Bling for the ring: Deontay Wilder, Jake Paul and the evolution of boxing fashion

DEONTAY WILDER PULLED up to Cosmo & Donato on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, California, in a custom-made black-and-bronze Rolls Royce. It was late summer, about six weeks before his highly anticipated trilogy boxing match with Tyson Fury.

The former WBC heavyweight champion stepped out of the lavish vehicle as shoppers on one of Los Angeles’ most iconic streets gathered around. Wilder greeted fans, signed autographs and held babies before heading inside the store. There, he tried on some new clothes and did faux runway modeling for the owners, Cosmo Lombino and Donato Crowley.

After about an hour, it was time for Wilder to do what he came for: see for the first time and try on the walkout gear he will be wearing for the third Fury fight.

“We go in the back, open the door and we reveal the costume,” Lombino said. “And he’s like, ‘Oh my god.’ He was so grateful. … He was so happy. He was like the kid in the candy store again.”

Wilder is known almost as much for his fashion as he is for being one of the biggest knockout punchers in boxing history. His $40,000, over-the-top entrance outfit for the second Fury fight in February 2020 is the most talked about — and controversial — piece of clothing ever worn by a boxer, in part because Wilder blamed the weight of it for his loss.

But “The Bronze Bomber” is undeterred. Lombino and Crowley will dress him for a fight for the fifth straight time Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Wilder wants to continue pushing the boundaries of fashion in boxing.

“Nobody comes out with a better uniform than I,” Wilder said last month during a virtual news conference. “We’re gonna continue with that. We’ll just have to see what I put on. It’s gonna be something special.”

Wilder’s not the only one pushing the boundaries of fashion in boxing. In August, YouTuber-turned-prizefighter Jake Paul wore a scrolling LED screen on the waistband of his boxing shorts for his fight against Tyron Woodley.

Following in the swagger-filled footsteps of boxing fashion icons such as “Prince” Naseem Hamed and Hector “Macho” Camacho, Wilder and Paul are part of a new wave that has created a ton of buzz but also has onlookers questioning if fashion could be detrimental to the main objective of the sport: winning fights.

Lombino and Crowley, who have dressed the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Claressa Shields and Shawn Porter, created a trilogy fight costume for Wilder that is partly inspired by the fighter’s roots, which he says go back to Nigeria’s Edo tribe.

“Fashion is how you express yourself,” Wilder told ESPN. “That’s everyday life. Certain people look at your shoes and they say they can tell everything about you. If you got dirty shoes, they know what type of person you are.

“When I come out, I express myself with certain uniforms and things that I wear. I think I’ve been the best in the history of boxing to do it.”

PAULIE MALIGNAGGI WAS 17 years old in 1997 when he went to see Hamed fight Kevin Kelley at New York’s Madison Square Garden. On the undercard that night were two neophyte pro boxers who would go on to become world champions: Ricky Hatton and Joan Guzman.

Years later, Malignaggi vividly recalls watching Guzman fight but cannot remember seeing Hatton at all. The reason? Guzman had bleach blonde hair and wore a flashy outfit.

“It’s ironic,” said Malignaggi, who went on to headline at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas against Hatton in 2008. “But it still stood out to me that I did not remember Ricky, because he probably didn’t stand out in as many ways. … But Guzman, I paid attention because I remember he had a silly style, really [memorable]. He had this yellow hair. It just stuck out to me.”

Inspired by the likes of Hamed, Camacho and even Guzman, Malignaggi was once one of the most flamboyant stars in boxing. He wore leopard print and sequined robes to the ring, and even once wore a lucha libre mask. Before a 2011 fight with Jose Cotto, he wore a black-and-gold painted mask over his eyes and had paints of the same colors on his chest and arms during the weigh-in. He looked like what the WWF’s Ultimate Warrior might have looked like if he were born in Brooklyn.

