Backwoods to Bright Lights: The Deontay Wilder Story

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 11, 2015

AP Images

Tracking down the WBC heavyweight champion is no small task. The Skyy Boxing Gym in Northport, Alabama, it seems, exists in a time that predates modern conveniences like the GPS or even Google Maps.

Finding it requires, instead, an old-fashioned strip map—that and the soothing Southern lilt of Deontay Wilder's manager/trainer, Jay Deas, guiding you every step of the way.

First there's a hard left at what used to be the Bart Mart, a convenience store with a parking lot filled to bursting with pickup trucks and Southern pride—but no lottery tickets, a reminder that this isn't just the Bible Belt, it's the actual buckle. Then come three "speed tables" preventing anyone from picking up momentum on a gravel road that was built for buggies and not BMWs.

Finally, on the left, it appears.

Skyy is neither a modern fitness gym nor an old-school boxing gym. It is, instead, a collection of large storage spaces, corrugated metal and sad green awnings hanging over each entrance.

"This is where guys come to work on their cars when their wives demand the garage back," Deas says with a smile, walking to the very end of a long metal building. The gym, once relegated to a single storage space, has expanded to lots nine and 10 now that a building materials guy has given up on his business.

The expansion finally left Deas with a space large enough to accommodate a shower—something that seems particularly relevant as the omnipresent moisture seems to hang in the air, waiting for skin to call home. Kool and the Gang provide the soundtrack on this day, '70s funk oblivious to it all, including the bucket catching a persistent drip from a gash in the ceiling. 

Credit: Hal Yeager

Four worn heavy bags hang from the ceiling. A single elliptical trainer and two ancient-looking weight sets are the only suggestion that anyone will be putting in work today. Well, that and the heavyweight champion of the world, sitting on the ring steps, patiently waiting for his hands to be wrapped and the business of boxing to commence.

Deontay Wilder, who defends his WBC heavyweight championship against Eric Molina Saturday on Showtime, is the kind of athlete you're not supposed to find in a place like this. Not anymore. Standing 6'7" and built like a Greek statue at 219 defined pounds, Wilder stares vacantly ahead as coach Russ Anber tapes his enormous hands, offering a languid fist bump by way of greeting.

Like all kids in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the infamous Crimson Tide, Wilder grew up dreaming of the green grass at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Once, when men fought for heavyweight primacy the world watched. Today, those gladiators put on pads and helmets instead.

"Growing up here, there are no professional teams," Wilder said. "Everything is about Alabama football. As a child, your hopes and dreams center around playing for those guys."

That dream came to an end with the birth of his daughter Naieya on March 20, 2005, childhood fancies giving way to adult responsibilities, especially when the girl was diagnosed with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal column that is often debilitating.

Wilder, then 19 years old, didn't know Naieya would defy the odds at every turn, breathing on her own when it was thought she would need a ventilator and abandoning her walker for a gymnastics class. What he saw were the stacks of medical bills and a child small enough she could very nearly fit in the palm of his massive hand.

A series of jobs followed. Red Lobster. Driver for the Greene Beverage Company. Anything to support his young family, including dropping out of Shelton State, a junior college where he was getting his academic life in order for an eventual transfer to Nick Saban's University of Alabama.

But Wilder dreamed of something bigger than an ordinary life. He seemed destined for it. And, while football and basketball seemed out of the picture, a brainstorming session with a friend landed squarely on boxing as a potential avenue to life-changing riches.

"I was ignorant to the sport and how it worked. I thought every man who stepped into the ring made a lot of money. I didn't know it was a process," Wilder said. "I knew I had good skills, good hands, streetwise. But that only goes so far in this jungle I call the ring.

"Around the same time there was a guy scouting for talent out of the gym. He asked one of my friends to come give it a try, but he was more of the lover type. He got with me because he knew I was a lover and a fighter.

"When I walked in the door here it was love at first sight. I knew it was the right place for me. It was music to my ears. To see the speed bags, the guys sparring, to hear them socializing. It was like, 'this is it for me.' An opportunity to be a professional athlete."

Credit: Hal Yeager

Deas believes he's the first trainer ever to work with a fighter from the first day he walked into the gym to the day he won the heavyweight championship of the world. Today the two men have an easy and comfortable bond, the product of hour upon hour in the gym. But, though he admits Wilder was an impressive physical specimen from day one, Deas says it took some time to understand Deontay was a potentially life-changing prospect.

