Deontay Wilder had plans, big plans. A student athlete at a community college, he was going to go to the University of Alabama, play basketball and football, get drafted by the NBA or maybe the NFL and live happily — and luxuriously — ever after.
But then, when Wilder was just 19, his girlfriend got pregnant. The little girl she gave birth to, Naieya, had spina bifida. Doctors said she might never walk.
This was not part of Wilder’s plans.
No matter, he told TODAY: “I always have a backup plan to keep me going.”
Accepting his responsibility as a father to a little girl he loves dearly, Wilder dropped out of school and got two jobs to support little Naieya and pay for the operations and medical care she would require. And, if he couldn’t play in the NBA or NFL, he’d do something equally as ambitious. He would become a boxer.
“You’re talking to the heavyweight champion of the world as we speak now,” the charmingly brash 22-year-old said. The statement was a prediction. At the moment, Wilder has other business to take care of — business that will take him to Beijing as a member of the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team. As a 6-foot-7, 201-pound heavyweight with devastating punching power, he’s got a real shot at a gold medal.
Wilder says he owes it all to Naieya.
A ‘gift from God’
“She’s all the reason why I’m here right now. Without her being born — me having her — I would not be boxing right now,” he said. He called Naieya, who has defied the predictions that she’d never walk, a “gift from God.”
Her tenacity and fighting spirit inspire him, he says. And providing for her future is a constant motivating force. “I want to make sure she’s financially stable,” Wilder said. “I want to make sure she doesn’t have to struggle. I want to make sure I can support her through college.”
Wilder said this on Wednesday afternoon, talking by cell phone from an airport where he was waiting to board a flight to New York with fellow members of the Olympic Boxing Team for a Thursday appearance on TODAY.
Of all the sports, none seems to provide as many great stories and personalities as boxing. The United States has had some lean years in the Olympics recently, but Wilder knows he is part of a rich tradition of gold medalists that includes Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Both of those champions used the Olympics as springboards to great careers that established them as living legends.
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Wilder is aware of that, just as he is aware that the United States has not had a great heavyweight fighter since Evander Holyfield was at his peak more than a decade ago. He intends to change that.
A change of plans
He is a native of the Tuscaloosa area. Stories in the local media portray him as a kid who got in a lot of fights in middle school, but then learned to re-channel his anger while in high school. Today, he is most often described in media reports as gentle and caring outside the ring — and fierce and unrelenting inside it.
He told TODAY that he never dreamed of being a fighter while he was growing up. He played baseball, basketball and football and ran track, and he felt that his future was on the basketball court or the football field.
But when he dropped out of school — he’s taking online classes now and working toward a degree in business — Wilder had to adjust his plans. There was a boxing gym, Skyy Boxing, near his home, and he walked in and declared his intention to learn the sport.
Video: Boxers go for gold in Beijing Jay Deas, the manager of the gym, showed Wilder some exercises and workouts to do, and then studiously ignored the kid. Deas had seen plenty of kids come in saying they wanted to fight, only to learn that the sport was far more demanding — and painful — than they’d ever suspected. Most give up.
But Wilder didn’t. Deas watched him from a distance and saw that the lanky kid worked harder when he thought no one was watching than he did when all eyes were on him. The trainer decided he had potential and started working with him in earnest.
Supporting himself and his daughter, who lives with her mother, by driving a beer truck and working at a restaurant, Wilder trained with passion and purpose. He entered a local Golden Gloves competition as a novice, a category for fighters in their first year. Wilder knocked out his first opponent. In his next fight, he did it again. After knocking out his third straight foe, Golden Gloves officials told Deas that Wilder would have to move up to the open division — he was that good.
In 2007, after just two years of boxing and with fewer than 20 fights under his belt, Wilder won the national Golden Gloves tournament, beating veteran fighters with far more experience. This year, he made the Olympic team, and he still doesn’t have 30 fights on his record.
Fighting for everyone
“It’s just crazy right now, for me to go as far as I’ve gone,” he admitted. But he says he has a lot of people who believe in him, a lot of people not to let down.
“I’m not just fighting for my country. I’m fighting for everyone else, too,” he said.
He has lost in international competition, but he’s confident going into the Olympics. “I’m not going to take anyone lightly,” he said. “I’m not going to take no country lightly.”
And, he said, he’s going to win a gold medal.
“Anything I put my mind to, I get it,” he said. “I’m a hard-working person.”
The one negative is the amount of time he has had to spend away from Naieya to train and travel to tournaments. “Sometimes I go months without seeing her,” he said.
Does she know what her dad does?
“She knows Daddy’s a boxer,” he said. “When we go to the gym and I stretch, she’s on the ground stretching with me. She’s well aware of what I do. When I’m away, she’ll ask, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ ”
The answer is, “Daddy’s boxing,” to which the little girl says, “OK.”
It’s getting close to boarding time and the interview draws to a close. Wilder is asked if there is anything else he’d like to say before he goes.
“Just keep me in your prayers,” he says. “Gold medal, baby. Gold medal.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints