Life seemed simpler for Deontay Wilder 16 years ago.

He was an unexpected bronze medallist at the Beijing Olympics and turned pro as the “Bronze Bomber” to give his daughter a better life.

There was not a lot of hype. He did not have a vast amateur record after just 21 fights. Yes, he had the medal, but he was criticized for being raw and a wild gunslinger who would get found out in the pros.

But he didn’t mind. Naieya, his daughter, was the only thing he cared about.

Wilder was really only a kid himself, not far removed from serving pancakes at iHop and driving a delivery truck to pay the bills. 

I interviewed him for the first time that summer, and there have been many more since. He had short hair and a pleasant smile, and to look at him then through a 2024 lens, he’d probably be inclined to agree he could be called naïve, certainly about what his future might hold.

The future wound up being worth millions and millions of dollars, there were fast cars and motorbikes, a considerable firearms collection, mansions, a long WBC title reign and drama in and out of the ring as he became statistically the heavyweight division’s hardest hitter (until someone talks about Mac Foster).

Back then, Wilder was not mobbed everywhere he went. 

“My daughter, Naieya, has spina bifida,” he explained to me. “Once I knew I made the Olympic team, that was just the start of giving her a better life. Once I knew I medalled, I knew that I might have a good chance of making things better. But even if I hadn’t won the medal, being a heavyweight means you’re always going to be one of the better-paid guys. My daughter’s my motivation. She always will be.

“We found out about it before she was born. I was a 19-year-old in college, playing ball and some people say when you have kids and they’re not planned, they’re mistakes. But mine was no mistake. Mine was a blessing because I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it weren’t for my little girl.”

As Wilder got more famous, we did not speak often but communicated once in a while on Facebook (of all places). Then his number changed. Several years ago, famous but not a superstar, he was at the International Hall of Fame and he walked through a Graziano’s restaurant one night. 

It must have been a couple of years since we spoke and I sent him a Hail Mary message on Facebook, and he replied out of nowhere saying he hardly did social media anymore because of the negativity. Wilder insisted I should have said, ‘Hello’, but he was being crowded for autographs and pictures and I left him to it. He seemed to appreciate that, too.

Once, in 2019, for what was then BT Sport, we did a great shoot and interview at his home in Tuscaloosa. As I interviewed him on the private dock overlooking the lake behind his mansion, we joked about his tattoos and he told me he collected guns and was building a range on the property. He said he’d recently acquired a rocket launcher, and – armed with cynicism and disbelief – I joked I wouldn’t leave until he showed me. 

Well, it came time to go and we loaded the camera equipment into the truck and Wilder went back into the house and re-emerged with the rocket launcher and handed it to me.

One of the crew’s cameras was still rolling, and they caught me goofily looking through the viewfinder as though I knew what I was doing. Then Wilder reached into his waistband and pulled out a golden 50 Cal Glock, or something like that.

It was an impressive display of firepower, something that Wilder has been showing off in the ring now since we first met some 16 years ago.

And when we talk today, on the eve of a make-or-break fight, I feel like I’m speaking to the Wilder of 2008. 

Some of the more outlandish stuff I’ve seen online since then, I’ve not experienced. Wilder’s not talked out of turn to me. He’s been thoughtful, interesting and insightful – and he admits that on Saturday (June 1) against China’s Zhilei Zhang, there is no margin for error. 

“I would say that. It’s definitely a must-win fight, especially for me, and it sets up everything for the future,” Wilder begins. 

“If I don’t get the win, ah, we don’t know where we’ll go from here. Retirement could be a very big and serious conversation. 

“This is a very important fight for me and in terms of my future.”

Alabama’s Wilder is 43-3-1 (42 KOs) and 38 years old. Zhang is three years older, and the southpaw is 26-2-1 (21 KOs).

“I respect him and I do think he’s a good fighter,” Wilder continues.

“My strategy is not to take him in the later rounds just because he gases out. From the first bell to the end, I’m going in. We’ve got a gameplan, we’re going to stick with that. I’m not necessarily worried about him gassing out because you really don’t know. This could be the fight he looks at that he feels could take him all the way to the top.  

