Matt Maher: Flashy in the ring, Ben Whittaker's roots keep him humble
Take a wrong turn on your way to the toilets at the London Midland Railway Club Association and there’s no telling who you might meet.
They just might be an Olympic medallist.
Through a side door in the Bushbury Lane social club’s bar, sits the unlikeliest of boxing gyms. For the past few months, it has been the training base of Ben Whittaker, Darlaston’s hero after winning silver at Tokyo 2020, who since turning professional has been the very definition of flash whenever he’s set foot in the ring.
Yet it is here, in these basic, unremarkable surroundings, where he feels most at home.
“People probably think I am in some crazy, bachelor-pad gym with people massaging me every 10 minutes,” laughs Whittaker.
“Instead, here I am in the back of a pub in the coldest gym in the world, no heating, just the ring and two punch bags. Sometimes, that is all you need. I am a very simple person. I’m no Primadonna.”
The latter is precisely what some have accused Whittaker of being through a four-fight pro career where the focus has frequently fallen more on his showboating than any punches landed. After his most recent win over Vladimir Belujsky in July, online critics told the 26-year-old he was “making a mockery of the sport”.
There are few other boxers, however, of whom public perception and reality are so sharply contrasting. Typically boastful and loud in the ring or when in front of a camera, away from the spotlight Whittaker is quietly spoken and unfailingly polite. There is almost a hint of shyness in his personality.
When he tells you his idea of a good time is sitting down with a cup of tea and watching soaps or reality TV shows with mom Karen, he isn’t kidding.
“There are two sides to every story,” says Whittaker, who returns to action tomorrow (Saturday) when he takes on Italy’s Stiven Dredhaj in Bournemouth. “Of course, when I get in the ring, I come across as arrogant and cocky. But that is just my style.
“Come away from that and I am just a normal person, who goes to ASDA just like everyone else. I shop for my mom and dad, have to do chores.
“Inside the ring my character is flamboyant and flashy. It is what I do. It’s 50-50 for some people and I get that. But at the end of the day, it is just a character.”
The question is whether any of the criticism gets through? Does any of it hurt? Whittaker is emphatic enough when claiming it doesn’t for you to believe him. Regardless, he has no intention of changing his approach.
"Love me or hate me, you'll still watch," remains his motto. In a sport like boxing, it's a sound business plan.
“It is who I am,” he explains. “I don’t know what it is. When the lights are on, I turn into that character.
“As soon as they are off, I am just a normal person, having a cup of tea with my mom watching I’m a Celebrity.
“That is what people don’t get. You only get to see me for 15 minutes in a press conference or a boxing ring but away from that, I am just like anyone else. It is too easy to forget we are normal people as well.”
He continues: “You are putting your life on the line every time you go in ring. When people say these YouTube boxers are killing boxing, for example, I say: ‘Well you get in there, then’.
“It is a very hard sport, a one-on-one challenge. You get the people who stand there and have a row, the take one to give one, the crowd pleasers. My style is hit and not get hit, flashy and flamboyant. It is a gameplan.
“I never disrespect my opponents. In the ring it is just business. You have to get the job done.
“You get the Ricky Hatton’s who stand there and bang, others who take about 20 shots to give one. Mine is to dance around and sort them out like that.
“Some people don’t like it. I get that. But you can’t really worry about it because people don’t really know the real me.”
The people who do know Whittaker are firmly in his corner. Dad Tony and godfather Joby Clayton, who co-owns the London Midland gym and takes up coaching duties in the UK, with chief trainer Sugar Hill Steward based in the US, are part of a small entourage.
So too is older brother Jamie, who since earlier this year has been employed as Whittaker’s full-time strength and conditioning coach. A former marine, he works in the corner of the gym while this interview takes place, lifting sandbags weighing 75kgs onto his shoulders.
“He’s fitter than me, if I am honest!” says Whittaker. “He’s also got that mental strength. Some coaches will tell you stuff and stand there, whereas Jamie will actually go and do it himself.
“If we are running, for example, he will set a time I can’t even beat. I think if he can do it, I must be able to do it. It makes me push that little bit more, rather than someone just standing there and telling me to do something.”
I tell him Clayton had earlier joked the only place he can beat Jamie is in the ring. Whittaker laughs: “Yeah, well I am the kind of brother who doesn’t like to hit his brother. Jamie tries to kill me!
“It’s healthy competition, whatever we are doing. We are family, so he can push me more than anyone else because he knows me more than anyone else.”
Jamie’s training regime includes both modern and traditional techniques. Whittaker explains how a recent photo which appeared on social media of him chopping wood, axe in hand, was no publicity stunt.
“He passed me the axe and I was thinking: ‘This isn’t Rocky IV!’. But it is really good for your core and force through your arms. A few rounds of that is harder than everything. George Foreman used to do it before his fights. If it is good enough for him, then it is for me.”
Another staple, at least in the early weeks of training camp, are weekly sprints up The Wrekin, a place at which Whittaker has trained since his amateur days.
“I hate it, every time I go up there. But nothing beats it,” he says. “It is one of those runs where you get fitter but it gets harder because you can go up faster.
“I think what I like most about fighting is I don’t have to go up there. The first part of camp we are up there once every week and then when it starts getting in the nitty gritty and closer to the fight, it is too much for your body. Yeah, that is the best part about fighting, not having to go up The Wrekin!”
Whittaker was on the Shropshire hill when he received a call from Clayton at the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, checking he was OK. Then focused on Toyko, the worldwide health crisis pushed his Olympic journey back by a year.
Yet the experience is now proving valuable in a pro career which has so far been slow going due to injuries. Tomorrow’s bout will be his first in more than five months due to a series of minor knocks.
“These little blips, sometimes they make you work harder,” says Whittaker. “When the pandemic happened I was up the Wrekin pushing hard so when the day did come, I would be ready to go. Keeping that mindset is the best thing to do.”
Signing a long-term contract with Boxxer has already brought some security. Whittaker recently bought a house with his girlfriend but this proud son of Darlaston, who famously wanted to be Mayor of Wolverhampton after the glory of Tokyo, is not about to abandon his roots. He’s only moving to Wednesbury.
“It’s still pretty much Darlaston. I can still walk home,” he says. “My brother is four doors down, so it is all nice and local.
“When I was an amateur I went all round the world but coming back to the Midlands, it is just home for me. I don’t think I will ever leave, if I am honest.”
Settled and happy outside the ring, Whittaker is eager to build momentum in it. Having once expressed the ambition to become Britain’s greatest ever fighter, he knows the big talk needs to be backed up by action. At the same time, much as it might leave him open to more criticism, patience is required.
“I know I can’t take all day but can’t rush it either,” he says. “When you get that balance of challenging me slowly, each fight a little step up, that is when you become a seasoned, all-round fighter. That is when you start getting the belts.
“You’ve seen it before, people rush it and they always fall short.
“I have the right people round me. We are realistic. There are still things I need to work on, still things I am learning and can get better on. For me, it is all good.”