INSIDE THE CAMP
Deontay Wilder has been trained by Jay Deas and Mark Breland for 10 years. It hasn’t been easy at all, as Declan Taylor discovers when he visits the Wilder camp in Tuscaloosa
Trainers Mark Breland and Jay Deas describe their adventure with Wilder
IT WAS a late November afternoon in 1982 when a teenage Mark Breland discovered what it really felt like to be punched in the face.
The 19-year-old was fresh from winning the world amateur championships in Munich that summer and jumped at the invitation to spar Tommy Hearns, who was preparing to challenge Wilfred Benitez for the WBC superwelterweight title.
That fight would take place in New Orleans but much of the Hitman’s preparation took place at the Caesar’s Palace hotel in Las Vegas, where a temporary ring was erected in which the world title challenger could conduct his sparring.
Breland, tall and talented, had given a good account of himself for the first three sessions against his bigger, more established opponent but was ominously warned by Hearns at the start of the fourth: “I’ve got you today.”
And so it proved. Hearns befuddled Breland with a clever feint before crashing his famous straight right hand into the youngster’s jaw. The sparse crowd collectively winced and Breland, hurt, wheeled away on unsteady legs in order to somehow compose himself.
“I didn’t know it was coming but when he hit me, I was off my feet,” says Breland. “Everybody burst out laughing but I was like ‘s**t, that hurt – gimme a second!’
“I had never felt anything like that before. I was still an amateur but nobody ever hit me that hard ever again in any other fight.
“He was the biggest puncher who ever landed on me. It was before the Benitez fight. When I got hit like that I just thought ‘what the hell am I doing to myself here?’”
Breland went on to win gold at the Olympics 18 months later before a 39-fight career which gleaned a pair of world welterweight titles. These days he carries the physical and mental scars in keeping with a lifetime of fighting but does his work on the safe side of the ropes.
His primary focus is Deontay Wilder, who he helps train alongside the Bronze Bomber’s long-time coach Jay Deas. That means 55-year-old Breland, who lives in New York, spends chunks of each year in Tuscaloosa hotels preparing the WBC champion for battle.
The two trainers face arguably the most difficult conundrum of their coaching careers on Saturday when their charge faces the undefeated 6ft 9in Tyson Fury at the Staples Center, Los Angeles. But Breland draws confidence from that day in Las Vegas almost exactly 36 years ago to the day.
“Look, Tyson Fury has never felt power anything like Deontay’s before,” says the softly spoken Brooklynite. “It’s as simple as that.
“I thought I knew what power felt like until Tommy hit me that day. It’s like Mike Tyson said – ‘everybody got a plan until they get punched in the face.’ Everything changes when you taste that power.
“You watch someone knocking everyone out but then you get touched by them ³
‘IT ALL CHANGES WHEN YOU TASTE THAT POWER’
³ and you think ‘s**t, it’s true!’ “When you get hit by that, the whole right side of your body will go numb. You got to deal with that. He will never have felt anything like this before. A good hitter will change your mind forever.
“Wladimir Klitschko had power but he never threw it against Fury. Deontay is going to be throwing. Even if he misses, it’s going to hurt Fury. Even the wind off them will hurt. I think it’s a case that Tyson has never fought nobody with this sort of power, not even close.
“You do what you want, be as awkward as you want, slip, slide, move. But it will change when Deontay lands.”
Breland ended his career with a 71 per cent knock out ratio and was well known for generating unlikely power from a long, wiry frame. Ditto Deontay Wilder.
Perhaps that had something to do with Deas’ idea to bring Breland into the fold back in 2008 having single-handedly guided the first three years of Wilder’s boxing life until then. Boxing enthusiast Deas, who is also Wilder’s co-manager, had bumped into Breland at the 2008 Olympic trials and mentioned that he had all his fights on tape should he require any copies. That encounter former the basis of their relationship and it was not long before the pair were in cahoots inside the gym.
Breland adds: “From the start Wilder was willing to work and to do different things. When you get a tall guy like that you want him to fight tall and do certain things. My thing with a tall guy is a jab, straight right hand. He didn’t have much of a jab when I first met him so we worked on that a lot.
“Also when he threw the right hand he would often throw it overhand. But he’s too tall to throw an overhand right, he’s boxing people smaller than him. Throw it straight.
“He has the power but guys can overuse power and it makes it worse. You can miss your shot. It’s like a rubber band, just let it go – pop. He’ll do it in spurts and sometimes when he goes in the ring and starts throwing those big wild swings I just think ‘what the f**k!’
“But when he fought Stiverne he hit him with that one-two, bam bam. When he does it, he doesn’t realise he looks perfect but when he gets to doing all that crazy stuff I don’t like it.”
