The road to the Olympic Games is long, testing and full of obstacles to overcome along the way.
Every four years the best amateur boxers arrive at a host nation with the ambition of proudly representing their nation at the top of the podium with a medal in their grasp. But the journey to those desired moments are embarked upon long before the Games begin.
It’s a lifetime of work and dedication to amateur boxing that sees these fighters succeed at the pinnacle of the sport and set themselves up for a prosperous professional career in the ring.
In our ‘Road to the Olympics’ series, BOXRAW speak with some of the most promising Olympic hopefuls on their own paths towards the Games. First off, Team GB’s light-heavyweight star Ben Whittaker outlines his aspirations of having his hand raised with a Gold medal in his possession at the imminent Tokyo Games.
Fighter Fact File
Full name: Benjamin Whittaker
Hometown: Darlaston, UK
Walk out song: Anything recorded by me (B£NZO)
Favourite fighter: Mario Kindelan
Favourite/best fight: For entertainment, Bradley vs. Provodnikov
Fantasy match-up: Ray Robinson vs. Ray Leonard
Cheat meal: Everything
Hobby outside of boxing: Music
Dream place to fight: MGM Grand
Favourite punch: Liver shot
Best thing about training: Seeing progression
The Path To Tokyo
While amateur boxing journeys have been on hold in light of the global pandemic, the final destination remains the same for Ben Whittaker.
One of the latest leading lights from the talent-laden Team GB squad, the Darlaston light-heavyweight is maintaining his course towards the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan that were postponed from last year to later this summer.
Following a year of turmoil for amateur fighters worldwide, Whittaker’s ring return is imminent ahead of June’s European qualifiers; when he’ll have the chance to confirm his spot on the plane to Tokyo.
"My preparation is always 100%," Whittaker states, during a rare break away from training. "But, of course, due to COVID and the world's situation it has delayed things. But I’ve remained focused and ready to put on a show when it’s go time."
Working towards the biggest stage of his career to date, Whittaker carries plenty of expectations on his young shoulders - being one of his country’s leading contenders for a podium position at the upcoming Tokyo Games. So how does he deal with that pressure?
"It’s a great honour," he admits. "I didn’t come into this sport to be someone in the background, I came to make my name a household name and hopefully make the Hall of Fame one day.
"So I’m used to pressure and also I know a lot more will come along the way. But that either makes a champion or breaks one. I will rise to the occasion."
A Life In Boxing
As is so often the case, boxing has helped Whittaker better his life from a young age. Previously uninterested at school and having a lack of motivation in the classroom, he has since become a dedicated student of his current craft.
"I first got into boxing due to my father. I was in and out of trouble at school; very hyperactive and my mom couldn’t handle me. So my dad took me down to the gym to burn off energy and gain some discipline. I haven’t looked back since.
"Boxing is my life and I thank boxing for the opportunities it has given me," Whittaker continues, reminiscing on his journey. "School was never for me, I needed to be active. Sitting in a classroom was a big no."
Standard nine-to-five, five-days-a-week working hours had no appeal either; which led to the realisation of his one true calling; boxing.
"For a bit of money on the side I tried to work a few jobs but they never worked out either and unfortunately I got sacked.
"Then I realised the only thing I had was boxing, the only thing I was good at was boxing, my only passion was boxing. So, at the age of 16 I decided to take it serious and the sport took me serious."
Whittaker has enjoyed a successful ring education throughout a stellar amateur career to date but now has his sights set firmly on Tokyo.
Accolades along his path towards the Games have included Gold at the 2018 EU Championships, a 2019 World Championships Bronze medal and 2019 European Games Silver success - with an Olympic Gold the next piece of silverware on his check list.
"It's good to have a strong amateur background," he adds. "Securing these types of medals was very beneficial as now I’m ranked in the top three in the world as an ‘Olympic boxer’."
Finding His Rhythm
A technically rhythmic fighter, Whittaker’s fluid motions in the ring derive from another important aspect of his life; music.
"First time I actually went and recorded my first song was three years ago but I've listened and been around music since I was a kid," Whittaker says of his connection to music, having officially released his own tracks on the UK rap scene under the name B£NZO.
"It most definitely helps [with my boxing]. Music is a rhythm; music is timing, music is smooth, music is having your own style, music is passion - I’m all those and more."
With a unique style for a fighter competing at the higher weight classes, Whittaker has developed his ring skills through applying aspects of past greats to his own arsenal.
"As a kid the first fight I ever watched seriously was the Olympic final of Mario Kindelan vs. Amir Khan. He mastered the art of hit and not get hit and made it look so easy.
"Also, I watch and study a lot of Cuban boxing. Andre Ward, [Guillermo] Rigondeaux, Tommy Hearns, Pernell Whitaker and [Floyd] Mayweather; I tried to merge them all and make a better Ben Whittaker."
Like fellow Olympic hopefuls and ambitious amateur stars, Whittaker has remained patient throughout the frustrating wait and previous postponement of the 2020 Games. Initially they were scheduled to begin last July 24th but are now set to go ahead this coming July 23rd.
Having maintained his discipline and stayed positive during months of unexpected lockdown preparations, the two-time national champion will look to use the recent frustrations as further motivation towards his overall goal.
"I’m a very determined person so it never really stopped me," he explains, regarding his own lockdown experience as an elite amateur. "I always found a way to train or, if I wasn’t training, I was learning because in the back of my mind I knew the end goal wasn’t too far away."
Ambitions In Sight
With the drive and relentless work ethic needed in such a mentally and physically demanding sport, along with a natural charisma that benefits professional careers, Whittaker possesses all the attributes to go far beyond the amateur game.
"In the words of Justin Timberlake, ‘I’m bringing sexy back’," he jokes with an aura of confidence. "My style is unique, love it or hate it, people will pay to come and see me.
"I’ve done everything as an amateur and finishing off with the Olympics; that’s my apprenticeship done. Then it’s time to start a new chapter, make moves and start winning titles."
It was previously announced that no overseas spectators will be permitted at the upcoming Olympic Games. It’s a blow to fighters that qualify, whose friends, family and loved ones will not be able to watch them compete live.
But it’s just another minor issue to be dealt with according to the former Wodensborough ABC and Firewalker representative, stating: "To me it’s another ring and I have to get the job done.
"As an amateur boxer you go to several tournaments where you have no crowd, so I’m used to it."
Whittaker continues his pursuit of an Olympic dream that previously looked in doubt due to circumstances out of his control. Overcoming recent restrictions and frustrations would make achieving his goal all the more satisfying, though his ambitions still stretch far beyond the Games he’s currently focused on.
"Short term goal is to secure the bag at the Olympics. Long term goal; become a multi, unified world champion and a pocket full of money!"
Header image: Action Images/Reuters
Header video: @benwhittaker