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U.S. boxer Wilder gets bronze, but daughter is biggest prize

Heavyweight Deontay Wilder loses in the semis but gets the only U.S. boxing medal.

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Heavyweight Deontay Wilder loses in the semis but gets the only U.S. boxing medal.

BEIJING — His fight had been a disaster.

For the longest time, Deontay Wilder could not land a punch. His long arms would windmill, and at the end there was nothing but air. Only seven seconds were left before Wilder even managed to get on the scoreboard.

His team had been an embarrassment.

From all indications, the United States has forgotten how to box. This Olympics has been a crushing disappointment for the U.S. boxing team. From all indications, the only successful fighting that goes on with this team is in-fighting.

And yet, there in the rubble was something to admire.

There, moments after the final indignity, you could not help but notice the light in the eyes of the last man standing.

Wilder stood in the mixed zone, a Chinese robe draped around his shoulders, and talked about his prize. It is everything to him, he said. It is the reason he will achieve greatness, he said.

And, no, he wasn't talking about his bronze medal.

Her name is Naieya, and if you need the spelling, you can check the tattoo on her father's chest, as near as possible to his heart. He talks about her and his mood changes, and his voice gains energy, and once again he seems to have a direction to his life.

Funny how it works. Three years ago, when the doctor talked to Wilder and Helen Duncan, his girlfriend at the time, there were only grim voices and tangled emotions and the jumbled thoughts of teenage parents.

"Spina bifida," the doctor said.

Wilder and Duncan listened as the doctor told them their child might not walk, or might have respiratory problems, or might have cognition problems. And then he said this:

"You don't have to go through with this."

The parents looked at each other, Wilder said, and they knew. They would not terminate the pregnancy.

"I brought her into the world, and I wasn't going to back out on her," Wilder, now 22, said. "Every person who is brought into the world deserves a chance at life. She may be a doctor or a lawyer, somebody important in life. Every child deserves that chance, to become something, to make something of themselves."

Naieya is 3 now, and as Wilder puts it, "She can do anything." Surgeries have repaired her clubbed feet, and she walks just fine. Her father talks about how smart she is. For one thing, she has a great memory; she keeps reminding Wilder that he promised to take her to Chuck E. Cheese's upon his return.

Yeah, Wilder said, that's where he's going. In his life, Naieya seems to be in charge of the directions.

Three years ago, Wilder didn't know a hook from an uppercut. He had been a basketball player at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

But when he found out Duncan was pregnant, Wilder left school. He began to work at a plant that made parts for Mercedes. He worked at Red Lobster. He drove a Budweiser truck. He thought that was going to be his life.

As a kid, however, Wilder had had his share of tussles. And when a friend suggested he try boxing, he couldn't come up with an answer for why he shouldn't.

Less than three years later, Wilder won a bronze medal.

Oh, it wasn't exactly in the most dramatic fashion. Wilder lost 7-1 to Italian fighter Clemente Russo. Russo, 8 inches shorter than Wilder's 6 feet 7, kept burrowing in underneath the America's reach. Wilder had no answer.

Afterward, Wilder said he "had fun" in the fight.

It was the first time anyone has accused this U.S. team of having fun. Throughout the Olympics, the boxers have seemed torn between U.S. coach Dan Campbell and their personal coaches. And a team that was supposed to be the best U.S. team since '96 has failed to win a gold or a silver.

Put it this way: The United States has won as many medals in boxing as India, a nation that hasn't thrown a punch since Gandhi. It has won as many medals as Turkey and Azerbaijan.

"I thought we would win four or five golds," Wilder said. "I didn't come here for myself. I wanted these guys to celebrate with me."

The disappointment reached a new level in these Games, but it is nothing new. The United States has won only three gold medals combined in its past five Olympics. Clearly, the system needs to be overhauled.

As far as Wilder, he talks about fighting in another Olympics, but he doesn't sound convincing. Pro boxing is out there, and big paydays, and when a man drives a beer truck, the plastic six-pack rings don't exactly look like the Olympic rings.

"Money can't make me happy," Wilder said. "We have some of the richest people in the world, and they're miserable."

And in another breath, Wilder says this:

"In the future, you will see greatness out of me. That's a guarantee. You're looking at the future heavyweight champion of the world. One day. You just remember that I told you that. I have the work ethic, I have a big heart."

Stenciled on it is a little girl's name. Naieya.

Just you wait until she shows off the bronze medal at Chuck E. Cheese.

U.S. boxer Wilder gets bronze, but daughter is biggest prize 08/22/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 12:29am]
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