Nestled among the trees in suburban Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in a building that looks like a long storage container, is a gym that serves as the home of the heavyweight champion of the world. Above a garage-style door hangs a sign that reads, “Parking space reserved for Mr. Wilder.”
It’s an unexpected setting befitting the outsized, stranger-than-life tale of WBC champ Deontay Wilder, who on Saturday in Las Vegas will attempt to eclipse the only blemish on his 42-0-1 record when he faces Tyson Fury, whom he fought to a draw in 2018.
He is a superhero everyman. He is not your typical star athlete — no pampered, cloistered celebrity with a team of sycophants and handlers. As these nine stories attest, Deontay Wilder is just your average 6-foot-7 heavyweight champion who has 11 cars and stocks random gas station beer coolers and twerks and sometimes accidentally sets himself on fire.
As a child, Deontay Wilder was saved by a whale — just ask him
It was the early ’90s, and Gary Wilder walked from a boat landing into the waters of the Black Warrior River near Tuscaloosa. His four children, still on land, were standing next to the bucket he brought to sit on while he fished. The water crept up his legs until it hit his knees. “I told my children, ‘This is as far as you go right here,'” Gary says today from his office in the church he pastors in Tuscaloosa. “I said, ‘If you go past that and I’m not watching, you’re going to die.'”
The Wilder kids, you see, couldn’t swim, so Gary wanted to be sure they understood: They were absolutely not allowed to go farther than where the water lapped his knees.
Deontay, who loved to push boundaries, didn’t listen, wandering into the water until it flowed up near his head. Gary, briefly distracted, turned in time to see his 11-year-old just as he slid under the surface. Gary sprinted down the boat landing, grabbed his eldest boy by the hair and pulled him out.
And that’s when the legend of the Wilder whale began.
“Deontay said that when he was under the water about to drown, a big whale came and slapped him out with his tail. He say that even now,” Gary says of his now-35-year-old son. “Common sense would tell you there’s no whale in the river, but he still say it was a whale.”
Deontay Wilder, twerking machine
Wilder estimates that he has spent over 1,000 hours in a tattoo chair, putting ink across his 6-foot-7 canvas of a body. When asked how many pieces adorn his frame, he can’t produce a number. Dark ink decorates his entire torso and snakes down his arms. He used to get a new tattoo before every fight. “Every tattoo that he has means something,” says Porsha Luca, his longtime tattoo artist. In her shop, Luca pumped music through the speakers. Coincidentally, Wilder loves to dance. And one day in the shop, while Luca was hunched over her corner table working, Wilder stood and, well, just started twerking.
“I think I’m a pretty good twerker,” Wilder says. “I’m very flexible for being 6-foot-7.”
Says Luca: “He was really popping his booty.”
His butt faced the door of Luca’s studio, and as her boss walked down the narrow hallway to pass them, he was met with Wilder’s booty twerking in his face.
“Ever since then,” Luca says, “the shop has been deemed a no-twerk zone.”
Deontay Wilder: No, seriously, actually on fire
It was a summer day in 2016, less than two weeks before he was to fight Chris Arreola, and Wilder was out in his yard pulling weeds and stacking branches. The house he shared with fiancée Telli Swift at the time sat right on the water; down by the shore was a pit where Wilder would regularly burn brush.
On this day, Wilder was in a hurry. He and Swift were going somewhere — she was in the car waiting for him. Instead of using the chemicals he normally would for burning these branches, he grabbed the gasoline by mistake. After dousing the brush, he poured a path away from the pile, sending the fumes and the smell of gas into the air.
When he lit the match, Wilder first heard the crackling of the fumes. “When I heard ‘ch-ch,’ I knew what was coming next,” Wilder says. The fumes caught fire, and a ball of flames exploded in front of his face. Wilder shielded himself with his right arm, but it was too late. As the fire shot up his arm, Wilder dropped to the ground and rolled.
