If you were to walk a mile in Ben Whittaker’s shoes, there would be a very specific stretch of terrain that you would want to tread. The shoes would be comfortable, and although the path would be treacherous, the learnings would be enlightening.
“I got these brand new Reebok boots,” the 26-year-old recalls to The Independent. “You couldn’t get them really, they were like limited edition – the ones that Amir Khan and Floyd Mayweather wore. I managed to source a pair, so I was like, ‘Ooo, nobody’s got these, let’s go to the gym and beat somebody up.’ So, I went and sparred this kid… and he completely battered me.”
There is a colloquialism, ‘All the gear, no idea,’ but it was at this moment that Whittaker was struck by the most important idea he had ever encountered.
“My nose was bleeding, I was crying a little bit as well,” he says. “I looked over at my dad, and he just shook his head, like: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ We drove home in complete silence, awkwardness. Ever since I felt that embarrassment, it kind of flipped the switch, like I never wanted to feel that again. That was a good eye-opener for me. Of course you can have the confidence, but if you don’t put the hard work in, you’ll get found out.”
Whittaker was glad to instead be doing the finding-out, discovering exactly what was required for him to craft an encouraging amateur career – one that would lead him to the Olympics in Tokyo, and onto his fledgling professional career. Prior to this pugilistic epiphany, however, the Birmingham light-heavyweight was “just like any other kid in the gym”.
“I didn’t really train the hardest,” Whittaker admits. “I’d rather eat McDonald’s and play my PlayStation. Fights were getting harder, because I wasn’t really living the life. When I started cutting out the distractions, it became easier for me, but even then, you get the ups and downs with injuries, decisions not going your way, not performing your best. You think: ‘Bloody hell, is this the right sport for me?’ But I stuck at it, went through the hard times, became an Olympian, and became an Olympic medalist.”
Whittaker mentions his silver-medal moment with a hint of pride, but that emotion is not unblemished. Upon suffering a split-decision defeat by Arlen Lopez of Cuba, Whittaker refused to wear the medal and tweeted: “You don’t win silver, you lose gold. I’m very disappointed – I feel like a failure.” Two years on, he reflects: “It’s 50/50 for me. I’ll always feel that way, and I think if you’re a true competitor – especially a boxer – you should never settle for second.
“I think if I got the bronze medal and lost, maybe I’d have been more grateful, like, ‘Oh, you know, I didn’t make the final.’ But when you make the final, sadly the only person you see is at the top of the podium. When you’re going through the training camp, you don’t hear the coaches say, ‘Punch for that silver medal,’ or ‘bronze’. It’s ‘gold, gold, gold’. The media is all ‘gold, gold, gold’. Working all these years to get to that spot then losing…
“It was a heartbreaker, but it opened so many doors for me. I look back and I am grateful, I’m very proud. I know there are a lot of people that would love to be in my position. But the way I acted, I’d never want to change, because it was me being my true self.”
There was also a cyclical element to the moment; Whittaker’s first memory of boxing is watching Amir Khan claim Olympic silver for Team GB with a loss to a Cuban – Mario Kindelan – at Athens 2004.
“I went on a caravan holiday with my mum, dad and brother, and the Olympics was on,” Whittaker says. “I wasn’t really too interested, I was just running around, but I woke up one morning for breakfast – a couple bangers, beans; you name it, it was there. I looked over, and my dad was glued to the TV, watching the final: Mario Kindelan vs Amir Khan. That’s probably why Kindelan is my actual favourite fighter, because of the way he made it look easy. I was like, ‘Ooo, I like this.’ After that, we got into it.
“That first glimpse of boxing can either capture you and you become a fan of it, or you can go the other way. Luckily I became a fan, got into it, and I’m here now.”
‘Here’ is Manchester, ahead of a clash with Vladimir Belujsky at the AO Arena on Saturday (1 July). The bout, on the undercard of Savannah Marshall’s title fight with Franchon Crews-Dezurn, is the third of Whittaker’s professional career, which consists of three unanswered wins in 2022. And as “The Surgeon” – a nickname referencing the “surgical” nature of Whittaker’s performances – looks to stay unbeaten this weekend, he will draw upon all of his crucial learnings so far, but also the characteristics of his favourite anime character.
A keen fan of the hand-drawn, computer-generated narrative style, Whittaker references Dragon Ball Z anti-hero Vegeta as an unlikely inspiration. “It’s because of his work ethic, his pride, the way he never wants to lose and doesn’t like to be embarrassed,” Whittaker explains. “He pushes down the boundaries. We’ve got the same hairline, too!
“The only thing is, he loses a lot; that’s definitely not me.”
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