By Scott Foster
USA 2009 Bronze medalist Deontay Wilder (1-0, 1 KO) resumes his march up the heavyweight ladder with his second professional bout this Friday night in Columbus, Mississippi at the Trotter Convention Center. Wilder is slated to face Shannon Gray (1-0) and will headline an eight-bout card which includes Mississippi’s own Billy Cunningham (3-1) and Shannon Miller (23-42). Promoted by Oliver Miller and O-1 Productions, tickets are now on sale at the Trotter Convention Center or they can be purchased by phone (662) 364-3443 or (662) 328-4164. Ticket prices range from $25 for general admission to $300 for a ringside table. Doors open at 6:00pm and the 1st bout will begin at 7:00pm.
USA’s WILD CHILD
It was supposed to be the year to end our jinx.
The Cubans had lost several champions to defection, the Russians finally appeared mortal, and for the first time in 30 years an American boxer would forego the professional ranks, returning to compete in back-to-back Olympiads.
So when the 2008 USA team landed in Beijing, led by their most experienced, albeit diminutive member, 2004 Light Flyweight Rau’shee Warren, expectations soared but after several weeks of bad luck and incompetent judging combined with disappointing performances, the hopes for a medal were reduced to the least experienced team member: Deontay Wilder.
Wilder — a 6’7” late-blooming heavyweight — won the bronze medal for the USA team.
Three years prior, Deontay Wilder’s ring knowledge was limited to the occasional scuffle on the schoolyard or slap-fights contested in the community sandlot. As a nineteen year old college basketball standout, the Alabama native spent most of his time honing skills on the hardwood or cracking wise to his friends.
That lifestyle abruptly changed with the birth of his daughter, Naieya.
Saddened by an early diagnosis of spinal bifida, Deontay quietly dismissed his childhood goals, trading school and athletics for a grueling double shift in the local workforce. Faced with mounting adversity as a teen-aged father, Wilder simply went about his business, amply providing for his family while relegating the rest to a higher power.
“When I had my little girl,” Wilder began, “I knew I couldn’t play sports any more. I made the choice to get out of college to support my family. I thought my dreams were over, and I had big goals for myself, but I thought that was it for me. That became my sport, taking care of my family. That was my joy, my happiness. It was kind of scary — but you know — I believe in God in everything I do, so after a while I just put it in his hands and asked him, ‘let me take care of her to the best of my ability.'”
Fate intervened under the guise of a well-intentioned mentor, Jay Deas, owner and trainer at Skyy Boxing Gym in neighboring Northport, Alabama. A chance meeting between double shifts quickly evolved into daily workouts. Deontay became a fixture at Skyy and Deas grew to appreciate the dedication Wilder exhibited plying his new trade.
“When he first started,” Deas recalled, “in his own mind, he had already determined this was something he wanted to do. I didn’t know that he was as determined as he was, so I did what I do to a lot of people. I give them some attention and back off to watch from a distance. Deontay was working out even harder on his own, when he didn’t think I was watching.”
With a scant 12 bouts on his amateur ledger, Deas pushed Wilder to enter the 2007 Golden Gloves. One week removed, Deontay stood as the first heavyweight in Golden Glove history to win his weight class sporting such a limited ring record. Over the next five months, Wilder solidified his run in the Golden Gloves, cruising through the USA Nationals before emerging victorious at the subsequent 2008 Olympic Trials.
“As great a natural athlete as he is,” Deas noted, “Deontay should be given a ton of credit for how hard he’s worked. All the hills he has run, all the tires he’s flipped up those hills, all the sprints, all the bagwork – he’s always been the hardest worker around. Deontay always likes to say, ‘I’m no stranger to hard work.’ A boxing workout is tough but it’s fair; you get out what you put in.”
THE OLYMPIC EXPERIENCE
Repetition inspires confidence and confidence breeds success, but any momentum the USA team carried into Beijing was instantly nullified by Rau’shee Warren’s shocking loss in his opening bout.
