His position as heavyweight champion of the world comes with the title of “baddest man on the planet,” but fatherhood has done more to shape Deontay Wilder than the power of his punches.
As he prepares for the first pay-per-view main event of his career, a Saturday World Boxing Council title defense against unbeaten former champion Tyson Fury of England at Staples Center, Wilder understands the path he has taken to be on the verge of securing the biggest payday of his career.
Consider where Wilder was in 2005, when he learned his first child, a daughter, was born with debilitating spina bifida — a condition with a wide spectrum of effects, leaving some in a wheelchair.
Wilder was a junior college wide receiver in Tuscaloosa, Ala., dreaming of playing for the Alabama Crimson Tide when he got the news.
He quit football, found three jobs to help pay for the looming medical bills, including becoming an $8.50-per-hour waiter at IHOP and a meal assembler at Red Lobster, and took up boxing.
“I started as the busboy at IHOP, but the manager thought I was very handsome and she liked how I interacted with people, so I got moved up to waiter and started making a killing with tips,” Wilder said.
“People could relate to me. They always wanted to talk about sports when they came to me. I could talk sports. That allowed me to make people comfortable. They’d start telling me about their personal lives and things … to the point that some customers would come in and wait to be served by me. That made me feel so special.”
Three years later, he was the only U.S. boxing medalist in the 2008 Beijing Olympics by claiming a bronze, and 10 years later he became heavyweight champion.
Daughter Naieya “was the start of it all. Without her, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Wilder said. “Many people ask me what I’d be doing. Who knows? I thank God I’m in this position, doing what I love, displaying to the world this talent and ability I was anointed to show.”
More remarkably, Naieya, who made a habit of telling her dad, “I can do it,” as challenges emerged, has overcome an early diagnosis that she might not walk to develop into an independent teenager who can run.
“She’s amazing,” Wilder, 33, said. “The doctor’s might’ve wrote her off, but it doesn’t matter who went to school for how long, they can’t predict or dictate what your life will be if God has his hands on you.
“Her development … I look back at how far she’s come, and am amazed. To see how she is now, it makes me so excited and it shows people can do anything they want in this world if they put their mind to it. Believing that brings about a change.”
Wilder was so taken by fatherhood he now has seven children, the most recent of whom was born to his fiancée in Los Angeles.
“I love fighting. My ultimate love is being a father,” he said. “The saying is, ‘You don’t know what love is until you have a child.’ I haven’t seen anything to dispute that.
“I feel like the mother to them — like I had them myself — and I’ve told my fiancée, ‘If there’s ever technology where a man can carry a baby, sign me up as the first person to try it.’”
Wilder’s mutual devotion to boxing has enabled him to take a 40-0 record with 39 knockouts to Saturday’s bout, as he continues to press unbeaten three-belt champion Anthony Joshua for a 2019 showdown.
“Saturday is a major step in me getting the attention of a lot of people who’ve never heard of me,” Wilder said. “Hopefully, they can come on board and see what I’m all about.”
More were drawn Tuesday, when Wilder visited a Los Angeles Fire Department station and distributed free tickets to his fight as thanks for the overtime work on this month’s wildfires.
Upon reaching Los Angeles, he was saddened to hear more details regarding the fatal police shooting of Emantic Bradford Jr., a 21-year-old black man, near Birmingham, Ala., where Wilder has fought several times.
Bradford was misidentified as an active shooter after he pulled out a weapon he was authorized to carry and attempted to provide protection for patrons after two others were shot inside a mall, according to witnesses.
“What can be said? It’s a trending event that’s happened multiple times throughout this country, a real unfortunate situation,” Wilder said. “It’s crazy right now, just sad. I’m tired of hearing and seeing these things. Something has to be done. I don’t know what’s going on with the police.
“I want to be the type of guy who can make the world different. This situation that’s going on with the brutality … I want to change things, change the mind-set to a positive way. Even when you wake up to negativity every day, that’s a test, and without a great test, you can’t have a testimony. This is what I live by on a daily basis.”
He knows his voice is powerful because it captured the full attention of the unbeaten, No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide when he addressed the team before the season.
“I won’t take all the credit, but I’ll take a couple percentage points because they’re definitely going all the way,” Wilder said. “I spoke to inspire them and they were all open ears.
“My presence is strong because they know what I’m capable of, and they know what I can do.”