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The Reinvention of Deontay Wilder

When the heavyweight meets Tyson Fury for the third time Saturday, he will seek to avenge the first loss of his career, which came against Fury in February 2020.

On Feb. 23, 2020, Deontay Wilder found himself in those strange early-morning hours made stranger in places like Las Vegas. For most, that time of night is when the party continues raging or the self-reflection starts. Wilder had just lost to Tyson Fury in stunning fashion in their rematch, and he fell into the looking-inward camp as he tried to make sense of a night that, for him, never will.

From his hotel suite, Wilder dialed up two of his closest confidants. Chris Bates runs his security team; Joey Scott works as his strength-and-conditioning coach. Wilder knew, even then, in the immediate aftermath of his first career defeat, that he needed to make changes. To his team. To how he fought. “Because in his mind,” Scott says now, 19 months later, “he was like, I’m gonna show everyone how I get back up. I’m gonna show you how to reinvent yourself.”

Scott, a longtime coach at the Olympic end of track and field, tried to remind Wilder that losses are inevitable, that the boxer not only knew that but had long espoused the sentiment. Every fight, especially ones that big, carried a certain amount of risk. Joey reminded Wilder that Usain Bolt had lost, that Mike Tyson had lost, that most Hall of Fame boxers had lost.


“Sometimes, in order to win, you have to lose,” Scott told him, sounding like Rosie Perez in White Men Can’t Jump.

Right away, they began to map out a plan for Wilder’s comeback, one that would take numerous twists in the months that followed. The boxer’s future would shift because of a global pandemic, contractual debates, positive COVID-19 tests and a different heavyweight blockbuster that was scheduled but may have since unraveled. Wilder would change everything in those months, or claim to, embarking on a grand career reinvention—one that will succeed only if he can turn his stated aims into reality when he meets Fury for a third time Saturday.

That night, only hours after the defeat, Wilder told Bates and Scott, “I gotta get it back,” meaning his belts, his legacy and the fear he once put into opponents that for years had defined him, along with boxing’s most vicious right hand. “He was already thinking of a master plan that night,” Scott says.

In late September, Wilder wanted to set the record straight regarding the aftermath of that fight. Not that he could, not entirely. He didn’t want to weigh in on the last 19 months, all the reasons he cited for his defeat, which followed a split draw in their initial meeting. Some of his rationale had struck most in boxing as bizarre, as full of excuses, many untethered to a reasonable reality. Others saw the aftermath as Wilder’s way of working through what he could not explain; perhaps he was grasping at whatever he could.

Regardless, Wilder remained firm. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, he says, “I’ve said what I’ve said, and I meant what I said. But we’re looking forward to the future.” Notice the key part of that statement: Wilder took nothing back. He doesn’t plan to. He says that he cannot win in the court of public opinion. If he says nothing, the takeaway will be that he doesn’t know what happened that night and has no plan to fix it. If he explains what he thinks, however logical those explanations are, he leaves himself open to the exact criticisms that have plagued him since the rematch. He says he’ll go “crazy” trying to please everyone, so, instead, he showed up to one press conference for the third bout in June and refused to answer a single question. He only stared at Fury, or straight ahead.

Wilder believes his performance Saturday will speak for himself. That, too, seems like a slippery slope, because the last time that he stepped in a ring, against the same opponent, Wilder was overwhelmed for seven rounds. His corner threw in the towel, much to his chagrin, but with little debate from anyone outside of his inner circle.

In his public statements that followed the debate, Wilder came up with all manner of reasons and reasoning. Fury had some fun with these, posting a list of 26—26!—Wilder “excuses” on his social media accounts alongside a picture of Wilder with a sizable dent edited onto his head. Fury even tagged Wilder in what he posted.

The laundry list of “excuses” included: costume was too heavy, Fury’s gloves were loaded and had no padding, had weak legs, water was spiked, was healing from bicep surgery, was a zombie, disloyal trainer, complications in camp, had an autopsy, broke my arm, fight stopped too early, ref did a s--- job, snakes in the grass, dent in my head, egg weight in my glove. That’s only a partial rendering, and some of the points obviously were meant to be funny or were purposefully exaggerated. Still, Fury’s post made the same overall argument as many in boxing, and he grounded his critique in truth, in many instances in Wilder’s own words.


Wilder had posted a video on his own social media accounts in which he accused Fury of loading his gloves, criticized the performance of referee Kenny Bayless and called his former trainer, the one who had wisely thrown in the towel, of being “disloyal.” He referenced, over and over, the drug tests that Fury had failed in his career, calling Fury “one of the biggest cheats in boxing” and referring to his “rap sheet.”

In interviews, Fury described Wilder as a defeated fighter who could not accept the truth, that he had been beaten, fair and square and soundly. Disclaimer: I know Wilder, from my side job as a writer/producer for All Access, a Showtime television series that highlights upcoming bouts on the network. I like him, and have written about him for Sports Illustrated, too. But I had trouble wrapping my mind around the aftermath, and I came to agree mostly with Fury. Wilder couldn’t understand what had happened in the rematch. He was trying to, even if his attempts made more sense to him than everyone else.

Scott did not exactly agree with that premise. He says that Wilder “truly believes” that outsiders have interpreted his words “unfairly.” He makes a winding analogy about someone witnessing bank robberies, then believing the same group had pulled another heist without seeing that one up close—a nod to Fury’s drug-test history. “Some people think it was excuses,” Scott says. “But at the end of the day, none of us were in there. He was.”

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In a big-picture sense, Wilder’s behavior and opinions the past 19 months fit better with his career arc, his life story, than might be obvious at first glance. His path into boxing—late, after the end of his football career—was unusual. So was the power in that right hand. Wilder won all of his first 42 fights, with 41 triumphs by knockouts, his only blemishes the subsequent draw with and then loss to his now nemesis.

Throughout that span, Wilder was keen to explain himself, the unlikely rise, the thunderous fist. He rarely held back in public settings, whether describing the danger inherent in boxing, the opponents he wanted to “murder” legally or the work he was doing on his mental health through meditation and fishing and his growing family. He was never boring, never anything other than himself. He says he never felt the need to “reach for validation.” Then he says that the boxing public has long refused to “give me my flowers when I deserve them.”

So which is it?

Either way, Wilder was also never without critics. They questioned his delayed start in the sport, his decision to train outside of boxing hotspots in Alabama and how he kept close team members with less experience who had been with him all the way. They also—always, the nebulous they—found his in-ring style lacking, that argument starting with his overreliance on the power in his right hand. “I’m continuing to prove people wrong evermore,” he says. “Boxing is only negative. Everybody has an opinion but few come to the table. If I had listened [to them], I would have never made it as far as I made it.”


Point being: Wilder’s career made sense to Wilder. The rest of the stuff might have mattered, seems to have mattered, but not to the point where any of the noise deterred him. He put up with what he calls “the bulls---,” because “the bulls---” made him rich, successful and famous while setting his family up for generations.

“We’re not sensitive individuals,” Scott says, explaining Wilder’s mindset. “People call me crazy. Sometimes, I really think I am. But we surround ourselves with people who love us, anyway. At the end of the day, this fight, [the next one], is the only fight that’s gonna matter.”

Bates maintains that Wilder has moved past the last 19 months. Bates insists they all have. The loss, then, became something else for Wilder to understand, to overcome. In hindsight, Bates says that it was good for him, that it sparked much-needed change. That’s the sell, anyway, his “reinvention.”

Wilder’s boxing reimagination started that night in Las Vegas, way back in 2020, before a global pandemic turned the world upside down. He called Malik Scott, a retired heavyweight who Wilder had knocked out in ’14, and asked if Scott would be open to training him.

What happened next Wilder describes as “breaking, breaking, breaking yourself down to build yourself back up, putting everything in the right order.” He says, perhaps unfairly, that “my old trainer” instructed him to major in that lightning-bolt right, neglecting other, usable ways to win fights. He says they worked little on lateral movement, focusing on moving straight ahead.

