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by Jeremy Herriges

Boxing has fascinated sports fans for well over a century. It’s the original combat sport that places two competitors head to head and requires them to pummel each other until a single person is standing or one is judged superior to the other. However, it’s the spectacle of a knockout that compels the audience to stare on intently. Today, there’s no better knockout artist than Deontay Wilder, aka the “Bronze Bomber.”

Wilder is the current WBC heavyweight champion of the world and is undefeated through 43 career bouts over the last 12 years. He’s quickly becoming the face of boxing due to his penchant for delivering beautiful destruction in the ring. The wake caused by his 95 percent knockout rating has added to his mythology, and many believe that he is the hardest puncher in boxing history.

From the outside looking in, Wilder’s position in life seems ideal. He’s a wealthy athlete who wields a right hand that’s reminiscent of a lightning bolt. His rangy 6-foot-7 frame and tattooed body make Wilder look more like a modern-day superhero than an athlete.

Today, Wilder is in an enviable position, but his rise to superstardom was a tenuous path filled with pitfalls, trauma and uncertainty. The ink on his skin tells the tale of a miraculous lifelong odyssey that defies all odds.

Ahead of his rematch with fellow heavyweight Tyson Fury, Wilder is at the zenith of his popularity. Their first fight resulted in a draw even though Wilder leveled Fury twice.

Photo by Lance Holloway

Photo by Lance Holloway

Life as the champ may be glamorous in some ways, but it takes a lot of work to stay on top. On this day, Wilder completed an exhausting two-hour boxing workout before jumping into a frenetic photoshoot and interview combo at the New Era boxing gym in Northport, Alabama.

Wilder’s fatigue dissipated as he discussed the origins of his boxing career. The New Era gym, once called Skyy Boxing, is the place where his career began. His story isn’t difficult to recall as memories of it surrounded him. 

At 20 years old, Wilder was struggling to get by. He dropped out of junior college in 2005 to provide for his newborn daughter Naieya. She was born with spina bifida and required several surgeries following her birth. As the medical bills mounted, Wilder made ends meet by working several jobs, including a gig as a delivery driver for Budweiser. 

“Getting up at 4:30 in the morning going to work, [I] had to count [beer cases] in the truck,” Wilder remembers begrudgingly. “Sometimes we would have 1,500 to 3,000 cases that we would have to record on paper. Most of the time, we would have 15 to 20 accounts, depending on the day.”

Before fatherhood, Wilder had dreams of competing on the football field for the University of Alabama, which was just miles from his childhood home, but it wasn’t meant to be. With the dream of gridiron heroics gone, Wilder had to find a different outlet for his athletic prowess. He figured he would give boxing a try.

Wilder caught the eye of trainer Jay Deas immediately. After watching him dent the heavy bag with his lethal fists for a week or two, Deas threw Wilder into the ring to spar with a seasoned pro. Wilder dropped him minutes into the session, and his boxing career officially began.

For three years, Wilder trained as an amateur while working numerous jobs to put food on the table for his family. He fought to maintain optimism while hauling cases of beer all day. Much like how the fictional Rocky Balboa incorporated pulverizing raw meat in the slaughterhouse into his training regimen, Wilder was lifting beer kegs.

“Just imagine loading beer up on the dolly, carrying it into different accounts over and over again,” Wilder says. “Sometimes you would have to park your truck a certain distance because it’s too big to fit in close range, so you would have to load the beer on the dolly and carry it maybe across the street. Maybe through traffic. It was always a workout. I used to carry kegs on my shoulder.”

Wilder received his first tattoo at the age of 19 as a birthday present. The prayer hands clutching rosary beads were a testament to his belief in God. His faith was tested many times while he balanced training with an overloaded work schedule, but Wilder sensed he was destined for greatness and that boxing was his key to a better life.

“Boxing was one of the main things that I wanted to see myself make it from,” Wilder says. “I knew that my life would change forever if I got to a certain state of life, and it paid a lot of dividends because I’m living it right now.”

Wilder stayed dedicated to his craft and quickly found success. By 2007 Wilder was a U.S. National Golden Gloves Champion and conquered the U.S. Championships. In 2008 he won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, and the Bronze Bomber name was born.

Fast forward to the present, and Wilder is arguably the most feared puncher in the sport of boxing. Detractors rag on him for his raw and sometimes reckless style, but he has shown tremendous growth as a pugilist, which is why he’s able to target so many opponents with electric one-punch knockouts. It’s his power that separates him from every other boxer in history.

“My main objective is to win, and I do it well,” Wilder says confidently. “I do it in a dramatic fashion. That’s all we look for. A lot of these guys wish they had what I have. They wish they had the ability to slack off and lose a round and know that no matter what happens, that when you hit this person, he will go.”The days of transporting beer cases and kegs are long gone, but the memories of those hard times linger. They’ve molded Wilder into a world champion, and he hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned during his tribulations. All of the rides on private jets and secluded island getaways can’t erase the years of work, worry and struggle. Those are ingrained in Wilder for life.

Many of his tattoos embed those memories into his skin. There’s the one he calls the “Road to Success” that features his silhouette holding hands with Naieya. Wilder has numerous psalms and specialized prayers that he authored inked on his skin; the tattoos have helped pull him through his darkest times.

He also has reminders of his greatest achievements tattooed into his body so he can always relish those moments even after their thrill has faded. Wilder’s WBC belt, which he named Sophia, wraps around his thigh. That was his last tattoo back in 2015. Although much of his body is shielded in artwork, he hasn’t run out of space. Wilder hasn’t had the time, nor found the inspiration, for a new symbolic image to join those that already populate the canvas of his body.

“I’ve been traveling so much lately that I haven’t had time to think about getting a tattoo or putting something on me,” Wilder says. “Most of the time, when I get a tattoo, it means a lot to me. Most of the time, when I’m doing tattoos, I like to write them down. I like to draw them up. I don’t just go into the tattoo shop and pick a picture. It’s going on my body, so it means a lot.”

Nevertheless, Wilder does have an idea of what he wants inked on his body next—the other three heavyweight titles that he hopes to possess soon.

“Once I obtain all the belts and I’m the unified, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, I do have an idea of putting all the belts on me,” Wilder declares. “Right now, we’re still on that journey.”

One drawback that Wilder experiences as a high-profile athlete deals with the pressures thrust upon him by the public. He carries the weight of others on his shoulders, and that’s a feeling that can be spiritually taxing.

“People hold you in high regard,” Wilder explains. “They expect so many great things from you. You can’t make no mistakes. You got to be this perfect human. I tell people if you consider me as a damn role model, you got to take what I bring to the world. You got to take every part of me. I’m still a human. I have flaws, and I’m going to make mistakes.

“I know I ain’t perfect, and I ain’t going to try to be,” Wilder continues. “I’m going to be myself and live my life like I want to live my life. I just want people to accept who I am.”

The demands of being a world boxing champion are something that Wilder’s used to. He has his expectations but can live at peace if he falls short of them. Wilder has defied the odds his entire life and there’s nothing to suggest he’s going to stop now.

Photo by Lance Holloway

Photo by Lance Holloway