RingSide Report

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Can You Take It…?

By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

An opinion piece from the only Donald worth listening to…

Full Stop – In British English grammar a full stop is a lengthy pause, in the US, you call it a period. In the UK that tends to suggest feminine products. Here it means a period of time where I look at something in boxing in a little more depth. I am typing from my perspective of a fan who watches the sport closely. It’s an opinion. It is my opinion. Don’t like it? There are other opinions out there but if you don’t like it then good, debate and democracy are a good thing. If you do like it, feel free to spread the word.

Can you take it…?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about respect within the sport of boxing. In order to sell a fight, the use of disrespectful comments, of tension within meetings of the fighters and even brawls in hotel lobbies have all been used one way or another to capture the attention of the public and put bums on seats, or eyes on the Pay Per View channels.

One fighter who has divided opinion around his antics within the ring is the former British Olympian Ben Whittaker. With a swagger which has been positively compared to Prince Naseem Hamed, Whittaker has taken the sport in a whirlwind – I would not say storm right now as he has yet to make that breakthrough fight which shall make his name global. In the ring he dances and clowns, and in his last fight even had the opportunity to tell his opponent’s corner to keep it schtum! It invites comments, and there are plenty willing to make comments.

Of course, the opportunity that he has to do all the things in a fight which he can do is partly due to the level of opponent he is facing. He is far away from a world title fight, and the boxers brought into the ring tend to be the ones for whom the phrase “learning fight” is used frequently. Whittaker is learning his trade, whilst being an exceptionally gifted boxer. This is lifting his domestic profile because people want to buy tickets to see this pure entertainer.

It was in his fight against Khalid Gradia, that he patted the opponent on the head. Strictly, in the rules, that is a foul. The referee either did not spot that, was unaware of that rule or decided that as Whittaker was so far ahead it would make little difference, there was no point in enforcing the rule. A few times referees have warned Whittaker about his clowning around but, to date there have been no points deductions. Of course, as he goes up the levels, there are likely to be less opportunities to indulge himself and he may find that the time he spent in the ring playing games would have been better spent learning far more of his trade. Given the guy’s ability, and his pedigree, and his huge experience, I very much doubt that, but it is a view held by some.

Just before his last fight, he decided to take offence at one of the commentators who had pointed out that patting Gradia on the head was not the right thing to do. Commentating for Sky Sports, Andy Clarke, was confronted by him, live on air and Whittaker told the commentator that he needed “to sort out his commentary”. Clarke, however, was having none of it. He responded, “…when you stand in front of your opponent, and you slap him on the top of his head – that is disrespectful.” Whittaker withdrew into the one area he probably knew he could win the argument with Clarke and asked if Clarke had ever boxed – he hasn’t, then pointed out that what he was doing was skill and if it was Clarke’s opinion that he was disrespectful, then his opinion, in response, was that he needed to sort out his commentary skills. He even suggested that his next opponent would be “probably you,” meaning Clarke.

Given that Clarke did not back down, and his response afterwards that he was fine with Whittaker raising it, given he is able, as a commentator, to have the opportunity to say things about boxers it would be absurd of him to have an issue with boxers having the right of reply.

For some of us, it was less of a headline than an indication, perhaps of some fragility for the emerging boxer. Clarke is one of the best commentators on the TV in the UK, and this is down to the amount of knowledge he carries. He has always been the one willing, on his own dime – including heading off to Albania to watch Florian Marku’s home coming – to go round and make contacts within gyms and interviews with people he then peppers into his commentary. Oftentimes he can quote a fight he saw in a small hall circuit or during the boxer’s amateur career that most have little or no knowledge of. It is his professionalism which marks him out.

Once again here he showed it. Whittaker is a tremendous pugilist. He is a prodigious presence. Over the next five years or so, Boxxer and Sky Sports will see him become a huge name and may have to hold onto his coat tails until the coat of many colors wears off. And it will. Not because Whittaker is overblown, he is not, but because all fighters have that fight where they are in deep trouble, where they may eventually lose or where they must find something within themselves which is not a trick. Both Ali and Prince Naseem Hamed, with whom he has been compared, got there. Ali weathered the storm, Hamed did not.

But in his spat with Clarke, what he did not realize was this is a man who has a newborn baby, a wife with a pretty decent record of fending off people before first dates, with a blossoming career in TV which is beginning to match her husbands. She is a businesswoman with a beautiful chocolate factory in London filled with the type of ethics, her man managed to display when confronted. He may not have boxed, but he certainly has very decent verbal fancy foot work in any argument… And behind every successful man…

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