"When he walked through the door, obviously I knew the exterior was athletic and tall. But I didn't know about the interior," Deas said. "We get a lot of people in here from all walks of life. And some of them have real potential athletically. But it isn't an easy sport. I get a lot of people who come in and say they want to do this, that and the other. But once they find out how much work it is, they aren't so interested anymore. But he was. He worked just as hard when he didn't know I was watching as he did when he knew I was looking. And that's very unusual."

The ring creaks as Wilder steps into it, perhaps wary of what is to come. First is the warm-up, long arms circling for a time and then a longer stretch in the corner. Then Anber enters his domain, and the work begins, a timer set to chime every three minutes as the pop-pop of punches accompanied the soft sounds of soul.

"I was in David Haye's camp and they were playing a lot of old school," Wilder said of the former WBA heavyweight champion. "There were a lot of songs I liked and it made me feel better. I sparred better. I moved better. That old school—that's when music was music. It helps you get in the groove of things. Bring a little fun to training."

Wilder is working hard on the technical nuances of his craft. Today it's using feints to open up his opponent's guard. It's a little thing—but when you throw with big power, sometimes little things go a long way.

"You don't need more than that," Anber yells. "I promise you. The rest will come."

Credit: Hal Yeager

Anber, Deas jokes, was brought in for his volume. A former television announcer, he can be heard easily, over the giant fan, the buzzer, even over the O'Jays.

"He can be heard three counties away," Deas says with a laugh. When Wilder meets Anber's high standard, precision trumping all, he earns a smack on the butt with a towel. After a particularly good showing, Wilder will even burst out into song, adding a smooth bass to the Jackson Five.

This, you can tell, isn't just work. It's fun.

"Once I stop learning, that's when I'm leaving," Wilder said. "I set a goal only to have 10 years in this profession. But if I ever feel like there's nothing left to learn before those 10 years come, I don't want to do it no more. I always want to keep learning. To go from good to great. And then, when I get great, I want to go from excellent to magnificent. To brilliant. There's always levels—and I want to reach them all."

He's known primarily as a huge puncher—winning your first 32 fights by knockout will do that for you. But in Wilder's camp, they are even more proud of his only bout to extend past the fourth round, his most recent victory over former WBC champion Bermane Stiverne.

"Every question was answered," Deas said. "Can he go more than a few rounds? Can he take a punch? What's going to happen when he faces adversity? What's going to happen when he faces an A-list fighter? He answered. The whole thing was a validation of how we do things. Of not taking shortcuts. Of the developmental process.

"Some singers have a hit with their first record. That's all well and good, but they usually don't last. Because they haven't built those fundamental skills along the way. They didn't go step-by-step. We did that. We took some criticism for doing that, but we knew we weren't just trying to build up a record and fight for the title. We wanted to win the title."

Credit: Hal Yeager

Wilder can afford the time to work on his craft even as his bout with challenger Eric Molina looms ever closer. A typical camp, Deas says, is split evenly between getting in shape and sparring to get ready to fight. Wilder, who doesn't seem to have a single ounce of fat on his muscular frame, sees no reason to follow that template.

"Deontay is already in shape. He doesn't have to come to camp to get in shape," Deas said. "So what we do is alternate sparring weeks and non-sparring weeks. The week after sparring we work on techniques, correcting anything we saw and work specifically on things from our opponent and what we've seen from him.

"Everybody thinks he's just this phenom, but that's discounting the work he put in. He didn't just wake up able to do all the things he's done. From conception to completion is a long way. And there's a lot of work that goes into that. That's the part people don't give him credit for or don't understand."


It's good that Wilder has time in training camp to perfect his mechanics because, unlike most top boxers, he didn't drill every movement endlessly as a kid. Boxing, as scary as this is to consider, is still relatively new to Wilder, who didn't start fighting until the ripe old age of 20.

Deontay Wilder celebrates his bronze medal finish at the 2008 Olympics.
Deontay Wilder celebrates his bronze medal finish at the 2008 Olympics.AP Photo

Before winning the Olympic trials to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Wilder had only 20 amateur fights to his credit. He went on to win a bronze medal, the only American to step on the medal stand that year. Even today, well into an undefeated professional career, he's only boxed 70 rounds, averaging less than three per contest.

