Can Deontay Wilder become the championship fighter of his dreams?

Boxing


“DON’T DIE FOR your job, baby!” screams Deontay Wilder. A video crew member has unknowingly backed into the street while trying to get a shot of the champ. “Please don’t die for that money!” Wilder is surrounded by a small entourage of cameramen, associates and PR people as he walks a few blocks south in downtown Manhattan to the next in a series of interviews that last well into the evening. This is the second day of the media tour for his Dec. 1 fight against Tyson Fury.

Wilder is striking, tall and long-limbed with the sort of consciously relaxed gait of a man who knows he’s being looked at. He’s wearing black jeans with holes in the knees and a black tee under a gold-speckled, velour track jacket. Around his neck is gold chain and smaller gold necklace, on the end of which are tiny, golden keys. You might call it post-bling — the style that has supplanted more ostentatious displays of jewelry from the aughts — enough conspicuous consumption to denote wealth but not enough to be garish.

It’s early in the morning, the sidewalks already filling with people on their way to work. Some pedestrians take notice — the cameras, camcorders and boom mics make it hard not to. Wilder poses for a few quick pictures, signs a couple of autographs, but for the most part is met with that studied New York aloofness.

We arrive in the lobby of a building for his next interview and suddenly Wilder, energized by the short walk, starts to sing. He’s straining for the melisma of an R&B song when he turns his head upward and decides the space is better suited for a more classical sound. He breaks into a mock opera buffa, left hand on his heart and his right arm extended.

A woman nearby turns to me and asks, “Is that LeBron James?” “No,” I answer, leaning in to her to whisper. “It’s Deontay Wilder. He’s an American boxer. A heavyweight champion.”

It won’t be the last time that day. There will be a few LeBrons, a Le’Veon Bell, a few with no guess at all and, at JFK airport, another woman will ask if we’re in a band.

It all feels different the next day in Los Angeles, which is perhaps typical of the two cities, but is also emblematic of Wilder’s career. It’s strange to say that an American heavyweight champion in possession of the WBC belt, a perfect 40-0 record, 39 KOs (some of them terrifying) and who recently survived a near stoppage only to come back and demolish Luis Ortiz, a Cuban southpaw long considered the most avoided and feared fighter in the division, is only now gaining momentum with the public — but it’s true.

When I arrive at the capacious atrium lobby of the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles in the morning a small pack of Youtube vloggers and fans are already roaming, looking alert and vigilant. The PR people waiting on Wilder to arrive downstairs regard the group warily.

Some of the fans/vloggers spot the slightly wizened, diminutive figure of Shelly Finkel, Wilder’s manager and a longtime showbiz and boxing impresario, and gather in a scrum to ask him questions. Hotel workers are in the middle of cutting this off with warnings that recording is not allowed in the hotel when Wilder appears at the elevators. There’s a scramble in his direction. Young men dap him up and bark questions, and snap walking selfies with him as he’s hustled away.

Today, Wilder can’t cross the street without being stopped by crowds of people seeking pictures and autographs and wanting him to bellow his calling card, “Baaaaawwwmmmbbbb SQUAD!” They insult his enemies (“Fury’s a b—-!”), extoll his record (“Fury’s getting knocked out like all the rest of ’em!”), assert his supremacy (“The real champ!”). They stand in throngs around him, phones held up to his face like a large electronic bouquet.

Finkel, standing just off Wilder’s shoulder as various handlers try to drag the fighter away to his media conference, observes this all with some papers clutched to his chest and a satisfied smile on his face. “This,” he says nodding, “is more like it.”

“WHEN I’M BOXING,” Wilder says, “everything is on the line. My career, my title, my reputation.” Every fight is a referendum on Wilder, and that was never more true than when he took on Luis Ortiz at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn earlier this year. Wilder’s critics have long disparaged his record because of a lack of quality in his opponents. Wilder lays this at the feet of opponents who have failed drug tests in the run-up to big fights against him — the respected former champion Alexander Povetkin, for example, or Ortiz himself on a previous occasion. Not to mention those who he feels have ducked him, Wladimir Klitschko in the past and Anthony Joshua for the moment.

