Deontay Wilder wants to make heavyweight boxing relevant again in the U.S.
Like Ali, he talks about the injustices done to African-Americans
BRISTOL, Connecticut — Deontay Wilder bounds through a long corridor at ESPN headquarters, a phalanx of boxing public relations people trailing behind his 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame. He tugs on the lapels of his jean jacket and manages a half-smile when he hears an admirer say, “Make way for the champ!”
He’s got a chock-full itinerary on this day that mirrors the schedule of any elite athlete. Except: Wilder is a heavyweight fighter not named Klitschko. And for the first time in more than a decade, people in his own country actually care about his division and his lethal overhand right, which has knocked out 37 of 38 opponents and should at least come with a childproof cap.
“The car wash at ESPN — I finally made it,” says the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, posing in front of a neon ESPN sign and letting loose with his signature “Bomb Squad!” before heading off for another interview.
Indeed, make way for The Champ.
Make way for something we haven’t seen stateside since Brit Lennox Lewis lorded over the division and the words “heavyweight champion of the world!” tumbling from ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr.’s mouth still meant something in the U.S.
Did we mention Wilder uses his prominence to promote awareness of the injustices done to African-Americans? “We done suffered a lot for  years. We were promised a mule and land, 40 acres, and we still ain’t even got that.
“People say, ‘The last person that was a heavyweight to talk about this kind of stuff was Muhammad Ali,’ ” Wilder says. “Well, I think it’s time to refresh it.”
He is here to promote his fight against mandatory challenger Bermane Stiverne (25-2-1) in a rematch Saturday on Showtime. The heavyweight, originally from Haiti, is the only fighter to last 12 rounds with Wilder (38-0, 37 knockouts) and one of the last obstacles remaining between Wilder and a unification fight with Britain’s Anthony Joshua, who owns the WBA and IBF heavyweight titles.
If Wilder’s win over Stiverne at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas in 2015 was billed as the biggest heavyweight fight there since Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997, Wilder-Joshua (projected for a year from now in Vegas) potentially represents a bona fide renaissance in what was once boxing’s most hallowed division.
In America, at least.
Over the past decade, the Ukrainian heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko fought 15 times in Germany but just three times in the States. Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez and the smaller weight classes carried a flickering torch for a sport fading in domestic popularity, especially compared with mixed martial arts.
When Wilder outpointed Stiverne, he was the first U.S. heavyweight titleholder since Shannon Briggs in 2007. Eight years — the longest period an American heavyweight had ever gone without a belt.
Boxing cognoscenti say the heavyweight division hasn’t had a group of memorable fighters for at least 15 years, making it impossible to gauge how good Wilder really is. For instance, he wings his punches so wide, his elongated arms flailing from that 6-7 build like solar-powered windmills. What would happen if he met up with a body puncher who got inside and took away his reach advantage?
But he’s outclassed everyone put in front of him.
“We look at it this way,” said Joey Scott, his strength and agility coach and a friend of 12 years. “No matter what they say, they’re talking about the heavyweight division. And when can you last say that, right?”
Wilder is a promoter’s gift, talking himself up better than anyone paid to do it. He once promised to fight a fan if he got 5,000 likes on Facebook. When the goal was achieved, he had a video shot of himself delivering a vicious uppercut that split a … 4-foot pedestal fan’s plastic blades in two. “There. I fought a fan.”
When a profane tough guy on the internet trolled him relentlessly (even mentioning Wilder’s daughter) and challenged Wilder to come to Los Angeles and strap on the gloves with him — “I can’t go to Tuscaloosa because I’m on probation and can’t leave the state.” — Wilder went to L.A. and, as seen in a disturbing video, dropped the guy several times before making him leave the gym.
“Yo, I’m a fighter, so I love this,” he said in the ring early in his career after one particularly malicious knockout. “I love to crush bones, spill blood. I love to make your eye swell and your lips quiver.”