It's the kind of success that astounds—and that leads to pronouncements bordering on the grandiose.

"I call the ring the jungle. And I'm the lion," Wilder said. "Sometimes I feel like I created this sport of boxing. The way I move, the way I think, the way I see the openings before they come. My trainers will say something to me and I'll already see it.

"It's kind of weird to develop a skill and master it. By the time I hit my primes, I'm going to be a force to be reckoned with. I'm going to be a true beast. I'm still a baby in the game. I walked into the gym at 20 years old. I officially started at 21. I'm 29 now and haven't took no punishment. I'm still fresh. I look good, I sound good, I eat right, I'm healthy. It's going to be good, man. I can't wait. It's an exciting time for me."

The third member of the Deontay Wilder triumvirate, former Olympic gold medalist and world champion Mark Breland, steps into the ring to offer his thoughts on what he's seen thus far during the session. A lean 52, Breland speaks quietly but with the authority of a man who has accomplished all the things he's asking of his young charge.

"He's dedicated. He picks things up fast," Breland says, each sentence just as precise as his piston-like jab in the ring. "He's got reach. Power. But there is still a lot to learn."

Like Wilder, the 6'2" Breland was tall for his weight class, so working with the kind of size and reach advantages that Wilder often possesses comes naturally to him. Deas has sparred with many of the top fighters who have passed through the Southeast in the last 20 years, exchanging blows in training with some of the greats. Breland was one of those fighters. That matters.

"You could have a team coached by Nick Saban, Les Miles and Urban Meyer and have a terrible team. Because they are all trying to fill the same role. You need the right mix, and we've found just the right guys," Deas said. "Trainers, generally, are a pretty insecure group of people. I'm not that way. I've never been one of those guys who thinks he knows everything. That's my team I put together because they each bring something valuable. I don't have an ego when it comes to those things."

While Breland talks with Wilder, Deas is quietly preparing for battle. Wilder is about to start throwing punches at a live target—Deas. The red Rival body protector, suddenly, is his new best friend. A rival brand's product, he says, didn't quite cut it. He'd return home every night battered and bruised. No amount of armor can completely mitigate the effect of being punched by Wilder—but with this new gear he doesn't wake up every morning feeling the previous day's workout.

Credit: Hal Yeager

Perhaps it's this intimacy that has bonded the two men so closely. Deas is 46 and white. Wilder is 17 years younger and African-American. But the two men interact with an ease that defies racial and generational differences.

"I had people tell me, 'You better have a contract in your hand when you go to China. When he steps off that podium, he's going to be a professional boxer and someone's going to fly in and steal him.' I never signed a contract," Deas said. "It just never occurred to me that was even a possibility. I had always been loyal to him and he'd always been loyal to me. We went to Pizza Hut and sat down after the Olympics, just like we always did, and he said, 'What's the move? What are we doing?' Not what am I doing. What are we doing? There was never a thought that we wouldn't be together."


While you can't question the results of the Deas/Wilder team, you can question the level of the opposition they've achieved it against. Doing so has become a part of the buildup to every Wilder fight. Even Stiverne got into the action before their fight earlier this year.

"This will be a fight like he's never seen before," Stiverne told the world at a pre-fight press conference. "I ain't no cab driver. I ain't no one-hit wonder. This is the real deal."

To a man Team Wilder simply shrug their shoulders at the criticism.

"We laughed at it," Deas said. "It was almost like the 1980s when you heard about Pop Rocks and Pepsi. They said if you ate them together it would make your stomach explode and you'd die. It was never true, but people took it and believed it. The same thing with Deontay. It was never true his opponents weren't good. They were good. He's just exceptional."

The numbers seem to side with Deas. In the last five years, Wilder's foes have boasted a combined record of 403-106-11. That is a winning percentage of 78.6—hardly the collection of bums and professional victims critics seem to suggest Wilder has been fighting.

"It's always going to be like that," Wilder said. "Forever. There's always going to be that 'but.' That 'this' and that 'that.' You can't please everybody. Not everyone is going to be satisfied. I can go and knock Klitschko out in the first round and it's always going to be something. We can't go in there to please everybody. We just go in there and do what we do. And thank God afterwards."

