Deontay Wilder: A man of many masks

Sports

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Everything is a deliberate choice for Deontay Wilder.

That’s the way longtime bodyguard and personal assistant to the WBC heavyweight champion Chris Bates describes Wilder (42-0-1) and how he approaches every aspect of his career, from his training to what he wears to what he says to the press.

“To be as great as he is, you don’t leave anything to chance,” Bates said. “He takes every detail of his career very seriously. Doesn’t matter how minor or major; everything is taken very seriously.”

Deontay Wilder enters the ring wearing a mask before a WBC heavyweight championship boxing match against Bermane Stiverne Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015, in Las Vegas. Wilder won by unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

However, there’s been at least a few moments the Tuscaloosa native has let fate guide the way, one of them being during a casual stop at a New Orleans costume shop in 2013.

Bates relays the story the way Wilder first told it to him. The fighter happened to be in town for a basketball tournament and had some free time, so he went to a nearby store. Walking down an aisle, he came across a golden Venetian mask.

At first, Wilder didn’t pay any mind to the mask and kept perusing the store. However, he eventually found himself coming back to the mask. Bates said that ‘to this day,’ Wilder can’t explain what it was about the party mask that was so alluring.

“Something drew him back to the mask,” Bates said. “He just got an energy from it. There was something to it, and he bought it.”

As Wilder would later say, it was the mask that chose him, and through its many different forms, it has become just as illustrious as his boxing career.

“With the mask, it’s like a revealing of me,” Wilder said following a pre-fight press conference Tuesday.  “Deontay Wilder is no longer here. What you are witnessing and what you are seeing is the ‘Bronze Bomber.’”

Boxer Bernard Hopkins wears an alien mask during a media workout Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, in Philadelphia. Hopkins is scheduled to fight Karo Murat at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., on Oct. 26. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Masks in boxing

While Wilder’s masks have become synonymous with the fighter himself, he’s not the first boxer to embrace this element of showmanship.

Carlos Acevedo, an award-winning boxing writer and author of the upcoming “Sporting Blood: Tales from the Dark Side of Boxing,” said use of elaborate costumes in boxing goes back as far as Henry “King Tut” Tuttle dressing as an Egyptian pharaoh garb in the 1930s. Another memorable example, in the 1980s, Wilbert “Vampire” Johnson took on the likeness of a vampire, even being brought into the ring in a coffin. However, it was Bernard Hopkins who was among the first major fighters to make masks part of his ring walk, often wearing an executioner mask in the 1990s and, later, an alien mask.

“From that point on, masks became more popular, with Joseph Agbeko, Michael Katsidis, and Jason Escalera, leading up to the current crop,” Acevedo said.

Acevedo believes Wilder’s use of masks and outfits in his ring walk has added a sense of flair and imagination to the sport.

“Ring walks today, especially in Europe, are overblown, garish, and way too long. And, frankly, they are absurd for athletes who need to be properly warmed up or risk the possibility of being caught early and knocked out,” Acevedo said. “Wilder, on the other hand, has a stripped down walk that adds to the air of menace he tries to present. In that sense, his entrances are an improvement from some of the more elaborate productions we’ve seen in the past.” 

Deontay Wilder enters the ring before a WBC heavyweight championship boxing match against Bermane Stiverne Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015, in Las Vegas. Wilder won by unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

The mask remains a mystery to Jay Deas, Wilder’s longtime trainer who has been with him since the very beginning of his career.

“I wish I could take credit for it,” he said. “It’s 100% Deontay.”

However, Deas has his own theories about Wilder’s masks, chalking it up to how presentation is a big part of preparing for a fight.

“He’s always commanded attention because of his height. I thought it was just a continuation of that,” Deas said. “I just thought it would be something that even more people would notice.”

Rev. Gary Wilder, Deontay’s father, also has his theories, but he said, he and his son have not yet spoken on the subject. While he did not initially understand Deontay’s fashion choice, he’s now a fan–the lone exception being one of the boxer’s earlier pieces, outfitted with horns.

“I couldn’t stand it,” the reverend said. “It was evil to me.”

Becoming the King

It’s only been in the last couple of years that Wilder’s masks have reached their current flashy and lavish status. That started when his fiancé, Telli Swift, was shopping on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles a few months before Wilder’s first bout against Tyson Fury (29-0-1) in 2018. She went inside Cosmo’s Glamsquad, where she met costumiers Cosmo Lombino and Donato Crowley. In the store were many of the elaborate masks Lombino and Crowley have designed over the years, some of which have been used in modeling campaigns and for events like Burning Man.

“She had seen one of the masks and said ‘My fiancé wears a mask,’” Crowley said. “We then saw what he was working with and said ‘We can do something so much better.’”

(Courtesy of Ryan Hafey/Haymon Boxing)

The Fury fight on Dec. 1, 2018 marked Wilder’s first collaboration with Lombino and Crowley. He donned a diamante-encrusted gold crown and mask with a feather poncho before facing the British boxer.

“He had stated that he wanted something menacing,” Lombino said. “He wanted to show being the icon and the king.”

Admittedly, neither Lombino nor Crowley knew about Wilder and his mask-wielding reputation when Swift first told them about him. But they knew they wanted to be involved when they realized that the masks were more than just costumes for Wilder. They have enabled him to completely transform his energy and mindset.

“When he is walking out, you see the eyes,” Lombino said. “You see the ferociousness.”

It can take up to 30 hours for the designer duo to complete one of Wilder’s looks, which are reserved for the anticipated moment in which the “Bronze Bomber” makes his entrance.

For Deas, the self-described “least mechanically minded person that you will ever meet,” the work and production of Wilder’s wardrobe has become a feat in itself, something Wilder himself takes a good part in creating and designing.

“These outfits, some of them, have multiple facets and Velcro and zippers,” he said. “We have a guy who is his assistant, and he learned how to do each one of them.”

That job goes to Bates, Wilder’s bodyguard, and Joey Scott, Wilder’s strength and conditioning coach.

“I like all of them because they all show the growth and maturation of Deontay Wilder,” Bates said.

Deas said he has no part in Wilder’s mask or outfit selection. More often, he is one of the last people to see it before a fight, typically as he walks into Wilder’s locker room before the walkout.

“It’s almost like a suit of armor…like he’s gearing up for battle.”

JAY DEAS, DEONTay WILDER’S TRAINER
(Courtesy of Ryan Hafey/Haymon Boxing)

As far as what each mask means, Wilder said it is fairly self-explanatory; he is the “king” of boxing, the “emperor” of the sport. However, Wilder said the presentation is all about setting the tone before the first bell has rung.

“When I wear the mask and when I wear the crown that’s so blinged out, it brings so much attention that it’s like ‘Man, this guy better do something spectacular or he better win to be so cocky to bring something like this out,’” he said.

Bates said that as much as Wilder is getting ready for a fight, he knows that he is also putting on a show.

“How he sees it, when you come to a Deontay Wilder fight, he wants it to be a spectacle,” Bates said. “He wants everyone to talk about everything that went into the production that is the ‘Bronze Bomber.’”

Showing his true self

It took Rev. Gary Wilder remembering his own basketball days at the former Druid High School in Tuscaloosa to understand what his son was doing with the mask.

Rev. Wilder, who stands at 6’6″, recalls how Coach Thomas Martin would let the whole team come out of the locker room to warm up, but would make him stay behind so the other team wouldn’t see him. Then, with five minutes before the start of the game, Martin would wave the elder Wilder to come out.

“You could see the fear in the other team’s eyes,” Wilder said.

Deontay Wilder walks to the ring for the WBC heavyweight championship boxing match against Dominic Breazeale on Saturday, May 18, 2019, in New York. Wilder won in the first round.(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

In the same way, Wilder believes his son uses the mask to make himself invisible.

“I think that’s a way to not expose his real self until it’s time to get in the ring,” he said.

“That makes us dangerous and unpredictable and what it does it plays on a person’s conscience, and that will go a long way,” he said.

Wilder believes his son when he says that the mask and outfit mirror his own personality or whatever personality he wants to take on in that moment.

“When you dress up like a certain thing, you really take on that character of that thing and that person,” he said. “When he put on an assassin outfit, he’s not necessary going out there to kill, but in his mind, he’s saying ‘I’m an assassin of this sport.’”

Deontay Wilder said that through his masks, he’s able to get in touch with another side of himself: the side that needs to win.

“Me having devastating power, it allows me to have that confidence, higher than any other fighter, because I have that ‘X’ factor,” he said. “I have that element that I can get you out from the first round to the 12th round, no matter what time is on the clock.”

LAS VEGAS, NV – JANUARY 17: Deontay Wilder wears a mask during his ring entrance for a title fight against WBC heavyweight champion Bermane Stiverne at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on January 17, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Wilder took the title by unanimous decision. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

Joe Tessitore, a longtime broadcaster for ESPN who will be covering Wilder’s rematch against Fury Saturday night, said he likes the theatrics and personality Wilder brings to the ring with his mask and appearance, becoming a “knockout machine” as he gets ready for each fight.

