Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. boxer Deontay Wilder (left) exchanges blows with Ecuadorean rival Jorge Quinonez during the First Americas Qualifier tournament on March 15 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Wilder defeated Quinonez.
U.S. boxer Deontay Wilder (left) exchanges blows with Ecuadorean rival Jorge Quinonez during the First Americas Qualifier tournament on March 15 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Wilder defeated Quinonez. Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
The nation's Olympic boxing hopes rest partly on the shoulders of an Alabama heavyweight who is a relative beginner. Deontay Wilder is a lanky power puncher trying to complete an unlikely journey.
The 22-year-old Olympian first began boxing three years ago at Skyy Boxing in Northport, Ala. The tiny, garage-like gym sits in part of a large, gray, metal building. Wilder drips with sweat as he pounds the heavy bag, its chains rattling with each punch.
"He's extremely strong, and he's got a tremendous punch. But the thing that sets him apart is that will to win," says Skyy Boxing manager Jay Deas. "When it comes down to 'one of us is getting knocked out' time, he's all for it. He's right there."
In the past year, that has helped Wilder rocket from obscurity to gold medal contender. First-round knockouts and dramatic come-from-behind wins led to a Golden Gloves championship and a trip to Beijing. He's 6-foot-7, muscular and covered with tattoos. It's an imposing look — until he smiles.
"Deontay, he's a Southern boy, you know: laid back, likes to enjoy life and family, friends whatever — just an average guy. I'm the type of person that it don't take much to be pleased, just the basic stuff," Wilder says.
Wilder says fighting is something he learned — and got in plenty of trouble for — growing up. He says he was a quiet kid who mostly fought people who bullied, or tried to bully him. A fight in seventh grade was one too many, and he was sent to a school for at-risk students.
"That was my turnaround in my life, though. Going to alternative school and seeing what it was all about, and knowing I was a kid that didn't belong there — it was a good experience. Sometimes you've got to go through the bad to get the good out of it," Wilder says.
The good included a college basketball scholarship and the birth of a baby girl, Naieya.
Naieya's birth and resulting medical bills due to a spinal birth defect forced Wilder to quit school and basketball. He began working several jobs to support her. He took up boxing to feed his competitive nature — a nature he says comes from his family, which holds giant fishing tournaments where everyone competes, even their 84-year-old grandmother. He says the tournaments taught him about winning, and about having fun.
Trainer Timothy Mitchell says Wilder is an inspired fighter.
"I just enjoy his hunger for the sport," Mitchell says. "He's the type of person that wanted to learn, and he asks questions. And that's a sign of a hungry boxer."
That hunger is spreading. Wilder's unlikely journey has others at Skyy Boxing — mainly a group of teenagers — talking and dreaming about the London Olympics in 2012.
Brett Tannehill reports from Alabama Public Radio.