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Boxer Deontay Wilder poses with his daughter Najeya in this April 19, 2007, file photo in Northport, Ala. AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Robert Sutton
Boxing

Boxer Deontay Wilder fights for his daughter and himself

The champ puts his undefeated streak on the line Saturday night

It was the vivid image of his preteen daughter’s mouth covered with strips of duct tape, her hands bound tightly behind her back, sobbing for help, that moved her father into action.

Protecting his daughter Naieya was Deontay Wilder’s guiding mission even before she was born with a debilitating birth defect. The ability to provide for her properly was the reason Wilder picked up boxing at 19. And she, more than any other motivation, is why he’s now World Boxing Council heavyweight champion of the world.

Wilder (36-0, 35 KOs) will defend that title Saturday night versus Chris Arreola (36-4-1, 31 KOs) at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, 58 miles up the road. (Update: Wilder beat Arreola with an eight-round TKO when the fight ended after Arreola’s trainer asked the bout be stopped. Wilder suffered a broken right hand and torn right bicep that will keep him from fighting the remainder of 2016.)

Wilder not only owes his career to Naieya’s existence, but her ability to not only overcome but thrive odds drives him every single day.

So the mere suggestion of harm to his daughter – initiated by internet troll and pro boxer wannabe Charlie Zelenoff in 2014 – pushed Wilder to a medieval state of mind.

“He made racist comments on my phone and on social media,” Wilder said. “He called me a n—–. He said he was going to tape up my daughter’s mouth and bound her wrists with Gorilla tape. I imagined her crying and calling for me. I ignored him for a while but that was it when he involved my daughter.”

Heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder (L) punches Johann Duhaupas of France during a WBC heavyweight title boxing match on , Sept. 26, 2015, in Birmingham, Alabama. Wilder won against Duhaupas with a TKO in the 11th round.

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Zelenoff developed a reputation as an irritant on boxing fan site comment boards, where he taunted various fighters and celebrities. Zelenoff made several challenges despite only one professional fight. He is listed at 6 feet tall and 183 pounds with one fight to his credit, a loss to Andrew Hartley in 2008, Hartley’s only victory in 14 fights.

The lack of success in the ring did not have a bearing on Zelenoff’s boasts. But a surprise meeting with Wilder when he arrived in Los Angeles resulted in a challenge Zelenoff certainly never expected, despite his rants.

“I told him that I was going to find him,” Wilder said. “He didn’t figure I would leave Alabama to come out to Los Angeles. He was shocked to see me, but he had to keep his tough-guy persona going.”

Zelenoff agreed to sign a waiver to “spar” with Wilder at a local Los Angeles gym. The session was brief. Zelenoff collapsed into a fetal position several times after a barrage of Wilder’s punches and quit. The beating persuaded Zelenoff to end all correspondence with Wilder.

“People think they can say anything on the internet and get away with it,” Wilder said. “But one day you’re going to get caught off guard – like [Zelenoff].”

His daughter’s birth changed his life

Wilder’s change in focus became clear during his first year of community college in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, a city named by settlers of the west central Alabama city. It means “black warrior,” after the artery of the Black Warrior River that runs through it.

Wilder, a onetime Central High School football and basketball star, enrolled at Shelton State Community College, the site of the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame, which honors such stars as Nat King Cole, Jim Nabors and author Truman Capote. Before his second basketball season in college, Wilder learned he was months away from becoming a father. The gift of life for Wilder left him without a choice – his college career was over.

Wilder took his transition from college student to employee to another level when he worked three jobs (IHOP, Red Lobster and driving a beer truck). He was never afraid of hard work – a work ethic taught by his parents and developed as a boy with three younger siblings.

WBC heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder works out at Skyy Boxing Gym in Northport, Ala. Wilder's fight at Bartow Area in Birmingham this Saturday night against Eric Molina, is being dubbed a homecoming for the champion.

WBC heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder works out at Skyy Boxing Gym in Northport, Alabama. Wilder’s fight at Bartow Area in Birmingham on Saturday night against Eric Molina is being dubbed a homecoming for the champion.

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

“My upbringing was to work, work, work,” he said. “Cutting grass, washing cars, fixing cars are things I saw my father do. We didn’t call anyone to fix something, we knew daddy would do it himself. He influenced us to do things on our own and not to depend on people.”

But Wilder’s preparation for the birth of his child in 2005 proved not to be enough when he and his girlfriend at the time were told by doctors that Naieya would most likely be born with spina bifida, a condition where a fetus’ developing backbone does not close all way, leaving the spinal cord exposed. Though it cannot be cured, a child can be treated to prevent infections and help save the spinal cord from further damage. With surgery and proper care, more often than not, a child is not paralyzed.

Multiple unskilled jobs were not going to be enough for the medical coverage necessary to treat her condition. So Wilder developed a plan first brought to his attention before he dropped out of school. Back then, he and a college friend held daily sessions in the cafeteria to discuss life goals.

“I told him I should start boxing, and he agreed,” Wilder said. “We had no idea about the process. All I was thinking about was the money. I thought everyone made a lot of money by just stepping into the ring. My focus was to do whatever I could to support my daughter.”

Boxing over football in Tuscaloosa

Boxing in Alabama is about as common as pitching horseshoes in overalls in New York City. Football is king in these parts. National college football champion the University of Alabama dominates the culture here. A kid in Tuscaloosa, especially a kid from the black section of town, the West End, dreams of playing for coach Nick Saban. So did Wilder, but boxing became his choice. That meant stepping into the only gym in the area. Outside of town, down the road and over the Black Warrior River in the direction of the airport, close to Pastor’s Mexican Grill sits a metal building with a green overhang – the Skyy Boxing Gym.

The gym is owned by Jay Deas, a former high school and small college left-handed pitcher who decided to enter boxing full time after a stint as a TV crime reporter. Deas, 47, and his brother Tommy started boxing shows in the area in 1995 and opened the gym two years later. Deas took over as the gym’s head trainer in 2005 and, shortly after the takeover, here comes a tall, dark teenager with the intent to start a career at 19, which is late for a boxer.

WBC Heavyweight Champion Deontay Wilder works with trainer Jay Deas during his media workout on May 28, 2015 in Northport, Alabama.

WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder works with trainer Jay Deas during his media workout on May 28, 2015, in Northport, Alabama.

David A. Smith/Getty Images

Despite his height of 6-foot-7, which is taller than average for a fighter, Deas said, Wilder passed the eye test as an athlete with his athletic build, but Deas saw the look before in many former and current college athletes who had come through his gym doors.

“They look impressive, but things change for them when they see what this is all about,” Deas said.

Deas could not project what the raw Wilder was all about until a few sessions in the gym. But he began to notice Wilder’s dedication to the craft, especially when he would walk away and watch Wilder complete his drills without supervision. Wilder remained diligent despite working three jobs, but one of the biggest moments for Deas was during a sparring session between Wilder and a professional fighter three weeks after Wilder walked into the gym.

“Deontay didn’t have much technique yet, but he managed to knock the pro down,” Deas said. “The pro got up and looked at me and said, ‘Whatever you do, keep him.’ ”

Despite Wilder’s plans to go pro, Deas put his own plan into motion for Wilder to fight in the amateur ranks, followed by the Olympics, before any thoughts of a professional career.

“Just because you want to go pro doesn’t mean anything, because you can get hurt,” Deas said. “By no means was Deontay a phenom when he stepped into the gym. If you saw his early fights, there are moments of brilliance and moments of complete chaos where he’s just swinging as hard as he can. He put the work in and became better.”

A peek into the future developed during a phone call between Deas and another local trainer looking for some easy work for his fighter.

“When I told him I had a fighter for him, he warned me that his guy had 50 to 60 fights and Deontay only had 12,” Deas said. “And he says he doesn’t want his fighter to hurt Deontay. I told him that we’re good. He asked if I was sure, and I told him I was. Deontay knocked his guy out in the first round.”

Wilder would go on to win the national Golden Gloves and the U.S. championships. He won those titles with upset victories over more experienced fighters. Those victories earned him a shot at the Olympic trials.

“I really didn’t take him seriously when he first talked about going into boxing,” said Wilder’s brother Marcellus. “You don’t hear about boxing here in Tuscaloosa. When he said boxing, it was as if he said 5 inches of snow was outside. I knew he was serious once he won the Golden Gloves.”

Wilder made the 2008 Olympic team with only 21 amateur fights. He won two fights in the Beijing Olympics before a loss in the semifinals against Clemente Russo of Italy earned him a bronze medal. He is the last American male boxer to win a medal since.

“Deontay got an opportunity and he took advantage of it,” Deas said. “There are plenty of guys with the talent, but many of them don’t have the thing that pushes them to the next level.”

Wilder turned pro three months after the Olympics and took the heavyweight division by storm with impressive knockouts. His 29th victory and 29th consecutive knockout was a scary encounter with Siarhei Liakhovich, who went down hard in the first round. The referee stopped the fight immediately.

