This Multitalented Teen Fighter's Next Foe? His Dad
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Jeremiah Derby, 18, will soon be fighting in some form on your screens.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Appearances can be totally deceiving. For most adults steeped in the shibboleth of bigger being better, getting a gander at the 5-foot-7, 135-pound Outer Banks, North Carolina, kid Jeremiah Derby tells them nothing. But anything more than just a cursory glance reveals far more than it conceals. That is, to call him grim is not fully correct — he’s much more than hospitable in a Southern way with his “yes sirs” and “no sirs” — but Derby is Determined, with a capital D, where others his age are typically not.
And what he’s determined about in no small measure is being mentioned in the same conversation as guys like wrestling Olympian Dan Gable, martial arts legend Bruce Lee or boxing great Pernell Whitaker. Which he does before taking off on a 5-mile run around the outer bank of Outer Banks. “Yeah, I’m competitive. And intense,” says Derby, whose father, the Earl Woods-esque David “Do or Die” Derby, is standing nearby. “Driven in any of the sports I do. Even mowing the lawn, even though that’s not a sport, I want to do it the best. And part of that ‘best’ is setting impossible and challenging goals.”
Boyhood braggadocio? Maybe … until Derby the Elder unspools his son’s very serious backup: his 149-13 high school wrestling record, two state titles, four conference titles, four regional championships. He’s also won seven of his 11 boxing matches — four straight since training with Pete Joyner, the aforementioned Pernell Whitaker’s former coach and owner of 12 Rounds Boxing Gym. Whitaker’s claim to fame? Outside of being named Fighter of the Year by Ring magazine, he also held the longest unified championship reign in boxing history. So, yeah, that good.
The challenges in the ring, the cage and on the mat mirror life. And in the end we’re all fighting something.
This is all before David even mentioned the two mixed martial arts fights Jeremiah had when he was 8 years old or the fact that he’s been training for just this kind of thing since he was 4. Or that Jeremiah’s mother had to sell some property so she could fund his nutritional and training costs.
“He is a coach’s dream,” Joyner says. “Gives it his all every day, and you never have to worry about ‘Did he run today?’ or his diet. It makes you want to teach him everything you know.” A notion that makes David smile. “When I was 18, I was in prison,” says David, who reveals a laser-focused involvement in Jeremiah’s planned career path — pro in MMA and boxing; wrestling in winter, boxing in the summer; Olympics. David grew up bullied, then angry. An anger that, despite fathering six of Jeremiah’s siblings and winning championships himself in MMA and boxing, framed his approach to fighting very differently from Jeremiah’s. “I would try to hurt people in and out of [the] ring,” David says. “Jeremiah is different. He understood that it was a sport.”
A sport (and good grades) that got him a spot at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for this autumn — a full ride, as part of the Covenant Scholar program, with a spot on the wrestling team. Right in the middle of combat sport civil war, which pits boxing against MMA with a little side action for the “sports” entertainment enterprise of pro wrestling, the fake kind. As boxing grapples with a post–Floyd Mayweather world and the streaming era upends TV deals, athletes in both sports are getting done for pissing dirty, courtesy of performance-enhancing drugs. Or tainted supplements, depending on whom you believe.
Big money or not, it’s still a pretty red-light district-y place to want to drop your ideals, never mind an idealistic kid. “Look, I’ve just always been around fighting,” says Jeremiah, just back from a “quick” 5-mile run. “So I know it takes a great degree of humility in order to work hard and improve. The challenges in the ring, the cage and on the mat mirror life. And in the end we’re all fighting something.”
“People were pretty up in arms when Ramzan Kadyrov tried to promote kids’ MMA,” says MMA commentator Nathan Lee Wilcox. “But despite the rumors of its demise over the years, combat sports are still with us.” It captures the imagination with its existential underpinnings of human against human, and humans against themselves. Without a team and, more importantly, without a fallback: You win or you lose. And even if all of those legends of rugged individualism in the American West are more a myth than anything — and if combat sport athletes do have a plethora of sporting staff, from strength and diet coaches to technical discipline coaches — the singular aspect of two people competing to see who is best? Priceless.
So it goes that on June 2 in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, in one of the weirder twists of fate in a life full of twists, a wrestling match is being booked under the rubric of “18 Years in the Making.” Featuring? Jeremiah Derby and, in full-on Oedipal fashion, David Derby. “We have unfinished business,” David says, laughing. “Jer Bear — what we call him when we don’t call him ‘Honey Badger,’ the only animal that attacks other animals for fun — told me he could beat me before he got out of high school, so it’s dad against son. May the best man win.”
“Crazier things have happened,” Jeremiah says. While according to Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, Jeremiah’s view is all about the long range. “I used to say I wanted to be UFC champ. So much is going on with that organization, but who knows if that will be the No. 1 platform in four years when I get out of college? Dana White could start a boxing league. Or Mayweather could. You just never know.”
A certainty for certain.