Deas and Wilder take the road less travelled
For all but the fortunate, the road to the heavyweight title is filled with bumps, dead ends and detours. Jay Deas has taken the scenic route to the summit of the sport.
Deas has trained and managed Deontay Wilder from rank amateur to the WBC heavyweight title. From the outside, their journey to the top of the world seems to have been as straightforward as it is possible to get but, while Wilder has been able to concentrate solely on the business of knocking people out as quickly as possible, Deas has meandered through his career taking in the sights and sounds and breathing in the unique landscape of professional boxing.
When Wilder outpointed Bermane Stiverne to lift the WBC world heavyweight title in January 2015, the pair arrived at their destination. They have spent the past 16 months testing the ground. Now is the time to put down some roots.
Deas was happily sequestered in Florida when his brother called to ask for his help in setting up a gym. The pair made their way back to their hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and opened the Skyye Boxing gym in 1997. Deas swept floors, wrapped hands and became the gym’s in-house sparring partner before adding matchmaking duties to his CV and eventually becoming Alabama’s first ever, licensed promoter. It is the type of education that money can’t buy. When he finally felt the time was right to concentrate on training fighters himself, Deas called upon the contacts he had made during his time as a jack of all trades and spent time watching and listening to some of the best minds in the sport at work.
“When you live in Alabama you have to do it all. We don’t have too many boxing people here so you end up wearing a lot of hats,” Deas told Boxing Monthly. “We started the gym in ’97 with some amateurs and a few professional fighters. We went around the world with the professionals. We went to Montreal, Germany, England, Dubai. Russia. That really served us well because we got to know who was who and how the game worked.
“I think sparring partner was the role I actually enjoyed the most! I’d done that from being 16 years old all the way up to being 40. I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve pretty much sparred with every amateur and pro that ever came through the gym. My brother was the trainer and I was really the sparring partner, manager and promoter. Once he got out of the business I took on the training duties. It wasn’t something I’d thought about before or expected but I went to see some friends that I respected like Ronnie Shields and I’d just watch what they did for a few days. I put together a plan about how I felt fighters should be trained and looked after and Deontay was the first guy. He was my first fighter when I became a trainer.
“When Deontay came along, he was the thoroughbred. He had the athleticism and ambition to match our knowledge. I tell people all the time that if he’d come to us five years earlier, I don’t think we’d have known what to do with him. Because we’d done so much, that really helped us. When Deontay came along in late 2005 there was a plan and program in place [for him to follow]. We struggled though. No doubt about it. We struggled month in and month out to keep the doors open.
“I don’t know that I’d be good trainer for hire. Having twenty guys come to me who were all already in the top ten, that wouldn’t really be my strength. I’ve got to build a kid up from day one. Me and Deontay have been together since his very first day in a boxing gym right through to the heavyweight championship. I don’t think - unless I’m mistaken - that that’s ever been done before. That gives me a lot of pride and really speaks for the loyalty of both of us.”
Like most boxing fans, Deas has a special for affection for heavyweights. There was no grand plan to unearth the next great big man and, although he took a couple of other talented heavyweights on the road, fighters of all shapes and sizes passed through the gym before Wilder’s 6ft 7in tall frame sauntered in. It is safe to say that both mens’ lives changed forever that day. When you watch Wilder fight, his major assets are natural. The unorthodox way he manages to generate his fight ending power isn’t something that can be taught. Neither can the willpower and desire which drove him on through the pain of a broken hand to unseat Stiverne. When Deas reels off his favourite big men, you begin to realise that maybe fate played a huge part in their paths crossing.
“There were three [heavyweights] that I really enjoyed watching. I really loved Larry Holmes. I loved his jab and his mental toughness. Even today I think he may be the most underrated heavyweight champion all. Even though he wasn’t a heavyweight for long, I also love Michael Spinks. He was always interesting to me because of the way he punched and the way he got the job done. The other guy I liked was Renaldo Snipes. He was dangerous. At any time he could land the winning punch and he was mentally strong. I’ve always liked the mentally strong guys.
“Deontay is very mentally tough. It comes from deep within. We can all be pushed to our limits and you really see what somebody s all about when it comes to that point. Even as an amateur, Deontay was a different breed when it came to mental toughness. Deep into a fight when both guys were exhausted, it was always Deontay who found that reservoir of energy and power to push through and win the fight. He’s very tough mentally and I don’t think people understand just how tough he is.
“Heavyweights are a special thing. They’re the most exciting because anything can happen in heavyweight boxing. I think I enjoy all weight classes but heavyweights are special. There’s nothing quite like a heavyweight champion. It’s the [title] everybody knows and recognises. I think heavyweights are the most fun. Plus, you don’t have the worry and stress of having your guy make weight so - from a purely logistical standpoint - when you reach fight week you aren’t having to watch every single meal he eats.
“Marcus McGee was one of our main fighters in the early years. Wade Lewis was another guy. He fought Audley Harrison. Marcus was a good journeyman heavyweight. He went the distance with Jameel McCline, Malik Scott and went eight with Sultan Ibragimov in Russia. He was a good journeyman. It was an excellent experience travelling the world with him. He also helped Deontay a lot in his early development. We did a lot of travelling with Deontay. We travelled around Atlanta and Mississippi and all the way up to Tennessee for sparring with professional fighters.”
