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MOST BOXING gyms have similar characteristics. There is the smell, a thick odor of sweat on rarely washed gear and gloves. There are the sounds: the thudding of the heavy bag, the rat-a-tat-tat of the speed bag, the piercing buzz of a timer on its endless three-minute, one-minute cycle. Spit buckets overflow on ring aprons, and reliable plumbing is considered a luxury. Skyy Boxing is no different. The charms of this windowless room in the back of a dilapidated one-story building in Northport, Ala., include fight posters peeling off the walls and motivational quotes printed on colored cardboard hanging near the ceiling. What separates gyms from one another are the boxers who occupy them, and Skyy is home to one of the world's most intriguing fighters.

It's a brisk morning in January when Deontay Wilder storms through Skyy's door, a duffel bag under one arm, a subwoofer hanging from the other. Wilder likes his music loud, and his tastes are eclectic. His playlist bounces from Kool & the Gang to M.C. Hammer, and with each new song the playful Wilder breaks out dancing. At 6'7" and 225 pounds he has an impressive physique. He's undefeated in six years as a professional (32--0), with every fight ending in a knockout and none lasting longer than the fourth round. On Saturday, in Las Vegas, Wilder will challenge Canada's Bermane Stiverne for the WBC heavyweight title. "And I hope everyone gets there on time," Wilder says, "because it's going to be an early night."

Once, U.S. heavyweight contenders were common; today they are an endangered species. It has been 15 years since Evander Holyfield's loss to Lennox Lewis put the reign of American heavyweights on life support and 13 since Mike Tyson's beating by Lewis ended it. Since then the U.S. has had the occasional heavyweight titleholder—John Ruiz, Hasim Rahman and Shannon Briggs had brief stints—but none of real importance. Tyson, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman were rock stars; today's American heavyweights live in anonymity. That's not hyperbole: In 2007, Briggs, fresh off claiming the WBO title, held a press event in midtown Manhattan. When it was over he took his belt, slung it over his shoulder and stood at a busy intersection. He wanted attention; what he got were perplexed looks from passersby.

In the 1970s and '80s television executives eagerly put U.S. heavyweights on in prime time. Today, TV is indifferent. "A guy like Tyson had that magnetic kind of force," says former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg. "Since then, I haven't seen it." Promoters now focus on the lower weight classes. "The heavyweight championship of the world," says promoter Lou DiBella, "is no longer a big deal here."

Which brings us to Wilder. His critics cite his inexperience, unimpressive résumé and untested chin as reasons to be skeptical. They compare him with Michael Grant, the once promising U.S. prospect who was exposed by Lewis in a second-round knockout in 2000. Those critics also agree on this: If Wilder, 29, doesn't become the next great U.S. heavyweight, the dwindling number of prospects behind him ensure that it will be a long time before anyone else does. None of which bothers Wilder. "I know there are people who doubt me," he says. "Wait until they see what I've got."

WHEN DID your life change? Crammed into a booth at a Tuscaloosa Waffle House, Wilder smiles at the question. In 2005 he was living in an apartment with his girlfriend and attending community college. A star wide receiver in high school, he dreamed of putting in two years before transferring and walking on at Alabama. His biggest problem was making the $364-a-month payment on his Ford Explorer.

In the fall of '05, Wilder's girlfriend, Helen Duncan, told him she was pregnant. Wilder decided to leave school and get a job. A few weeks later things got more complicated: Doctors discovered that the baby, a girl, had spina bifida, a congenital disorder of the spinal cord. They said she might never walk. They asked if the couple wanted to abort the pregnancy. Wilder would have none of it. "Never an option," he says. "What it meant, though, was that quitting school was permanent. I needed to work."

At first no job was beneath him. He started as a server at an IHOP, earning $60 to $70 in tips per day. He moved to the kitchen of a Red Lobster, at $400 a week. He took a job as a hauler for Budweiser, where he helped unload trucks all over the state. When he found out that drivers made more, he got his commercial driver's license. His days started at four in the morning and often didn't end until late afternoon.

Growing up, Wilder had had a passing interest in boxing. "But it was Alabama," he says. "Everyone loves football." He got in fights a lot as a kid—"Once a week," he says—but swears that he never started one and that he hated every fight he was in. Wilder remembers, when he was 12, giving a classmate a particularly bad beating. On the walk home he burst into tears. "I just looked up and said, Lord, I don't want to do this," he says. "But trouble just seemed to find me."

Boxers, though, made money. So Wilder went to Skyy and introduced himself to the owner, Jay Deas. Deas was new to the boxing business too. Deas quit his job as a TV reporter in '95 to become a boxing promoter, and in '97 he opened Skyy with his brother, Tommy. The arrangement was simple: Tommy would train the fighters; Jay would promote the shows. In 2005, Tommy left boxing. Jay decided to try his hand at training. His first real client: Deontay Wilder. "We had guys coming in looking to get in better shape," says Deas. "But then in walked this big, athletic kid who had so much potential."

As a boxer Wilder was a mess. In the streets he had fought southpaw; Deas shifted him to orthodox. And as athletic as Wilder was, he was nowhere near in boxing shape. "That first week I wanted to quit after every day," he says. But he was a quick study and a tireless worker. His footwork improved rapidly. When Deas discovered that Wilder was a visual learner, he showed him tapes of Larry Holmes and Tommy Hearns. "That's what we want to be, a heavyweight Hearns," says Deas.

In 2006, Deas entered Wilder, then 20, in the novice division of the Golden Gloves tournament. Wilder knocked his first opponent out with three punches. After three fights tournament organizers told Wilder he had to fight in the open division. In '07 he won the U.S. championship and later earned a spot on the '08 Olympic team. "He was green, but you could see the upside," says Basheer Abdullah, a former USA Boxing coach and technical adviser to the '08 team. "And that power. I've held the mitts for every heavyweight who came through the system since 2000. I couldn't hold the pads for him for more than a day or two."

After winning a bronze medal in Beijing, Wilder turned pro. He signed with Golden Boy, one of boxing's most powerful promoters. Executives at the company admit they struggled to figure out the best way to develop him. "It was a challenge," says Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez. "We had to be very careful the first 10 fights or so." After Wilder dispatched eight of his first 10 opponents inside of one round, the company had another problem: finding someone who could stay in the ring with him. "He hits so hard," says Gomez. "Every time we matched him with someone we thought could take a punch, he would knock him out."

As the opponents improved, so did Wilder. In 2012 he knocked out then undefeated 6'7" Kelvin Price; in '13 he demolished faded former titleholder Siarhei Liakhovich. Last year he stopped the durable Malik Scott.

Six years after turning pro, Wilder will get his first world title shot. Is he ready? "It's hard to gauge if he is on that level or not," says Gomez. "Each time we wanted to test him, he destroyed who we put in front of him. We have done our best to prepare him. It's on him now."

WHERE HAS the U.S. heavyweight gone? The answer is a complex one. The criteria have changed, for starters. Size matters. Many of the top heavyweights of the 1970s and '80s (Ali, Joe Frazier, Tyson) stood 6'3" or under. Since the mid-'90s the division has been dominated by jab-happy giants; Lewis (6'5") gave way to Vitali Klitschko (6'7"), who passed the torch to his brother, Wladimir (6'6"), who has ruled the division since 2005. That trend isn't changing, either. The new wave of heavyweight prospects is led by Britain's Tyson Fury (6'9") and Anthony Joshua (6'6") and New Zealand's Joseph Parker (6'4"). "You need to look like an NFL tight end to have a chance," says DiBella. "If not, don't bother."

Those who do look the part have options. Many are steered away from boxing early. A policy statement published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society in 2011 recommended that doctors "vigorously oppose boxing for any child or adolescent," noting that young boxers could develop chronic conditions with long-term effects. "Youths don't tolerate concussions well," says Claire LeBlanc, a pediatrician at Montreal Children's Hospital and lead author of the statement. "Boxing can lead to devastating consequences to a child's health."

The proliferation of college scholarships in other sports has created more opportunities outside the ring. There are no scholarships for boxers. Physically gifted inner-city kids see football or basketball as offering an easier path out of poverty. And the once-vaunted USA Boxing program is in shambles. Disorganized and underfunded, the U.S. men's team bottomed out in 2012, failing to earn a medal for the first time in history. Its representative in the super heavyweight division that year: Dominic Breazeale, a former quarterback at Northern Colorado. Says DiBella, "There stopped being a connection between a kid being an Olympian and a great pro."

Wilder can't solve boxing's problems, but his presence atop a glamour division could help revive the flagging sport. "He can be a game-changer," says Greenburg. Wilder believes it too. He is in a good place mentally; his daughter Naieya, now nine, is not only walking but is a gymnast. As for arguments that his résumé is thin, Wilder notes that the 36-year-old Stiverne—who won the title vacated by Vitali Klitschko last year—has not faced much better competition. Wilder rebuts charges that he is inexperienced by pointing out that he has been in camps with Wladimir Klitschko, David Haye and Tony Thompson. And he scoffs at the notion that he can't take a punch by noting that the man in front of him has to be able to take his.

"It's time to make my legacy," says Wilder. "There is a movement going on in the heavyweight division. And I'm going to be a big part of it."

Is Wilder ready? "It's hard to gauge," says Gomez. "Each time we wanted to test him, he destroyed who we put in front of him. We havedone our best. It's on him now."


Photograph by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

MAKING NOISE At 6'7" and 225 heavily tattooed pounds, the voluble Wilder (32--0) is an intimidating ring presence.



A GREAT 1--2 Wilder, all smiles with Naieya, is all business in the ring. Just ask victim Nicolai Firtha (opposite).



[See caption above]