- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Sacked from two jobs as a teenager for hiding in the lavatory and called names on account of his small size, it is little wonder boxer Ben Whittaker afforded himself a big smile upon reaching the men’s light heavyweight final in Tokyo.
The 24-year-old, who grew up embarrassed to tell people about his ADHD diagnosis and who got kicked out of education in Year 11, has always been determined to prove people wrong – from the school which told him he would never amount to anything to those who attached the “Ben Peahead” nickname to him, due to being the small, bald kid in the year.
Whittaker was certainly standing tall in the ring on Sunday after his 4-1 split decision semi-final win over Russian Olympic Committee’s Imam Khataev, a result which means the West Midlands boxer could be crowned Olympic champion by Wednesday.
“I’m just a local lad from Darlaston, I don’t think I want my life to change to be honest,” Whittaker said, when asked about the increased attention that his boxing exploits in Japan will bring. In truth, his life changed for the better the moment he decided to commit to boxing. Before that he had been struggling to hold down a job after his father, Tony Wilson, told him to get one to help install a bit of discipline in his life after being kicked out of school.
“I went to JD Sports first, I remember it was Boxing Day, very busy, my social skills were terrible, I hid in the toilet, and got sacked,” he said. “My dad works at the Wolves ground, so he got me a job there.” Even then, Whittaker did not fare any better, again taking refuge in the lavatory rather than embracing his stewarding job at Molineux Stadium. “69kg, bald kid, skinny as anything … if a fan started on me, I would probably have bricked it,” he added laughing. “I didn’t like it either, it was too cold, so I hid in the toilets with my meal deal card. I got Pukka Pies and was eating them. I got caught and got sacked again.”
Fast running out of options, he decided to take boxing, which he started aged seven, more seriously, in part enticed by the chance to earn money at the same time.
“I thought I’m all right at boxing, I’ll give it a try,” he said. “I won a first national title, I was still messing around at it. I got a GB call up, went down there, got on the squad and they said you can get paid by the Lottery to do this. I was just fighting in a pub, my social club, I was the kid who no one thought would do anything. I was so unfit. I never used to train. My dad tried to wake me up before school. He had to come on his bike and run with me. Truthfully I hated it, who wants to get punched in the face? But there was no other door for me. I was very talented, even if I didn’t have the fitness.”
Winner of European Games silver and world bronze in 2019, Whittaker is now a person transformed, confident, charismatic and outgoing. Those traits are often reflected in his “easy on the eye” fighting style in the ring, although he does have to occasionally check his enthusiasm levels.
“The judges hate it. Rob McCracken [GB boxing head coach] asked me not to showboat today and I told him I can’t help it. When you’re a pro, you can do it. I tried to stay disciplined. I just tried to keep it nice and calm and composed, and a win’s a win.”
He was also spurred on by another message, one that has driven him on even before winning back-to-back England Boxing national titles in his first two years as a senior boxer before joining the GB Boxing squad aged 19. He added: “My coach, every Christmas, used to buy me a photo of Muhammad Ali standing on the podium at the Olympics with a gold medal. He said, ‘This is going to be you.’ “I hadn’t even won the senior national title, but he told me, ‘Trust me, you will be there’. Last Christmas, he bought me it again. I was on the doorstep, I had to go and do it, and I believed I could.
“Just before I came to the arena, he sent me the photo again. I’ve got the chance to do it now, it’s the dream of every amateur boxer. I’ve just got to go and change that colour.”