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The Best Heavyweight Boxer in the World Was Only Third Best at the Olympics

Not that it bothers Deontay Wilder. He’s undefeated ever since

The Bronze Bomber (aka Deontay Wilder, reigning WBC Heavyweight Champion) enters his mid-July title fight in a hooded sleeveless robe, golden Venetian mask and Muhammad Ali trunks. His skin is covered with more than 1,000 hours’ worth of memorial tattoos — the tale of his life now forever a part of his flesh. Wilder’s upper body is hulkish, and a dark focus fills his eyes. Tonight his work is destruction. Still, before the bell rings, he takes a knee in his corner and says a prayer for his opponent — Chris Arreola, a pudgy but dangerous slugger — asking that God allow Arreola to leave the ring safe and sound. (After, naturally, Wilder has knocked him out.)

The fight begins with Wilder splitting Arreola’s guard with a sharp, punishing jab. It’s the type of punch that shatters any hope Arreola might’ve had that Wilder doesn’t hit as hard as it seems. Arreola doesn’t get inside of Wilder’s jabs until the fourth round, when he puts his head on Wilder’s chest and whacks away at his body. This is when Wilder’s humor bubbles up; he begins to sway his hips wildly, mocking Arreola’s aggression. Then Wilder twists away and digs a vicious uppercut to Arreola’s chin, staggering Arreola backward.

As the fight wears on, Wilder somehow tears his bicep and breaks his right hand. But even with just one good hand, he thrashes Arreola and Arreola’s corner stops the fight before the ninth round can begin. This is pretty much how all of Wilder’s fights end: Wilder victorious, and his opponent knocked out (or his corner waving the white towel). The only real difference is that Arreola made it eight rounds; a typical Wilder opponent is lucky to last half that long.

Unlike most other Olympic sports, where there is no recognizable way to turn pro after winning a medal (e.g., swimming, track and field and gymnastics) or the medalists are already the best of the best (e.g., basketball, hockey and tennis), Olympic gold medals are usually a lucrative springboard into pro boxing. “The Golden Boy” Oscar De La Hoya signed a gigantic contract coming out of the 1992 Summer Games. Muhammad Ali received a similarly large pro contract after taking gold in Rome in 1960. And Sugar Ray Leonard was selling out arenas soon after he won gold in Montreal in 1976.

Meanwhile, the boxers who don’t come away with gold — Floyd Mayweather only won a bronze in 1996 and Roy Jones Jr. a silver in 1988 — typically go out of their way to build professional personas that overwhelm any hint of them ever having been second or third best. Two common nicknames for Mayweather and Jones Jr., respectively: “The Best Ever” and “Fighter of the Decade.”

All of which brings us back to Wilder. After his win over Arreola last month his record stands at 37–0, meaning he has yet to lose any of his 37 professional fights. Better still, 36 of those fights have ended in a knockout. So if he isn’t “The Best Ever” or “Fighter of the Decade,” he’s certainly in the conversation for “The Best Right Now” and “Fighter of the Last Few Years.” And yet, Wilder’s brand, his persona and even his Twitter handle are all about finishing third at the 2008 Summer Olympics — “The Bronze Bomber” nickname partly an ode to his idol and fellow Alabama native Joe Louis (best known as the “Brown Bomber”) and partly a reminder of how far he’s come.

“He’s very proud of his bronze medal,” Wilder’s trainer Jay Deas tells me a week or so after the Arreola fight. “He wasn’t just the least experienced boxer on Team USA, he was the least experienced boxer in the whole Olympic tournament. He only had 20-some-odd fights’ worth of experience at the time. That’s quite an accomplishment.”

Wilder probably never should have gone to the Olympics in the first place. He started boxing at 19, which is ancient for fighters, and won the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in an upset. He was the weakest link on a team that featured future world champions Rau’shee Warren, Gary Russell Jr. and Demetrius Andrade. But he dominated Abdelaziz Toulbini of Algeria and narrowly edged Mohamad Arjaoui of Morocco to enter the medal rounds, where he walked away with the bronze. Meanwhile, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist, Russia’s Rakhim Chakhiyev, hasn’t had anywhere near Wilder’s success as a pro.

