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Vegas gets Wilder: Local boxer to compete for heavyweight championship

Layton Dudley

Layton Dudley

Deontay Wilder will take on Bermane Stiverne for the heavyweight title in Las Vegas on Jan. 17. Tribune News Service

Elliott Propes

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Tuscaloosa is, by all means, a football town. Anyone who has ever heard of the place knows that.

As a teenager, Deontay Wilder knew that as well. In 2004, he graduated from Central High School in Tuscaloosa as a multi-sport athlete. He had dreams of catching touchdowns in crimson end zones, but then life threw Wilder a twist – one only a man like Wilder could turn into 
something better.

Grades and financial issues prevented Wilder from attending The University 
of Alabama. He decided to enroll at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa to play basketball and 
other sports.

Then, in 2005, his life changed forever when his first child, Naieya, was born. She was diagnosed with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes the bones of the spine to form improperly around part of the spinal cord. For monetary reasons, Wilder had to give up his dream of 
collegiate sports.

“When I had her, I knew immediately I couldn’t play sports,” he said. “I couldn’t even attend the school for 
education because I felt like I had to get out and get a job to support my daughter, Naieya. I felt like that meant more to me than anything,” Wilder said. “I didn’t know what it took to take care of a child with spina bifida, but I knew that it would take money.”

One day, a friend of Wilder’s from Shelton State mentioned boxing as an option. Wilder was interested in the idea and said he knew professional boxers made some money, so he decided to give it a shot.

“When I walked into the gym, it was like one of those moments I was at the right place at the right time,” Wilder said. “It was like that ‘Hallelujah’ music. I heard the bell, I heard the speed bag, I heard the bags thumping, the guys sparring. Just the environment of it, I just said, ‘Yeah this is it.’”

Today, Wilder is training for a fight that only boxing’s best – names like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson – have won. He is fighting for the title of WBC Heavyweight World Champion and will meet current holder Bermane Stiverne in the ring Jan. 17 at the MGM Grand’s Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Wilder is coming into the fight with a professional record of 32-0. He is not just undefeated – each of his fights have ended in a knockout.

His last fight was against one of his good friends and fellow professional boxer, Malik Scott, last March in Puerto Rico. Wilder wasted no time before doing what he does. In 96 seconds, Scott was on the floor, knocked out.

Wilder said Scott is still a friend today after the fight. He traveled all the way from Los Angeles Nov. 24 to visit Wilder.

“We came up through the programs, built a relationship outside of boxing,” Scott said. “Unfortunately we had to fight each other, but it was what it was. Before the fight we always said no matter what happens, we always going to have each other’s back. So that’s why I’m down here supporting him, giving him good energy. Because I want him to come into the Stiverne fight how he always comes in: in shape, mentally focused and just going in being the Bronze Bomber.”

Wilder’s coach, Jay Deas, calls him the Bronze Bomber because of Wilder’s upstart performance in the Beijing Olympic Games. Wilder was invited to go as an amateur boxer in 2008 to represent the U.S. in the Olympics. Beijing was taken by surprise when a 23-year-old Wilder stole the show. Wilder won the bronze medal in the heavyweight division and is the only American to win a medal since 2004.

“That was a great experience, because no one thought that we could do it,” Deas said. “No one thought that we could make it that far. Out of 296 boxers at the Olympic games, which is every boxer in every weight class, Deontay was the least experienced in terms of fights. Deontay only had probably 30 fights total as a golden glove boxer. Everybody else had upwards to 100, 200, even 300 fights, so he was the baby of the whole group, but when it was all said and done, he was the only American to come out with a medal.”

Deas has been training Wilder ever since the medalist decided to try on a pair of boxing gloves in 2006. Deas has a boxing ring inside of a storage unit in Northport. He has seen many people come through his small unit over the years, but none like Wilder, he said. Deas reflected back to the moment he realized Wilder was not like any other boxer that has visited his ring.

“He was sparring a professional boxer, and this was when Deontay was probably three weeks in. He was sparring a professional boxer, and he hit the guy,” Deas said. “I can’t remember if he knocked him down or he just really rocked him real good, but I remember the pro boxer looked over and said, ‘Keep him. Whatever you do keep him.’”

Wilder said he loves his coach and his hometown. He said he wants people from all over the world to one day come to the state of Alabama and to bring income and publicity to the place he loves.

“I tell people all the time that Tuscaloosa is definitely a magical place,” he said. “Many people tried to draw me away from here after the Olympics and stuff like that, because they thought that they had more to offer. I stayed here. I set Tuscaloosa as my headquarters and my stomping grounds, and from that point on its been nothing but greatness been happening. The people respect me and love me a lot more for just being here.”

Now Wilder might have a chance to bring the publicity he was talking about. The fight he has a month from now will be the most important of his career, and Wilder said he could not wait. Stiverne is seven years older and has more experience, but he actually has six less wins and has a loss and a draw at the end of his record. Wilder has an advantage in reach and height as well, standing five inches taller than Stiverne.

“I don’t think nothing of him. I really don’t think nothing of him. That’s my honest opinion,” Wilder said. “I just feel like it’s going to be hard to beat a hungry fighter, which I am hungry. I am determined. One thing you can’t take from me, is when I come into fights. I come in to handle business.”

Wilder has been training non-stop for the match. He said a lot is on the line and Stiverne does not have a chance. He said he has the world behind him.

“My body has been through so much. I’ve been sacrificing a lot. I still got kids. Sometimes I don’t get to see them through training and stuff because Daddy is too tired,” Wilder said. “I sacrifice so much for one night. Two months or so for one night, and I refuse to let a guy take that all from me. So he’s in trouble.”

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Vegas gets Wilder: Local boxer to compete for heavyweight championship