilder, who left him quivering on the mat.

"It was scary," Wilder admitted in an exclusive interview. But it wasn't the hardest the 28-year-old prospect had ever hit another man. And though he's not sure who was cracked the best, you can forgive him his equivocations.

Wilder puts Liakhovich down. Photo courtesy of Tom Casino/Showtime
Wilder puts Liakhovich down. Photo courtesy of Tom Casino/Showtime

After all, 29 opponents have stepped into the ring with Wilder. None have gone the distance. But it doesn't take a visit to to discover that fact. Wilder is more than happy to tell you all about it.

"I don't even know," he said, running down a list of guys he'd finished early in fights, hard pressed to choose just one. "There's so many guys I've jumped on and dropped. I have the natural ability and natural skills to do it."

There's a bit of a wink in Wilder's calculated bravado. He's noted the lack of color in the heavyweight division, for years defined by the cold and calculating excellence of the Klitschko brothers, an act that has failed on every level on the American boxing scene. Last month HBO gave champion Wladimir Klitschko a chance on national television for the first time in years. What followed was one of the worst fights of 2013 against Alexander Povetkin.

Wilder sees himself as a cure for what ails big men in boxing. He's a throwback to the great heavyweights of yore, equally as comfortable talking the talk as he is throwing his deadly right hand. He might just be exactly what a division on life support needs.

"I don't think the heavyweight division is dead," Wilder said. "It's just asleep. I feel like I'm a very entertaining and exciting heavyweight. I'm very silly too. It's my nature. I have all the attributes to be a world champion inside and outside the ring."

Before he can do that, however, he has to prove he belongs in the discussion with the best of the best. His record at the moment is unimpeachable—until you look closely at his opponents. It's a collection mostly made up of never-weres, men it would be kind to call opponents. 

His team has brought Wilder along slowly, taking their time in building him up as a money opponent for a top heavyweight. To some cynical fans and pundits that's a sign he's something less than the real deal. The sport has been plagued by so many pretenders over the years that it's easy to believe Wilder is just another fraud.

But, in a way, that makes sense for trainer Mark Breland and manager Jay Deas to drag their feet with their top prospect. Wilder didn't even start boxing until he was 20 years old, making an improbable run to an Olympic bronze medal less than three years after starting the sport.

In high school he had been a four-sport athlete, lettering he says in football, basketball, baseball and track. "If I'd had time I'd have played soccer too," he says. Instead, boxing found him when he needed an influx of money to support his daughter Naieya, born with spina bifida, a rare birth defect. 

"I was ignorant to the sport," he said. "I thought every guy that stepped in the ring made a lot of money. I said yes. And when I walked in the door I fell in love with it. It was like love at first sight."

Wilder is a work in progress. And, while he recognizes that, he believes he's a born to do exactly this. When he was younger, Wilder wasn't the giant he is today. He was picked on—a lot. As a result he found the fighter within.

"I never looked for trouble, but trouble always found me," Wilder said of his hard-scrabble upbringing. "I never ran away from no street fight. Not never. I was that kid. People knew, if you mess with him he'll bust your head. So I wasn't no stranger to fighting. But it's like going from street ball to organized basketball. I had to transform my skills. And it was easy. It came naturally. God has a plan for everybody and I think this was his plan for me."

He now hones his skills in a gym in Northport, Ala., transitioning from And1 to the NBA of fisticuffs, dreaming of the day he wins heavyweight gold, carefully sparing his sparring partners the worst of his powerful right hand's wrath.

"Most of the time my trainers tell me 'We know you've got the power. We just want you to work on the technique and the speed.' Because when I hit sparring partners some of them don't make it through," Wilder said. "One guy came in, saw how hard I hit and said 'Aw sh@t. I don't know what I got myself into.' He stayed but he wanted me to change into a softer pair of gloves."

Finding appropriate opponents has proven as difficult as finding human punching dummies in the gym. While Wilder faces criticism at this point for the level of his opposition, he says he's prepared to take the next step. He's not ducking tough fights. The establishment, he says, is ducking him.

"I'm ready for whoever. I'm ready for them all man," Wilder said. "I think my team's doing a great job. I can only fight who they put in front of me, but they can only put people in front of me who are willing to stand in front of me. They get a lot of guys who talk, talk but don't actually want the fight. A lot of guys say they won't risk their careers against me unless it's for a lot of money."

The doubters, haters in the parlance of the day, won't be satisfied with a win over Nicolai Firtha, his opponent on the Bernard Hopkins-Karo Murat undercard Saturday on Showtime. Firtha has lost three of his last five and seems destined to be victim No. 30.  But one day, soon enough, Wilder will get his chance to prove whether his name should be whispered alongside other knockout artists like Mike Tyson. When it comes, he'll be ready. 

"It's all easy work. I work my @$s off in training to make it that way," Wilder said. "I don't care if I never get hit. When it's time for lights, camera, action I want to look good and I want to have fun. That's my time, when the lights are on me."

WBC Continental Americas Heavyweight Champion Deontay Wilder will face Nicolai Firtha in a 10-round showdown on Showtime Championship Boxing. The telecast begins live at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's Lead Combat Sports writer. All quotes were gathered first hand.