“He has a love of his hometown that he has a sense that he has to perform to a certain standard,” Tessitore said. “He almost becomes this knockout king type of presence and keeps living to a certain standard.”

Tessitore said the fight Saturday should not be missed.

“Everything is different when it’s the heavyweight champion of the world,” he said. “The moment before the ring walk, I assure you, won’t feel like anything in my career.”

Lombino didn’t reveal details of what Wilder’s upcoming mask and costume would be, except that it would really make a big statement.

“I think this will go down in history.”

Cosmo Lombino, deontay wilder’s costume designer

Wilder’s fight against Tyson Fury will air at 8 p.m. Saturday night on pay-per-view and ESPN +.

WILDER’S MASKS

THE VENETIAN MASK

Deontay Wilder in the ring during his second bout with Bermane Stiverne on November 4, 2017 in New York. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Hafey/Haymon Boxing)

The mask that Wilder first made popular was his golden Venetian mask that he bought at a shop in New Orleans.

“For some reason, it just resonated with him,” trainer Jay Deas said.

Wilder has said just as much when asked about it.

By Deas’ own recollection, Wilder first wore the mask during his fight against Siarhei Liakhovich in 2013 at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California. Wilder won the fight by knockout.

“He really got into it after that,” he said.

Wilder continued to wear the Venetian mask for several more years until after his second fight with Bermane Stiverne in 2017.

THE SKELETON MASK

WBC heavyweight titleholder boxer Deontay Wilder wears a mask during his official weigh-in ceremony Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, at Staples Center in Los Angeles, ahead of his bout against boxer Tyson Fury. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Leading up to his first fight against Tyson Fury, Wilder showed up to the weigh-in ceremony on Nov. 30, 2018 in a black half-skeleton mask with spikes. Wilder did not say a single word during the ceremony.

“I didn’t come here to speak today,” Wilder told boxing reporter Elie Seckbach following the weigh-in. “I’ve promoted this fight for three months. This mask is revealing what is inside of me, so he can see it visually what I mean and what I feel and what I’m thinking. Nothing about this mask says ‘Nice.’”

The mask was used just once and hasn’t appeared in any of Wilder’s subsequent fights since 2018.

THE KING

Deontay Wilder wears a mask into the ring before his WBC heavyweight championship boxing match against Tyson Fury, of England, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Wilder’s first bout against Fury in 2018 marked his collaboration with designers Cosmo Lombino and Donato Crowley with a diamante-encrusted gold crown and mask with a feather poncho.

“He had stated that he wanted something menacing,” Lombino said. “He wanted to show being the icon and the king.”

Crowley said the first piece was made with their own money so that they could show Wilder what they could do to enhance his presence and style.

This first Cosmo and Donato piece would be changed over the next couple of years. All of their work is handmade.

THE WARLORD

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 18: Deontay Wilder looks on before facing Dominic Breazeale during their bout for Wilder’s WBC heavyweight title at Barclays Center on May 18, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Lombino and Crowley said that at the time of Wilder’s fight with Dominic Breazeale, they took some inspiration from “Game of Thrones,” which was entering its final season on HBO at the time.

“We wanted all leather, so we used lamb skin and added to the shorts,” Lombino said.

Wilder’s message for this mask and outfit was simple.

“He wanted to go for something like a warlord,” Crowley said.

A MODERN-DAY KING’

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – NOVEMBER 23: WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder enters the ring for the start of his title fight against Luis Ortiz at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 23, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Wilder retained his title with a seventh-round knockout. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

For his next fight against Luis Ortiz last November, Wilder emerged with a $16,000 white-and-gold suit with a diamond-encrusted mask and crown handcrafted by Lombino and Donato.

The piece was made from Italian crème leather and adorned with thousands of Austrian crystals.

In an interview with TMZ Sports after the knockout, Wilder explained what he was going for with his new look.

“With that we wanted to go into a modern-day king…the old and the new. The outfit represented the old me turning into the new me,” Wilder said. “The past is the past; welcome to the future.”

Deas said the piece really set the mood for the fight.

“There were no musicians or rappers. His outfit was the intro,” Deas said. “His outfit was the ringwalk. That was more than enough to carry the night.”

Of all his masks and outfits over the years, Wilder’s father, Rev. Gary Wilder, said this one is his favorite.

“I guess it was the color,” he said. “That was the brightest one he had and it made him look like a warrior.”


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