“I wanted to have this extra pizzazz to me and my style,” Malignaggi said. “This sort of flair to me. Just become a bigger conversation point. I think knowing how to sell yourself and market yourself is very important.”

Malignaggi’s affinity for style is also a cautionary tale. In 2008, he wore Lennox Lewis-like braids in his hair, in a bout against Lovemore N’Dou in Manchester, England. The braids were not pulled back well. Malignaggi said they were in his face the entire fight and almost cost him the IBF junior welterweight title. He ended up winning a split decision.

AFTER FURY BEAT Wilder by TKO on Feb. 22, 2020, Wilder said in interviews that the weight of his walkout costume — which he estimated was upwards of 40 pounds — caused him fatigue that he never was able to recover from inside the ring. Wilder’s costume, which was a tribute to Black History Month, featured a helmet with electronic red eyes, plus a crown and body armor. Lasers were built in to shoot from his hands.

Malignaggi doesn’t necessarily buy that Wilder lost to Fury due to the outfit. But he acknowledges, based on firsthand knowledge, that trying to make a big splash visually isn’t always conducive to winning fights.

“Sometimes you can get carried away trying so hard and you lose focus on the main task at hand, which is you have to go in there and win the fight and perform,” Malignaggi said. “You’re not heading to a party. You’re not heading to the Met Gala or a ball where you just get to make fashion statements and that’s all that people talk about.”

Lombino said he and Crowley were “mortified” by Wilder saying their costume affected his performance. But two days after he left the hospital postfight, Wilder did a FaceTime call with them and they talked it through. Wilder blamed his coach, Mark Breland, the designers said, for creating the heavy costume narrative. Wilder has since fired Breland, who threw in the towel to end the second fight against Fury, and replaced him with another boxer-turned-trainer, Malik Scott, for this third Fury fight.

Lombino said earlier this year they shipped Wilder his costume from Los Angeles and weighed it. The costume was not 40 pounds, he said, and in fact was not much heavier than the previous four costumes he and Crowley had made for Wilder.

“Maybe it was a bit heavier [than the others] because of the battery pack in the head frame and shoulder frame,” Crowley said.

Lombino and Crowley had sketches ready for Wilder back in June 2020, for what was expected to be a third fight against Fury. The idea was going to be a USA vs. United Kingdom theme. But the COVID-19 pandemic and Fury moving away from a Wilder rematch and towards a plan to fight Anthony Joshua changed things.

After Wilder won arbitration to uphold the contract for a third Fury fight, the date of the rematch was set for July 2021. Lombino and Crowley said they were only in touch with Wilder and his girlfriend, Telli Swift, weeks before what would have been the July date. But after the fight was delayed again after Fury tested positive for COVID, the extra time allowed them to scramble and have a costume ready for Saturday.

This one, they said, will be considerably lighter. Not that they have any regrets about the last one.

“As many people that hated it loved it, but everybody is talking about it,” Crowley said. “You’re always going to have those people who are old-school and don’t want anything to change, but why shouldn’t it? Why can’t a boxer walk out like that? They’ve always worn flags out there or the messages of what they have to say. Why can’t they be whoever they want to be at that point? We basically created a new superhero. We brought ‘The Bronze Bomber’ to life in visual form.”

PAUL’S ENTIRE BOXING career has been about pushing the envelope and disruption. He’s only 4-0 as a pro, yet he’s one of the most talked about fighters in the world, backed by tens of millions of followers on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. It only stands to reason that he would try to stand out from a fashion sense, as well.

For his November 2020 fight against former NBA veteran Nate Robinson, Paul wore shorts made by his designer, Che Young, which were supposed to glow in a certain light. But the lighting used at Staples Center in Los Angeles that night was too dim, and the effect was lost.

After Paul knocked out Ben Askren in April, he and Young sat down and came up with the idea of a different form of lighting: LED. Paul said he was partly inspired by the lights on his Problem Bot mascot and Young said he took his idea from the video billboards in Times Square in his native New York City.