Given Wilder’s preference for training in the evening, Breland spends most of the days watching Netflix or knocking about in Tuscaloosa, where he can go about his business reasonably anonymously.
The same cannot be said of Deas, who seems to know just about everyone in his hometown. The 50-year-old, who gave up a good job as a television reporter in Florida, staged his first show in 1995. It means he has dedicated 27 years to boxing so far.
His life, of course, was altered dramatically in 2005 when a Budweiser delivery driver called Deontay first strolled into his gym in Northport, Alabama, just across the river from Tuscaloosa. But, as it turns out, former amateur boxer Deas had nearly thrown the towel in five years earlier.
“The years went by so fast I never realised,” Deas says between mouthfuls of breakfast at a quaint Tuscaloosa restaurant, in which the all the waiting staff know his name. “There were a lot of months where we were close to shutting the doors altogether.
“I remember doing a show and everything was going wrong. It was one of those shows. Fighter fall outs, tickets not selling, venue giving me a hard time. I just said, ‘I’m done, this isn’t working, I’m done.’
“There was a kid on the card, an opponent, who was fighting one of our guys and he hadn’t showed up. Our guy Jessie Marsh was from Canada and he had driven 20 hours to be there. I said, ‘If the opponent doesn’t
show up – it’s over and I’m done.’
“As soon as I said that, this door opens and this kid, who was from Georgia, walks in. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s a sign.’
“That was February 2, 2000. That’s the show where I almost stopped doing it. I had reached my point.”
As it happened, Marsh stopped that tardy opponent, Bruce Anderson, in the second round and Deas’ story continued.
Now, a life without boxing is unthinkable, given the trainer’s association with the WBC heavyweight champion of the world. Out of camp, Deas runs merchandise stalls whenever big music acts rock up in Tuscaloosa but in the months preceding a Wilder fight, he is consumed by the sport once again.
“What would I have done had I walked away? I don’t know,” he says.
“With boxing, mostly, it was an identity thing. I was working as a reporter so I had an identity. ‘You’re that guy on TV... you’re the crime guy.’
“Then when I started with the gym I was part-time, working in a finance company but that’s not what I wanted. It wasn’t my identity to be a finance guy. I wanted to be the boxing guy.
“I opened the gym with my brother Tommy but eventually he got a promotion so he left. That was when I became the head trainer and the first legitimate guy through the door was Deontay Wilder.
“He has absolutely changed my life. It was the perfect coach, gym and fighter at the perfect time.” At this point, a waitress refills the trainer’s sweet tea, a staple of the Alabama diet, and asks: “So you got old Deontay going this time?”
“I’m doing my best,” Deas replies with a shrug.
The majority of the last three decades has been an uphill battle for ‘the boxing guy’ in a town generally uninterested in boxing. American football is king in Tuscaloosa and over 100,000 people regularly cram into the Bryant Denny Stadium to watch 17-time national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Somehow, however, Deas has made it work. He was instrumental in the formation of the state commission in 2011, which finally allowed them to stage shows in Alabama (notice how the first 14 fights of Wilder’s professional career took place outside his home state).
“Stupidity, insanity... A lot of words could be used here,” Deas says when asked why he persisted with boxing.
“I did a show when an ice storm meant the whole town shut down. We already had the fighters in a hotel so we would have to pay them anyway.
“We did the show and only 100 people showed up. Another show, a tornado came and knocked a sign into the building where the fight was.
“I feel like when I get to heaven, God is going to say: ‘I did everything I could to get you out of boxing. I sent tornadoes, ice storms and floods but you’re just pig-headed aren’t you?’”
Of course Wilder’s success is helping to turn the crimson tide in their favour. Since emerging as one of the most recognisable faces in American boxing, more and more youngsters are turning up at the doors of the Deas’ Skyy Boxing gym.
“Deontay, to a large degree, has taken away everybody’s excuses,” Deas says, polishing off his last biscuit.
“There was a feeling that, for instance, Alabama would never win at the regionals. Now you can say, ‘Well, Deontay did.’ There goes the excuses.
“When he says he’s the man for the job, he’s absolutely right. He says he’s the man for the job when it comes to Tyson Fury and after everything we’ve been through together, I’m not about to bet against him now.”
‘I’M NOT ABOUT TO BET AGAINST WILDER NOW’
WISE HEAD: Breland takes Wilder on the pads as they prepare to defend the WBC heavyweight title
UNDERSTANDING : Deas has been with Wilder from the beginning
LETTING GO: A motivated Wilder unleashes his power punches on the pads. Deas [right] is the man tasked with marshalling that ability