Whenever legendary trainer SugarHill Steward has been asked to describe Ben Whittaker, his go-to response has been to compare him to Roy Jones Jr. The light-heavyweight himself thinks a little differently.
“Everyone wants to grow up to be a Roy Jones Jr,” he says. “But I’m Ben Whittaker. All I can control is what I can do. If I listen to people like Sugar, don’t get ahead of myself and stay dedicated, I’ll be one of the best.”
Whittaker is speaking to Yo days out from his professional debut, when he fights Sunderland’s Greg O’Neill (record 6-6-1) in Bournemouth. For most boxing fans, this will be the first time they have seen him since he won an Olympic silver in Tokyo, but he later had to apologize for abruptly taking it off because, in his words from him, “you do n’t win silver, you lose gold”.
It is a pity, he admits, that the public did not get to see more of his personality, which in reality is very different from the one he portrays in the ring.
“I was diagnosed with ADHD, so sometimes I say things I shouldn’t say,” he says. “I can’t help it. I bounce off the walls too much. My outlet other than boxing is eating and rapping. Me being a cocky person in the ring, away from the ring I’ve got a completely different personality.
“I’m very anti-social; it doesn’t look like that on my Instagram but I am. I like to stay in the house, I don’t talk to many people, I don’t party. I’m like an old man, I like digestives and a cup of tea and I like to watch the soaps.”
The 25-year-old knows the transition from amateur to pro isn’t always easy, but he has some pretty esteemed advice to lean on. Anthony Joshua runs his management team, while he has also spoken with Tyson Fury as they share the same trainer in Steward. “I’m the little kid in the middle who’s playing both sides,” Whittaker reflects of the two great heavyweight rivals. “But it’s not a bad position to be in and I get advice from both of them. Someone like AJ, he’s been through the Olympic set-up. But at the end of the day it’s my journey, my story.”
What does that advice consist of? “AJ keeps in touch and says ‘keep calm, it’s another day’. And I say ‘listen big man! You don’t need to tell me to stay calm, I’m calm as I can be. It’s the Jamaican blood, I’m a bit too laid-back sometimes.
“One thing I like about him is he gives me advice outside of boxing, like how to manage my money, because you see people get money and end up broke. The first thing is I want to look after my family. My mum and dad worked two jobs, they’ve sacrificed a lot, so I don’t want them to worry no more.”
Steward’s guidance in the gym has been just as invaluable. “He slows everything down and makes you feel like a beginner again,” Whittaker says. “I was throwing my jabs, thinking I looked good. He was like, ‘what the hell was that?’ I said ‘what are you on about man, it’s a jab!’ I didn’t need a yes man who says ‘you’re the finished article’. I can feel myself maturing already as a different kind of boxer.”
That maturing has been key in the year since Tokyo. Whittaker is aware that despite enjoying a distinguished amateur career, he has a point to prove at professional level. Back in the Olympic village, he would sit with fellow Team GB boxers Frazer Clarke and his close friend Galal Yafai dreaming of their pro careers, from what color shorts they would wear to the music they’d pick for their ring-walks. Because his trainer de él, Steward, coaches from the famous Kronk gym, Whittaker hints he could turn up in their instantly recognizable yellow and red.
“I was going to rap to the ring, but I want to do that when it’s big occasion like a world title,” he says. “I can freestyle and I’ve got a few recorded ones, but I don’t want to be doing too much when I’ve done nothing yet. I’ll work my way up the ranks then you’ll see me fly into the ring, rapping, I’ll come into the ring on a jet-pack, you name it.”
His hopes after Saturday night’s fight are a little less ambitious. “I’m just looking forward to getting the fight done so I can eat as much as I want.” Which is? “I’m going to get a carbonara, then go to Five Guys, then get a Dominos “Meateor”, after that I’ll have a Halo tub of ice cream. Good job I’m doing this after the fight, otherwise I’ll be walking to the ring looking like a Malteser.”
It’s easy for Whittaker to joke about his hopes going forward, when in reality they are significantly loftier.
“This country’s produced people like [Joe] Calzaghe, Nigel Benn, Naseem Hamed, so if I can put myself in the list with these type of names, that’s the goal.” On the current scene, he hopes to be challenging the likes of WBA champion Dmitry Bivol or IBF, WBO and WBC belt-holder Artur Beterbiev. Domestically, he could soon be in the mix with Anthony Yarde, Joshua Buatsi and Callum Smith.
The first hurdle, before thinking about any of those names, was completing shoulder surgery. The second is overcoming O’Neill.
“I’ve heard he’s a tough guy,” Whittaker says. “I’ve not watched any of him, if I’m honest, but I’ve looked at his [online boxing database] BoxRec. He’s fought people like Anthony Ogogo, Felix Cash. I’m sure he’ll have a nice weekend in Bournemouth after the loss and then he can go about his life. But he’s stepping in with Ben Whittaker now. I’m a different breed.”
Ben Whittaker was speaking exclusively to Yo courtesy of bet365