Deas would probably be quite content to be described as a boxing nerd. He happily veers off topic to discuss James Toney’s ideal weight, Lloyd Honeyghan and who really won the two fights between Spinks and Holmes [“I think Spinks won the first fight but that Holmes beat him in the second,” says Deas.]. It was his obsession with boxing that indirectly led to Mark Breland being invited into the Wilder fold.
There can’t be many people better qualified in the art of utilising range and physical advantages than the former amateur star and two-time welterweight champion of the world. Prior to Wilder’s title winning 12-round decision over Bermane Stiverne, no opponent had managed to make it beyond four rounds with the ‘Bronze Bomber’. Since then, unheralded but tough Eric Molina (WTKO9), Johan Duhaupas (WTKO11) and Artur Szpilka (WKO9) have stood up to Wilder’s power and forced him to choose his moments to attack. Wilder may never be as slick as Breland but the Olympic gold medallist has been instrumental in helping him to understand where and when his bombs will be most effective.
The list of former heavyweight champions now suffering the repercussions of either being unable to handle the fame and fortune which arrived at their door or trusting the wrong people to deal with their affairs is sadly far longer than the roll-call of wealthy ex-fighters happily living out their days without ever having to wonder where the next memorabilia fair or personal appearance will be and Breland has been able to lend a calm head and sage advice to the excitable champion.
“I was at the Olympic trials with Deontay and Mark was there with Danny Jacobs,” says Deas. “Being a big boxing fan, I must have close to 4,000 fights on tape. I went over to introduce myself to Mark and told him that if he didn’t have any of his fights on tape, I probably did have them. About thirty minutes later, he walked over to me with a list of about 14 or 15 fights. Sure enough, I had them all. Even the obscure ones. I made them into a DVD and he called me and thanked me and we started talking.
“One day I was speaking with my co-manager Shelley Finkel who managed Mark during his career and told him I was thinking of bringing somebody on board to help with Deontay. He asked what I thought of Mark Breland and, funnily enough, that’s exactly who I was calling him about.
“Mark being a tall thin guy who could generate a lot of power in his shots and who could use his distance and range would be a big help to Deontay. plus, Mark was one of the boxers who kept his money and we thought it would be really helpful to have Deontay around somebody like that. Mark has been with us off and on since the start of Deontay’s professional career.
“The more notoriety and publicity you get, the more people try to take what you’ve got. Deontay is very good about not giving in to people that don’t mean him well. He understands that a lot of people are trying to be friends with him because of who he is and he’s well aware of that. Deontay is from the streets of west Tuscaloosa. He came up the hard way working multiple jobs. None of these people were there then. They wouldn’t have given him a job or cared and now they want this, that or the other. We talk about this all the time.
“We were laughing the other day about a time we went to Atlanta to spar. I opened my wallet and I had $11 and Deontay had $15. We had enough money for gas to get there and I remember Deontay bought a little bag of peach gummy worms for lunch and I bought a bag of Cheetos. We got a bottle of Mountain Dew each and that was our lunch. We spent the money on gas to go sparring. Nobody cared or wanted to help at that time. Deontay will be fine as we go forward financially because he knows to look after his money.”
This month, Wilder and Deas will embark on their most dangerous journey to date. On 21 May, Wilder will defend his title against former WBA champion and mandatory challenger, Alexander Povetkin in Moscow. Ever since the fight was first mooted critics have cast doubt on whether Wilder would risk taking on Povetkin, let alone travel to Russia to face the most hazardous challenge of his boxing career. Far from being the defining night of their journey, the fight is just the latest step in Deas’ plan for Wilder to dominate the heavyweight division for years to come.
“I think Deontay has talent and ability that he hasn’t shown the world yet. Every fight he seems to show something different of himself. People said he couldn’t go rounds before the Stiverne fight. The next question was how he’d react if he got cut or a closed eye. He answered that in the Johann Duahaupas fight. Next people wondered if he could fight inside. He just seems to bring something new to the table very time.
“I’d be comfortable to put him in with anybody now. He’s the heavyweight champion so he really should be ready to take on all comers. Sometimes fans don’t understand that there’s a lot more to it. The other guys have to be willing to do it and the money has to be right on both sides. There are a lot of things that have to come together to make the big fights. Deontay wants the big fights. Now we’re getting the Alexander Povetkin fight which we’ve wanted for a long time. It’s all coming around.
“We know that heavyweights mature later in life. A 30-year-old 105lber is an old man. A 30-year-old middleweight is in his prime. A 30-year-old heavyweight like Deontay is a young man. I’d like to see Deontay unify the tiles, hold all the titles, defend all the titles and build a Hall of Fame type career.
“Around his mid to late thirties would probably be a good time to get out and my goal for Deontay is that at the age of 40, on a daily basis he can wake up and do anything he wants to do. For me, that’s what a rich guy is. A guy who has control of his time.”