This writing appeared on the boxing website ucnlive.com.
Deontay Wilder: Woke But Not Awake
On November 13th of last year, WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder tweeted a video comparing himself to former heavyweight champion and icon Muhammad Ali. The video featured highlights of the fleet footed Ali landing punches on overmatched opponents. Interspersed with the Ali highlights, were highlights of Wilder’s late 2017 destruction of former heavyweight champion (and woefully unprepared) Bermane Stiverne. From a purely boxing standpoint the comparison seemed a bit wanting to say the least. Muhammad Ali maneuvered around the ring with the coordination of a trained dancer, while Wilder’s in ring machinations sometimes resemble a liquored up bar patron looking to settle a grievance in a 2AM street brawl. Yet judging by recent media appearances, it would seem that Wilder has more on his mind than just boxing technique when comparing himself to ‘The Greatest’.
If you view recent interviews with Wilder on YouTube, you can see and hear a man who feels the itch of political and social awareness. Though Wilder doesn’t have the ‘gift of gab’ that Ali did; he has tried to do the best he can to articulate his feelings toward the current socio-economic status of African Americans. In an interview with Tha Boxing Voice (posted to YouTube on October 19th, 2017) Wilder explained the reasoning behind his activist desires:
‘I do feel like I have a part to play; that’s why I express myself the way I am, you know. I used to be that type of person who would mind my business. Not go with the flow, but just that I’m trailing through. You know, I’m just a stranger passing through. But now, I’m a different person. I’m a different person throughout what had happened in my career. What has happened just in life in general, the things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met. You know, the things I’ve been around, and seen with my own eyes - man, it’s crazy. But now I just feel like I have an obligation to fulfill, and I’m doing my part.’
Wilder would go on to remark about being a ‘voice for the voiceless’ because his public stature demanded it. These are admirable sentiments; for the civic culture of a society is stronger if those blessed with abundance give back (and care) about their communities. However, the fire that’s been awakened in Wilder seems to be an unfocused one. In Tha Boxing Voice interview (and others) Wilder tends to ramble on everything from slavery, the national anthem, and the emancipation proclamation. These are all worthy topics when discussing the history and current status of race in America. Yet when discussed without the sophistication and knowledge of thinkers like Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, or Ta-Nehisi Coates, these complex issues can become binary or reductive. Basically, a well intentioned message of concern can devolve into a simple formula: all white people are bad, and racism is the cause of every problem.
And this can be the problem with being ‘woke’. Deeply entrenched historical problems become vehicles for narrow thinking and the shallow outbursts of social media. Being ‘woke’ becomes a status symbol or a hashtag rather than a state of intellectual being. Deontay Wilder’s laudable concerns have given him the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate; which by some measures is the most important thing a man can do with his life. Yet if Wilder chooses to remain simply ‘woke’ instead of intellectually awake; he might squander his opportunity. And if Wilder’s comments to The Guardian last month are any indication, his senses might be awakened; but his mind is most definitely still asleep.
Published on boxingscene.com during the last week of December, Wilder spoke to The Guardian about why he feels the media doesn’t give him the ‘respect’ he deserves. Wilder would be quoted as saying:
‘A lot of people don’t want to pull the race card but let’s be real: I’m a realist, I’m a woke realist, I’m not brainwashed at all. I see what’s going on. If I was (any) other ethnicity, any type of person that’s not a black man, it would be different. If I was any other color but black, it would be different.’
Taking him at his word, Wilder seems to believe that the undervalue surrounding his career to this point is due to the color of his skin. He seems to believe that if he were white or hispanic, the media would sing his praises, and American fans would pack arenas to witness his greatness. He seems to believe that were he not an African American, his inferior competition, in ring inactivity, and lack of any true national promotion would not be obstacles to his destined place at the top of America’s sporting landscape. By Wilder’s estimation, the actual substance of his career matters less than the fact that he is a black man in America.
Yet one quick look at history seems to undercut Wilder’s reductive assumption. There have been several African American fighters who have achieved notoriety, success, and media praise over the past decades. Some of those fighters include: Floyd Mayweather Jr., Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr., Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and of course - Muhammad Ali. Now did the fact that all of these fighters were black impact the way they were perceived and treated by American society? Absolutely, it did. Did they experience racism and discrimination in their lives? Without question they did. But they also achieved in their boxing careers what Wilder says he would have achieved were he not an African American.
Now if Deontay Wilder was driving down any street in America is he more likely to be pulled over because of the color of his skin? Yes, this has been proven. Would a security guard at an upscale department store keep a closer than usual eye on Wilder simply because he was black? Unfortunately, this might indeed be the case. And would the color of Wilder’s skin illicit fear in some individuals were he walking towards them at 1AM on a city side street? Sadly, this might be true as well. Yet these realities about being a black man in America should not be used as an excuse for the shortcomings of stagnant career development. It has been proven that African American fighters who fight often, fight with skill, seek to entertain, and receive proper promotion have achieved a measure of popular success - and respect.
And if it’s ‘respect’ that Wilder is looking for from the media, then he should probably look elsewhere. The media is not something you look towards to receive respect; it is something you use to advance and promote your aims. Muhammad Ali didn’t care if the media respected him, he used the media as a platform to promote his fights and his political views. Floyd Mayweather Jr. wasn’t looking for respect from the media, he used it to make millions. The American media doesn’t really care if you are black, brown, pink, or yellow. They thirst for anything that is shallow and lends itself to web clicks or captivating spectacle. Fighters that understand this use the media to their advantage. They don’t seek respect from an entity that at times, can seem to barely respect itself.
All successful African American boxers have faced the same issues of race and boxing that Deontay Wilder now faces. Things have changed over the decades; from the overt institutional discrimination former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson faced, to the black empowerment days of Muhammad Ali, to the racial undertones of Marvin Hagler’s road to the middleweight championship. Race will always be a part of the equation when it comes to African American fighters; but in 2018 it is not a wholesale obstacle to their success. There are too many examples that prove otherwise.
In the same article where Wilder voiced his dismay on the role race was playing in his career shortcomings, he remarked about what he saw as former American champions not doing their part to ensure the success of the next generation. Wilder would state:
‘You got former champions that have made their mark in the sport but don’t want to see their legacy passed down to American fighters. I never understand that, especially as a champion. You should want somebody to come and pass you. You should want someone to keep the sport alive and build it up. Even the champions don’t want their legacy passed because they don’t want to be forgotten, but if you did it right the first time you’ll never be forgotten.’
One can’t be sure of whom Wilder is talking about. Is he talking about former heavyweight champions George Foreman, Larry Holmes, or Evander Holyfield? Have they not done enough to ensure that Deontay Wilder has fulfilled his personal destiny? Have they not promoted him well enough, or kept him from fighting more than twice a year? It seems that the African American heavyweight champions that came before Wilder opened the door for Wilder’s success rather than refused to ‘pass on their legacy’. As the late, great James Brown once sang (during the height of the civil rights era); ‘I don’t want nobody to give me nothing, just open up the door, I’ll get it myself’.
The door to Deontay Wilder’s success has been open since he won the WBC heavyweight title three years ago. Whether or not he chooses to get it is up to him, and his management. It's all well and good for the heavyweight champion to be ‘woke’ in terms of his situation and history as black man in America. But until he wakes up about what it takes to have a successful and impactful career in the boxing ring, he will forever be asleep.