Turning the Tide: Alabama’s Deontay Wilder puts his college football-crazed home state on the boxing map

Deontay Wilder’s lady stood but a few feet away, though he was addressing another object of his affection, playing the knight in shining gold chains.

Deontay Wilder

Deontay Wilder feels the local love in his native Alabama during Thursday's press conference for his fight with Johann Duhaupas. (Ryan Greene/Premier Boxing Champions)

“I got her suited and booted right now,” he said, his wrists and neck as gilded as that which he was speaking of. “She got this mink around her. She shined up, too. I polished her today. I combed her hair.

“She was in a dungeon, but I had to take her to a castle,” he continued. “She’s not goin’ nowhere.”

“She” was no woman, no cause for concern for Wilder’s real-life girl, standing nearby, but his world championship belt instead, swaddled in lush fur, carried in an alligator skin suitcase.

Deontay Wilder (34-0, 33 KOs) unveiled it with smile-widening relish Thursday at the Arena Club in Birmingham, Alabama, the occasion being the final press conference for his fight Saturday against grizzly bear-sized Frenchman Johann Duhaupas (32-2, 20 KOs).

The room was filled with local notables, city council members and higher-ups in the mayor’s cabinet.

“It’s one of the biggest fights of my career right here in my hometown,” said Wilder, who was born in nearby Tuscaloosa, but who has made Birmingham his home away from home, returning here after his June title defense against Eric Molina.

The response he received was as warm as the weather outside.

“It’s like you’re a football team,” promoter Lou DiBella joked as Wilder was introduced.

DiBella’s words were more than just a playful quip; they underscored the presence that Wilder has become in his home state.

With no major pro sports franchises to speak of, Wilder has developed into the human equivalent of one in this college football hotbed where even the tablecloths at the press conference were a shade of Crimson Tide.

“We don’t have a professional team, so everybody dwells on football,” Wilder says. “But that’s only nationwide. Boxing is a worldwide sport. It makes it a bigger thing.”

Many fighters are professional vagabonds, doing their thing in the sport’s primary markets, like Las Vegas and New York, regardless of where they’re originally from.

There are a handful of marquee guys who stage hometown fights with some regularity, but not many.

Wilder, though, has tapped into the sports fervor of a state with limited outlets for said fervor.

This is how boxing is grown.

And Wilder is putting up the numbers to demonstrate as much: His aforementioned fight with Molina drew 9,000 fans, and as was noted at the press conference, Wilder’s bout with Duhaupas is doing well enough that more seats have recently been on put on sale.

“I’ve had people try to pull me away from here—and I still do,” Wilder says. “But I chose to stay, chose to build here, and the people respect that. That’s why I’m able to pack arenas.”

And so while Wilder may have won his title in Las Vegas, where he bested Bermane Stiverne in January, it resides in Alabama.

“People understand what I’m trying to do and appreciate that, ‘Wow, he stayed here,’ when many people didn’t think I would,” Wilder says. “They thought I was just blowing smoke. But I told ’em.”

For full coverage of Wilder vs Duhaupas, visit our fight page.

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