The balance between confidence and modesty is historically a difficult balance to maintain, and Ben Whittaker’s walk along this tight line is certainly one that comes to the fore when meeting him. The archetypal boxer could probably be stereotypically summarised quite quickly. The modern-day men of the sport, in particular, are generally labelled confident, aggressive, and loud with a typical swagger about them. Ben certainly takes a few of these traits – his confidence a signal of self-belief and his energy infectious to those around him.
A couple of years ago, he was competing in the Tokyo Olympics, a competition that earned him a silver medal. There’s a freshness about him that’s plain to see when we meet in South West London and a sparkle that comes across when he talks about his beginnings in the sport.
“To be honest, it wasn’t actually what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a footballer, like every other boy my age, but I had two left feet, it was a joke. So, my dad took me down to the [boxing] gym instead. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was a kid, when I was 7, so I was hyperactive, always getting in trouble and it was my mum that suggested to my dad that he should take me to the gym. Bit of discipline, but I didn’t really like it,” Ben tells Principle. “My dad didn’t force it though, he let me go to football, but I was getting into fights, getting red cards, and silly stuff like that. So, when I was 11, he decided to take me back. First spar, I did okay, and the coach said afterwards that there was a show in a couple of weeks, and if anyone wants to fight, they should let him know. So, to impress my dad, I signed up myself, got my dad there to see me, and after he was like “Yeah… we’re taking this seriously”. Woke me up at 6 am the next day to go for a run, I was like 11, I was just like “rah”. But we haven’t looked back.”
The balance between this assuredness and humility is one that seems innate to Ben but also comes from spending time with like-minded people, members of his tribe who allow him to dream big whilst still remaining rooted, feet firmly planted on the ground. “When you’re younger, and on the GB team, you’re kinda mollycoddled. You don’t notice it too much at the time, but everything is sorted for you. Whereas now, I get to be across things like my coaches, my lawyer, and my management. I call them ‘the Ultimate Team’”, he smiles, explaining that he enjoys the planning and the tailored approach that being professional brings.
Plenty of top-tier boxers have coaches that focus on different things – for example, a coach that is focused on strength and conditioning, whilst having another coach that focuses on skills like speed and agility. Ben’s reasons for his different coaches though are more in-line with his way of thinking, his ability to approach the world through the lens of someone who centres values over anything.
“After the medal, people were coming out of everywhere with offers and promises, people I’d never spoken to before. So I sat down with my mum and dad to really think about everything, to think about the pros and cons. I’ve got one coach, Joby Clayton, who’s my godfather, and I started out with him,” Ben says. “He used to train my dad and knows me inside out, knows me more than anyone else, so I train with him in England. Then I go over to Miami to train with my new coach, Sugar Hill.” Sugar Hill Steward famously coached heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury and is renowned for his explosive style. “It’s good. He’s a great coach and he’s got the profile too. It was a bit of a business and sporting decision, but it works for me. I get the best of both worlds.”
Despite being 25, young by most people’s standards, Ben speaks with a maturity that perhaps his upbringing played a part in generating. “I’m from the Midlands man. I was born in West Brom but all my family live in Wolverhampton – we actually live in a little town called Darlaston. It’s kinda in-between Brum and Wolverhampton, so it’s perfect. We had a normal childhood I guess, didn’t have much but it didn’t feel like that at the time because of my parents, they always made everything feel blessed. It’s made me the person I am to be honest, where I grew up, so I wouldn’t change it really.”
There’s a warmth with which he speaks about his Midlands upbringing, making jokes on the shoot about the overload of Londoners and Northerners on set, reprimanding the team for not securing “enough Midlands representation.” Someone retorts, explaining that they’re from the midlands, Nottingham to be exact. “Yeah, but it’s not the same though man,” he retorts, with a cheeky smile and unbridled pride.
The idea that a sport can change the trajectory of someone’s life is not a storyline unheard of. It’s the basis of many sports films, inspirational talks, documentaries, and Twitter threads. But with Ben, you get the feeling that the notion is more than just a storyline. “I was always in trouble in school, always in trouble, it was ridiculous. I got a job at JD Sports and got sacked from there. Job at my local football ground, and got sacked from there. I was getting myself down and started thinking about what I was good at. But I was good at boxing, boxing is my thing,” he says.
It could be described as fate – Ben talks about school and formal education with slight discomfort, aware that it just “wasn’t for him.” His troubles with a regular systematic way of growing up led him to focus on boxing though, and it has paid off. He recalls a time just after his call-up to Team GB, when a boxing coach showed pictures of Anthony Joshua and Amir Khan, explaining that not everyone that shows up in the boxing gym, becomes an Olympian. In 2021, a year after the original ceremony was scheduled to occur, the Tokyo Olympics happened, with Ben a staple member of Team GB, and was the first Olympic games to take place behind closed doors due to the pandemic. An outsider would assume that that would be weird, disappointing maybe, to have such a strange Olympics experience. Ben’s optimism, however, doesn’t skip a beat, instead explaining that the uniqueness of the situation meant that he got to “push two single beds together to make a double”, he says with a laugh, as his assigned roommate had already been sent home.
“It was weird, man,” he laughs, “but that’s what I like about it. I don’t think there’ll be one like that again, it’s one of a kind. It’s a bit of an upset but no one can say they competed like that. I was growing up, I’m watching Beijing, and Rio, and I was expecting that, the crazy crowds. But for me, if I ain’t got a crowd, I make one up in my head. That was definitely weird, coming out and it’s just your opponent! But at the same time, there’s less pressure, less distraction. You just go in there, get the job done, and next thing you know you’re in the Olympic final. It’s crazy.”
He came away with a silver medal after reaching the finals, losing out to Cuban boxer Arlen Lopez who went home with the gold. His reaction to his silver medal – he didn’t wear the medal at the ceremony and commented that he felt as though he’d lost gold, rather than won silver – drew plenty of reaction from both boxing fans and Olympics viewers alike. “There was so many emotions in the moment. Firstly, you come out of the ring, you’ve just lost, but then you’ve gotta get changed, come back out, and get the medal. There’s no time to take it in, it goes like that – you train four, five years for this moment and then it just goes in five minutes, it’s weird man.” There’s a muted exasperation as he explains his feelings, understandably so as he offers more detail into his thoughts back then. “And then on top, you’ve got the whole COVID thing. So, they can’t put the medal on you, you’ve gotta put it on yourself. And in that moment, I feel like a loser, so why would I put the medal on myself? But obviously, that got a lot of backlash”. He laughs in a way that acknowledges both the aptness and absurdity of the backlash. “I didn’t mind too much though, it got people talking about me. My name was in people’s mouths more than the gold medallist so!”
After the Olympics, Ben shortly turned professional, something he explains is a regular occurrence in his line of work and felt like the natural next step. “As soon as I come out of the ring, I knew I was going pro. If you look at some sports, things like athletics, swimming – the Olympics is their pinnacle. But for boxing, I feel like it’s part of our pathway. After the Olympics, I thought it was the right age, the right time to go pro.”
So what’s next for Ben? I ask him the dreaded ‘5-year plan’, a question that induces anxiety in most. For Ben Whittaker though, he answers instantly. “Ideally, I wanna become the face of British boxing. It’s a bit of a weird landscape at the moment, but I think I’m set up for that. And then also, in my weight category, I’m trying to be the world champion. That’s the dream man. If not, I’ll just beat up every one I can along the way and collect the wins – that’s all that matters!”