And there was the first-round knockout of Malik Scott in 2014 that made Wilder the mandatory challenger for WBC heavyweight champ Bermane Stiverne. Surprising many, Wilder won the fight by decision instead of knockout. The victory stopped his streak of 32 consecutive KOs but it showed a different side of Wilder developed by former Olympic and welterweight champion Mark Breland, who is a member of Wilder’s team.

USA's Deontay Wilder reacts after defeating Abdelaziz Touilbini of Algeria in a men's heavyweight 91-kilogram preliminary boxing match at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008.

Deontay Wilder reacts after defeating Abdelaziz Touilbini of Algeria in a men’s heavyweight preliminary boxing match at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in China on Aug.13, 2008.

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

“He was very awkward when I first worked with him,” Breland said. “He’s developed a jab, which is so important, especially for a tall fighter with his [83-inch] reach. It dictates everything and keeps your opponent guessing. His jab also sets up his big right hand.”

Wilder was overwhelmed with emotion on many levels after winning the title. He became the first American heavyweight champion since Shannon Briggs in 2007. Wilder won the title on the birthday of his hero, champion boxer Muhammad Ali and two days after the birthday of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., who began his ministry in Alabama.

Most important, he fulfilled his promise to Naieya, now 11 and living a healthy life, that he would become champion.

“When I look at her, sometimes I want to shed a tear, because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be a champion or in this position to help her or my other children,” said Wilder, who has three other children. “Naieya’s a miracle child. All of my children inspire me to become better.”

Winning the title also fulfilled a premonition by Wilder’s maternal grandmother, who insisted that her grandson was so special that she forbade his parents to discipline him via corporal punishment – aka a “whuppin.’ ”

“She was a very spiritual woman,” Wilder said. “She told my mom that I was ordained and not to ever [whup] me when I was a child. My grandmother died before I became world champion, but she always had faith in me.”

Wilder’s championship dreams also became a reality to many folks in Tuscaloosa, especially for those living in the West End, a predominantly black pocket in the city where residents’ economic status ranges from poverty to working-class and where Wilder grew up. And harkening back to the 1940s, when the black community gathered around the radio to listen to Joe Louis’ boxing matches, residents here have watch parties when Wilder gets into the ring.

“Nothing rises over Alabama football for people here, except in the West End when Deontay’s fighting,” said a resident, Elder Barbara Hicks of Mount Galilee Missionary Baptist Church.

“He brings hope to the black community in Tuscaloosa,” said Marcellus, who became inspired by his brother and is now an amateur boxer after his college and brief Arena Football career. “Deontay shows that you can make it from the West side of town, despite the struggles and problems.”

Many of the same struggles and problems across the country unfortunately are here in Alabama, especially when it comes to police shootings of unarmed black men. In February, a white Montgomery police officer, Aaron C. Smith, was charged with murder in the shooting death of Greg Gunn. Smith is accused of shooting Gunn, a black man, as he walked in his own neighborhood.

The recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota sparked more nationwide protest against police brutality and those shootings disturbed Wilder, but he had to remain focused in preparation for his fourth title defense on Saturday against Arreola.

“These [shootings] are mind-boggling,” Wilder said. “I’m concerned on what’s going on as a black person living in America. We’re always judged by the color of our skin and that’s a shame. We’ve tried marching. We’ve tried forgiveness. We’ve tried talking. It’s time for a change. I’m optimistic that things can get better, but working toward that has to start now. Enough is enough.”

From the beginning, everything for Wilder has come down to a better life for his daughter and the rest of his children. He knows his fist can’t solve every hurdle, but he hopes the example of his life can always bring hope and inspiration to others. He was reminded of this following the 2011 tornado that swept through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, causing nearly $2.4 billion in damages and 64 deaths. Following the storm, Wilder joined many relief organizations in helping the residents recover. Wilder helped distribute food and water among his many tasks. His generosity touched one particular family.

“I’m helping with food and different things and this family approached me that lost everything,” Wilder said. “The father says I made his day by meeting me. I didn’t understand. I told him I still have a home to go to, and all they had were the clothes on their backs. But that didn’t matter to him, because material things are temporary. I’m honored that I was able to brighten up his day despite the storm.”

Liner Notes

This video was produced by Branson Wright.

Branson Wright is a multimedia sports reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He is co-host of The Sports Brothers radio show and a documentary film director and producer.