He’s the heavyweight champion of the world but all he really wants to know is the score to the Alabama game.
That’s because Deontay Wilder is a Tuscaloosa boy, and growing up in the shadow of the University of Alabama, in a state where the only thing more popular than Jesus Christ is Crimson Tide football, he loves Nick Saban’s squad.
It’s the first Saturday of December and Wilder’s perched high above Barclays Center in a suite partly paying attention to an undercard fight. With an entourage of two—well three if you count his trainer/coach, Mark Breland—he’s taking in the enormity of the Brooklyn arena where he will kick off a career-defining year.
The SEC Championship game isn’t on in the dark, empty suite, but Wilder gets an update. Alabama is leading Florida at halftime. He smiles. Sunglasses still masking his eyes, he turns his attention back to the match taking place a few stories below. He’s asked what it’s going to be like when he steps into the same ring January 16 and headlines Brooklyn’s first heavyweight championship bout in 116 years. With aspirations outsizing the 18,000-seat arena, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound bruiser thinks big.
“Picture it full of people, me performing, they loving me,” says Wilder. “Especially when they see my billboard coming up. I think some fighters get jealous of that. They’ve got to understand I’m the heavyweight; it’s the cream of the crop. Once you’ve got a heavyweight that is dominant, it’s over with. All the guys who say they’re going to take over boxing after Floyd, they can sit down.”
Floyd, of course, is Floyd Mayweather who, if you believe him, is officially retired from boxing. In a game dominated these days by names your average American sports fan can barely pronounce let alone recognize, the race to be the new face of American boxing appears to be wide open.
Wilder, the WBC heavyweight champion of the world and the person hell-bent on unifying the division for the first time since Lennox Lewis in 2000, says he’s the man for the job.
“It’s my time. Everything is happening at the right time in my life and we’re taking advantage of it,” says Wilder. “I am the new face of boxing.”
Pound-for-pound, there are better boxers than Wilder, at least according to the various sites and outlets that keep those mythical rankings. There are even a handful of Americans on there your casual boxing fan may recognize—super middleweight champ Andre Ward, junior welterweight champ Terence Crawford, and welterweight champ Timothy Bradley Jr., to name a few.
But, frankly, they aren’t heavyweights.
“I think that’s why the little guys have been taking over for a little while now because they’re more fun to watch than the heavyweights,” says Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, “But again, the heavyweights are coming back and everyone loves to see a heavyweight champ that can unify and take over the world, especially if he’s from America.”
“If you ain’t got no haters, you ain’t poppin’.”
Even as boxing continues its slow decline into niche status, the heavyweight division still has the ability to capture the imagination and attention of the casual American sports fan. Maybe not in the way it was back in the '90s when the division featured a handful of household names, but for all of its brutality and breathtaking violence there is something undeniably romantic about a heavyweight championship fight. Sure, other divisions feature more skilled and technically sound fighters these days, but the iconic boxers, the ones everyone knows—Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis, Klitschko—are heavyweights.
Wilder isn’t in that class, but a path into the club is being mapped out by his team. First and foremost, he needs to become a household name.
“He’s got every intangible,” says promoter Lou DiBella. “And he can punch like a mule and people love to see power. Frankly, that element of punching like a mule makes him a lot more exciting than a scientific boxer or a technical boxer like a Mayweather.”
The plan is to have Wilder be a champion of the people. No fights on pay-per-view for the time being. They want him boxing on cable, Showtime specifically, or the major broadcast networks where more people can see him.
“You don’t become a bigger star on pay-per-view. Pay-per-view is not the be-all-end-all,” says DiBella. “You want to become a star and a transcendent sports figure and you want to generate advertising dollars and sponsorship dollars, you want to be a celebrity; you don’t achieve that on pay-per-view.
“It’s weird. People look at me like ‘Is he going to be on pay-per-view?’ Well, do you like shelling out $75 to see an event? No one does.”
They also want him to fill up the arena every bout. Wilder and his handlers like the idea of him fighting in the New York area on a regular basis to capitalize on one of the world's biggest media markets. He’d love to fight at Madison Square Garden, but Wilder also likes the idea of making Barclays Center his home the way Mayweather made the MGM Grand his home. The biggest difference between the two will be the prices. Tickets for Wilder’s bout against Artur Szpilka started as low as $25 with ringside seats going for $500, pocket change compared to what it took to catch Mayweather in person.
Bottom line: Make him accessible, relatable, and likable. Basically all the things Mayweather and nearly every American heavyweight in the last 20 years never were.
“It’s kind of in with the new and out with the old you know and this young man, Deontay, is right now in a good position to take over the heavyweight division,” says Roach.
Shannon Briggs was the last American to hold one of the heavyweight titles—because there are five of them these days. Briggs only had the WBC belt for one title defense in 2007 and Americans never embraced the men who have dominated the division for roughly the last decade: brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko. The last heavyweight who served as the face of American boxing was Evander Holyfield during his heyday in the '90s. Then came Oscar De La Hoya. Then came Mayweather. Wilder—with his personality, power, and promise—wants to step into the void left by the Pretty Boy.
“I’ve always said if [there's] a heavyweight out there that could [fill] that position it's Deontay Wilder. I got everything,” he says. “I’ve got the charisma, I’ve got the excitement, I’m a people person, I got all that. Hands down I’m the perfect guy to do that.”
Physically intimidating, the Wilder in street clothes is the exact opposite of the one in boxing trunks. He’s magnetic, with a quick smile and rapid-fire delivery—the man can talk with the best of them. He’s spiritual and says he wants to use his platform to inspire others. He doesn’t have an entourage. He allows a little extra time for the fans he inevitably runs into.
