Deontay Wilder repeatedly refers to "The Plan" that has guided his boxing career. He'll soon fight for the heavyweight title, and adhering to "The Plan" has brought him to the precipice.
But there wasn't much of a plan when Wilder was a 19-year-old at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was desperate to find a way to support his young daughter, Naieya, who was born in 2005 with spina bifida.
He was nearly 6 feet 7 inches and almost 230 pounds. He looked like he would have been a natural for his hometown Alabama Crimson Tide.
He'd been in numerous street fights in his lifetime – "I never looked for trouble," he says, "but trouble always seemed to find me." – and in seventh grade, he was sent to a school for at-risk youth.
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Wilder paid little to no attention to boxing. When he was at Shelton State, he brainstormed with a friend about ways to support Naieya. He suggested he might box, because of his street-fighting ability.
"I told a friend in college that I would not be attending any more and that playing sports was out the window, too, because I had this new responsibility I had to take care of," Wilder said. "I had to go get a job. I said I should start boxing, because money-wise, man, how was I going to support my daughter?
"I was ignorant to the sport. I thought every fighter who stepped into the ring made a lot of money. I figured these guys were getting on TV and if they were on TV, they had to be making a lot of money. I knew I was a good fighter, street-wise, and I told him I thought should start boxing. He thought it was a great idea."
That was the real plan, and as harebrained as it might have seemed to many, it worked. And thus was born a career that could end with a world heavyweight championship. Remarkably, Wilder did it with little experience. He earned his spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team by winning the Olympic Trials in just his 21st fight.
He earned a bronze medal – the only boxing medal the U.S. won in 2008 – at the Beijing games.
He racked up knockout after knockout after turning pro, and raised his record to 31-0 with 31 knockouts when he blew out Malik Scott in the first round of a March 15 bout in Puerto Rico.
Wilder will fight the winner of the May 10 bout for the vacant WBC heavyweight title between Chris Arreola and Bermane Stiverne.
The journey toward the top started in a tiny gym called Skyy Boxing in Northport, Ala. Wilder was so fixated on football and basketball, he didn't know the place existed.
The first time he entered the gym, though, he felt at home. He walked through the door and stopped to observe the scene. He took in the surroundings of the tiny gym and felt it was where he belonged.
"I never thought in a million years a boxing gym would be here in Tuscaloosa," Wilder said. "Never once did I think of it. I had been sold on the tradition of college football and basketball and it was like my mind and eyes were shut and I was blind to any other things that were out there.
"When I walked into that gym, it was amazing what my eyes were exposed to. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I knew little about boxing and I knew nothing about amateur boxing. I knew Muhammad Ali won gold and stuff, but I didn't even know it was amateur."
Despite his lack of knowledge of boxing, there was something right about the way he felt in the gym.
To this day, he can't put his finger on exactly what it was, but it appealed to him at a very personal level.
"I went in there and to feel that moment when I walked in the doors of the gym, I said, 'This is it. This is it,' " he recalled. "Everything felt so great. I heard these sounds in my ears of the guys sparring and the heavy bags being hit, the speed bags. The sound, the sights, the way it felt, I just knew I had to pick up the gloves and get started. The rest is history."
It was a remarkable achievement to win an Olympic medal a little more than two years after he started to box. And then as a pro, he's reeled off win after win, though not without some controversy.
That's where "The Plan" comes in again. Wilder has taken a lot of criticism in his boxing career, which is odd considering he owns an Olympic medal and has 31 knockouts in 31 fights as a professional.
Although his level of opposition as a pro has largely been poor, he's never wavered despite the mounting criticism. He is not your typical Olympic medalist because he didn't have hundreds upon hundreds of amateur bouts and years of experience like fighters such as two-time gold medalists Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vasyl Lomachenko.
"It's been a long journey, but we stuck with the plan and we're just about there now," Wilder said. "The plan has been to get as much experience as possible, ring-wise, and to face a lot of different types of fighters with different styles. We wanted to fight slow guys and fast guys, big guys, a small guy, a crafty guy, a guy who would pressure you, a runner, a slick guy, a guy who would give me rounds.
"We wanted to see it all and experience it all so that when it was time, nothing was a surprise and I had been through it all before."
He's been through most, but not all of it before. After his knockout of Scott, there was much criticism. Many, including some fighters, suggested Scott took a dive and didn't attempt to get up after being knocked down.
Much of that was because of the way the right hand landed. Wilder split Scott's gloves with the right that came after a left hook. But Wilder yanked his right arm back after connecting. That was to bring it back into position for defense, he said.
But many couldn't believe that Scott could be hurt so badly by a punch like that. Wilder said it wasn't the right that did the damage but the left hook that came before it, which he said landed on Scott's temple.
Wilder wasn't happy with all the criticism and the questions about the finish.
"I have super power in both of these hands and you have to keep in mind that sometimes, looks are deceiving," he said. "Just because it didn't look a certain way doesn't mean it didn't happen. All these people talking don't know what they're talking about.
"I would tell them, 'Sign a waiver and I would be glad to hit you with that same shot and let you feel it.' When you're dealing with 10-ounce gloves and the force and the mass I bring to it, it's a different ballgame. People take those kinds of shots for granted, but believe me, there was nothing fun about that and nothing safe about that. People need a reality check."
But that's been one of the few down times in a career that has been as extraordinary as it has been unlikely.
Wilder is on the verge of greatness, and he admits that sometimes he's shocked at what he has been able to accomplish in such a short period of time.
His daughter, Naieya, has accomplished great things, too, and is now doing gymnastics in grade school.
He has a tattoo on his arm that depicts him holding hands with Naieya and walking with her. It's very symbolic and carries special meaning for him.
"Alabama is a football state, without question, and I just grew up believing that playing football was what I was destined to do," he said. "But God had a different plan for me and, as it has turned out, it's been the greatest thing for me. I found boxing as a way to take care of her and I've been fighting for her, and she's been fighting for me ever since.
"We feed off each other and we push and strive to make each other's lives better. It's a proud father moment to see my little girl doing what she's doing, and it's why I'm doing what I'm doing."
They're just two fighters, working hard and sticking to "The Plan."
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