Despite high expectations going into the Beijing Games, the American boxing team turned in one of the country’s worst performances in Olympic boxing history. (Wilder’s bronze was the only boxing medal the Americans earned in 2008.) “The Team USA coaches weren’t allowing the hometown coaches into camp,” Deas explains. “They were pushing them away. So some of the hometown coaches rented hotel rooms near camp, and they were training their fighters on the side. I didn’t want to put Wilder into a coaching tug-of-war so I stayed away. I think that helped him a lot.”

Wilder turned professional just three months after the Games ended. I happened to be ringside for his fourth pro fight, when he was even lankier than he is today (even now, he only carries about 225 pounds on his 6-foot, 7-inch frame). His opponent, Joseph Rabotte, came out strong, attempting to bull him. But Wilder composed himself and landed a sweet right cross to the temple that put Rabotte to the canvas. After Rabotte got to his feet, Wilder caught him with a left hook and then immediately followed up with a right hook. The punches were so wildly ferocious that Wilder almost fell on top of Rabotte.

Now and then, there’s something in Wilder’s muscularity when he punches. While power guys like Mike Tyson might hit like a wrecking ball, tall skinny guys like Wilder hit like a bolt of lightning. I experienced this kind of quick, slappy punch when I was a boxer. Getting hit like that is shocking. The jolt sends bright flashes through your vision and causes blind spots that can last for hours.

When Wilder finally got his title shot in January 2015 against Bermane Stiverne, most people in boxing gave him no chance of winning. Stiverne was highly touted and had recently gained the WBC belt in a stunning knockout. They said Wilder couldn’t take a punch and as soon as Stiverne caught him it would be lights out. It almost went down that way, too. In the first round, Stiverne hit Wilder with a huge clubbing shot, temporarily knocking him against the ropes. But after a couple of tense moments, Wilder’s eyes lit up and he started to smile and laugh. From that point on, Wilder brutally dominated Stiverne. When the fight ended, there was no question — Wilder was the best heavyweight fighter in the world.

Chris Arreola is Wilder’s fourth victim since winning the WBC Heavyweight Championship from Stiverne 18 months ago. During his post-match celebration, Wilder turns into the big personality he’s known for. When asked what he wants to say to his fans he roars, “ALABAMA!!!!!!!!” (The fight itself took place on Wilder’s home turf of Birmingham.) Next, he calls out all of the other top heavyweights and asks, “But do they really want to fight me?”

Three heavyweights in particular await Wilder: Alexander Povetkin, Wladimir Klitschko and Anthony Joshua. All three just happen to be gold medalists. Povetkin won gold at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and was set to face Wilder this summer until he failed a drug test. Klitschko is a legend who has held just about every heavyweight championship — in addition to earning gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. According to Wilder, he’s also “the greatest sparring partner” Wilder has ever had.

Joshua is the most recent gold medalist, having stood atop the podium at the 2012 Summer Games in London. It, like Ali, Leonard and De La Hoya before him, launched him into unprecedented stardom. He, too, has a perfect pro record (17–0), each win by knockout. His official website promises he’ll be “The People’s Future Champion,” and there’s a large photo of him with his gold medal around his neck on his bio page. “[Joshua] secured qualification for London 2012 and subsequently won the Super Heavyweight Gold Medal, standing out as one of the shining lights from one of the most successful Olympics in the modern era,” it reads.

In other words, there’s nothing third-place about him.

That, however, is why Wilder’s trainer thinks Joshua doesn’t stand a chance against a guy who calls himself the Bronze Bomber. “A lot of times historically the bronze medal is better than a silver or a gold because you didn’t achieve what you wanted to achieve,” Deas says. “Sometimes that serves you best because you use it as motivation when you make your way into the pros.”