Boxing

Can Deontay Wilder restore America’s glory days in heavyweight boxing?

The top-ranked U.S. fighter faces Tyson Fury and questions over whether he’s more than a big puncher in a declining sport

NORTHPORT, Ala. — With the last of the day’s color bleeding out from the autumn sky, Deontay Wilder, the reigning WBC heavyweight champion, arrives in a modest motorcade of three SUVs, nearly an hour and a half late for a scheduled sparring session. Skyy Boxing Gym is located at the end of a line of storage spaces stretching half the length of a football field in this small town just north of Tuscaloosa. A few stray cats wander over from the pine woods opposite the gym looking for the food and water left in large bowls outside a storage space three doors up from the gym.

Wilder, 33, is 6 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs about 220 pounds. His first steps into the gym silence the waiting journalists (many recently flown in from England), the three sparring partners whom Wilder’s camp has lined up and the regular occupants of the facility. A Showtime film crew scurries around to document the evening as part of the lead-up to Wilder’s pay-per-view title defense against Tyson Fury on Saturday in Los Angeles.

I make my way over to the corner of the ring to greet Wilder’s assistant trainer, Mark Breland, a gold medalist welterweight from the legendary 1984 U.S. Olympic team and a two-time world champion as a pro. Breland, 55, is one of the most respected, humble and decent people I’ve met in boxing. He wears glasses, has a graying goatee, and a golden glove the size of a baby’s thumb hangs from his neck. As he maneuvers around the gym, he walks with a slight limp.

“How old was Deontay the first time he put on a pair of boxing gloves?” I ask Breland.

“19,” he says, smiling, shaking his head.

“What about you?” I ask.

Breland hesitates a moment before answering, “I was 8.”

Wilder is 40-0 as a pro with 39 knockouts, but he came to the sport late. How do his skills compare with Breland’s when he was a prodigiously gifted amateur boxer?

Breland’s eyes follow Wilder pacing around the gym. He folds his thin arms across his chest and absentmindedly leans back so you can appreciate how freakish a task it must have been to fight a man at 147 pounds who stands at 6 feet, 2½ inches. Gradually, a mischievous grin curls Breland’s lips.

“He’s at about where I was at 11.”

11?

“11 or 12,” he concedes, turning it over some more. “But you gotta remember, he’s a heavyweight in today’s era. And you seen how he can punch. If you can bang? Hell, that’s enough now. And you seen what his right hand can do. He can bang.”

The question is whether all that power is enough to take out the undefeated Fury. And if he succeeds, to then beat the undefeated Anthony Joshua, the current WBA and IBF world titleholder. And then, and probably only then, restore America’s long-dormant claim as the home of heavyweight champions.


Wilder, in the ring at the Skyy Boxing Gym, near where he grew up in Alabama.

Diwang Valdez for The Undefeated

Is Breland crazy? Or does his half-joking comparison speak to the sorry state of American boxing? The decline of the heavyweight division as a whole? (For the record, Breland said Wilder would have no trouble with either Fury or Joshua.) Or have skilled boxers always been overshadowed by big punchers in the sport’s showcase division?

Regardless, Wilder and his devastating right hand might be the best heavyweight champion America will see for a long while.

Who else is there? The consensus is that the pickings are slim. Dominic Breazeale, 33, is the next highest rated American heavyweight, and Joshua demolished him two years ago. Former kickboxer Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, 30, tips the scales at nearly 300 pounds, and he can punch. But maybe that just means if Butterbean, a sideshow attraction from the 1990s, were active in today’s heavyweight landscape, he could crack the Top 10 too. When I float the idea to Breland, he doesn’t object too strongly. “I dunno about Top 10,” he says, laughing. “Top 20 for sure though.”

While Fury, a Brit, is undefeated, he’s also gained a reputation as a train wreck. He left boxing for three years after doping issues, injuries, substance abuse, blowing up to 400 pounds, anti-gay and sexist rants, and struggles with depression. But a fight to unify the heavyweight title featuring Wilder against another Brit, Joshua — perhaps before 90,000 fans in Wembley Stadium — could recall the rarefied air of two undefeated champions fighting for supremacy like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s Fight of the Century in 1971, or Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1988. America stopped and looked at those.