Wladimir Klitschko, of course, is the elephant in the room, a lingering presence hanging over any discussion of Wilder and his future. While Wilder won the WBC title against Stiverne, Klitschko has been widely recognized as the real world champion since 2009.

Deontay Wilder celebrates his WBC heavyweight title victory over Bermane Stiverne.
Deontay Wilder celebrates his WBC heavyweight title victory over Bermane Stiverne.AP Photo

His reign, as successful as it has been athletically and in his native Europe, has coincided with diminished interest in heavyweight boxing here in the States. Since 1999, when citizen of the world Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield, Americans have been an afterthought. Most Klitschko fights aren't even broadcast on HBO. Wilder, it is believed, can change all that. He has the knockout power and interpersonal charm to reinvent the division.

It's an enormous responsibility—and a mantle he's more than happy to assume.

"I don't feel no pressure at all," Wilder said. "I feel like I was born to do this. This is fun. I've got what everybody wants. There's no pressure at all. I want all newcomers, all oldcomers, anybody who wants to take what I've got. I work so hard for it. I work so hard now to keep it. Come and take it."


The key to it all is Klitschko. Before he can truly be the man, Wilder has to beat the man. It's a task he believes he's more than capable of. And, unlike many braggadocios boasts, this one is grounded in reality.

The two men, after all, are far from strangers. In 2012 Wilder served as Wladimir's lead sparring partner prior to the champion's title defense against Mariusz Wach.

"I wanted to know what he was doing to stay on top," Wilder said. "I took heed of all of that. What he was doing. What his work ethic was like. The people he surrounded himself with and how professional they were. I wanted to see for myself and I got all my answers. Especially the work ethic. I saw how hard he works. A lot of the things he does in his camp, we do too. And me being younger, I can do a lot of things longer and faster.

"Sometimes it would just be me sparring him. Because of how willing and eager I was to get in there and give 100 percent of my effort. Not going in scared or worrying about what somebody might think. I did over 50 rounds with him and learned a lot. I think they feel like they made a mistake bringing me in."

Wilder proclaims a Klitschko fight is inevitable. "When, not if," he says. Deas isn't quite so definitive. Negotiating that kind of megafight is no easy task. In the meantime, he says, it's time to get back to work.

Credit: Hal Yeager

If things go well, Molina is just the beginning. Deas has plans for September and December, taking advantage of the television time Wilder's adviser, Al Haymon, has bought on television networks up and down the dial.

"If we don't get that $10 million payday, let's get five $2 million paydays," Deas said. "We're trying to totally change the game. Right now there are people wondering who the heavyweight champion is. We don't want them to have to wonder anymore.

"We're going to show up. We're going to be there. We are with Al Haymon. He's asked me how active I want Deontay to be. And I told him, Deontay is a guy with too much energy in his personality, in his DNA. He's ready to go."

The Molina defense at the Bartow Arena in Birmingham will be the first heavyweight title fight ever held in the state of Alabama. Unless the challenger pulls off a monumental upset, it won't be the last. The idea is for Wilder to fight in his home state regularly, taking a page out of super lightweight Terence Crawford's playbook.

"Crawford has made Omaha, Nebraska, a boxing hotbed," Deas said. "That's the model. That's the way it used to be with Stephane Ouellet in Montreal, Vinny Pazienza in Rhode Island, Virgil Hill in North Dakota. We can bring the world to Alabama."

"When I set forth my goals for my professional career, I thought about Alabama too," Wilder said. "Time brings change and I wanted to be the man who changed it up a little. Instead of just being about college football, I wanted it to be a little bit more. College football only goes nationwide. Boxing is worldwide."  

As the workout comes to an end, the late Marvin Sease's epic 10-minute opus, "Candy Licker," captures everyone's attention. A legend of the Southern "chitlin circuit," Sease can only be described as raunchy.

"D, what's this song about?" Deas asks innocently, though the lyrics leave nothing to the imagination.

"I'm still trying to comprehend it myself," Wilder answers with a laugh.

With the fight less than two weeks away at that point, Wilder was starting to feel ready. While Klitschko nears the end of his own Hall of Fame career, Wilder is just getting started.

"I'm definitely going to be one of the biggest names in the sport of boxing," he says. "Everything is going as planned. It was in my hands. And here we are. Making it bigger and better. Now when they think about the heavyweight championships of the world they think about Alabama."

 

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.