Ask Rufus: A tale of two boxers in Columbus


Tuscaloosa boxer Deontay Wilder came to Columbus in 2008 to help honor Columbus native and world champion boxer Henry Armstrong. Today, Wilder is also a world champion.

Tuscaloosa boxer Deontay Wilder came to Columbus in 2008 to help honor Columbus native and world champion boxer Henry Armstrong. Today, Wilder is also a world champion. Photo by: Courtesy photo/Uncle Bunky


Rufus Ward



It's always interesting how things can come back and make a full circle. Such was the case last weekend. In 2008, Columbus celebrated the career and life of the legendary world champion boxer Henry Armstrong, who had been born on Nash Road just north of town. Helping with the celebration was Olympic bronze medal winning boxer Deontay Wilder from Tuscaloosa. Last weekend in a Las Vegas bout Wilder won the WBC world heavyweight boxing championship. 


The link between Armstrong, Wilder and Columbus occurred in October 2008. That year, from Friday, Oct. 10, to Monday, Oct. 13, 2008, Columbus celebrated the life and legacy of native son Henry Armstrong. It was a unifying event that brought all segments of the community together. Even the old abandoned Frierson's Cemetery where Armstrong's mother was buried was cleaned up through joint efforts of volunteers from Columbus Air Force Base, local firefighters and with the assistance of the city and county. 


While the event was in its planning stage, Oliver Miller suggested that Deontay Wilder, who had won a boxing bronze medal at the last Olympics, be invited to attend. Oliver extended the invitation and Wilder not only came but participated in all of the events. Also attending the event to honor Armstrong was Clarence Witherspoon. Boxing great "Smokin" Joe Frazier was unable to attend but sent a letter telling of Armstrong's influence on him and an autographed pair of boxing gloves. The following spring Oliver put together a professional fight at the Trotter Convention Center for Wilder. It was Wilder's second professional fight but first verified match according to the Boxing Record. 


Armstrong was born at his family's home on Nash Road just north of Columbus near the Stennis/Columbus Lock and Dam in 1912. His parents were Henry and America Jackson. While he was still a child the family moved to St Louis. After he began boxing, he changed his name from Jackson to Armstrong to honor his trainer, Harry Armstrong. 


Armstrong is consistently ranked as one of the greatest boxers of all time. He is the only boxer to have ever simultaneously held undisputed world championships in three different classifications -- featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight -- at the same time. Ring magazine in 2007 called him the second greatest fighter of the last 80 years. He is in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, where he is called one of the greatest boxers of all time and his 1937 exploits are called one of boxing's greatest achievements. That year he fought 27 times, including five against top 10 opponents. He won all 27 fights, including 26 by knockouts. After retiring from boxing, Armstrong devoted his life to Christian ministry and working with youth. He died in 1988. 


Deontay Wilder is a native of Tuscaloosa who was born in 1985 and entered the national spot light in 2008, when he won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. In November 2008, he fought his first professional match at the Vanderbilt University Gymnasium, which he won by technical knockout in the second round. That fight, though, is not listed by Boxing Record as a verified fight. His first verified fight took place at the Trotter Convention Center on March 6, 2009. The fight was brought to Columbus by the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau and Oliver Miller. Wilder won that fight by TKO in the first round. 


Last weekend, Wilder faced Bermane Stiverne at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for the WBC World Heavyweight title. Wilder's record was 32-0 and Stiverne's was 24-0-1. Wilder won the title in a 12 round unanimous decision. On Saturday, Wilder was honored with a parade through downtown Tuscaloosa. 


I met Deontay Wilder at the Henry Armstrong celebration and spent a great deal of time talking with him during the different events. I was very impressed with him as a person devoted to his children. He said he had started boxing to make money to help cover the medical expense of his daughter who had a major health issue. 


Wilder helped make the Armstrong event the success that it was and added to the unity that it brought to the community. It is good to see the circle completed. Wilder, who had helped honor a world champion in Columbus, is now himself a world champion.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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