February 28, 2018
February 28, 2018
Deontay Wilder

Ryan Hafey/PBC

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IN 2013, Deontay Wilder told me he was all muscle, bone and skin. He then showed me the tip of his whip.

Less sinister than it sounds, certainly less sexual, and entirely unrelated to cars, the whip in question was the technique behind a punch responsible for a 100 percent knockout ratio and the tip, according to its owner, was the part of that punch that set it apart from those of others.

“Get back,” Wilder said, snapping into an orthodox stance beside a heavy bag, as if about to set off a firework. “Watch.”

He revved up his right arm, locked and loaded, and then let fly with a punch. Whoosh. Thwack. Almost comical in its execution, Wilder made all the requisite noises and then looked my way immediately after his right hand connected with the bag and left its mark.

“Back home we talk about my punches as being like a whip,” the American, then 27, said. “And the most painful part of the whip is the tip. That’s where I do my damage – right at the end of my punches. The tip of the whip.”

Frank Joseph, the boxing agent who’d earlier held pads for Deontay, rued a sudden inability to hold steady a plastic cup of coffee. As he waited for trembling hands to return to normal, he would rap his endorsement over the repetitive beat of Wilder abusing the heavy bag.

“You can tell how hard he hits just by looking at my f***ing hands,” grumbled Joseph, offering them for all to see. “Whenever you hold pads for anyone with a dig, you’ll feel it afterwards. But I’ve never had the full-on shakes like this before. His power is frightening.”

There were specks of coffee on the floor, poetically intermingling with the sweat falling from Wilder’s forehead.

“My power is totally natural,” Wilder stopped hitting the bag to say. “I really don’t try to knock guys out. I’ve just always been able to punch hard and have always been strong.

“Even back when I was a 185-pound footballer, I’d lift as much as the biggest guys on the team. There I was, this little, skinny guy, doing everything the bigger guys were doing. Nobody could believe it.”

Deontay Wilder pic

That day, that month, Deontay Wilder, brought over to spar David Haye ahead of his ill-fated fight with Tyson Fury, was going to do as he pleased. He hit things; he swaggered about the place; he preached; he yelled; he illuminated otherwise drab rooms.

Better yet, his punch power, once akin to boxing’s Loch Ness monster, now, thanks to 29 consecutive knockouts, carried with it an authenticity that enabled him to showcase his wares in a London gym without any fear someone might pull him up on shoddy technique, lambast him for beating soft opposition, or simply tell him to stop whacking the bag and making so much damn noise – “BOMB SQUAD!”

It wasn’t always like that. Two years earlier, in fact, when Wilder first arrived in London to spar Haye ahead of the Englishman’s fight with Wladimir Wlitschko, the six-foot-eight puncher would never have imagined holding court in the gym and teaching and preaching and going on about tips and whips and dancing in between rounds of sparring as though he was at a family barbecue and Cameo’s ‘Candy’ had worked its way on to the playlist.

That Wilder, then 25, was a different proposition altogether. Raw and somewhat unsure of himself, he was full of basketball player athleticism but still in the process of figuring out how to transfer it from hardwood to canvas. He was erratic, excitable, reckless. He kept Haye on his toes without treading on them or lifting him off them.

Outside the ring, meanwhile, he was pleasant, down-to-earth and well-mannered. He was thankful for the opportunity. Unknown, approached only because of his size and amateur achievements (an Olympic bronze medal in 2008 was no mean feat), Wilder behaved accordingly, travelled with no airs and graces, and acquiesced to Haye’s demands, at least in terms of social niceties, respectful of the fact it was his gym and city. He was a delight.

But 2013 was different. Still a delight, you now heard him before you saw him. There was a “BOMB SQUAD!” on every corner – a brave and dangerous mantra in this day and age – and Wilder, once the student, now the teacher, arrived not as a sparring partner but as someone with designs on showing how much he had improved; showing everyone why he would soon become America’s next world heavyweight champion.

Moreover, when he sparred, which he did regularly that summer, he sparred like no heavyweight I’d ever seen. Utterly relaxed, veins of ice, Wilder would nonchalantly rattle through rounds with Haye, Mariusz Wach and Filip Hrgovic as if the only repercussion of a misstep would be a grazed knee.

For as serious as those men took the sessions, Wilder would be getting buck wild, whooping and hollering during rounds, winding up punches, forever loose. He’d take to goading his sparring partners, asking for more, and even attempted to inspire and motivate them if he noticed they were flagging. “Come on, champ, let’s go!” he’d mumble through his gum shield. “This is the champ’s camp!”

So impressive was Wilder second time around, you’d look for flaws, mistakes, if only to readdress the balance. You’d take heart whenever Haye landed a right hand, for instance, or whenever Wach got up in his grill and accosted him against the ropes. At that point, you’d divert your eyes from his hands, and what he did with them, and focus instead on his legs, those spindly stilts propping up a 225-pound body, and wonder how many rounds he’d last in a kickboxing match or, indeed, a boxing match, should somebody crack him clean on the jaw.

“I always say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,'” Wilder explained. “My legs look skinny, I know, but it’s all muscle. I’m all muscle, bone and skin. Think of someone like Thomas Hearns. That dude never had the biggest legs in the world, but, boy, could he bang.”

