It was a warm day at the Skyy Boxing Gym in Tuscaloosa.
Drops of sweat flew off of Deontay Wilder’s ripped arms and shoulders as he pounded the two pads his trainer Jay Deas held.
Wilder would jump a couple of steps and then bend his body, a human specimen suitable for a muscle museum, punching the pads with ferocious power, almost knocking them off of the trainer’s hands. Wilder’s forearms, biceps and triceps are huge, and so are his overpowering height and presence.
One look at Deas’ face told you he might have wished the pads were a bit thicker.
Wilder, the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion of the world, was born in Tuscaloosa and started boxing in 2005, when he walked into the gym belonging to the man who would become his co-manager and co-trainer.
“He walked in one day and said he wanted to start boxing. I get that from a lot of people, but Deontay was here day in and day out. I could tell there was something different about him,” Deas said. Wilder has earned the title of the “Bronze Bomber;” 97 percent of his wins are by knockout.
The heavyweight champion is training long hours for his upcoming fight against Johann “Reptile” Duhaupas on Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Legacy Arena in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. The fight will be televised on NBC.
“It’s a pleasure and an honor to defend my title in my home state. I love the fact that I will be doing that right here in Alabama,” Wilder said. “When you are the champion, you have a bulls-eye on your back. …but nothing has changed. We still have the same work ethic and regiment we abide by. I am just Deontay. I am just someone who has set goals for his life, and I go after them one at a time.”
When I spoke to Wilder, he came across as someone with an intense determination. Boxing is not the only thing he is pouring his sweat into. Wilder’s 10-year-old girl, Naieya, was born with spina bifida. That condition thwarted Wilder’s plans to pursue football at the University of Alabama, but it didn’t stop him from going after his other dream: to become the world’s heavyweight champion.
“My daughter is my inspiration. The doctors said she would never walk; that she would have learning disabilities. She has overcome all of that,” Wilder said. “You can tell she is my daughter. We feed off of each other’s energy. She is a fighter just like me.
“She is a cheerleader, a gymnast, a dancer. She is living the good life right now. I thank God for her,” he said.
Wilder is working hard to spread awareness of spina bifida. He hopes his status as a world champion will enable him to compete in a different kind of fight: against the disease that threatened his daughter’s life.
“We are working to get the awareness out by developing a foundation as we speak. We will teach people how to take care of children with spina bifida,” Wilder said. “Some of them are the smartest people I have ever seen.”
Wilder’s entire demeanor changed when he spoke of his daughter. His voice became softer, and his eyes lit up a bit more. It is easy to tell that his passion for fighting boxing opponents, and for fighting spina bifida, is equally high.
Deas agrees with Wilder when it comes to the champion’s fight against spina bifida, “He is not just a celebrity name attached to a cause. He lives it day in and day out.” He also agrees that while Wilder goes after his goals with tireless determination, there is something else about him not may people know.
“Deontay is not a phenom. People don’t give him credit for the long days he puts in. He works harder than anyone I have ever seen,” Deas said.
When I asked Deas about the upcoming fight, his faith in his boxer was obvious. He said that Wilder is not intimidated by the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Frenchman.
“The Frenchman has never been knocked out and is coming off of the biggest win of his career, but our champ looks great,” Deas said. “Deontay is ready. We are ready.”
The sweat I was sprayed with is a good sign.
Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning photojournalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at email@example.com.