Scott helped to build Wilder into a more complete boxer, someone who could win if the right hand didn’t net another KO. (We’ll know more about the effectiveness of those implementations Saturday.) Wilder focused on training concepts and boxing elements he had not spent much time on before. He added lateral movement and worked on combinations. Fury had bullied him in their rematch, and he had done that by crowding Wilder, stifling the celebrated power shots. It was a brilliant strategy, and one that Wilder will need to counter in order to reverse the outcome. To do that, he worked more on defense than ever before, along with throwing several jabs at once to keep Fury off him. (Wilder says he previously focused on jabbing one punch one at a time.)

His new trainer also publicly backed Wilder’s claims. Wilder had said he wanted “soldiers” in his camp, meaning loyalists, and Scott fit seamlessly into the desired landscape. Scott went at Fury, went at pundits and went at holes in Wilder’s style until, the boxer says, the changes became automatic, part of his “muscle memory.”

“So that makes me even more dangerous,” Wilder says. “Now, more so than ever.”

Speculation continued to swirl, anyway. In an interview with BT Sport Boxing, Wilder detailed a point early in his career, where, at his lowest moment, after he thought he had lost his family, he contemplated suicide as a gun rested in his lap. He used the word “depression” to describe his state of mind. But Wilder also believes that quote was conflated with the Fury defeat, used by outsiders to explain all the reasoning he spewed forth. He says, emphatically and without prompting, that losing for the first time as a pro did not lead to depression. Only change. But not the kind that requires a renewed fortitude or more courage. Those things, he says, never left him.

Landing the third bout was not easy. The global pandemic halted boxing’s calendar almost immediately after the rematch. Wilder challenged Fury to make the trilogy, anyway, through typical means, by pointing out—of course, on social media—that he had “given” Fury the second fight and asking him to honor his word and the language in their contract “instead of trying to weasel out of our agreement.” The third bout was supposed to take place in July 2020, then in October, then again in December, then in July of this year, when Fury had to postpone after a positive test for COVID-19 that Wilder immediately labeled an excuse.


While the delays kept coming, though, another major change took place. Fury and his team pointed to the expiration of the rematch clause in the contract for the second bout. They also agreed to another major fight, the only one that could match—or even exceed—a third meeting with Wilder. Fury would take on Anthony Joshua in London, as the two famous British heavyweight champions boasted about being able to sell out all 90,000 seats in Wembley Stadium. Boxing officials insisted that Fury needed to clash with Wilder first. That’s how the third fight came to be—and how Joshua came to schedule Oleksandr Usyk for an event held last month. Usyk was a decorated cruiserweight, an elite fighter thought to be too small to handle someone like Joshua. He seemed like a safe choice. But handle Joshua he did, beating a champion whose résumé is more than a little suspect, and confusing the landscape in a heavyweight division stocked with talented-but-flawed champs even more.

Wilder says he cares not at all about the Joshua-Fury fight, that he only cares about the bout in front of him. About that, he says, “My mission is not done yet.”

Those in his camp describe a changed fighter, a happy fighter, a more complete fighter. Boxing trainers always say that, though, to the point where it’s impossible to believe any of them. The trash talk, of course, has continued from both sides, with promises of bloodbaths and violence inflicted and narratives shifted yet again.

All the back-and-forth can come across like an exercise in narrative framework, with each boxer desperate to inform the stakes. In Wilder’s most common version, he’s the champion who was not treated as such, a warrior who took on all manner of opponents, an athlete who has been wronged. There’s truth and fiction in there. Fury’s version is pretty much the opposite but equally as accurate and arguable. This, he says, is not a fight he needs, not with nothing left to prove.

Wilder considers himself a Hall of Famer, even if he retired before the third meeting. That’s certainly debatable. Regardless, he says that boxing as a sport won’t fully appreciate his career “until I retire, or when I die.” Morbid stuff. But that sentiment, too, speaks to his mindset, what he’s trying to work through before he steps inside that ring Saturday.

“People misunderstand what they don’t understand,” he says, in language Yogi Berra might appreciate. “They misunderstand what they cannot understand. Those people will never be in my position, so instead of love, they give me hate.”

He also knows the best way to change those perceptions. By proving they wrong again. But, more important, by proving himself, the reinvented version, right.

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