The undefeated and highly regarded Ortiz was an acid test on which everyone agreed. “Nobody wants to fight Luis Ortiz and they still don’t want to fight him to this day,” Wilder says. “It was like fighting a myth that the sport has built.”

After four uneventful rounds, Wilder finally landed a straight right hand flush on Ortiz’s brow late in the fifth round. The Cuban’s legs went temporarily rigid and Wilder cuffed him with another right before Ortiz fell down into the ropes. But Ortiz rallied in the seventh, hurting Wilder badly with a counter left in the middle of an exchange. Wilder spent the last 30 seconds absorbing punishment and looking to be out on his feet. The referee stared at Wilder, waiting to intervene and stop the fight as Wilder stumbled. With about 10 more seconds in that round, Ortiz would have won via stoppage.

At a friend’s house, Wilder’s mother, Deborah, couldn’t watch. From the kitchen she heard her daughter scream, Oh, momma. Oh, momma. Deontay, don’t you fall. Deontay, don’t fall down.”

Deborah is a deeply religious woman, so she waited it out and prayed. “I sent out my aura to him, to give him strength, and he found a way.” After he survived the round she walked back into the living room. She says she knew then that it was over. He was going to win. A couple more devastating right hands in the 10th finished off an exhausted Ortiz.

“When I’m boxing, everything is on the line. My career, my title, my reputation.”

Deontay Wilder

Jay Deas, Wilder’s trainer, doesn’t much like the talk of vindication. He says he has always known who his fighter is, ‘We’ve seen him overcome a damaged eye, broken hand, torn bicep. There was never a doubt that if it got tough he could handle it.”

“The problem is that until 2018 he had not had the opportunity to showcase what he can do to the best fighters in the world,” Deas says.

When I met Wilder for the first time about a year ago, just before his first-round knockout of Bermane Stiverne, he had the air of an aggrieved man. One not merely deprived of what he thought of as his just due, but worse, someone who felt he had been passed over in favor of less worthy rivals.

Even now, with Ortiz on his resume, it doesn’t take much to push him in the direction of airing his grievances. “Nobody wanted to see me make it here,” he says. Here is on the verge of perhaps reconciling the two visions of Deontay Wilder — the fighter he claims to be and the fighter his detractors say he really is. And the nobodies? “People in boxing, a lot of people in general,” he says. “They know who they are when I say that.”

He’s always ready to plead his case because in one way or another he’s always being asked to.

As Wilder, his bodyguard and Finkel are sitting in a terminal at JFK eating late-night pizza as they wait for a delayed flight to Los Angeles, a man recognizes the champ and walks over. He wants to talk about why Wilder’s highly anticipated superfight with British star Anthony Joshua hasn’t materialized yet.

Some version of this question gets asked every other minute. Joshua is invisible but omnipresent on this tour — playing his part in an elaborate three-man contest for prestige and money that is reinvigorating heavyweight boxing.

Tired, but never too tired for evangelizing of this sort, Wilder obliges. “Well, why do you think it hasn’t happened?” he asks. “Cuz Joshua’s ducking,” the man says. What follows are three minutes of calm, jovial recitation: the failed drug tests by his previous opponents, the $50 million his camp say they offered Joshua, the concessions he has made to Joshua’s camp, the who’s really scared of whom?

WILDER IS AS genuinely delighted by interactions with strangers as anyone I’ve ever met. “I could talk to a homeless person for an hour if the conversation is lit,” he says, sitting cramped in the second row of a Suburban on his way to a show taping in Santa Monica. “I respect everybody.”

He takes everyone seriously. After his media conference on USS Intrepid during the New York stop, Wilder scoops up a little girl offered by her parents for a picture. She is wearing a white sweater with a large red heart on the chest and she gazes from his face to her parents and back again, a little confused. He wants her to say “bomb squad” while her mom and dad snap pictures, but she stays silent. He turns her toward him and looks into her face smiling. He says quietly, “Be brave. You gonna be brave for me? No one can hurt you when you’re with me.” She finally smiles back.

He’s ready to hold forth on anything. While waiting to go on air for an interview in L.A., Wilder strikes a martial arts pose and someone cracks a Bruce Lee joke, which launches Wilder into an extended discourse about the mind-body dichotomy and the lessons of East Asian martial arts.

After a scuffle between him and Fury at their L.A. media conference, a deranged-looking man calls Wilder to the edge of the stage and insists on praying for him. Wilder hesitates at first before holding his hands up in surrender and kneeling to clasp hands with the man. They bow their heads while the man, praying with such fervor his face turns red, banishes evils spirits in the name of Jesus.

Raised, in part, by a grandmother and father who were both preachers, Wilder keeps a few aphorisms burnished and beside him at all times, all delivered in is his heavy, tumbling cadence:

“My grandmother says I was anointed by god.”

“I speak it, believe it, receive it.”

“I’m walking in my manifestation.”

“I’m scared of myself. Even I don’t know my own power.”

“One champion, one face, one name.”

“I feel energy, aura, sometimes even emotions.”

“What’s understood don’t gotta be explained.”

But his garrulousness has also been disturbing on occasion. Last November he promised to kill Stiverne in their rematch, saying, “I want a body on my record.” He repeated the phrase again this spring during a radio interview with the Breakfast Club. He’s faced backlash for these comments, but even now when he lets himself go, his rhetoric can turn lurid.

He said of Fury on the Intrepid, “I want his body to do something it’s not supposed to do, I want him to look like he’s on drugs.” When challenged on these statements, he falls back into an all-too-convenient Deontay Wilder doubling of his own making. “That’s the Bronze Bomber talking,” he says. “He’s a different man, he’s a killer. That’s not Deontay, Deontay loves everybody.”

Much has been made about Wilder and Fury actually liking one another, and it’s true (after their onstage tussle in L.A., Wilder walked away laughing). They are startlingly at ease in each other’s company. At one point in the media run they find themselves plopped down side by side on a couch in a studio green room and Fury — who is never not performing — suggests they sing a duet. He opens his mouth and starts the first line of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” crooning more sweetly than you would expect, “I was born by the river, in a little tent.” Curious, surprised faces lean into the doorway as the two men finish the stanza together, Wilder carrying the “Oh, yes it will” by himself.There is some light laughter, but no one quite knows what to make of what just happened.

This, of course, means nothing about what they want to do to each other in the ring. “Oh, I love that kid, love everything about him,” Wilder says of Fury as he’s driven to a studio in Burbank for a Showtime Boxing pay-per-view promotional shoot. “I’m still gonna beat his ass though.”

At their level, in their profession, no personal affinity is enough to mollify the violent and potentially lucrative business in the offing. In fact, Wilder and Fury’s bout at LA’s Staples Center will be the first U.S. pay-per-view fight between two heavyweights since Hasim Rahman lost his WBC title to Oleg Maskaev in 2006. Add a few colorful, dangerous challengers like Dillian Whyte, Jarrell Miller, Luis Ortiz and maybe Oleksandr Usyk down the road, and suddenly there are a dozen compelling fights to be made.

The three undefeated men on top of the division, Joshua, Wilder and Fury, desperately want attainments they can take only from each other. Wilder wants the legitimacy of the lineal crown Fury won against Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 as the final bargaining chip to lure Joshua into the ring. Fury, who spent more than two years away from boxing struggling with depression and substance abuse after his victory over Klitschko, wants a win to cement his miracle comeback and confirm his own fragile belief that he has been touched by destiny. And he too seeks a Joshua superfight. Ultimately, each of them wants to stand alone as the first undisputed heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis 18 years ago.

To take a Wilderism: One champion, one face, one name.

JUST OUTSIDE OF Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is Deontay Wilder’s gym, a long, squat warehouse divided into several units. The gym occupies two of those units — a couple years ago they knocked down a wall to make it one larger space. The ring takes up nearly half the room and on the other side are some free weights and a few heavy-bags.

Inside are fighters of various ages and experience, at least one young woman, and a boy who looks to be about 7 years old. They all clear out before Wilder arrives in a three-SUV caravan for his evening sparring session. The walls are a faded earthy green covered with flyers and posters and memorabilia. It stinks, years’ worth of poor ventilation and sweat. High up, lining the walls, are pink posters with neon green writing. They bear messages, such as: “Don’t talk about it, BE about it!” “Make sure your worst enemy doesn’t live between your ears.” “It never gets easier, you just get better.”

Everything — the cobwebs gathering in the metal rafters, the exhortation posters, the smell, a 13-ounce jar of petroleum jelly that looks like it hasn’t been lidded in months — speaks to a regime of voluntary suffering, and the endurance thereof.

In the ring, Jay Deas circles around as his pupil shadowboxes before sparring. Deas, the shorter of the two men, nevertheless tilts his chin toward the ground and stares down the bridge of his nose at Wilder, occasionally nodding and giving instructions like casual asides. (“That’s what we want.” “Change your level now.”) An inordinate amount of reggae music plays.

Wilder will never look elegant as a boxer. Standing with his feet wide apart, feinting in twitches, arms held high in front of him with palms slightly turned forward, the length of his limbs, those explosive levers, verges on cartoonish — he looks like nothing so much as a great mantis. When he’s really feeling himself, he’ll suddenly juke and pivot or take wide semi-circular steps that look inspired by capoeira.

Nowhere is the double image that has defined Deontay Wilder’s career more stark. His critics see a novice headed for a comeuppance, his advocates see a fighter who has managed to thrive on his own terms, a freak. People just don’t know how to reckon with his awkwardness, so they dismiss it as a lack of schooling. But he knows himself and his right hand is a great equalizer — he knocks people out when he hits them, and with heavyweights, everyone save a prime Muhammad Ali gets hit.

“There’s no heavyweight in the world today that will have the resume in 2018 that Deontay has if he beats Ortiz and Fury. Nobody.”

Jay Deas, Wilder’s trainer

On my first night at the gym, Wilder stops abruptly during the sixth round of sparring and calls out to Deas, “Damn, [sparring partner Ivan Dychko] looks like Vitali Klitschko, don’t he?” A game of doppelganger breaks out, and before it’s over, most of the gym is howling at all the matches. Things are light.

The sparring is guarded and the emphasis is on movement. Deas and Wilder have developed their own unorthodox methods and rhythms in training. Deas has learned, he says, that “Deontay’s body is like piano wire. You’re afraid something is gonna snap if you push it too hard.” Wilder stretches and groans after six rounds. “What hurts, champ?” I ask. He flashes his biggest smile. “Everything,” he says.

By the next day, his mood is totally different. He walks into the gym and hardly says a word. The sparring is more aggressive. He lets his right hand go with more intent. There’s less smiling and talking in the gym. Wilder is displeased with his headset, displeased with a water spill in one of the corners of the ring, displeased with an ice pack. “This ain’t doing s— for me,” he says.

At one point between rounds he looks at his cornermen in exasperation and says, “Why y’all doing s— we don’t do?”

Malik Scott, a frequent sparring partner, says afterward of Wilder’s change, “Oh, he’s ready to start picking it up now. Come back in a couple weeks and he’s gonna be sparking people out. Not me, though. I’m not dumb enough to stick around.”

Deas notices a change too in this camp, a new level of concentration, the raising of stakes. “There’s no heavyweight in the world today that will have the resume in 2018 that Deontay has if he beats Ortiz and Fury,” he says. “Nobody. I defy anybody to find a heavyweight who can match that.”

This fight is the latest referendum on Deontay Wilder, and it’s not just a shot at a big-money event with Joshua waiting somewhere in the distance, but the actual possibility that the two Wilders could be merged. That the public will finally accept what Wilder has always insisted was true.

That he might be the best heavyweight fighter in the world.



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