*Reprinted with permission from The Birmingham Times
Few would remember the 1984 green Ford Explorer Deontay Wilder used to drive around his native Tuscaloosa. Back then, Wilder was working two jobs after dropping out of Shelton State Community College to provide for his daughter.
That SUV is a far cry from the pearl-colored Chevrolet Suburban Wilder bought after earning a bronze medal in the boxing competition in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Now, eight years later, that Suburban has been replaced by six luxury vehicles, as Wilder has scaled the rankings of professional fighters to become the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight champion.
The 30-year-old joins a list of Alabama’s heavyweight boxing luminaries that include Earnie Shavers of Garland, Evander Holyfield of Atmore, and Joe Louis Barrow of LaFayette. Holyfield and Barrow (known to all as Joe Louis) are in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, and Louis is in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Wilder (36-0-0 with 35 knockouts) could someday join Holyfield and Louis in the halls of fame. In the meantime, he bids to extend his undefeated pro record against Chris Arreola (36-4-2) on Saturday, July 16, in Legacy Arena at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
The champ’s true passion
These days, Wilder has half a dozen vehicles, including a Lamborghini Aventador from Exotic Euro Cars in Woodland Hills, California. TMZ reported that the champ dropped $560,000 on that ride, well over the $400,000 range for which it normally sells. The extra cash went toward a faux gator-skin wrap and other cool personal touches. His other vehicles are two boats, a Rolls Royce, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, a pimped-out Hummer with 34-inch rims, a Dodge Challenger, and a Polaris Slingshot three-wheeler.
But there’s more to the champ than his fleet of expensive cars. His true passion: helping others outside the ring.
There’s the 2011 white Jaguar XF he bought his brother in gratitude for his support.
Wilder is also the subject of a children’s book, “Deontay the Future World Champ,” which encourages young people to set and stick to goals, exercise, eat healthy, and avoid peer pressure. Last year, the champ held a book signing and gave the proceeds to a 9-year-old who had been attacked by a pit bull while walking home from school.
“We know we can’t help with a $2 million medical bill,” Wilder’s co-manager Jay Deas told the Tuscaloosa News. “When it comes to things like getting his family to Birmingham, as well as getting them hotels, food, time off work, all those kinds of things, those are things we can realistically help with through the sale of the book.”
“My passion is for kids,” Wilder told his hometown newspaper. “I do believe it starts when kids are young. That’s when you need to install in them the principle of being a hard worker.”
Growing up with three sisters and one brother — he’s next to the oldest — the man known as “The Bronze Bomber” wore other monikers, including D Killer and Slim.
“At one time, I had a girl call me Sticks, because I was slim and skinny,” he said.
Wilder played football and basketball and ran track for Tuscaloosa’s Central High School. Like many from the Druid City, he dreamed of someday starring for the Alabama Crimson Tide, perhaps in basketball or maybe football.
At 6-foot-7 and 236 pounds, he’d have been a big target for a Tide quarterback if he had followed his crimson heart. But fate dealt him a different hand.
“My goal was to play for Alabama,” he said. “Sometimes we have plans for ourselves, but God has other plans.”
First, academic problems sent him instead to Shelton State. Then came the 2005 birth of his daughter, Naieya, who suffers from spina bifida. That set him on an alternate course — one that gives another meaning to the “Title Town” message on Northport’s Fifth Avenue train trestle.
The crimson color and “Roll Tide” on the other side of that trestle clearly refer to the Alabama football program that has won four of its 16 national championships since 2009, including the 2015 crown.
“Where I’m standing, I’m worldwide,” Wilder laughed. “Football is only nationwide.”
That’s quite a jump. Wilder was not voted most likely to succeed or even most athletic in Central High’s 2004 graduating class. Nonetheless, he has succeeded almost beyond measure while competing at the highest level of his sport.
Life has changed dramatically since he claimed the belt — he calls it “Sophia” — with his unanimous decision over Bermane Stiverne in January 2015. (According to Wilder’s camp he came up with a female name for the belt since he was “going to love it and hold it tight.”)
Now Wilder’s ride has few limits. The places he’s able to go, the things he’s able to see, the way he’s able to support his family. Everything has changed.
“I’ve got a lot of property around that people don’t know about,” he said. “My goal now, my thing now is to invest. A lot of athletes don’t invest. They think they have their career long term, but you never know what’s going to happen. My goal is to invest now and party later.”
Eleven-year-old Naieya is the oldest of Wilder’s four children. He says being a father to her, 5-year-old Ava, 4-year-old Dereon, and 1-year-old Deontay Jr. is his most important job.
“I see my future, and it turned out a little better than I thought it would, but as a parent you’ve got to teach your kids to get them to succeed in life,” he said. “As a parent, we must guide them, we must teach them, we must put knowledge in them about the history of where they came from, about their culture.”
The champ says his father, Gary “Rev” Wilder, and grandmother, Pastor Evelyn Loggins, initially set him on his life’s path — and that path went through church.
Wilder told CBS Local Sports in a 2015 interview that he was raised in a good, middle-class family and went to church every week “whether I wanted to or not.”
“I had no choice but to go to church every Sunday,” he said of the Helping Hand Holiness Church in Tuscaloosa. “Every Sunday I was in the church. That’s where I got my strong religion from.”
Wilder acknowledges that he was picked on as a child, but he never ran from a fight: He learned how to defend himself.
“If you messed with Deontay, Deontay would knock you out,” he recalled. “I was known for not shying away from fights.”