David Cook: Getting punched by an Olympic boxer

David Cook: Getting punched by an Olympic boxer

July 13th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It hurts. Unbelievably so. Like getting hit on the side of your head with a horseshoe while it's still attached to the horse.

And it's true. You really do see stars.

But what I didn't see was his fist. One moment I'm in the middle of the ring and the next I've been Fed-Ex'ed into the ropes. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 equal to my great-grandmother and 10 equal to the wrath of God -- I'd rank his punch at a 79.

"It was a 2," said Deontay Wilder.

Monday morning, my grand idea: Go a round or two with Deontay Wilder. Who's Deontay Wilder, you ask?

"I'm going to be the heavyweight champion of the world," he predicted.

In 2008, Deontay was the only member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team to medal, winning bronze. He'd only started amateur boxing two years before.

In 2005, his daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida. Deontay - who had been playing community college basketball in Alabama -- dropped out of school and took two jobs. Drove his newborn girl to surgery. Gained weight. Lost hope.

Then he walked into a Tuscaloosa boxing gym.

"Eight months after he started boxing, he was on the Olympic team," said Joe Smith, part of the 2008 Olympic coaching staff. "Six months later, he's on a Beijing podium."

Joe Smith - whom I'm nicknaming St. Joe - runs the Westside Boxing Club on Central Avenue in Chattanooga. Every day of the year, he's got kids coming in off the streets for the St. Joe medicine: tutoring, boxing, support, gardening, love and the Gospels.

This week, he hosted Boxing Not Bullets, a weeklong intensive boxing camp for nearly 50 kids that included hot breakfast, boxing, morning devotionals and special guests.

Like Deontay.

"Don't be a sitting target," said Andy Smith, St. Joe's son, who also has trained Olympians. He fitted me for gloves and headgear and walked me to my corner. Laughing, I noticed.

Look. I know more about a French press than bench press. Deontay (23-0 with 23 knockouts) is 6 foot 7 and 240 pounds. I'm not. His arms seem to stretch across the ring. Mine were like T-rex arms. This was David vs. Goliath, with God in the giant's corner.

But how often does the chance come to get in a ring with a future heavyweight champ?

"The jab is the most important," Deontay coached.

Jabbing is what St. Joe and Andy do every day. They jab down at hopelessness, poverty, street violence. They jab away at evil in the world, with its too-tight grip on so many of our young people.

"This is my other family," said Slade Corvin, 15. "They teach you a lot of things, but every single day is how much God loves you."

I connected a jab or two on Deontay. I'm not sure he noticed. After about one round of easy sparring, I told him: "All right. Turn this up. Let's see what it really looks like to have you come at me."

Moments later, as Deontay-the-friendly-guy turned into the Bronze Bomber, one tiny thought squeaked across my mind: "Oh my. What have I done?"

He faked with his left hand. I remember that. And that was the bait for his right hand - which BoxingNews24.com called "the biggest power punch in boxing right now" - to connect with my head.

"You took it," he said later. "You leaned into it."

Yeah. Leaned into it. The way ocean seals just lean into great white sharks.

I hit the ropes. But I didn't fall, and it feels good as hell to write that.

"You did great," said Deontay.

Heck of a boxer, that Deontay. Pretty bad liar.

But here's the truth: Deontay gave up his own training (he's got a big fight next month) to come to Chattanooga and tell these kids his story: How boxing and God have saved him, and how his little girl now is the smartest -- and fastest -- kid in the first grade.

St. Joe - a real Chattanooga hero - listened and smiled. Nearby was Andy, who had been invited to help train the London-bound Olympic boxing team but turned it down to hang out with these kids. Tons of volunteers were there. And, most importantly, the kids themselves, looking for somebody in their corner against a troubled world that seems to hit back so hard.

Like I said. Stars, everywhere.