Deontay Wilder stands on doorstep of boxing immortality after staving off suicide as a teenager

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES — He clutched the gun and let his mind wander, to think of how much better things would be if he just squeezed the trigger. He’d eliminate the pain, the fears, the worries, the heartaches.

It would all be gone, wiped away in an instant.

Easy.

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Deontay Wilder was years from being a household name. He was a poor young man with an abiding belief that he was meant to do something in this life, something meaningful, something wonderful. He struggled to navigate the world in front of him, though, unable to understand why he hurt so much. 

Why was it his daughter who had been born with spina bifida? Why wasn’t he going to be able to support his family the way he wanted to do, to be the father, the son, the husband, the brother that he wanted to be?

Life came hard and fast, and Wilder didn’t really know how to handle it. Emotions swirled and trouble lurked, seemingly, at every corner.

Pull that trigger, he believed, and the anxiety, the doubt, the fears would be gone forever.

Boom.

As close as he may have coming to making that fateful press of the trigger, he knew that taking his own life was not that answer, that ending his own life would simply have been swapping one set of problems for another.

“You don’t think about what affect it would cause for your family, your daughter, your kids and so forth and so on,” Wilder said during a wide-ranging half-hour conversation with Yahoo Sports to promote his Feb. 22 rematch with Tyson Fury at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas for the WBC and lineal heavyweight titles.

“In that state of mind, you just become selfish. You think of the inner pain and the outer pain that you’re feeling right at that very moment in time.”

His daughter, Naieya, was born in 2005 with spina bifida, a birth defect that about 2,000 children are born with in the U.S. every year. The backbone that forms the spine doesn’t close all the way and leads to mental and physical problems for the unborn child, but more than 90 percent of the children born with it are able to lead full, long lives.

But Wilder was a teenager and he didn’t understand any of that when Naieya was born in 2005. He was attending junior college in Alabama and knew that his life would change in an instant. Whatever dreams and aspirations he had for his own life would have to be shelved, as he needed to find a way to pay for what were sure to be mounting medical bills.

He didn’t know much about spina bifida, but he knew enough about the American health care system to understand he was about to be flooded with bills.

He didn’t pull the trigger and take his own life and transfer his problems to someone else because, well, he is a fighter. He didn’t know how, but he knew he’d find a way to deal with the situation.

Heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder hopes that his story provides a beacon of hope for others. (Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge)
Heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder hopes that his story provides a beacon of hope for others. (Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge)

All of his life, Wilder had been blessed with an amazing work ethic. He’d held a slew of jobs, as a waiter, as a truck driver, and was willing to do whatever he needed to provide for his loved ones.

While he searched for answers, something inside told him that he was destined to be special, that he was meant to do great things. 

“If I would have done that during that period of time, of course I’d never be where I am,” Wilder said. 

He’s become a millionaire many times over and on Feb. 22, will earn a paycheck that will soar into the eight figures when he fights Fury in a rematch of their classic Dec. 1, 2018 bout. That fight is memorable primarily because of the stunning ending.

Wilder is one of the hardest punchers in boxing history. Fury’s former trainer, Ben Davison, told Yahoo Sports following Wilder’s seventh-round knockout of Luis Ortiz in Las Vegas that he felt there was never a better puncher than Wilder.

“He’s the biggest puncher not just in heavyweight history, but in boxing history,” Davison told Yahoo Sports in November.

Davison was in Fury’s corner watching in the 12th round on Dec. 1, 2018, when Wilder hit Fury with a blinding combination. The impact of the punches on Fury’s head sounded like a slugger in a slow-pitch softball game connecting square with a big swing.

Fury went down, his eyes rolled up in his head and referee Jack Reiss, for some reason, began to count. In the event of knockdowns like that, particularly those coming late in a fight and against a puncher with the reputation that Wilder has, the referee would simply wave the fight off without a count and urgently summon the doctor to provide the fallen boxer support.

The crowd rose as one as Fury hit the deck like a redwood tree that had taken one too many whacks from an axe.

Wilder celebrated what seemed like the defining moment of his career. His corner celebrated giddily. Fury’s team watched in horror, their dreams shattered before them in the blink of an eye.

Reiss stood over Fury’s motionless body and tolled the count … three, four, five.

Suddenly, Fury blinked, his eyes opened and he somehow managed to drag his 6-foot-9 frame off the canvas.

He finished the final moments of the fight giving as good as he got.

That he did that, that he did not in that moment become Wilder knockout victim No. 40, is the reason the eyes of the sporting world will be on that familiar ring in Las Vegas on Feb. 22.

Deontay Wilder (L) and Tyson Fury face off during a news conference at Fox Studios on Jan. 25, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Deontay Wilder (L) and Tyson Fury face off during a news conference at Fox Studios on Jan. 25, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The day that he sat in Alabama, gripping a gun, mulling the possibilities of taking his own life, he could not have known any of this, how it would turn out. He only knew that he hurt and he needed to find a way to get rid of the pain.

He didn’t give in, though. He found a way.

His way was to go to a boxing gym, though there is no logical reason why. Boxing isn’t big in Alabama and he wasn’t an avid fan. He was 19 and had never fought before. He had this sense that was the path he should take, and he was showing unnatural power in his earliest days in the gym.

Just three years after he staved off suicide and decided to try to chase greatness in a boxing ring, he was standing on the podium in Beijing, China, a bronze medal around his neck.

He was the only American to win a boxing medal that year in what has been called the worst U.S. team ever. The guy who at 19 was thinking of suicide was at 22 an Olympic medalist. The Bronze Bomber was born, and the course of his life, and boxing history, was changed.

He was too big of a long shot ever to be taken seriously and yet, there he was, on the podium and on his way to greatness.

His story is about unpredictability: Never give up, because there is no better proof of what can happen than Deontay Leshun Wilder, a 34-year-old Alabaman with a 42-0-1 record and 41 knockouts, the WBC heavyweight title and an Olympic medal. Yet, for all his accomplishments in the ring, his biggest and most significant victory came when the world at large had never heard his name.

He had that gun in his hand. He thought of squeezing the trigger and snuffing out all of his problems with a bang.

He did not, though. He believed in himself. He knew he was destined for greatness.

And now, he finds himself on the doorstep of immortality in his chosen profession.

“If I could have seen myself being the champion, having millions of dollars in the bank, having a successful career and life, of course we would have never thought [of committing suicide],” he said with a grin. “ … But that’s the thing about life, though. It comes in all types of ways. It’s up to you to be able to handle it.”

Life came at Deontay Wilder and there was a time it had him wobbling, on the ropes, on the verge of going out.

As he has done time and again, though, Wilder won this fight. He won it by knockout. And he hopes that his story provides a beacon of hope for others.

It’s what he calls, “my service to my greatness.” He’s won even before he’s stepped in the ring, and millions of others who are struggling with despair and doubt and who feel they’re being consumed by problems can look at him and see themselves.

He was once one of them, so beset by problems he got a gun.

He realized in the nick of time, though, that suicide wasn’t the answer. The same thing is true of Tyson Fury, whose battles with depression are well known. Fury once drove his sports car at a high rate of speed and planned to wreck it to take his own life.

When that bell sounds on Feb. 22 to begin their fight, the ding will be the start of the championship.

It’s also the sound of survival.

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