WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder stands six-foot-seven with a chiseled, 220-pound frame draped over a pair of broad shoulders that seem to stretch from one end of the room to the other.
Even without his belt or boxing attire, it would be relatively easy to guess the 32-year old’s line of work.
But it wasn’t Wilder’s obvious physical gifts that brought him to boxing. It was an unplanned pregnancy, and a complicated one at that.
‘Naieya came and it was a blessing in disguise because I probably wouldn’t be boxing if it weren’t for her,’ Wilder told Dailymail.com of his 12-year-old daughter on Wednesday, ahead of Saturday’s title defense against Bermane Stiverne in Brooklyn.
These days Wilder is fighting for low seven-figure purses in hopes of hitting a major eight-figure payday with a unification bout against the IBF and WBA heavyweight champion, England’s Anthony Joshua. But it was back when he was a 19-year old in 2005 when Wilder made the choices that brought him to this point in his career.
He had been a star basketball player and wide receiver at Tuscaloosa Central High in Alabama — where football ranks as the preeminent sport, pastime, and religion — but his grades prevented him from continuing his athletic career at the collegiate level.
Wilder enrolled at the local community college in hopes of improving his marks and ultimately attending the nearby University of Alabama, where he could play football or basketball for the Crimson Tide.
But before any of those dreams came to fruition, Wilder and his girlfriend Helen learned that they were expecting. What’s more, the doctor told them their daughter would be born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which there is an incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord.
‘I remember being in the doctors office,’ Wilder said. ‘Dim lights, her mother was right beside me and [the doctor was] going over instructions, little things about how to take care of a child with spina bifida and different organizations that help.
‘Then,’ Wilder said, ‘he gave us “option B.”… We could terminate the pregnancy.’
Wilder reacted immediately.
‘Instantly, I looked at her and I looked back at him, and I was like, “I can’t do that.”‘
‘I felt like at this point, she’s developed, we know [she’s a girl],’ he continued. ‘I felt like, “give her life.” You never know what she can become.’
Naieya’s mother agreed, but the decision to proceed with the pregnancy had immediate ramifications.
The first few years of Naieya’s life would involve a battery of surgeries aimed at giving her the ability to walk. Some of the costs were offset by various insurance programs and organizations, Wilder explained, but there was a heavy emotional toll.
‘As a parent, you never want to hear your child is going to be born with a disability,’ he said. ‘We all want a healthy child. All that was just circling through my mind.’
Wilder picked up a serving jobs at Red Lobster and IHOP, as well as a gig driving a Budweiser truck. Unfortunately he had to drop out of school, which effectively ended his dream of being a basketball or football player.
By that time, however, Wilder had already started considering his options – specifically boxing.
It may have been farfetched for someone from Tuscaloosa — which, as it turns out, had only one gym dedicated to pugilism — but Wilder had his reasons.
First, Wilder says, he never lost a fight growing up.
‘Never, ever, ever, ever, ever.’
Second, boxers certainly didn’t need to attend college.
And last, boxers made money, or so he thought.
‘I was ignorant to the sport,’ he said. ‘I thought every fighter that stepped into the sport made a lot of money. I didn’t know there was levels. It’s a process to get to that point.’
A friend brought Wilder down to the local gym, where trainer Jay Deas was initially dismissive of the wiry, 195-pound teenager. ‘He said, ‘[t]he basketball court is down the street.’
It wasn’t as if the gangly Wilder was a natural. Winning neighborhood fights and surviving three rounds in the ring are entirely different challenges.
On the street, Wilder says, ‘you get your man, you put a good move on him, he falls… get on and pound.’
Boxing, on the other hand, is significantly more exhausting.
‘When I started, even one minute tortured me,’ Wilder said while wobbling his legs in his chair. ‘I remember sparring, and I was like Bambi. Remember that movie? My legs were shaking like Bambi.’
Having promised an infant Naieya that he would become a ‘world champion’ and ‘support her beyond belief,’ Wilder stuck with the sport.
His timing was perfect. By 2007, the improving Wilder had enough wins as an amateur to compete for and ultimately earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
The rest of Wilder’s story is well-known to boxing devotees.
He went on to win a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, turned pro, and has been unstoppable in 38 career fights, recording 37 knockouts and winning the WBC crown with a unanimous decision victory over Stiverne in 2015. (On Saturday, Wilder will get another crack at knocking out Stiverne, who remains the only fighter to go the distance with the WBC heavyweight champion).
Wilder’s family expanded too: In his first years as a professional his now ex-wife Jessica Scales-Wilder gave birth to his daughter Ava as well as sons Deontay Jr. and Dereon.
Best of all, Naieya’s success paced her father’s.
Just as Wilder refused to make excuses for his own situation, he didn’t offer that opportunity to his growing daughter.
And thanks to the success of her surgeries, Naieya has been every bit as active as her siblings. She walks without crutches, does cartwheels, and lives the kind of life her parents once feared she couldn’t have.
‘We never shield our child,’ said Wilder, who is expecting a daughter with his fiancée Shuntel Swift this February.
‘We let her crawl around, run around, “I can do it,” he says, mimicking Naieya’s voice. ‘Even as a little girl, she didn’t want you to put on clothes for her. “I can do it.” As a father, it made me proud. She’s definitely like me, she gets everything from me: the strength, the mindset, the ability to not give up.’
Wilder admits he’s a soft touch with his children, outside of the occasional spanking. He even prefers to keep the television off in the house because he fears it brings in too much negativity.
Of course, with a sport that’s as violent as boxing, there is always going to be some negativity.
Wilder’s children know how he makes a living, although he wonders if they truly understand the dangers involved.
‘My 12-year old, she understands a little bit more than the rest because she’s been in it longer,’ Wilder said of Naieya. ‘She’ll tell you now, she wants daddy to knock them out, but she don’t want daddy to get hurt.’
Wilder has not been hurt, or at least not significantly. He had a badly swollen eye after beating France’s Johann Duhaupas in 2015, and he required surgeries on his broken right hand and torn biceps following his 2016 win over Chris Arreola.
Known as ‘The Bronze Bomber’ in the ring, Wilder has inflicted significantly more punishment than he’s absorbed in his decade as a pro. He can’t claim to have a classic style, but Wilder possesses what some consider the sport’s best right hand, and at times he’s been absolutely terrifying.
Wilder even scared himself during his previous appearance at Barlcays Center back in January of 2016, when he knocked Poland’s Artur Szpilka unconscious with a right cross.
‘I really felt in my heart that I killed Szpilka for about three to five seconds,’ said Wilder.
Szpilka was taken out on a stretcher and brought to a hospital. He has since resumed his career after a brief hiatus.
The moment crystallized everything that’s uncomfortable for a father of four who makes millions by brutalizing opponents.
‘I tell people I got two personalities,’ he said. ‘Outside of the ring, I’m Deontay Wilder – the guy I am now. Inside the ring I’m a totally different person… I don’t care about how bad I hurt you. You’re trying to hurt me as well too. And I’m already defensive because you’re stepping in the ring with me. Your intentions are bad. So I must become something else.
‘If my grandfather got up in there,’ Wilder laughed, ‘I’m gonna have to take my grandfather out.’
Wilder said he’d even consider boxing against his 28-year-old brother Marsellos, who is currently a cruiserweight but could ultimately move to heavyweight as he gets older.
Despite Wilder’s perfect record and sterling reputation as a fighter, he can’t yet claim any signature win. Boxing’s heavyweight division is currently light on talent, particularly after the recent retirement of Wladimir Klitschko.
The ultimate fight (and payday) for Wilder would be a bout Joshua, who knocked out Klitschko in front of 90,000 spectators at London’s Wembley Stadium last April.
Fighting Joshua would represent a significant pay raise for Wilder, who will reportedly make around $1.4 million for Saturday’s fight. Known as the ‘Watford Wallop,’ Joshua pocketed nearly $20 million for fighting the legendary Klitschko, and a fight with Wilder could provide a similar purse.
Like Wilder, Joshua is former Olympian and an undefeated knockout artist. But while Wilder hopes to fight Joshua in 2018, the 28-year-old Englishman has been slow to commit.
Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, has offered Wilder a fight against contender Dillon Whyte in London on February 3. Wilder’s promoter Lou DiBella rejected that idea on Twitter, writing, ‘We travel for champs, not chumps.’
The theory in boxing circles is that Joshua will eventually fight Wilder, but not anytime soon. This way, when they do get in the ring, the American might be passed his prime.
Wilder, who believes he’s only just reaching his peak, is willing to wait if he has to.
‘If George Foreman [can win a title] at 45, I can do it at 50,’ Wilder said. ‘I can go 50, easy.’
On its surface, the situation is fundamentally unfair.
Outside of Joshua’s upset of Klitschko, Wilder and Joshua have nearly identical resumes. And it’s not as though Wilder has backed away from any challenges.
To Wilder, it’s as though he’s being penalized for being too good.
‘I’m too dangerous,’ Wilder said. ‘I’m a risk and they know it.’
Similar situations have been known to torment deserving boxers in the past. Some have quit before getting their chance at an ultimate payday.
While frustrated, Wilder is hardly despondent. The former community college dropout has gone from IHOP to a heavyweight title, all while watching Naieya overcome spina bifida.
Beating Joshua and making himself a household name on both sides of the Atlantic would be wonderful, Wilder explained. But to him, that reward would be empty without the struggles he and his family have been through.
‘You’re going to have ups and downs,’ he said. ‘My thing is, how can you be able to appreciate the good without the bad?’