While Wilder-Joshua probably wouldn’t attract the attention of Ali-Frazier or Tyson-Spinks, it might be our era’s answer to Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney at Caesars Palace in 1982. Cooney, the latest “great white hope” in boxing, was undefeated coming into the bout, but no one had taken him seriously before he beat Ken Norton and Ron Lyle in one round apiece. Ali had a miserable time with Norton in a trilogy of fights. George Foreman barely survived an almost cartoonishly brutal fight against Lyle. (In the end, Holmes won by TKO over Cooney in the 13th round.)

Wilder also has struggled to be taken seriously, knocking out a list of no-names in the first years of his pro career. But last spring, he took on his toughest challenge to date in the undefeated Cuban southpaw Luis Ortiz and nearly got knocked out in the seventh round. But Wilder survived the round, and in the 10th that big right hand demolished Ortiz. Just like Cooney, he earned the right to be taken seriously.

Still, it’s hard to know what we’re looking at with Wilder and where he fits in the litany of American heavyweights. Starting so late and being so powerful, he’s made it difficult to determine his style. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he was the only American male boxer to medal, taking home a bronze. But no American heavyweight has won gold in 30 years. So was that a good performance or just OK?

Three months later, he stepped into the ring for his first professional fight, earning $3,500 for a win over Ethan Cox in Nashville, Tennessee. It took another seven years to win his piece of the title by defeating Bermane Stiverne in 2015. Stiverne was the first man who went the distance with Wilder after 33 fights. Before then, every opponent Wilder faced as a pro looked like he had brought a butter knife to a gunfight.

If Wilder’s right hand connects with Fury’s chin and then Joshua’s in the early rounds, it’s quite possible he’ll be remembered as an important champion. Or either of them could box circles around him and his critics will be vindicated.

Let’s not forget that oddsmakers often miss what is right in front of their eyes. At the Sunshine Showdown in Jamaica in 1973, a 37-0 Olympic gold medalist like Foreman was a 4-1 underdog against champion Frazier. When Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston for the title, he was an 8-1 underdog, with 43 of the 46 writers at ringside picking Liston to win by knockout. Even after what experts saw the first time, Liston was favored in the rematch. (He controversially lost in the first round via the “phantom punch.”) Going back even further, Rocky Marciano’s resume didn’t sway oddsmakers in his favor when the shell of Joe Louis came out of retirement at 37. Posterity exposes its fair share of ignorance and hypocrisy.

Outside his training facility near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Wilder shows off the right hand that has knocked out most of his opponents.

Diwang Valdez for The Undefeated

Wilder is the first American to hold a heavyweight title since Shannon Briggs in 2007. Yet, lots of questions remain, some about Wilder and others about whether Americans still care about heavyweight boxing.

He is guaranteed $6 million-plus for the Fury fight and could earn considerably more if it does well on pay-per-view. But a 21-year-old Tyson earned $21 million in 91 seconds against Spinks in Atlantic City back in 1988, more than Wilder has earned in a decade-long career. (Wilder’s current net worth is estimated at $16 million.) The American public was so desperate for even a washed-up Tyson that he could make $25 million fighting the likes of Peter McNeeley in 1995 after serving 3½ years in prison for rape.

Are Wilder’s relatively modest earnings an indication of boxing’s waning popularity in America or something personal about him? Or both? In September, after 45 years and more than 1,000 fights, HBO announced it was severing its ties with professional boxing. Meanwhile, ESPN, Fox, Showtime and DAZN have invested fortunes attempting to bring casual fans back to the sport.

With that decline in interest, it’s possible we’ve been neglecting the last great American heavyweight. Everybody knew about Tyson keeping pigeons on the rooftops of Brooklyn, New York, as a lisping, picked-on kid. We heard the tale of Holmes dropping out of seventh grade in Easton, Pennsylvania, to work at a car wash for a dollar an hour to help support his single mother and 11 siblings. Foreman grew up in the tough Fifth Ward in Houston before the Job Corps saved his life. Frazier was the 12th child born to sharecropper parents in Beaufort, South Carolina, and left on a bus to Philadelphia at the age of 15. An anonymous Louisville bicycle thief delivered a hopping mad 12-year-old Clay into a boxing gym for his first lesson.

Is Wilder’s origin story any less compelling?

He was a pastor’s son, born in Tuscaloosa in 1985. More than a quarter of Tuscaloosa still lives below the poverty line, and Wilder grew up at the bottom of that curve in a faded green house in the west end across from Stillman Heights Elementary School. Deontay couldn’t walk out his front door without being ready to fight. His father taught him how to defend himself and his family. If he didn’t and came home crying, the pastor would give him something else to cry about.

