EXCLUSIVE – Ben Whittaker’s meteoric rise continues on Saturday night’s undercard between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua 2, but the Olympic star believes he is a year away from making his breakthrough under Sugarhill Steward.
The light heavyweight contender shot to prominence last summer as part of Team GB’s boxing squad at the delayed Tokyo 2020 games, ultimately ending with a silver medal.
Injury delayed his entry into the professional game – but it was worth the wait as he wowed fans with a superb debut performance at Bournemouth. Whittaker scored a KO over Greg O’Neill in the second round, with exciting boxing style reflected in his ring walk and dance celebration.
Just four weeks later, Whittaker returns to the ring with many more eyes on him from around the world as he seizes the enviable opportunity of being among the progenitors of the biggest fight of Joshua’s career.
Whittaker is clearly a showman in the ring, but also a confident, entertaining presence outside of it. Possible pressure simply will not reach him. He told The Sporting News: “[The first win] was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. No disrespect to the boy at this level, I should beat him but this is how I beat him.
“It was looking good, the fans liked it and I wanted to keep going. [The reaction] was crazy – I got tagged in all sorts of things, people made TikTok videos… it was nice, it was nice to see, but you have to keep going and keep performing and keep at it.
“More activity is key, especially when you see someone who has been put on the shelf and is waiting all the time. I said ‘whenever there is an opportunity to fight, sign me up’.
“Then I become faster, learn faster at work and feel more comfortable in the light. I think the best time to do this is especially now [because] If you get a world championship belt, it looks like your career will slow down. As long as I can, I might as well get as many [fights] as possible.
“It is strange [to be on a Joshua card already]especially since I’m not getting a promotion [Matchroom] but it was always in the back of my mind. They talked maybe it will, maybe it won’t.
WATCH ON DAZN: Oleksandr Usyk vs. Anthony Joshua 2
“I went to Barcelona for a little break and then I got the call. I had to book an early flight, pack my bags and come straight here, but that’s what you have to do if you want to be the best.
“I came [to Jeddah] Two days ago I arrived here around 3am to 4am, walked out of the airport and it was too hot! I said ‘oh my days it is what it is’
“It’s a beautiful country, very different from home, and I want to do the same. Luckily boxing allows me to travel the world so it’s a privilege.”
MORE: Oleksandr Usyk vs. Anthony Joshua 2: The psychology of a rematch as AJ tries to crack boxing’s toughest puzzle
However, the quick turnaround is not disheartening for the West Midlands native given his experience to date. Whittaker said: “Luckily not – as an amateur I’ve sometimes fought five times in five days. We went to some tournaments, took a little break, went to another tournament.
“There were so many kids in my weight class that I’ve fought five times, no matter what, at least four times, so I’m just used to going back to back. If we’re being realistic it was a four minute fight so it wasn’t really anything so the faster I’m out the better, there’s more money in my pocket.
Ben Whittaker in 𝐒𝐄𝐑𝐈𝐎𝐔𝐒 form! 💪
— Sky Sports Boxing (@SkySportsBoxing) August 19, 2022
“[The biggest surprise] are all these cameras – you can’t do that as a layman! There’s a lot of talk, but luckily I’ve been watching professional boxing since I was a kid, so I’m kind of used to it. But the only thing that caught my eye were the gloves, the little gloves when I put them on. I was like ‘Woah’ but that’s how you start to hurt yourself.”
The man overseeing his transition to the pros is the highly respected Sugarhill Steward. Most recently, the nephew of the late Kronk Gym manager Emanuel Steward took on Tyson Fury as his star pupil and led the WBC heavyweight champion to two wins over Deontay Wilder.
Despite the rapid progress, Whittaker will take time to fully adjust to his new mentor: “I’m still working with Sugar, I’m still between styles. I’ve done my own style and a bit of Sugar’s style, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to be skilled enough to get out of a situation.
“I just need to slow down a little more, mature a little. It’s still early days – it’s about six weeks together, so after 12 to 18 months together we’ll see how we really connect and come together.
“There are so many things [he’s teaching me], like repeating the jab, different types of jabs, setting up the shots… especially when they come through the amateurs, they look for it, they go crazy. I set it up just right, and that’s how you really hurt her when you set it up right.
Despite being under the wing of Fury’s former trainer, there’s no doubt where Whittaker’s heavyweight allegiances lie. Speaking of the man topping his card this weekend, the 25-year-old concluded: “When you’re AJ you just gotta run [Usyk] down and go with him on a big bomb.
“He always has a puncher chance, he’s shown that before, but it’s a big challenge to beat someone like Usyk. I cheer for AJ just for the simple fact of what he has done for the country. I’m managed by him, he gets me through the door, so if he wins we all win – that’s how I see it.
“I spoke to him briefly and it seems like he’s in a good place. But you never know what fighters are going through in their heads. He seems to be in a good place, Usyk too, so it all depends on the setting and who goes in there and makes it their ring. When AJ does that with his size, it’s a problem for everyone.
“I want to see [Joshua vs. Fury] just to see what would actually happen, to hear all the talk. Fury is a weird guy – he retires, then he comes out, he trains, he has ups and downs, then he retires.
“It’s one of them, but if AJ wins [Fury will] come back from the woodwork. It will be nice to see just to finally finish it, but will it happen? I don’t know, there’s too much politics.”