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

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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


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.”




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

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