Whittaker looking at Buatsi and Azeez as rivals

Ben Whittaker may have only boxed five times as a professional, but he’s already well-familiar with the fight week routine.

Countless boxers are asked how they are doing, as the event draws near, to which they trot out any number of familiar lines, usually beginning with, ‘Great shape’ or ‘Best camp ever.’

Whittaker snuffs out any small talk when asked how he is.

“Really bad,” joked the Olympic silver medalist. “I’m ill, and I have got some injuries too. Hopefully, I can get through it, man!”

Whittaker has fight No. 6 on the Wembley bill topped by Joshua Buatsi-Dan Azeez on Saturday. He’s had a stop-start opening to his pro career with injuries but he is ready to be let off the leash, now.

But the West Bromwich star has already caused a stir, that’s for sure. Whittaker’s showboating and mannerisms have drawn the ire of boxing purists who find his in-ring antics disrespectful, but he is careful to separate the divisive character he shows them rather from who he really is.

“They [the public] only get to see me for five minutes at the press conferences, and they don’t get to see me fight for not too long either,” Whittaker explained. “You only get to see the character I portray for a short time, but when you get to know me, I am just a normal person like everybody else. I go to ASDA, fill up my car and stuff like that. I am no celebrity or big-headed person because I know I am a normal person. Like I said, people only get to see a short version of me, and I’m sure when people get to know me, they will know the real me.”

But that doesn’t stop comment fields being filled by irate viewers, although Whittaker takes it all in his stride. It doesn’t bother him too much.

“Not really because I know the close people around me know the real me,” he added. “That is all that really matters.”

One of the people often around him is trainer SugarHill Steward, but for this camp the coach has spent all of his time with Tyson Fury ahead of his heavyweight’s fight with Oleksandr Usyk in Saudi Arabia later this month.

That means Joby Clayton has been working with Whittaker, and Clayton will be in charge in the corner on Saturday, and it’s quite a responsibility given SugarHill said before Whittaker’s last fight – stopping Stiven Leonetti Dredhaj with a stunning fourth-round knockout in December – that his charge had talent that was comparable to that of an up-and-coming Roy Jones.

“It is a great compliment, of course, I am getting all types of compliments,” Whittaker said, asked about the Jones parallel. “The showboating and all that stuff… but put that to the side, I’m level-headed. There is still a long way to go, I know where I need to be, and you only get there by training hard and winning. I need to make sure I keep doing what I am supposed to do, listen to the right people who I need to listen to and when I get there, I get there.”

Whittaker is a 6ft 3in light-heavyweight whom Boxxer expect big things from. He meets 10-13-5 France-based Khalid Graidia, who is winless in his last five and who has come to the UK to test British prospects before. Whittaker has seen only snippets of his opponent. 

“I am not one of those people who watches whole fights,” the 26-year-old added. “I just watch the tiniest little bits, really. I have just looked at who he has fought, and he has fought some good prospects, along with the likes of Zach Parker (l rsf 7) and Dan Azeez (l pts 8) recently, too. 

“So, on paper, he is a tough guy. He is a durable guy, but for me he is just another chance to show who I am. Show a different style and hopefully put on a great performance and show that I am a step above most of the guys he [Graidia] has fought.” 

Whittaker sharpened his tools with two spars with former world middleweight title challenger Liam Williams, with the Welshman in camp for his own big fight a week later with Hamzah Sheeraz. Williams and trainer Gary Lockett left not only impressed by Whittaker’s skills, but by his overall conduct.

“It’s a nice compliment,” Whittaker went on. “They [Lockett and Williams] are both great people. They both came down and gave me two great spars, which were my last two spars. It was perfect for me, a perfect style for the guy I’m fighting. Liam has fought for a world title, so he is at that certain level, it was a great spar and it showed me that I am at that level now.”

Whittaker is not often overshadowed, but there is plenty of interest in the main event on Saturday in Wembley Arena, between Buatsi and Azeez, and Whittaker has been asked to stay back after his contest to commentate. 

“Truthfully, I don't really like watching [after I have boxed], I like to get my win, go and eat, and have a nice sleep, really, because it is usually a long, stressful week,” he smiled. 

“[But] I have been asked to do some commentary, so the people have got to now listen to my nice Midlands accent all night. So that is now their nice little surprise.”

While he is not keen to pick a victor – “may the best man win” – he admits that it is not just a political thing to say, it is because he finds it hard to split the main-eventers.

“Truthfully? No,” he said, when pressed on his impartiality and if he has a favourite in his head. “That’s why I'm sitting on the fence. If you look at the Buatsi side, you could say he has a lot more experience and [has] an Olympic medal. 

“But if you look at Dan Azeez, he has momentum, some great wins behind him, and he is building confidence. However, you look at his last camp; he picked up a back injury, so how will that keep him going? 

“It’s an interesting one, and it’s a scouting mission and a fan mission. So, I will be looking at this fight with both eyes.”

Because Whittaker is not planning on hanging around. He wants to move quickly, and progress up the rankings at speed, so both Buatsi and Azeez are potential opponents and in his sights.

“Of course, everybody at light-heavyweight is on my radar, even if they are above me, under me or at my level,” Whittaker said. “There is always a chance where you never know; anything could happen, and you end up fighting.

“So I am looking at them as big rivals and I could both meet down the line. Luckily enough, I have sparred both of them, so I am familiar with those guys. Either man would be a great name to have on my resume.”