Deontay Wilder has delivered a knockout ending nearly every time he’s been in the ring, but was admittedly nearly knocked off his feet when he received a phone call for an unexpected invitation to an overseas trip of a lifetime.
The unbeaten heavyweight titlist recently returned stateside from a vacation in Italy, which came after his explosive 7th round knockout of Luis Ortiz in their rematch this past November in Las Vegas, Nevada. The much needed decompression period was very much on his radar following his latest win, but a phone call from the World Boxing Council (WBC) to accompany the sanctioning body brass to visit Pope Francis was not at all what he expected.
“When I got the call from Mauricio, that was the connection to see the Pope,” Wilder (42-0-1, 41KOs) explained to BoxingScene.com of the dream scenario of mixing business with pleasure in the past few weeks. “When they asked us to do that, we decided to make a trip out of it, get a little vacation and a quick turnaround.
“I had a beautiful vacation, we met Pope Francis, it was such a tremendous honor to be there. I got to stand in The Colosseum—man, the whole journey was just checking off bucket list (items).”
Being in the presence of the holy figure and in historic surroundings was a humbling experience to Alabama’s Wilder, who is now closing in on six years as the WBC’s reigning heavyweight titlist. The 34-year old knockout artist is used to being in the presence of greatness, but gained an even broader perspective on life well beyond the ropes both through travel and in speaking directly with the pope.
“It was such a tremendous honor to talk to him,” admits a humbled Wilder. “He’s a big boxing fan as well. It was just incredible to be around so many important people, so many different people and families getting along and interacting even through language barriers.
“It was just so amazing to see. Man, I’m still talking about this trip. Every time I go to another country, the people are so passionate, they embrace you. They lift you up. It’s almost like the opposite back home, where so many egos get in the way and people want to hold you down.”
Wilder didn’t have any problem putting his ego in check once abroad—not even when it came time to connect with the last man to defeat him in the ring.
“Man, I even had the opportunity to meet up with Clemente Russo,” Wilder said of his old amateur rival, against whom he fell short in settling for a Bronze medal during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “I can’t lie, it was nice reuniting with him. The whole time there, I was wondering if I would get to see him.”
Russo went on to capture a Silver medal in the 2008 Olympics and repeat in 2012 London before falling one win short of the medal round in 2016 Rio.
As for Wilder, he hasn’t tasted defeat since that night, his Bronze medal win marking the only medal claimed by the 2008 U.S. Olympic Boxing team—and the only male boxer to medal until 2016. The closest he’s come to suffering a loss in the pro ranks came last December, when a pair of late knockdowns versus unbeaten top-rated heavyweight Tyson Fury helped bail him out on the scorecards as the bout was ruled a split decision draw.
The two are prepared to run it back, with the yet-to-be-announced title fight rematch tentatively set for February 22 in Las Vegas. Getting in a vacation was important to Wilder following the heavily-promoted rematch with Ortiz and the start of what will be a grueling training camp to prepare for England’s Fury (29-0-1, 20KOs), whom has already opened as a slight betting favorite with some sportsbooks.
“That vacation, everything about it was just perfect,” notes Wilder. “Now we back, it’s time to get back in the gym and get ready to add Tyson Fury to my personal highlight reel.”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox