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Ben Whittaker – The road to the top

Sport

Ben Whittaker scored a silver medal at the Olympics, but ahead of his first professional fight, the young boxer tells Jordan Edwards that his ambitions go way higher than that...

Despite fighting on the undercard of Hughie Fury vs Michael Hunter, there’s no doubt whatsoever that all eyes will be on Ben Whittaker. As part of Team GB’s record breaking squad, the Olympic Silver Medallist is set to make his highly anticipated professional boxing debut soon (date TBC as the Fury vs Hunter is rescheduled due to illness). Having officially joined the professional ranks on 11th May, Whittaker has already set his eyes on the top; with designs on becoming the greatest British boxer in the history of the sport. He’s not alone in backing himself. He has recently teamed up with Tyson Fury’s ex-coach, Sugarhill Steward, and he comes with the support of the likes of Anthony Joshua; describing Whittaker as a ‘future Pay Per View star’.

With no shortage of confidence and charisma, the man from Wolverhampton has the world of sport buzzing right now. His name is on everyone’s lips and the excitement for his professional debut is building by the day. Ben recently sat down with us to discuss the journey that led him to where he is today, the disappointment of the Tokyo Olympics and to give us a little insight into the life of the man who’s set to take the boxing world by storm.

So, there’s no better place to start than right at the beginning. How did you first get into boxing?

The journey was pretty much like any other kid really. I was doing all types of sports; football, dancing, you name it. I was actually diagnosed with ADHD when I was quite young which meant that I was bouncing off the walls and I was always getting into trouble at school. That’s when my dad decided to take me down to the gym. First and foremost, he knew that I needed to be taught some discipline but then after that it was like a snowball effect for me. I really started liking it and I could see myself getting better and better. When I got to the age of 15; my dad sat me down and said ‘Listen. You have to pick between football and boxing. I’m not gonna lie to you, you’re rubbish at football!’ – so when your dad says something like that, you have to listen so I said to myself ‘Alright, if he thinks that, I may as well give my all to boxing.’ – so I gave it my all and I’m happy I did.

When you first set foot in the gym all those years ago, how long did it take for you to realise that this was the sport for you?

Truthfully, my first impressions? I didn’t like it if I’m honest. I thought it was too hard, man! You have to run, you have to diet and all that stuff but my dad said to me ‘Boxing will be like school’. I’d go down to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so he said ‘Just like the way you go to school, you’ll be doing your boxing. Whether you’re enjoying it or not, it’s gonna give you discipline’. So once I was in that mindset, I knew Monday was coming and I just had to get through the session. Then Wednesday came and it was the same again. Don’t get me wrong, I had the talent and I looked good in sparring but I was just always unfit. Then the coach came round to all the lads and he said  ‘Listen, the home shows are coming up.’ He gave us the date and said ‘Whoever wants to fight, let me know so we can sort out the medicals’. It was kind of a spur of the moment thing but I wanted to be able to show off to my dad, so I signed up, did the medical, and when I got home I said ‘Ay dad, I’m boxing next week’. He was pretty shocked that I didn’t run it by him or my mum first but, like I said, it was quite a spontaneous decision – I had no shorts, no boots – nothing! I had to quickly run down to TK Maxx to pick up some Dunlop boots and I had to borrow one of the kids shorts from the gym but we made it work! From then on I started getting used to it and by the time I was around fifteen or sixteen, I started taking it seriously.

Of course, last year you were at the Tokyo Olympics. I can imagine it was very different to what you were planning for – no crowds, no family, no energy really. What impact did that have on you?

It’s a difficult one because, in some ways, I was already used to that. When I was on the Team GB squad we were travelling to places like Russia and Kazakhstan where nobody was there to watch you – it was literally just you, your cornerman and the opponent but of course, it would’ve been nice for my family to have been there for such a big moment in my career. Not only that, I watched the Olympics in 2012 and in 2016 so I saw the raw atmosphere, the emotion. Part of me was expecting that type of thing and then you walk out to a hall with nobody there – it was a bit weird but it almost made it easier in a way because I just treated it as another sparring session then. There was no pressure or anything like that. It was just another bout.

I know how disappointed you were to come away with the silver medal, and obviously you took the medal off pretty quickly. You got a bit of stick for that but do you think, now some time has passed, there’s anything you’ve taken from the Tokyo experience as a whole?

Yeah there’s definitely a lot you can take from it. Firstly, getting that medal has ultimately opened a lot of doors for me. It’s given me the platform, it brought me to the attention of all these promoters and it just helped get that little buzz around me. Not only that, the loss I did take; I’ve learned from it. I know I need to do a bit more in closer fights now so it’s all a learning curve and yeah I got a bit of stick for the way I reacted at the ceremony but I watched the Champions League Final the other day. The Liverpool players took their medals off straight away and nobody said anything. Regardless of all that, I know I’m a winner at heart. I’ve had that mindset since I was a kid so I think that will take me far in this game.

I see, when you got back from Tokyo, you were wearing another kind of medal. You became the Mayor of Wolverhampton for the day, right?

Truthfully, I think that must’ve been the ADHD because when I’m excited or happy, I just start talking rubbish! So when I came out of the ring, I was buzzing that I’d just won a fight in the Olympics; all the cameras and all the lights were on me and the first thing that came to my head, for some reason, was ‘I wanna be the Mayor. I wanna get the kids some grills, some chains and all this kinda stuff’. It blew up a lot more than I expected! When I got back home, the whole city of Wolverhampton really got behind me and made me Mayor for the day. It was really good to bring some light onto Wolverhampton and I really enjoyed that experience.

I’m still paying for it though! Just the other day, I had a kid messaging me saying ‘what the hell’s going on with these Playstations and grills then, bro? I’m still waiting’. I said ‘it was only a joke man. Calm yourself down’. Y’know what I mean, I think people took it a bit too seriously but I really need to stop making these promises before it gets out of hand!

Obviously, more recently, you’ve turned pro. How long has that been on the cards and how’s the transition been from the amateur ranks?

To be honest, I was thinking about it before Tokyo because, remember, COVID was everywhere and there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether the Olympics would even go ahead. So, with everything still up in the air, I’d already made my mind up that I’d be turning pro but luckily enough, the Olympics worked out for us. Despite that, I think it’s been in my head since I was a kid, that eventually I would make the move over to the pro ranks just because I grew up watching professional boxing so it was more a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.

The announcement itself was only a few weeks ago but I feel like the transition has been pretty seamless, to be fair. In the ring, I like to take my time and pick my shots carefully which is emphasised a lot in the professional game so it hasn’t been something that’s overwhelmed me or anything like that.

Actually, the lead up to the announcement was crazy! Nobody knew where I was going and truthfully, sometimes I didn’t even know myself but I made the right decision for me. All I can do now is just build and add to my game. I know I’m not the finished product. I know I need to learn and work on things but with that mindset, I’m an open book; I’ve just gotta keep taking it all in.

And, of course, you’ve recently linked up with Sugarhill Steward. What’s he like to work with?

It’s so funny taking him out in Birmingham! Talk about a culture shock! We’ve been to a few Fish & Chip shops (just like, your normal everyday places) and last night he kept asking the woman ‘Do you have any tartar sauce?’ I think she was as confused as I was. I had to pull him aside and say ‘Big man, just calm yourself’. How many Fish & Chip shops are stocking tartar sauce??

Seriously though, I’m really enjoying working with him because he’s a real teacher. His main thing is just about getting everything right so he’ll break things down for me step-by-step. He’s not one of those people that tries to do flashy padwork just to look good for Instagram. He’ll literally break everything down; get back to the basics. He’ll keep what I’m already good at whilst adding to it. I really like it as a little link up.

To be honest, it was a pretty easy decision for me to go with Sugar. I did a little tour in America and a little tour in England trying to find the right man for me and his style of coaching just made complete sense. Not only that, I’ve now got the best of both worlds. I can go to Miami or Las Vegas with him when I’m ready, and he can come over to the UK whereas with a lot of trainers you end up either being stuck in England all the time or stuck in America all the time. I didn’t need any more convincing after that!

You said you’re in Birmingham now. I’m guessing that’s your basecamp for the next few weeks, up until fight night.

Yeah, I think I’ve only got about three weeks of solid training left so nothing hard now, just getting the sparring in, fine tuning a few things and learning Sugar’s style a bit more. That’s it really.

So speaking of that then, I know it’s been such a brief amount of time with Sugar, but what would you say has been the most important thing that he’s taught you, so far, about your game?

The main thing has just been about controlling the distance. I’m a beautiful boxer, everyone knows my beautiful movement but it’s about understanding that I don’t have to move too much if I want to be an efficient fighter. Something that gets levelled at me a lot is people thinking I can’t punch but Sugar can bring the punch out from not moving too much, if that makes sense. So, instead of taking two steps back, maybe just take a half step back and then your power’s there, whereas sometimes I punch too far out of range. So just little things like that really; they’re all things that I already know but he’s great at drilling them each week and each day so ultimately I become second-to-none.

He knows that I’ve already got the foundations there and he wants me to keep my style but just add that little bit of venom into my shots; being able to add that hurt, especially when you’re in the hurt business which is the pro game. People are here to see knockouts so if he can add that to my game, with my boxing skills, it’s gonna be a problem.

Superstars have a certain way about them. Aside from the obvious ability and the dedication to master their craft; they also have a level of confidence and self-belief that’s hard to match. Is that something you’ve consciously developed or is it just naturally part of you?

Truthfully, I’m just being myself. Sometimes I say things I shouldn’t say but that’s just me and when it comes to confidence; it’s no secret that I’m a very confident person purely because of the way I train. I’m training 3 or 4 times a day, y’know; I really put in the work so it allows me to be confident. Not only that, but I tick a lot of boxes outside of the ring. I’m into my anime so I touch that side of things. I can go down the fashion route and things like that, so there’s so much going for me in terms of avenues to go down but first things first, I’ve gotta get the boxing right. That’s what me and my dad always say; ‘If the boxing ain’t right, nothing else will work!’ and people think ‘Oh, he’s messing around on Instagram’ but if I wasn’t serious, I would’ve stayed at my local gym with my amateur coach and just beat up some bums but instead I’ve gone out of my way to get one of the best coaches in the world so it shows how serious I’m taking it. With that dedication and mindset, I think that will lead me towards becoming a superstar but I’m not chasing superstar status. It’ll come at the right time.

What is the mood like in the camp right now, with regards to the upcoming fight?

It’s just fun and games really. I don’t want it to become too serious because if it’s always too serious it becomes a long day. Obviously, when we get to the gym, it’s nothing but work but in the house, we’re having a laugh. We’ve got my Playstation set up and Sugar’s like my eyes and ears on there. He’s terrible at Call Of Duty but he spots people out for me so we’re just doing things like that, keeping it enjoyable while we’re at the house but, like I said, when we get to the gym, it’s nothing but work.

In terms of me personally, I’m treating it as just another day at the office. It sounds like a cliche but it’s true. I’ve been sparring since I was seven and fighting since I was eleven so I’m not an amateur in this game. I’ve had 120 fights and this is just another one coming up really. Exactly the same but with longer rounds.

We haven’t confirmed an opponent yet but we’ve been looking at a few people. My main concern is to just focus on myself though; fine-tuning things, sorting out the last few details so whoever’s in the opposite corner, it doesn’t really matter to me. Just make sure you come in-shape!

I know you said you’re just focussing on yourself, but is it a different feeling at this stage, when you don’t know who it’s going to be?

Not really because it’s something that I’ve got a lot of experience in. The amateur ranks are obviously different but when you go to the World Championships, there are 36 boxers at your weight from all different countries. You don’t know who the hell you’re gonna box! Everyone weighs-in, the coaches come back and say ‘OK Ben, at 15:00 today, you’re fighting Russia’. There’s no time for umming and ahhing about what’s going on, you just have to get on with it. If you beat him, you come out of the ring and it starts all over again. You make weight the next day – ‘OK Ben, you’ve got so and so’, so I’m used to the unexpected really and luckily enough with that amateur experience, I learned to adapt quickly to different styles so that’s where that experience is priceless.

So with that being said then, what can we expect from you when you fight?

I’ll be putting on a show for the people! It’s gonna be like Dancing With The Stars; it’s gonna be like Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent; it’s gonna be all that mixed into one package, man. I’m gonna two-step on them. I’m gonna dance, I’m gonna have fun. I’ll be like ‘Ooo who’s that in the crowd, man?’ and then BOOM; I’m gonna hit him like that!’ Then, when I’m ready, I’m gonna take him out. No one wants to sit there all day and just see dancing so I’m gonna have my little fun, have my little mess around; my little feel out rounds and then when I say ‘Y’know what? I’m bored, man’ I’m gonna go and knock him out. That’s how it is.

And finally, what does the long term future hold for you?

Long term for me, obviously I want to be a World Champion. Unified, Undisputed all those types of things and I kinda sit right between the weights as well. Even as of now, I’m walking around at 81kg so I can up it and down it when I want – I just need to cut out the Krispy Kreme’s and the curry goat and we’re laughing! I keep saying it though; I just wanna go down as one of Britain’s best boxers ever. When it’s all said and done, they’ll put my name with the Calzaghe’s and people like that because I want my name to live on forever.

 

Ben Whittaker will be fighting at the AO Arena in Manchester on 2nd July. Get your tickets at www.boxxer.com/tickets or catch it live exclusively on Sky Sports.

Words: Jordan Edwards

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