Paul wore a paper-thin band of what is called LED Matrix screen sewn beneath the waistband of his shorts for the Aug. 29 fight with Woodley. There also was a small battery pack in the shorts, which had a kind of plastic, waterproof window that allowed for everyone to see what was scrolling on the LED screen. Paul said the shorts cost him about $15,000. He said the gear wasn’t any heavier or warmer than his previous fight shorts, though he’s not sure what would have happened if Woodley landed any blows to the LED area.

“It could potentially break the screen, for sure,” Paul said with a laugh. “We actually didn’t test that. Maybe for the next one, we should test that. …. I guess if I got hit there with a good punch, then yeah, it might have turned off or something. But it wouldn’t hurt. It’s literally like LED paper. It’s honestly crazy technology. It’s super light.”

The LED only scrolled the words “Jake Paul” throughout the fight, but that wasn’t the plan. Young was controlling the LED with an app on his smartphone, but the phone lost Bluetooth connectivity with Paul’s shorts because of all the people using the Wi-Fi inside Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. The idea was to change what the shorts said throughout the fight. As to what they had planned for messaging, Young isn’t saying.

“We have to keep that a secret for the next time,” Young said.

For Paul’s walkout gear, Young ordered about a dozen jerseys and gear from Ohio sports teams, cut them up and sewed them together — “like a puzzle,” he said — into a robe.

“I truly want to be the future of boxing and I think I’m doing all of the things to line that up,” Paul said. “My fight shorts just speak to that.”

Regis Prograis, a former WBA junior welterweight champion, said he felt like Paul’s shorts were very on-brand for what he is trying to accomplish. LED shorts made sense for a 24-year-old Paul the same way a ski mask made sense for Floyd Mayweather’s walkout against Conor McGregor, a fight Mayweather described as a sanctioned bank robbery.

“[Paul] is in this new era right now — the social media, YouTube era,” Prograis said. “That’s who he is; he’s a part of that whole culture. For him to do that, it was kind of cool. I think if, like, me or another boxer did it, I think it would be kind of corny. But for him, it was kind of fire.

“You’ve got to be authentic. That’s the main thing. You can’t do what other people are doing. For him, that’s authentic. That’s his lane.”

PROGRAIS’ NICKNAME IS “Rougarou,” the name of a werewolf-like creature from Creole myth. Prograis is from New Orleans and it was his team’s idea after his fourth career fight to give him that nickname. Since his 10th fight, Prograis has walked out to the ring wearing a “Rougarou” mask, which he has since upgraded to a $1,000 custom piece. He has added Native American garb to honor his indigenous grandfather, who died last year.

Shields has walked out clad in themes of Beyoncé and Kobe Bryant. Adrien Broner and Gervonta “Tank” Davis always have eye-catching walkout garb. Fury has been carried to the ring on a throne. Joshua’s walkouts in the United Kingdom are particularly spectacular. The spectacle has become a big — and, for some, necessary — part of boxing.

“At the end of the day, boxing is a show,” Prograis said. “It’s a sport, but it’s a show like anything on TV.”

But no other boxers are known for their walkout gear quite like Wilder — and that’s the way he wants it. Wilder said in a TikTok video on the Cosmo and Donato account that his costume for Saturday will be “topping” everything else he has worn to this point.

Lombino and Crowley worked with an African studies specialist and had fabric shipped from Africa to make the outfit, which will heavily utilize the colors black and red. Wilder called the piece a “beautiful masterpiece.”

“It runs through my bloodline,” Wilder said. “I just want to bring that out more, the tribe I’m with and where I’m from. We’re all a part of something, we’re all from something.”

On Saturday, Wilder will be looking to get back the WBC belt Fury took from him. And after more than a year of fashion statements from others in boxing, Wilder’s designers are eager to make another statement of their own.

“We’re coming back for our title, too,” Crowley said.

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