TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Deontay Wilder saw all this coming: the 40 victories, the 39 knockouts, the right hand bludgeons unlike anything in boxing. And not “saw” like he had predicted or even hoped he would one day claim his current status, as the most important and accomplished American heavyweight of his generation. More like he actually saw these things happen, through the visions his grandmother, Eveline Loggins, laid out for him.
Wilder loved that woman. She wore white all the time and emanated a distinct energy, bright and radiant. That’s why she became a preacher and how she came to tell Wilder that he was anointed and would one day accomplish great things. This was all years before Wilder started boxing, at age 19, in the hopes that he could feed his growing family. “She wouldn’t let my parents whoop me,” he says. “She said, ‘That boy is anointed, leave him be.’ They didn’t understand what I was.”
From Loggins, Wilder learned what is now part of his daily ritual: to combine meditation and visualization techniques in order to speak and see what he wants into existence. Sometimes he’ll just lie on the floor, in the middle of his living room, visualizing his next fight – the punishment he will absorb, what knockout blows to land. Wilder told his last opponent, undefeated Luis “King Kong” Ortiz, he’d already witnessed their fight 100 times before they climbed into a boxing ring in Brooklyn back in March. He’d fought Ortiz that many times in his own head. Then Wilder turned those visions into reality, knocking out Ortiz the same as he’s knocked out all 39 of the men he’s faced. (One opponent, Bermane Stiverne, lost a decision to Wilder in 2015; but Wilder KO’d him in their rematch two years later – and in the first round no less.)
“In my eyes, I’m a walking icon,” Wilder says. “I still got a long way to go, gotta lot of things to do. But at the end of my career, no matter the hate, they ain’t going to be able to deny the work I’ve done. The things that my grandma told me. The gift that I was given.”
It’s that last part that Wilder is still working on, and his visions there are two-fold. The first is to claim the unconditional respect he believes he’s earned and the mainstream, crossover appeal he believes he’s due. The second is to restore glory to the heavyweight division. To make those belts mean something closer to what they once meant.
Wilder says he even visualized our interview, which is taking place at a Panera Bread in mid-November. We’re sandwiched between three co-eds watching videos on an iPhone, a woman reading a Bible over coffee and two co-workers chatting through their lunch break. How strange it must seem to those assembled to see Wilder in that back booth, clad in all black, bolstering the most boxing tradition ever by wearing sunglasses indoors.
On Saturday, Wilder will face Tyson Fury at The Staples Center in Los Angeles, and their bout will mark another clash of undefeated heavyweights. Fury famously ended the 11-year division reign of Wladimir Klitschko in late 2015, before addictions to alcohol and drugs spiraled Fury into a deep depression that cost him not only his belts but two-and-a-half years of his career.
As Wilder-Fury approaches, Wilder faces essentially two opponents. Beyond Fury there’s the fight for his reputation. And he’s here, at lunch, making points emphatically to state his case.
His numbers don’t lie, Wilder says, noting the victories and knockouts. He’s never been a boring boxer, he says, never been booed for a lackluster performance, never heard anyone complain about one of his numerous knockouts, except maybe the guy lying on the ground. But he’s portrayed as the villain, Wilder says, acknowledging the holes in his Hall of Fame resume, starting with the perceived quality of his opposition.
Some hate him because he’s too vocal, Wilder says, adding that his showmanship might come across as arrogance in some quarters. But he also believes there’s another factor in play there: his race. “If I was another color, I’d be the greatest thing to ever come along,” he says. “Because of this situation, because racism is still alive, because I’m so vocal with it, that’s what plays against me. I’ve accepted it. These people didn’t know what they were messing with.”
The hate, he says, reminds him of another boxer who never lost a fight and spent his career clamoring for recognition. That would be Floyd Mayweather Jr., one of the most divisive star in sports. “Why is it always black fighters?” Wilder asks.
He’s not wrong, although his argument ignores some critical points. Like that the heavyweight landscape has been barren for years now, diminishing interest. Or that the doubts over the veracity of his record seemed pretty fair back in 2015. His central issue in terms of boxing immortality is that while Wilder is the best American heavyweight since Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, the heavyweight champion is no longer the baddest man on the planet.
To deal with what seems like never-ending doubts, Wilder leans on the lessons imparted by his other grandmother, Mellie Wilder. He loved that woman, too, and she didn’t have visions. She was pragmatic. If she didn’t like Wilder’s behavior, she kicked him out of her house. From her, Wilder learned to accept what he cannot control – like how the boxing public views his legacy while he’s still visualizing it. “I don’t need no one’s approval,” he says. “I don’t even like when my coach is like, ‘you did good.’ I know what I’ve done. Don’t hype me up. Don’t build my ego. This is what we’re supposed to do.”
No need to celebrate what he’s already seen, more or less. Or so Wilder told Dominique Wilkins when the basketball Hall of Famer visited him in Alabama recently. That on fight night, he turns what he sees into what he does, transforming into the Bronze Bomber and enacting his visions. “I picture myself when I’m in the back, coming out to the tunnel, getting the energy from people,” he says. “It’s like I fill myself up. It’s like I’m going to reach out and touch everybody and reel that energy in and then, BAH, release it. Now I have the atmosphere inside me. Everything is balanced.”
He continues on this way, almost like he’s mesmerized inside that Panera. Mesmerized by himself. “I even feel stronger,” he says. “I have no remorse. I have no sympathy, no mercy. Because I feel in possession of it, the power, and I know I can hurt somebody. When I say I’m going to kill somebody, they should be like, ‘He can really do it.’ ”
This is Wilder, a man who can entertain like heavyweight champions from more glorious eras. He doesn’t do anything conventionally. He started boxing late. He faces heavyweights who universally outweigh him, sometimes by 50 pounds. He never moved to Los Angeles or Las Vegas as his fame ballooned, never hired a brand-name trainer and never leaves his family – he has six children with his fiancé, along with a step-daughter, and he wants one more baby so “I’ll have a basketball lineup and three subs” – behind to train. In fact, he’s such a homebody that rather than take vacations, he just builds more homes. (Wilder owns properties in California, Nevada, Atlanta, Houston and Miami, besides his home base here in Alabama).
That very lack of convention, though, led to even more doubts. “The hate’s been real from the start,” he says, noting that he was bullied when he was young for not having brand-name clothes. “We speak positive, we think positive and when negatives come our way – pssshhh– we pimp slap that.”
The Fury fight should help Wilder change perceptions – as long as he wins. He hasn’t had to sell the fight himself, for once, and Fury, with his Klitschko win and unblemished record, presents another top fighter for Wilder to silence those who don’t buy the greatness his 40-0 record suggests. But he will truly be appreciated, Wilder says back in that Panera, when either of two things happen: When he topples every challenger in the division – and that means Anthony Joshua, for sure. Or “when I die,” he says. “That’s why I tell everybody: don’t praise me when I’m dead. I’m already a knockout artist. I knock every motherf—– out.”
Should Wilder continue to realize his visions, the heavyweight division will be better for it. The mainstream appeal of the heavyweight champion will increase, too, if not reach the same level as when Tyson was biting people’s ears. “You all want to see the Ali era, the golden days,” Wilder says. “Put your trust in Deontay. I show it each and every time and people just got to wake up.”
He pauses, smiles, tying the narrative back together.
“I am anointed,” he says. “My grandmother was right!”