Commentary

Wistful Wilder fighting for more than Olympic gold

In 2005, Wilder took up boxing to support his daughter and her medical needs. Three years later, the 22 year old earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. And while getting to Beijing is a remarkable feat, the heavyweight hopeful isn't resting on his laurels just yet.

Originally Published: July 2, 2008
By Marc Lichtenfeld | Special to ESPN.com

Deontay WilderChina Photos/Getty ImagesWith just three years under his belt, Deontay Wilder, left, clinched a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
The boxing history books are filled with stories of redemption and rags-to-riches success. Occasionally, a boxer's motivation or rapid climb makes for particularly good reading: Oscar De La Hoya promises his ailing mother that he will win an Olympic gold medal and fulfills that pledge, Bernard Hopkins becomes one of the great middleweights after doing time in prison, and Manny Pacquiao rises from some of the worst slums in the Philippines to dine with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and become the biggest star in his country.

And while it's too early to tell how U.S. Olympic heavyweight Deontay Wilder's story will go, it's off to a captivating start.

Most of his Olympic teammates have been boxing and preparing for this summer's games since they were kids. Three years ago, Wilder had never thrown a punch, save for the schoolyard brawls he was forced into when bullies tried to prove their toughness at the big kid's expense.

In 2005, The 6-foot-7, Tuscaloosa, Ala., native was enjoying life as a junior college basketball forward when things took a turn. His daughter, Naieya, was born with spina bifida, a serious birth defect of the spinal chord that can lead to significant physical problems and learning disabilities. Wilder was told his daughter might not ever be able to walk.

[+] EnlargeDeontay Wilder
Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty ImagesLike his daughter Naieya, Wilder, right, defied the odds in punching his ticket to Beijing.
Wilder left school to work full time to support his daughter and her medical needs. At one point he worked two jobs, driving a beer truck and working in the kitchen of a Red Lobster. The dedication to his daughter and hard work would be a harbinger of things to come.

Later that year, Wilder took up boxing. He heard boxers make a lot of money. Before he could start earning the big paydays, though, he needed to learn how to box.

To say he was a quick study would be an understatement. By 2007, in just his 16th amateur bout, Wilder won the National Golden Gloves, defeating New York Golden Gloves champion David Thompson and two-time Junior Olympic champion Isiah Thomas. In his 21st fight, Wilder qualified for the Olympic team .

Many of his teammates and participants from other countries will enter the Games with over 100 bouts on their résumé. His situation could be compared to Leon Spinks' heavyweight title win over Muhammad Ali in only his eighth pro fight, with one notable difference: Ali wasn't in shape that night. Wilder's Olympic trials competition was.

How can a novice, with seemingly so much to learn, advance to the highest levels of the sport in less than three years?

"His work ethic is incredible and he hits so hard," USA Boxing team coach Dan Campbell said. "He's a remarkable talent."

ESPN's Teddy Atlas, who will call Olympic boxing for NBC this summer, admits Wilder's sudden rise was helped by the diminished number of athletes competing in amateur boxing, but is also quick to point out Wilder's natural ability.

"He's got some innate intelligence in a boxing sense," Atlas said. "You don't just win national tournaments and make the Olympic team unless you've got something alive inside."

That "something" is apparent to his Olympic teammates as well.

"I've never seen anyone with more heart than him," said New York-based lightweight Sadam Ali. "He wants it more than anyone."

Lots of fighters have heart in the gym; Wilder proved he has it in competition as well. On his way to winning the trials, he pulled out wins in three bouts in which he was trailing on points.

All of his success, determination and grit circle back to Naieya, and it's clear that she's a chip off the 22-year-old Wilder's block.

"Naieya is doing well and is now walking," Wilder said. "She's my inspiration. She's doing so many things that the doctors said she might not be able to do."

The gregarious Wilder is becoming accustomed to the spotlight that his Cinderella story attracts. And while he's glad to tell it to anyone willing to listen, he isn't satisfied with making the team. "I'm bringing home that gold, baby!" he said. "Making the team is a blessing, but it's all about winning a gold medal."

Whether his skill and desire are enough to overcome his lack of experience and win the gold medal remains to be seen. An Olympic medal would likely secure Naieya's financial future, which would make for a wonderful first chapter of her life.

That's something Wilder wants more than anything.

Marc Lichtenfeld, who hosts the nationally syndicated "Through the Ropes" boxing show on the Sports Byline network and Fightnews.com, contributes regularly to Boxing Digest and ring announces boxing and MMA events.