IT takes a fighter to know one, so it wasn’t surprising that Deontay Wilder hit it off immediately with 11-year-old Adrian Graham.

Born with a life-threatening immune deficiency disorder, Adrian, known as “Shug” to his friends and family, wound up in the gym of the WBC heavyweight champion in September, as Wilder teamed up with the Make-A-Wish foundation to grant the young man his wish of going to Walt Disney World.

The meeting was a memorable one, not just for Shug, but for Wilder, who is well aware of the struggles some children face, as it was the diagnosis of spina bifida for his daughter Naieya that prompted him to seek a career in the ring.

“Shug is a very bright little boy, and it lights me up when I get around the children, to just observe them and see what they’re doing and what their mind is thinking,” he said. “I’m a big guy, but I’m a gentle giant. I love kids and it was a pleasure to come and allow Shug to go to Disney World like that with him and his family. He wrote me too when he was there, he sent me a letter thanking me, and it does my heart good to be able to do different things, even if it’s just showing up to let a child see me. When kids know who I am or they mimic me or different moves that I do, it lets me know that they’re looking up to me and I have to watch what I do and say because they’re definitely watching me, and I’m a role model. It makes me feel good and makes me feel like I’m giving back to the community and it makes my heart warm.”

It should also warm the heart of boxing fans to know that the heavyweight championship still means something in the United States. For too many years, after the glory days of Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield were over, fans on the street couldn’t even name one heavyweight champion, let alone four of them. But with the UK experiencing a heavyweight revival thanks to the triumvirate of IBF champion Anthony Joshua, former three-belt title-holder Tyson Fury and the still-lurking David Haye, the US is finally getting back in the race thanks to the “Bronze Bomber.”

“I’m definitely bringing it back to the glory days for sure,” he said. “I’ve got so many different types of kids, all ages, looking up to me and knowing who Deontay Wilder is. That’s exciting and that lets me know that I’m doing something right in this sport and I’m being exciting. What people want to see in this sport is excitement and entertainment, and I think I’m doing my job with that part.”

Scoring 36 of 37 pro wins by knockout doesn’t hurt Wilder’s appeal, but the 2008 Olympic bronze medallist (the only US fighter to leave the Beijing Games with a medal) knows that there’s more work to be done. Unfortunately, that work will have to wait until 2017, as his most recent win over Chris Arreola in July saw him break his right hand and tear the bicep on the same arm.

Nearly four months after surgery, Wilder is eager to return to active duty, and feeling positive about the rehab.

“My hand is completely healed and my bicep is healed as well, so we’re just working on flexibility and strengthening my whole right arm, and once that’s done and it gets to a point that I’m satisfied with, you should see me back in the ring sometime early next year for sure.”

Recent videos Wilder has posted on his Twitter account seem to back those words up, as he’s back in the ring and doing pad work with his left hand, looking more and more dangerous with what many called his weaker weapon.

“We’re just sending a message,” he said. “Not only do you have to watch out for the right hand, but you also have to watch out for the left as well because it has progressed so much over the years. This is the third time I broke my hand, and now I have an even better relationship with my left hand. There are so many things I can do with my left hand that I can’t wait for the return. It’s going to be amazing for me.”

If the layoff has gotten him down, he’s hiding it well. But in reality, he shouldn’t look at 2016 as a disappointing year, as he put together a pair of knockout wins over Artur Szpilka and Arreola, and continued to raise his profile Stateside. Yet more notable is that as a fighter with such an imposing knockout percentage, he might be seen as a frontrunner, someone who is great when he’s the hammer, but not so imposing when he’s the nail. Against Arreola though, Wilder proved that when faced with adversity, he’s not going to fold.

“It’s a great feeling to know that about myself,” the 30-year-old Alabama native said. “But it ain’t just a point that I’m proving to myself. If anything, it’s a point that I’m proving to other people that didn’t know that was installed in me. That’s what’s making me a unique and remarkable champion. If anything happens in the ring, that if I lose one arm, then God has blessed me with another one I can use just as beautifully. When you’re in the jungle, as we call it, you’ve got to be prepared for anything that comes your way, and you’ve got to know how to overcome adversity and jump through all these obstacles that may come your way. Because you can prepare one hundred per cent for a fight, but until you get in there, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. And when the unexpected happens, you’ve got to know, right there, how to adjust to that.”

Sure, the 35-year-old Arreola has seen better days, but the Californian still can punch, and over the course of 13 years in the pro game, only Vitali Klitschko and Bermane Stiverne had previously stopped him. So getting him out of there in the eighth round with basically one arm is a feather in Wilder’s cap, and the way he sees it, the win was a statement to his peers.

“Those are the times when you understand your place in the sport,” he said. “No matter how you twist and turn the word ‘champion,’ that’s what I am, and with that being said, I just have a mentality like that. I have the mentality that I’m the best in the world, and I’m not gonna let nobody take what’s mine. No matter what it is, whether it’s a broken hand, a torn bicep, a broken foot, I am the champion, and I wanted to set an example, not only to Chris Arreola, but to all the other heavyweights in this division, that I am the man to be reckoned with, and if you feel that you’re just going to come in and
take my title just like that, then I’m here to let you know that it’s not going to be that easy. Even when I won my title (against Stiverne), I injured my eye and I broke my hand. I literally had one eye and one hand, and I ended up winning the whole fight, 12 rounds all the way through.”

It’s almost as if Wilder is daring the referee to tie his shoelaces together during his next fight to level the playing field a little bit.

“Hey, if that makes a great show, then I’m up for the challenge,” he laughed, but at this point in time, the overall title picture among the big boys is no laughing matter. Fury has vacated his WBA and WBO titles in order to deal with his personal issues. With Wilder waiting to get the green light to return, Joshua was the only champion making moves at the tail end of 2016, as he had a December 10 date with former Wilder victim Eric Molina.

Yet through all the mayhem, Wilder is optimistic with the state of his division.

“I like what I’m seeing,” he said. “I like the division and what’s been going on. Everybody plays their part and brings their excitement to the game. Of course, I’m not just doing it by myself. That’s obvious.”

He does crave the big fight, though. And to find out why it hasn’t materialised, he looked for some divine intervention.

“The build-up for the big fights is going on and one day I sat back and asked God, ‘Lord, why am I always missing out on the huge fights?’ And the answer I got is that he’s allowing everybody else to eat right now. He knows I’m going to be the one to revive this sport, I’m gonna be the one to unify it once and for all, and once I get into orbit, no one else is going to be able to replace me.”

And fittingly in an election year for his home country, Wilder has a reference to the world of politics and his own place in the mix when it comes to his own quest for power.

“This [being champion] is not going to be like a presidential term for me,” he said. “It’s going to be an ongoing term until I retire. And that’s how it’s going to be. I want to get to the point where the only way to make the big money is to go through Deontay Wilder. I want to unify the division, I want to fight four or maybe five times a year, all mandatories, because I want the best of the best. And that’s my goal and plan for boxing. I think it’s a bright future for boxing. It’s definitely not dead. It’s alive and well, and I’m going to take it to the next level.”

It almost sounds like Wilder doesn’t want to be president, but emperor for life.

He laughed, but he was also dead serious when he admitted, “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m about to unify the division where there’s gonna be one name, one face, one title – Deontay Wilder.”

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine