“I see me beating him up and then knocking him out,” Deontay Wilder said in his Alabama drawl soon after he arrived in Las Vegas on Tuesday evening and looked ahead to his third world heavyweight title fight against Tyson Fury on Saturday night. It was a reminder that we are back in fight week in the dangerous and unpredictable business of heavyweight boxing.
The damaged kings of this division can say terrible things – as Wilder proved in March 2018 when he said: “I want a body on my record.” He tried to qualify his statement by saying that, because he was prepared to die in the ring, he was also willing to take an opponent’s life. Wilder is not a bad man. He has his own demons. He also understands boxing’s darkest truth. Many boxers are willing to risk being carried away in a box in pursuit of their dreams.
In December 2018 Fury and Wilder drew their first encounter in Los Angeles. It was the best world heavyweight title fight in years. Fury, having had just two warm-up bouts after his long break from the ring for mental health reasons, produced an incredible performance as he outboxed Wilder. But in the 12th round he was dropped for the second time in the fight. It was such a brutal knockdown that Fury was briefly unconscious as he lay stretched out on his back. He somehow dragged himself off the canvas and was firing punches at an incredulous Wilder before the end of the round. The controversial draw, with most experts and fans believing Fury had been a clear winner, set up the Vegas rematch.
All the odds seemed to favour Wilder after the American won his next two fights with chilling knockouts. He was called the most destructive puncher in the history of heavyweight boxing. As he walked to the ring in February 2020 Wilder wore a Black History Month metal mask and costume that weighed 40lb. He looked frazzled when he stepped out of his clanking paraphernalia. The American never recovered. From the opening bell Fury beat Wilder up with methodical, dazzling precision. He dropped Wilder in the third and the fifth rounds before the referee brought the contest to a merciful end in the seventh. The stoppage was instigated by Wilder’s assistant trainer Mark Breland, a former fighter, who knew the damage was too severe to continue.
Wilder protested: “I am upset with Mark for the simple fact that we’ve talked about this many times … I want to go out on my shield. If I’m talking about going in and killing a man, I respect the fact that the same can happen to me. I am ready to die in the ring and be carried away in a box.”
Breland has since been fired and replaced by Malik Scott, another former fighter whom Wilder stopped in the first round in 2014. It might seem a strange move to have appointed one of his vanquished opponents, and a man with limited experience as a trainer, but Wilder is emphatic that Scott has improved his often raw skills. He can never hope to outbox Fury – his best hope is that one of his explosive punches finally knocks out his nemesis.
Wilder has been a brooding presence in the long buildup to this fight, which was pushed back three months after Fury caught Covid for a second time in early July. He refused to say anything at the first press conference and, in his silence, Wilder seemed to tap into his personal definition of himself as a fighter. Wilder comes from Tuscaloosa – home of the usually dominant University of Alabama college football team. They are led by Nick Saban, the great college coach, who posts regular messages of support to Wilder. The mantra from Tuscaloosa and the Crimson Tide, as the multiple championship-winning college team is called, is that defeat is only ever a temporary setback. Wilder echoes these sentiments as he describes himself as a quintessentially defiant fighter from the South.
As the third fight has neared he has begun to talk more outrageously again. Wilder has accused Fury of using “loaded gloves”. This is just pre-fight hoopla rather than a serious proposition.
Wilder is the father of eight children in Alabama and his personal story remains riveting. He turned to the ring late and only after he had fallen into a deep depression. In 2005, at the age of 20, Wilder’s one-year-old daughter was in acute pain from spina bifida. The trauma of his little girl’s condition and the accompanying financial burden wore him down.
Before the second Fury fight he said: “In 2005 it became very rocky for me to the point where I lost my family and I had a gun in my lap. I was ready to commit suicide. But boxing led me out of that wilderness. It is a dark and heavy business but boxing is also a place of dreams and hope. It saved me. I put the gun away for good. And here I am today … heavyweight champion of the world.”
Last year he was stripped of that title in comprehensive and humiliating fashion by Fury. The challenge for Wilder now will be to convince himself that he can really beat a man who got up from some of the biggest punches he has ever thrown in the first bout and then totally dominated him in the rematch. But Wilder cannot be underestimated. He has lost just once in 44 fights and overcome much adversity outside the ring.
Wilder has also said, more calmly of his defeat by Fury, “It is a blessing in disguise what happened. It changed me in so many different ways. My words are not even enough to explain and describe it. You will see on October 9. Only then will everyone understand what I mean.”