“I was devastated,” Wilder admitted. “It was like my heart dropped to my stomach. He was one of the leaders. Everybody looked up to Rau’shee because he had been there before, so he was guiding us, telling us to stay focused. When I saw him lose in the first round, I was mad, confused, frustrated. I even had a conversation with my coach and was like, ‘How can we win against these judges?'”
In the span of one week, seven more Americans would fall, leaving the bulk of the heavy lifting to Wilder and reigning welterweight world champion Demetrius “Boo-Boo” Andrade, one of the top prospects to medal in Beijing.
“Me and ‘Boo-Boo’ had the same dressing room, but I didn’t even know he had lost until he came in. I had been with these guys for eleven months, and I had never seen them show emotion. When Boo lost, he just broke down. When he hugged me, it was like a son to a father kind of hug. He’s rubbin’ my back and crying hard, and it just hurt me to my soul. I started shedding tears too, saying ‘Please don’t cry, man, it’s gonna be all right — but I gotta go fight.'”
Wilder emerged from his dressing room inspired, erasing an early deficit on his way to securing a bronze medal, the lone medal awarded to the USA team. As the only American to reach the podium, Wilder guaranteed the ’08 squad wouldn’t become saddled with the historical distinction of “Least Successful USA Boxing Team,” but this was minor consolation for those continuing to view our current crop of Olympians through the archaic prisms of ’76, ’84 and ’88.
Post-Beijing, Wilder promptly signed with Shelly Finkel and Golden Boy, parlaying his Olympic stature into a lucrative promotional deal. Deas also incorporated trainers Ronnie Shields and Mark Breland into the fold, the latter an obvious fit in terms of style and physique.
Team Wilder anticipates that his relative inexperience at the amateur level might in turn reap dividends as pro, envisioning an effortless transition that has often derailed other USA amateurs with far superior skill sets.
“I think the best thing for Deontay is that he just started,” Breland said, “in the sense he doesn’t have too many bad habits to break. He knew the words, ‘jab, left hook, right-hand.’ but now I’m trying to get him to understand, ‘this is what a jab does to a guy, and when you get tired, and you want to keep him off, you keep him off with the jab.’ One thing I noticed, he really tries until he gets it down, and I can’t ask for more than that.”
Deontay’s first step was a successful pro debut in November of 2008. Wilder’s next bout is scheduled for this Friday in neighboring Columbus, Mississippi, a card he is slated to headline against Shannon Gray [1-0]. Deontay’s long stick is expected to be on display from the opening bell, dictating distance while exacerbating his freakish height and length. Honing the jab is paramount for Team Wilder, forming a foundation based on space, timing and speed. “The jab is the most important punch,” Breland explained, “because Deontay can keep a guy in range, at a distance. Deontay has a stiff jab, and I’m trying to get him to use it like a whip.I’ve even been trying get him to land a check-hook behind the jab. Throwing the jab and a check hook from distance — or a hook, right hand — at his height, that could be dangerous.”
Dangerous, and potentially lucrative. Blessed with heavy hands, Deontay will now rely on his team to bridge an obvious shortfall in ring knowledge and technique. Under the watchful eye of world-renowned strength coach Jesper Sjokvist, Deas predicts an additional 25-30lbs will be added to Wilder’s rangy frame, resulting in a sturdy, powerfully built 6’7” heavyweight contender by 2011.
With the external tools assembled around him, the burden shifts once again to Wilder. In the slow waltz of a professional boxing career, his ability to retain motivation and desire will most likely become the deciding factor, constantly stoking a fire that fueled his rise these past three years. That last piece of the puzzle remains his most vocal supporter, standing barely three-feet tall with an infectious smile as broad as her fathers 34” reach.
“I always tell people that Naieya has more of me than her mother,” explains Wilder. “She’s a fighter; she is just like me. I’m not going to stop until I get what I’m going for, or learn what I have to learn. That was how she was. Now I have the opportunity of doing much, much more for her. We call it going through hard times, and those are the times you’ll never forget.”