“When guys fight me, they prepare for the best of the best of themselves because they know what I’m capable of doing to them, so they train harder than they ever have before. They do things that they’ve never done before, and they prepare themselves for life or for death. With his situation, we don’t know how he’s going to come in. He may come in the best that he’s been in his life, since his childhood, who knows? 

“I can’t go off if he’s going to gas out and I’m just going to take him in the later rounds because I know guys change up their regimens when they fight me. I know things are different, so I’m going to go in and do what I have to do.”

Wilder is coming off a poor December loss to Joseph Parker and the American is now 1-3 in his last four. Wilder cut an uncharacteristically reluctant figure during the Parker loss, and he has promised that will change on Saturday night. The question is whether he still can, or if his mileage is too great. 

“This time around, I’m going to let my hands go,” he insists. “I’m in a better position than I was in before. Training has been amazing, and I’m ready to go. I’m looking forward to a great, great fight. And someone’s getting knocked out.”

The script that has been pre-written in that the favorite, Zhang, is getting banged. That is because Wilder has tentatively been booked for August 3 in Los Angeles, slated to face Top Rank’s heavyweight hope Jared Anderson. For someone who has boxed once a year the last few years, Wilder could fight twice in three months, although promoter Eddie Hearn this week threw Wilder’s name back in the mix for a possible fight with Anthony Joshua.

But Anderson seems the next stop.

“Correct,” Wilder agrees, “but again, I’m not looking past Zhang at all. I’m not even mentioning any other names besides ‘Big Bang’ Zhang. This is the ultimate mission that lies at hand and I must accomplish that first before thinking about anyone else. Because if this doesn’t happen, if this doesn’t get accomplished, then there is no August.”

Wilder has sounded tired and disinterested in the past, disengaged with boxing, disenfranchised by the sport. He has done well from it, no question, and his tender goals at the start of his career have more than been realized. He hasn’t merely looked after his daughter, he has provided his family with a generational wealth far beyond anything he could have dreamt of.

 “At one point of time, I fell out of love with it,” he admits, talking about his relationship with the sport. “I was in love with it coming in and then I fell out of love with it, and now I’m back in love with it. It’s an in and out of love thing for me. At this moment in time, my fire has been relit, and I’m loving it at this moment in time. While I have my fire back, while I have the flames, I want to utilize them for the greater good for me.

“The ‘Bronze Bomber’s’ back. Many times before, I used to say certain things because of how I felt because this is a brutal sport, and over 13 fighters die a year but no one talks about it. I call it a business, it’s not a sport at all. When you get in that ring, we’re really risking our lives for others’ entertainment. With that being said, I’ve never been shy of saying my opinion, or how I feel about certain things in this business. I’ve never been afraid to state my opinion about how I feel about what I give and what I would do to another human being, because they’re trying to do the same thing for me. 

“And in the midst of all that, you had people gang up on me, they dragged my name in the dirt, they called me all types of things and said how I wasn’t good for this business and all that, so when I came over to be nice and more humble and stuff, they don’t want that.”

Wilder is at a loss to explain why. They want Thor’s hammer to be wielded with a gentle touch. They want to see the violence and have Wilder collect his opponent off the canvas afterwards. They want the bombs to fly with a balletic grace. But not everyone does. Wilder says his hosts in Saudi Arabia have not only asked for the bombastic version of Wilder, they’ve encouraged it. 

“Now they want the old Wilder back. They want that killer back. They want that man that talks about killing someone back,” Wilder goes on. “It’s like, for me, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And at this point in time, while working with the Saudis, they want that monster. They want that crazy Wilder, and I love a person that wants to see that monster, that beast. 

“They’re paying the bills so I don’t give a damn about what nobody else thinks anymore. That’s what relit the flame for me, to be able to work with people and say, ‘We want him. We want that old Wilder back and we will be glad to work with him’. There’s nothing better than to work with people like that, who have your back, and they want you to be who you are and what got you to the point where the world knows your name.”

Wilder has boxed for Al Haymon’s PBC for years, but now he has gone it alone and is working fight to fight, but he says the Haymon relationship is not over. 