In the ring, though, he’s a monster. He’s out for blood, obsessed with knocking your head off. If he lands his right, it’s usually goodnight.
He could play the villain if he really wanted to, especially at his size and with his devastating power. But that’s not his nature. Once a boxer discovers being an asshole will make them more money, usually they start acting the part. Not Wilder. “It [makes] me different,” he says. Money is a motivator, but he’s not about to sell out. He’s cool with who he is and if you aren’t, your loss.
“I remember one point in time, 12 years old, I looked up in the sky crying because I just beat a kid up. Lord, I do not
want to fight.”
“Most people in this sport look to being a bad guy because that sells. But I’m a good guy,” he says. “The only time I want to be bad is when I’m in that ring when I have to be. If good [takes] longer than bad, then hey, I’m ready to travel to do that. I don’t want the majority of people to want to see me lose. I want them [to want] to see me win because I’m a great guy and they want to continue to see me be successful and win.”
Wilder’s success has been predicated on his powerful punch. Undefeated, thanks largely to his devastating right hand, he has an impressive 97 percent knockout percentage.
“I do think Deontay maybe is the cream of the [heavyweight] crop right now,” says Roach.
But Wilder’s critics question the competition. “If you ain’t got no haters, you ain’t poppin',” he says. The pristine record, 35-0 with 34 knockouts, is impressive, but it's important to look at the competition as well. One published report last year said Wilder and his team were “circumnavigating legitimate opponents." Wilder calls that “bullshit."
“You’re fighting who’s there,” says DiBella. “When you look at Mike Tyson at his prime, when he first was winning the titles and unifying them, the level of competition wasn’t at an all-time high, either.”
A year after winning the belt, Wilder had hoped 2016 would point toward his ultimate goal of unifying the division in a date with Wladimir Klitschko, the former owner of the IBF, WBA, WBO, and The Ring magazine heavyweight titles. But that blew up in November when Tyson Fury upset Klitschko in—Wilder’s words here—“the most boring fight in heavyweight history.”
Keep winning and the right opportunities will present themselves. Beat Szpilka (20-1, 15 KO), a cocky Polish brawler ranked 8th by the WBC, and Wilder could very well fight the winner of Saturday’s undercard, Charles Martin vs. Vyacheslav Glazkov, for the vacated IBF belt. Fury had to give that title up shortly after beating Klitschko and those two are expected to meet in a rematch early this year. Wilder has at least one mandatory fight ahead of him before or after a likely date with the Martin-Glazkov winner. What looked like it would only take two or three fights to get a shot at Klitschko and the fight of his dreams might now have to wait another 12 months.
“It’s going to take longer than that to unify the belts. I mean there’s going to be three world champions,” says DiBella. “There’s not going to be a total unification possible in 2016, but I think in 2016 you’ll likely to see at least one unification bout in the heavyweight division and certainly looking to see a higher level of competition.”
Amazing to think that a kid who cried after pounding a neighborhood bully may in a year's time become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
“I remember one point in time, 12 years old, I looked up in the sky crying because I just beat a kid up. Lord, I do not want to fight,” says Wilder. “I know what I want to do with my life and it’s not fighting.”
Wilder didn’t fall into boxing, it just presented the best option when times were getting tough. Always with visions of making it big as an athlete, he picked up the sport at 19 and it became a means to provide for his daughter, Naieya. Born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord, doctors thought she would never be able to walk. Today, the 10-year-old has defied doctors' predictions and serves as Wilder’s biggest motivation. On a frame flooded with ink, his favorite tattoo sits on the inside of his right bicep.
“It’s a picture of me and my daughter holding hands,” says Wilder. “I call it the 'Road to Success' because she the reason I got into boxing."
Just 30, Wilder’s life is completely different than it was when he dropped out of community college following Naieya’s birth. He’s not over-the-top with his money like Mayweather, but Wilder enjoys the finer things. Witness the custom gator skin Lamborghini he’s proudly posted on Twitter and Instagram. He likes watches, likes to take vacations to all the beautiful places, despite a willingness to fight more times in one calendar year than most boxers do in two. He insists he’s a “big saver.” He’s heard too many broke athlete stories not to be smart about his money. But he’s also a guy who makes a boatload of cash every fight so he already has his sights set on the next purchase.
“I want a house with a helicopter pad on top of it,” says Wilder. “And I want to learn how to drive the helicopter.”
After an hour of chilling in the suite, it’s time to head downstairs. Wilder’s hungry and he’d like to get something to eat before appearing on the Showtime broadcast to promote his fight.
Walking down the hall, brother and trainer tailing him, girl on his arm, a 20-something walking with his girlfriend in the opposite direction catches a glimpse of Wilder and his eyes light up. “That’s the champ,” he says to his unimpressed girlfriend. “What’s up, champ?” he says to Wilder.
The champ nods, never losing stride. “What’s up?” he replies, smiling as he heads to the elevator, no bodyguard or special detail attached to him. He's got this. The elevator stops at the main concourse on its way to the building’s bowels. A bunch of people load in, fill it up. None of them know who they’re in there with. Or at least no one speaks up or keeps staring at him awkwardly or asks him for autograph or snaps a pic. All good.
“I’m not in boxing to be famous. I’m in boxing to build a legacy and leave it behind so somebody else can build their legacy off of mine,” says Wilder.
As the next undisputed heavyweight champion of the world? As the next face of American boxing? Wilder will be the first to tell you he has work to do, but the foundation’s there. He’s got the personality, the power, and the promise. If he lands that combo, look out.