“It was like a scene in an action movie,” Wilder says.
From the car, Swift saw him stop, drop and roll. She thought he was playing around; he loves to play around. “I’m in the car cracking up, and he’s really on fire,” she says.
Wilder hopped in Swift’s car holding his arm, which had third-degree burns. “He was like, ‘I’ve gone and burnt my arm off,'” Swift says. “‘And I was like, ‘Oh my god, let’s go in the house and pour milk on it.'”
After the milk treatment, they went to the hospital and saw a specialist. Just days later, with only a couple of weeks until his next fight, Wilder was back in the ring, preparing for Arreola, whom he would ultimately defeat by TKO after the eighth round.
‘He doesn’t half-ass the situation’
In late August 2019, Wilder bought his 11th car — a custom Rolls-Royce SUV, dipped in gold with his logo on the rims. “He loves gold,” Swift says.
This is his “California” car, the one he parks at the house he and Swift own in Los Angeles. Before heading to a meeting with his financial adviser, Wilder grabbed the hose that was hooked up in the garage Swift uses for her car, walked past his French bulldog, whose name is Wednesday, and headed out to wash his new toy.
In addition to the hose, he had a bucket with soap, his wipes, tire cleaner and a vacuum. “He doesn’t half-ass the situation,” Swift says of Wilder — whose $3 million purse for his last title defense would buy more than 111,000 $27 basic washes in Los Angeles. “You’d think you’re at a car wash.”
Deontay Wilder, man of the people
It was the morning of November 24, 2019, and Wilder had just knocked out Luis Ortiz at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas a few hours earlier. Ring announcer Ray Flores had left his hotel room to grab some grub and ran into Wilder and his camp tucked into a corner booth in the hotel food court. It was 2:33 a.m. The open space, dotted with bland white and gray tile, was lit by the neon lights of the only open restaurants at MGM: Johnny Rockets, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs and Bonanno’s New York Pizzeria.
Starving after the fight, Wilder had come down for some sausage and pepperoni pizza — his favorite — and a vanilla milkshake. Once they made it, however, Wilder was swarmed.
“He was giving them their full attention,” Flores says. “He’s a man of the people.”
After the late-night crowd dispersed, Wilder made his way to the corner, mostly out of view. But of course, some fans continued to come up to him, asking, “Can we get a ‘Bomb squad’?”
“He screams that to his fans and to the public all through fight week, all through training camp and all through interviews,” says Malik Scott, Wilder’s sparring partner and longtime friend.
But now the champ was exhausted. “He just gave Ortiz his last energy,” Scott says. “But Deontay said to them, ‘What you say?’ And by the time they were asking him to say it again, he just screamed, ‘Bomb squad!‘”
Deontay Wilder, freelance beer-label fixer
It was May 19, 2007, and the sun was shining as longtime trainer Jay Deas and Wilder drove to Memphis, Tennessee. They were headed to see a fight between Jermain Taylor and Cory Spinks and pulled off I-22 to stretch their legs and grab a snack. They’d been in the car for almost four hours. Wilder was two months away from earning his Olympic bronze medal in Beijing. To make ends meet, he had been working as a beer distributor.
“It was probably a BP,” Deas says now.
Deas climbed out of his red Honda Accord, crossed the asphalt parking lot, and pulled open the door to the convenience store. He found Wilder, who had gone in before him, in the back of the store, staring at the cooler with his shoulders tensed in frustration. “I was like, ‘What’s wrong, D?'” Deas says. “And he said, ‘This ain’t right. This ain’t right.'”
Deas was confused. Wilder gestured toward the beer in the coolers. “All the labels are supposed to face the customer,” Deas says, “and I guess the people had not done it correctly.”
And so it was that Wilder opened the door to the cooler, reached his hand inside and rotated each of the beers until all the labels faced the right direction. He was not employed by the store. It was not in the least bit his job. The manager was in no way paying attention to his hard work.