He dropped out of community college and put on his first pair of gloves at 19 after his girlfriend called from a club in Tuscaloosa to tell him she was pregnant. He worked at Red Lobster and IHOP as a server and drove a Budweiser truck to make ends meet, and he had to keep those jobs to stay afloat even after turning pro. (Wilder and Jessica Scales got married, had four kids together and are now divorced.)

When his daughter was born in 2005, she had spina bifida and Wilder didn’t have insurance to cover the medical bills. But Jay Deas said he never saw anyone work harder in his Northport gym, and he’s still with him today. Pretty quickly, Wilder’s family realized this wasn’t a passing thing. Boxing put him on his first plane ride, to Colorado for a Golden Gloves tournament, and before long he needed a passport to participate in the Beijing Games.

Deas hung a banner in the gym before the title fight against Stiverne: “The Next Heavyweight Champion of the world THE BRONZE BOMBER!!” Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, grew up 160 miles north of here in LaFayette, Alabama. After Wilder won, Deas crossed out “Next” with a marker and wrote above it “New.”

It’s still there today to offer hope for any kid who walks into the gym and sees it.

Deas hung up another sign with a list of names separated by two columns: Short Term Champs and Long Term Champs. Wilder’s name is written in bold capital letters in the latter category, beneath Marciano, Ali, Foreman and Holmes.


If Wilder beats Tyson Fury, he’ll have a chance to fight for the unified heavyweight title against a much younger Anthony Joshua.

Diwang Valdez for The Undefeated

After Wilder finished sparring, we sat in the gym office and I asked if he might be America’s last heavyweight champion.

“That’s a big question,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I don’t want to be the last great American champion.

“Everybody always doubted me. All my life. I’ve always proved people wrong,” he said. “We got into trouble when I was growing up. Boys in the South with nothing to do find things. Things find you. I never learned to sell drugs because I woulda been too dangerous in that game.

“Everything I do I put my heart into and dedicate myself to. If I woulda went into drugs, you can bet I woulda become the kingpin and not worked no street corner. I woulda done the same there as I done in boxing. But there ain’t no little money in drugs and then get out. You can never get out when you makin’ that fast money. You always gotta watch your back. Them folks go to sleep with guns under their pillow. They can’t sleep neither.”

Is boxing all that different, I asked?

Wilder laughed.

“I love boxing, but boxing is hurting people. It can’t be all bad when you’re supporting your family and helping other families put roofs over their heads and food on the table and putting kids through school with the money we earn. The sport can’t be that bad, it’s just brutal. After my fights, when I go back to where I’m from, there’s respect now. I step into any rural area and every face I see changes, and I can see the respect on them faces. ‘That’s the champ!’ … From where I came from to get here, that’s a pretty nice feeling. My hands gave me everything I ever earned to provide for my family.”

Wilder wrote down directions to the green house on the west side, and I drive over the next afternoon. It’s 6 miles away and a world apart from the life the heavyweight champion is living now. Turn off at Woodrow’s Pit BBQ, half a mile away from Wilder’s old home, and the lawns are unmowed and broken-down cars are scattered among many broken-down lives. Some heavy bags hang from thick branches and sway in the breeze. Wilder’s old elementary school closed in 2006, the year after he turned pro. Wilder said you could mention his name to anyone around here and they’d point you to his old home. “If they survived,” he said and sighed. “It’s all the same people as when I was growing up. Not many got out.”

The little green house has a carved pumpkin standing guard on the porch and a University of Alabama wreath hung over the door. Maybe Wilder can write the ending to his story he desperately wants and this house will become a museum to a hometown hero. Maybe kids all over America might hear his story and believe that boxing, despite its waning utility as a lifeline for America’s struggling youth, can still help deliver a way out of desperate circumstances.

Like Wilder, who put on his first pair of gloves at 19, we want to believe that it’s never too late.

Wilder, 33, is 40-0 with 39 knockouts. The fight against the undefeated Fury will help prove whether those gaudy numbers place him among America’s long list of renowned heavyweights.

Diwang Valdez for The Undefeated

Brin-Jonathan Butler has had his work published in ESPN The Magazine, Esquire, Harper's, The Paris Review, Salon, and Vice. His memoir, The Domino Diaries, was short-listed for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing and was a Boston Globe Best of 2015.