Deontay Wilder has aspirations to be the greatest heavyweight of his generation. So who better to model himself after than the Greatest Of All Time?
When Wilder defeated Bermane Stiverne in Las Vegas to become a heavyweight champion on January 17, 2015, the achievement also coincided with Muhammad Ali’s 73rd birthday.
Now, the 31-year-old Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native will look to share another significant date with Ali on Saturday night when he puts his world title on the line in his home state against unbeaten Gerald Washington (18-0-1, 12 KOs) at Birmingham’s Legacy Arena (FOX, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT).
It was on February 25, 1964, that Ali—still fighting as Cassius Clay—shook up the world and became heavyweight champion by stopping Sonny Liston in six rounds in Miami Beach.
In preparing to defend his title for the fifth time since beating Stiverne—and for the fourth time in Alabama—Deontay Wilder (37-0, 36 KOs) hopes to follow the example set by "The Greatest” and not only inspire through his athletic accomplishments but also by his social activism.
“I structured my career [after] Muhammad Ali, a real-life hero, my all-time favorite and an idol of mine,” Wilder said. “I embrace the opportunity to be a great champion, leader and role model not only measured by what I do inside the ring, but outside of it.”
The 6-foot-7 Wilder graduated in 2004 from Tuscaloosa’s Central High School, where he played both football and basketball. He dreamed of playing either sport for the University of Alabama, but those plans were dashed when he became a father at the age of 19 to his oldest daughter, Naieya, who was born with spina bifida, a congenital spine defect.
That led Wilder to get involved with charities such as the Spina Bifida Association, the Make-A-Wish foundation and the American Heart Association.
“I have four beautiful, intelligent children. I love them to death,” Wilder said. “I am doing this for them. Daddy don't want to be in boxing for long. When it’s time for me to leave, I won’t be looking back.”
Wilder took up boxing shortly after Naieya was born and progressed quickly through the amateur ranks. He won the Olympic Trials in just his 21st amateur fight and earned a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Afterward, Wilder adopted the nickname “The Bronze Bomber,” which derived from the moniker for another Alabama-born heavyweight king, Joe Louis, who was “The Brown Bomber.”
“ When people come to see me, they want knockouts. So people in Birmingham can definitely expect me to come and knock Gerald Washington out. ” Deontay Wilder, world heavyweight champion
Since making his professional debut in November 2008 at the age of 23, Wilder has been a knockout machine, stopping all of his opponents except for Stiverne.
That has included making three of his four title defenses in Birmingham. He scored a ninth-round KO of Eric Molina at Bartow Arena in June 2015 before stopping rugged Frenchman Johann Duhaupas in the 11th round at Legacy Arena in September 2015.
After going to Brooklyn, New York, to gain a ninth-round KO of Polish southpaw Artur Szpilka in January 2016, Wilder returned to Legacy Arena for his most recent fight in July, gaining an eighth-round stoppage of Chris Arreola. But the victory came at a price: The champ broke his right hand and tore his right biceps during the bout.
Wilder has remained inactive after undergoing surgery for both injuries, but co-trainer Jay Deas believes his fighter could be even more dangerous than ever.
“Deontay’s injuries won’t be a factor,” Deas said, “because he spent several months working on his left hand. If anything, the power will be greater in both.”
Wilder said he realizes he must continue his demolition in the ring in order to achieve the goals he has set for himself outside of it.
“I'm back home again in Birmingham, Alabama. I'm feeding my people,” Wilder said. “When people come to see me, they want knockouts. So people in Birmingham can definitely expect me to come and knock Gerald Washington out.”
And if Wilder does just that, he will await to see who emerges victorious in the heavyweight title clash between current champion Anthony Joshua and former division kingpin Wladimir Klitschko at London’s Wembley Stadium on April 29.
After all, if Wilder truly wants to follow in Ali’s footsteps, he has to leave no doubt as to who is the best heavyweight in the world.
“Let Joshua and Klitschko do their thing,” Wilder said. “At the end of the year, we combine two and two—that’s four belts in a unified division. One man. One title. Deontay Wilder. That’s what I see coming.”
For a complete look at Wilder vs Washington, visit our fight page.