“There’s no reason to do it except it just wasn’t right,” Deas says, “and he wanted to make it right.”
Going the extra … tile
Three weeks after Wilder won his bronze medal in Beijing, Jay Dees walked into his gym and expected to see Wilder in the ring. He’d seen his car out front, so he figured he’d see him somewhere — if not in the ring then maybe training on a heavy bag or speed bag. But … the gym was empty.
Deas called out Wilder’s name as he walked around. “I heard him say, ‘In here,'” Deas says now.
The voice came from the bathroom, of all places. Deas walked over to the open door to find Wilder crouched on the ground in jeans and a dark long-sleeved T-shirt. He was scraping up tile. He had a stack of green-patterned tile next to him that he was laying down.
“I was like, ‘What are you doing?'” Deas says. “He said, ‘I’m … retiling the floor.’ And I said, ‘For what? You just won the Olympic medal.’
He said, ‘It needed it. It needed it.'”
When the fighter was not a fighter
In sixth grade, a lanky Wilder stuck out at school — and he barely made a peep. “He didn’t hardly say anything until I let him loose in the house,” Gary says.
One day after school, three boys were pushing Deontay, bullying him. Gary had long instructed his son not to fight with anyone, so Deontay walked away, crossing the street back to his house.
He walked inside crying, breathing heavily, with his fists balled at his sides. Tears streamed down his face as he sniffled.
“He said, ‘Dad, them boys messing with me in that parking lot,'” Gary says. “And I said, ‘Come and show me.'”
So Gary walked back across the street with his son to find the three boys standing there. Deontay pointed at the kids. “I said, ‘Why are you messing with Deontay?'” Gary says. “‘What do you want from him?'”
Gary had to restrain himself from telling Deontay to teach those kids a lesson. But instead, they just walked home. Once they got inside, Gary turned to his son. “I said, ‘Deontay, you better never, never come back to this house like this again,'” Gary says. “‘If you ever run from somebody, and you run to this house, you going to have to run from me. You better not never run from nobody again.'”
Deontay Wilder, king of romance
After just two days with Telli Swift, who would become his fiancée. Wilder already knew he was going to marry her. They had met at LAX a month prior, their eyes connecting across security lines inside the crowded terminal. Swift still remembers Wilder’s green shirt and distressed jeans. As Wilder finally approached her, Swift kept her head down, pretending to study her phone. Playing it cool. “I knew he was going to talk to me,” Swift says, “but I was trying to make it seem like I didn’t.”
Wilder and Swift talked for a few minutes. They discovered their Alabama connection — Swift’s father having grown up in a small town called Abbeville and Wilder in Tuscaloosa, where he still lived. But they didn’t exchange information because Swift was distracted by another friend. It took some Instagram sleuthing on Swift’s part — through a mutual friend — to finally learn Wilder’s name, and a family reunion in Abbeville brought her to Wilder’s turf.
By the time she made it to Alabama, she and Wilder had been communicating for weeks. They had spent hours on the phone, often talking late into the night, falling asleep more than once. The reunion in Abbeville was an opportunity to finally have that first date.
Before seeing her family, Swift met up with Wilder in Tuscaloosa. After an afternoon in Abbeville, Swift called Wilder to ask if she — and her son and brother — could come back to Tuscaloosa.
One day together stretched into two, and by that second morning, Wilder was convinced that Telli was for him. “I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever,'” Swift says.
To prove how serious he was, Wilder suggested they get matching tattoos. He brought Swift to see Porsha Luca at the shop he frequents — the same one in which his twerking is expressly forbidden. They sat in the black chairs, and Luca dragged the ink across the skin on their hands. “L” and “V” on Wilder. “O” and “E” on Swift.
Ever the impulsive man, ever the obsessive, ever the romantic, Deontay Wilder — the heavyweight champion who defies most every expectation — had added yet another piece to his puzzle.
“If we hold hands,” Swift says, “it says LOVE.”