“No not at all,” Wilder adds. “I’ve still got a good relationship with those guys and business is still good. I like to be a free agent, though. I like to be able to work with everyone. Not just one particular person and that’s what I’m doing at this moment in time. I love PBC. I love Al Haymon. He’s been great to me, and he’s been good to a lot of other people. There’s a lot of things going on, and I’m looking forward to continuing with PBC as well, in the future.”

Wilder’s name is still money in a commercial sense, but he’s tumbled down the pecking order and The Ring rates him at No. 9 in the world. Post-Parker, he was condemned as old news, the old gunslinger looked gunshy and he couldn’t locate the trigger let alone pull it. But Wilder does not think Father Time has come knocking, and he doesn’t believe those in the sport have written him off, either.

“No not at all,” he briefly snarls. “Because everyone knows that wasn’t Deontay Wilder in there. Everyone just saw a guy that had been out of the ring almost two years, that had ring rust. You know how I operate. You know what I come to do. To see that fight, that isn’t who you’ve known for all these years. Everyone knows that. I don’t feel I’m being written off at all. I don’t think I’ll ever be written off. One thing about it, the thing people will always love about the heavyweight division is the power, and power’s the last thing that leaves you. 

“As long as I have that power, the one-hitter-quitter that I can go in and punch a man in the face and knock him out, I’ll never be written off. I could be 50 years old in the ring, I still won’t be written off.”

It is one thing still wielding that vaunted power. It is another thing seeing his contemporaries excel. Wilder versus Anthony Joshua has been talked about for years, and never happened, but Joshua has sparkled in his last two contests and has career momentum while Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury – who Wilder has endured a violent trilogy with – shared a Fight of the Year contender two weeks ago, will rematch in December and Usyk owns the undisputed crown. 

With those three making strides and Wilder seemingly losing ground, does Wilder still feel like he has something to prove that his name belongs alongside those?

“I want to say I do, and I want to say I don’t,” he says, taking time to consider his response. “You know, I’m already proven. I don’t feel like I have to prove anything. I just have to go and do what I know I can do. I’ve just got to go and do what people know I can do. Go and be myself, and once I do that, I’m there. Because when I do that, people expect that. They expect certain things in this business. Look, I’m the hardest puncher in boxing history. No one compares to what I’ve done to a human being in the ring as far as knocking them out, how I traumatise their bodies, make guys go to sleep, break things, break ribs, the things I’ve done, the dramatic knockouts that I have, no one surpasses those moments that I have. 

“When I do what people expect me to do, it’s like ‘We knew it. This is what we expected of him. This is what we’ve been looking for.’ I’m back. And I think when they see me do what I love to do and what they love to see me do, then the people will be like, ‘He’s back.’

If Wilder bangs Zhang and humbles Anderson, then he would be on the brink of a Joshua fight. But is Usyk the one he wants, given Usyk has already beaten Joshua (twice) and Fury but not fought the big-hitting veteran?

“That could be a possibility,” Wilder sighs. “I’m not thinking that far ahead, like I said, I have a task at hand that I must accomplish. To be able to fight for world titles again would be amazing. It would be. But right now, I have Zhang in front of me and I must stay focused on him.”

And when Wilder walks away from this bloody, brutal business, whether it is months or years away, he said he will be at peace, content with what he has done and ready to enjoy the spoils of his years of plying his violent trade.

Back in 2008, talking about Naieya, Wilder said to me: “Every time I fight, when I’m running and training, I think of her because I want her to have a better life than I had. I think about her growing up, paying for school and college so she can be the best she can be.

“In the Olympics I carried her picture with me everywhere I went and looked at it and smiled.”

Wilder smiles when he talks about retirement, safe in the knowledge that his mission will be complete, regardless of if there are more wins on his record or more belts in his trophy cabinet.

“When the time comes, I will enjoy it,” the father of eight adds. “Just like I’m enjoying being active, when the time comes and I’m not active and I retire, I’m going to enjoy it to the fullest. Life is so short, so you must enjoy the moments while you can, because we’re on borrowed time.  The inevitable follows us every day, and we don’t know when it’s going to come and get us, but it will be, ‘Hey, your time is up’. So whatever I’m doing, I’m going to make sure I enjoy. Whether I’m active or not active I’m going to enjoy life. I’m going to enjoy the success that I’ve bought for myself, and I’m going to love my kids, each and every day.”

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