Scott laughs at the heartless character he says his friend is trying to play. “He loves to play up he’s a mean guy,” he said. “Then they meet him. He’s a people person.”
The son and grandson of pastors, Wilder said, “I walk in peace and live in peace.” He grew up with strict parents in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “We couldn’t even listen to rap music until I got to a certain age, till I got out of my dad’s house,” he said. “I remember one time my sister got into trouble for listening to Aaliyah’s song ‘Rock the Boat.’ And he walked in on her. I don’t know if it was because she was female and certain R&B was sexual. But he was just, ‘Turn that mess about rocking the boat off! You ain’t gonna rock nothin’!’ We still laugh about that.”
This summer, Wilder was pulled over in his hometown for a window tint violation and charged with possession of marijuana. (His attorney claimed the marijuana was not his and someone had used his car while he was out of town.)
“They knew who I [was],” Wilder said. “[The officer] wanted to get a shine on me. I heard after the traffic stop that he got high-fives and praised for who he was with his buddies.
“It don’t bother me. I got a platform and I can speak. I ain’t under no corporation. I ain’t like football or basketball. Know what I’m sayin’? Boxing is they either going to come watch me lose, or they going to come watch me win. So the more s— that I talk that people don’t like, they still goin’ watch — just to see me lose.”
He saves his most passionate comments not for his opponents but for black people struggling every day in America.
Asked whether he believed black Americans should receive government reparations for slavery, he replied, “Yeah, why not? Everybody else getting a slice of pie. But when it comes to black America, they don’t even give us a m—–f—ing thing to scoop up with. That’s my only problem. Why is that? What have we done so horrible, so bad in the world?
“Again, I’m not racist. I love all racial groups. But us? First, they start out with a Black History Week. Then, ‘Well, we goin’ give ’em a month.’ Naw, naw, naw. Man, when you see the pictures of what been done — hanging, hands tied behind their backs. If you wanted to free yourself, you couldn’t.”
Wilder keeps going, more animated now.
“Some people suffered a lot. But we suffered a hell of a lot. We dealing with current history. Still suffering. But people don’t want to talk about it. It’s too real. It’s reality because it’s still going on today.”
He says if he played football, he would kneel during the anthem like former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and current NFL players. Asked how that squares with the Army, Navy and Marine Corps patches and pins on his jacket, Wilder shoots down the premise of the question.
“I can guarantee you every man that takes a knee, when that anthem come on, they’re not disrespecting the men and women that serve,” he said, adding that his fiancée Shantel Swift’s father serves in the military along with some of his family members. “People may want to direct it toward that because it’s the national anthem. But they gotta understand the national anthem also talk about killing slaves. If we want to talk about respect, we must respect our ancestors. My ancestors were slaves. So how would I feel if you talk about killing one of my ancestors?
“I love my country. It’s the land of opportunity. But it’s the American dream for people that want to come to America. It’s not the American dream for people who live here.”
Wilder has four children by his first wife, whom he was married to for eight years. (He took up boxing at 19 when his infant daughter was born prematurely with spina bifida.) Swift is due with the couple’s first child, a girl, in February. As he sits in a room next to the cafeteria, he rubs her stomach tenderly. Half Filipina and half African-American, she is teaching him her native Tagalog. At 32, he said he doesn’t plan on fighting forever. “I just want to unify the division, defend it a couple of times, and I’m out,” he said.
When Wilder was told about some of his similarities to Riddick Bowe, such as his size and playfulness, he shakes his head. “I like Bowe, but when he threw that [WBC title] belt in the trash and didn’t fight Lennox Lewis, I think that tore a lot of people up because that was a huge fight. People wanted to see that. I bring it up now because I’m kind of going through the same situation.
“It’s like Joshua didn’t want to fight. But then I declare war on him. So whatcha gonna do? You going to do a Riddick Bowe or you going to fight?”
Make way for the champ, Deontay Wilder, who reminds us what it’s like to care about the heavyweight championship of the world again.