Deontay Wilder. A polarising figure, renowned for smack talk, insulting fellow athletes and continuing to bang his own drum.

Deontay Wilder. An Olympic bronze medalist. Heavyweight champion of the World. Unbeaten, undisputed and so far unchallenged.

Deontay Wilder. Religious child, smothered by the teachings of his two preceding generations. Battling to retain that identity.

It’s a fairly surreal moment, regardless of how many people I speak to, receiving a call from the heavyweight champion of the World. I’d spoken with World champions before, yet the melting pot Wilder finds himself in gave it a different feel. You see the dial, Nevada, knowing you’d better answer or potentially miss your slot. A media frenzy that followed the devastating first round destruction of Bermane Stiverne. Wilder commanded respect.

“I think that it’s fair to say that was my most impressive victory to date and I’m looking forward to making many more statements in the heavyweight division. I know what I’m capable of doing, I know I have the ability and the tools to beat anybody in the World. Anybody in the World.”

“You know, with that performance that night, it was just a showcase of what I can do. A showcase of what kinda splash I’m about to make in the division and I will be known, not just in America but around the World. Anybody listening from around the World, let them know; I am their champion.”

The passion in his voice, undeniable. It seemed almost as though Wilder had enjoyed a ‘coming out parade’ this past Saturday in New York. He has been shackled by the state of the heavyweight landscape. Willing to fight dangerous and credible opponents such as Alexander Povetkin and Luis Ortiz, the Tuscaloosa man cannot be held accountable for their shortcomings (both failing drugs tests).

Bermane Stiverne was the mandatory challenger to Wilder’s WBC belt. His credibility was sketchy. His form? Not great. Recently inactive, the Haitian looked out of shape and out of ideas. However, this was the man who had dragged Wilder to the judges’ scorecards on the evening of his maiden title triumph. I spoke to Deontay about his performance, asking if he felt vindicated following recent criticism?

“It’s been amazing, my life has definitely changed. All the things that have been going on, all the people that have been excited about the heavyweight division and what’s been going on in that division, it’s been crazy. The performance I had on Saturday night was just what I needed to move forward with my career in the pursuit of unifying the division. So, I’m excited about the future.”

I’d been intrigued to discuss Deontay’s wild claims that he wanted Stiverne’s ‘body’ on his record and stating he wanted to kill his opponent. It was something, again, which split fans. Was Wilder overstepping the mark? Or, was it fair game in a blood sport?

He explained to me the difference between the Bronze Bomber and Deontay Wilder. They shared the same body. But not the same ethics. It all felt very WWE to me, the idea of a persona when stepping between the ropes seemed to act as a crutch for extensive violence.

“People got to understand that when the King, steps up into the ring… we risk our lives in the first place. You guys, you come and pay to see us beat each other. Put harm to each other. But when I make a comment about wanting to kill somebody they don’t wanna respect that? They wanna feel a certain way. But… you paid your money to see this? We signed a contract to give you entertainment. If I’m not gonna give you the best of me, then I don’t want you to come and see me! So does that mean I gotta end another mans life?! Well, you helped me out with the cost of coming to see it.” 

A blunt, but honest view from the heavyweight champion. It was hard for me to distinguish the personalities. He seemed excitable, but very aggresive during our conversation. I assumed this was an overspill from Stiverne. The personal element, the only man to take Wilder twelve rounds and the pent-up frustration of a drug-riddled playing field.

There could be no doubt that his rant on ending Stiverne’s life would split fans. Some, buying into the theatrical portion. Others, shaking heads and tutting in disdain.

I’m sure you’ve heard about ten audio interviews the Champ conducted following his devastating win in New York. Discussing all things Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, on repeat, each and every time. I was keen to use my time with Wilder to uncover something more personal, more telling. How did he get here?

I wanted to know about his childhood and understand what makes him tick. We took it back to Tuscaloosa,

“My grandmother was a pastor, my father was a minister, you know? We were shielded from the World and from a lot of things, a lot of bad things. Shielded from negative stuff, bad language, negative publicity amongst TV and amongst music. So it really was nice. I was always around a loving family. We were always shielded from certain things that we could hear and see by just being out. Now this always brings hardship to me as well.” 

In opening up about an adolescence in Alabama, the son and grandson of religious heritage revealed a side of himself kept under wraps. Vulnerable in the face of a judgemental teenage audience, trying to stay true to his beliefs and carry himself with positivity. It wasn’t always that simple.

“Because my family was so religious and so into God, people who wasn’t into it, weren’t so religious… they look upon it with jealousy. So, they always picked on me and poked at me which caused me to always to have to defend myself and always have to fight. Always having to use negative things which I don’t like, but they moulded me. They made me become a great person but also a person that won’t tolerate any hatred. I won’t tolerate anyone trying to cause any bodily harm to me. So that was what caused me to be a fighter and to be so strong in the World.”

Wilder has brought boxing back to Alabama in a big way, staging various defences of his World title in his home state. Never forgetting his roots, pride ran deep when we touched on Tuscaloosa. I could sense a fondness, similar to my own when I visit Glasgow.

“Living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This is a magical place right here! It’s a slow place. But it’s a place where I find peace. A place where I find my sanity and it’s a loving place. I am happy to be from here and I am happy to be a part of the history of Alabama!”

He spoke a number of times about ‘staying in his lane’. The fast-paced, celebrity lifestyle doesn’t come naturally to Wilder. He is just as happy at home, spending time with his family, as he is out at an awards show. He likes to keep himself grounded, maybe an inhibitor when looking at his exposure to a wider audience.

It would have been remiss of me to ignore Anthony Joshua. Both men have been oozing confidence ahead of a mouth-watering unification which, for the moment, remains a thing of fiction. Negotiations will be tricky, with both men valuing themselves the ‘draw’.

“This fight is getting very, very close. Very close. Now more than ever. We’re gonna smoke em’ outta there! We’ gonna smoke Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearns out of their hole! I advise the fans that are either for me or against me – praise it up! We deserve it. This is what you want, this is why this division is so exciting because the best MUST fight the best. Me and Joshua are the best. We are the Kings at the top right now so we must fight each other to see, because there only can be one. I am that one.”

Carrying the ‘baddest man in boxing’ or most ‘feared man in the sport’ tag can be a daunting task. The pressure of expectation, performing for millions under the lights. The heat, the beads of sweat teasing the skin as you climb through the ropes. The muscles seizing up, mocking the plans you’d drawn in the brain. Boxing is no game.

“Man, I’m just excited about what’s going on. When it’s my time to perform, I wanna keep it alive. I gotta keep the excitement, the fire. So I performed to the best of my ability and after the fight – yes I’m still pumped and I’m still excited because of the state of boxing! Look at the internet now. I broke the internet. I need people talking about the heavyweight division and I want people to say ‘we have a real champion!’. One that is so efficient, so mean but so loveable and that fights and sings at the same time. Although I did what I did on Saturday night, there is still more to accomplish.”

Whether you like it or not, Deontay Wilder holds the keys to heavyweight boxing. One could argue, he is the man to beat Anthony Joshua and reign supreme at the top of the tree. It is easy to forget about the man, though. The man behind the mask, the thoughts behind the statements. The life experience of a man making the best for himself and his family in a sport of damage and brutality. And he does it all, with a smile.

Written by Craig Scott