Story and photos by Scott Foster
In the past two years, the state of Alabama has once again defined excellence in NCAA football, birthing two national championship teams led by two Heisman trophy winners.
Alabama’s lone Olympic boxing medalist, Tuscaloosa native Deontay Wilder, labored hard during those same 24 months, striving to supplant the storied tradition of football in Alabama by championing for, and now ushering in, the State’s first Boxing Athletic Commission.
This Saturday, Wilder (15-0, 14 KOs) will forge that dream of a boxing commission in his native State into a reality when enters the ring against DeAndrey Abron (15-6, 10 KOs) in his homecoming bout at Shelton State College in Tuscaloosa.
“My role was easy,” Wilder insisted, “all I had to do was fight. The people behind the scenes had all the sleepless nights, coming up with the rules and the commission. My role was easy, and with a little prayer, anything is possible. We finally got it, and it is a blessing. We will make sure we will keep this (commission) and build on it. Everybody knows Alabama is all about college football, but we’re gonna put on a little boxing up in here.”
Several hands played a role in the formation of the Alabama Athletic Commission, but none were as instrumental as Wilder and his longtime trainer/promoter Jay Deas.
After years of roadblocks and bureaucratic red-tape, the final push arguably came in the form of an Olympic medal, and Deas freely admits the spotlight it cast may have been the decisive factor with the creation of the commission.
“It’s taken since 2005 to get the commission going and to pass it through the legislature,” Deas explained. “Finally, in 2008, when Deontay won the bronze metal in the Olympics, that really pushed us over the top. Because then we could argue, ‘He can fight for his own country, but he can’t fight in his home state?’”
Alabama has been referred to as a sportsman’s paradise, and when Summer turns to Fall and college football takes root, Saturday and Sunday schedules become mere afterthoughts. Some might even debate which day takes precedence, depending on the SEC opponent.
“There is a very athletic environment in this state,” Deas noted. “Deontay loves this area, people just love sports. You’ve got to consider that for the 1st time in history, you’ve got two national champion football teams and two Heisman trophy winners in the same state in consecutive years, and now you’ve got America’s only (boxing) medal winner from the Beijing Olympics, fighting in his home town in his home state for the very first time. So there is a lot of excitement in sports in general going on in Alabama, and we are thrilled with the commission and we are ready to go.”
With the commission comes exponential opportunities, and Deas is confident that the young crop of in-state fighters will benefit most from the added exposure. Some have never traveled outside of their home town, much less out of state, but with several shows slated on the horizon, boxing might retain a foothold in the state if Deas garners local support.
“Our younger generation is coming on,” Deas said. “We’ve got some very good fighters who have made it to the national level. I’m talking about 14, 15 and 16 year old kids, and they are all excited. They are all going to be at the local shows, they are going to see it, and they are going to grow up in the same gym with it. We are in a situation (in Alabama) where Deontay will be selling out arenas. We are looking to come back in April, June & August, right here in Tuscaloosa.”
Wilder concurs, acknowledging that a byproduct of this legislation may impart real-world knowledge to future amateurs as they transition into the professional ranks.
“The kids are gonna get a glimpse of the difference between amateur and pro. Those kids who dream of turning pro will work even harder in the gym, when they see the show, they’re gonna work super hard to get the fans roaring and screaming like that for them. And now when kids turn pro, they stay home, they don’t have to go (out of state). The saying is, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ It’s gonna be great for those guys.”
As a backdrop to Alabama’s first sanctioned card, the main event, as electrifying as it promises to be, does leave something to be desired. While Abron brings real world experience to the table, he does so as a light-heavyweight, campaigning primarily at 175 lbs. Against Wilder, he will enter the ring with distinct disadvantages in height (4-5 inches), weight (20-30lbs) and reach. Abron will attempt to overcome these disadvantages by utilizing his veteran counter-punching technique, hoping to land a compact punch on the chin of the largest man he has ever faced in the ring.
Abron also enters the bout at the lowest point in his career, in the wake of five consecutive, lopsided losses, three of which did not make the final bell. And he chose not only to face Wilder in his hometown, but on the very basketball court Deontay once presided over as a lanky, oppressive, 6’7’’ center. Granted, boxing remains the theatre of the unexpected, but the deck appears stacked against a beleaguered DeAndrey Abron.
“We have to consider the fact that (Wilder) only had 21 fights when he made the Olympic team,” Deas said. “After the Olympics, he had about 30 fights, so total ring time, from amateur to pro, was probably in the neighborhood of 4 or 5 hours actually spent competing in the ring, if you were to add it all up. So we are stepping it up, little by little; the pace so far has been good and we are excited about being able to do it at home.”
Deas has spent the past two years sharing time in the gym with former Gold Metal winner and two-time welterweight champion Mark Breland. Both trainers remain convinced that the valuable experience for Deontay has been gained during sparring. Deas is actively pursuing quality sparring partners for Wilder, and he made it clear that this “open call” is not restricted to the south.
“We have made the decision with Deontay to simply jump in the car and go wherever we needed to go to get quality sparring. We did that this past weekend. We were in Tennessee; Deontay sparred about 20 rounds with Joell Godfrey, from the contender, and Alonzo Butler, who is currently 27-1. So we got a lot work in those two days, and we are looking to set something up in the future with Kevin Johnson over in Atlanta, and even Orlando Solis and David Haye. We are making an open call to anybody who needs sparring, anybody who is going to fight a Klitschko or another tall opponent, ‘We are available!’”