An answer as good as any, you’d then find yourself going back to his competition, or lack thereof. The thought was this: fight someone decent and Wilder might suddenly come over all flustered and unsteady. He might even go the distance.

“Styles make fights,” Deontay said. “But so far in my career I’ve cancelled out all the styles I’ve come up against by hitting too damn hard. Once you get hit by my shots, style goes out the window, man. Someone like (Sergey) Liakhovich might look effective and durable against other guys, but he hadn’t tasted power like mine. And you saw what happened to him.”

We did. Liakhovich was gone in 104-seconds, curled into the foetal position upon sampling a right hand. We have also seen, five years on from his London trip, what has happened to Bermane Stiverne, Artur Szpilka, Gerald Washington and Johann Duhaupas when struck by the tip of Wilder’s whip. He’s WBC world heavyweight champion now, a man of whom highlight reel knockouts are expected. He’s all grown up.

Deontay Wilder

“Knowing his story, and seeing how he improved over the two years we saw him in the gym, I expected him to be a dangerous force in the division,” said Adam Booth, Haye’s former trainer and someone who witnessed every sparring sessions his charge shared with Wilder. “But he has fulfilled that potential.

“What I like about Deontay is he’s a risk-taker. He’s a big man but he doesn’t rely on his size and play it safe. He’s prepared to go for it, even against short opponents. He’s proven he’s got balls. He’ll stand there and try and blast out anyone.”

It could be said Wilder spends too much time and effort trying to “blast out” opponents and that this desire to preserve his knockout record – he has knocked out every man he has faced as a pro – sometimes conspires to make him look a little desperate and disorganised. For every picture-perfect KO, for every Szpilka or Liakhovich, there is a Washington or a Molina or a Duhaupas, less knockouts in the purest sense of the word and more a case of Wilder hurting an opponent and then clumsily frogmarching them out of the ring as though a club bouncer dealing with delinquents.

It’s a tendency he will have to tidy as he moves up a level – starting this Saturday (March 3) against Luis Ortiz – and one that could simply be a by-product of having things his own way for too long.

“He’s still learning,” said Chris Byrd, a former IBF heavyweight champion. “I boxed since the age of five whereas Deontay hasn’t done that. He hasn’t had hundreds of amateur fights. He basically had one fight, got thrown into the Olympics, and now he’s a pro. That’s why he’s been fighting weaker guys as champion. He’s still in the development stage. When he gets better, and more confident, he’ll be really good. But he’s not quite there yet.”

Deontay Wilder

When I asked HBO’s Larry Merchant about Wilder last year, he was less convinced the Alabama native holds the key to easing America’s heavyweight woes.

“Wilder often looks lost before he knocks someone out,” he said. “But he has a quickness and clear power which, I guess, sets him apart.

“However, he’s been matched and marketed so carefully that it has brought more and more questions and scepticism from the boxing community and a sense of anonymity beyond that.

“Al Haymon (Wilder’s manager and promoter) has yet to show he can take a fighter and develop him into a star. They hope that by building Wilder’s record he will attract attention, but that hasn’t translated into audiences or coverage.

“If Wilder was to fight (Tyson) Fury or (Anthony) Joshua, I’m sure it would get a lot of attention in the US, but there is no buzz about Wilder alone. General sports fans don’t know that we have an American as WBC heavyweight champion. His name means nothing outside boxing circles.”

This is both a shame and the truth. Regrettably, Deontay, in spite of his knockouts and charisma, wallows in obscurity away from the glare of the Showtime lens and will need a compelling equal – Joshua-shaped or Fury-shaped – to secure the kind of fame and wealth a six-foot-seven American heavyweight with a WBC title and a 39-0 (38) record would have taken for granted in days gone by.

Deontay Wilder

Before that, though, before he can even get close to stardom, he must prove something else. On Saturday in Brooklyn, Wilder must prove, in dealing with Luis Ortiz, an unbeaten 38-year-old Cuban, a former WBA interim champion, and a two-time drug cheat, that he is more than just a puncher who flails his arms like a child on Christmas morning whenever an opponent is about to wilt. He must calm down. He must be serious. He must show nuance and intelligence to his game. In effect, he must be something like the man I encountered in London all those years ago.

Wilder, back then, seemed to have the whole game sussed. He’d returned to England an improved fighter, a wiser head on broader shoulders, and felt no way about divulging his secret recipe, not to me, nor to his sparring partners (who, at the time, were trying to punch him). There seemed an inevitability to it all: Wilder winning by knockout; Wilder becoming world champion.

Yet now, five years on, despite enhancing his collection of knockouts, and holding a green belt he occasionally calls his “girlfriend”, Deontay Wilder is still attracting sceptical looks and is still someone for whom naysayers believe a stunning knockout defeat is a matter of when, not if.

“Being an American world heavyweight champion means you’re more popular than the President,” a wide-eyed Wilder told me back in 2013.

“If I can get there with all knockouts on my record, I’ll be screaming ‘Bomb Squuuuaaaad!’ for days. Then the whole of America will be tuning in to watch me. Then I can get my money, provide for my family, do up my bike some more and get out before I’m thirty.”

Deontay Wilder is now 32. He is still very much on this mission.