At around 9pm last Saturday evening, Ben Whittaker reached flow state.
Unaware of the uproar his performance was causing outside the ropes, Whittaker (6-0, 5 KO’s) boxed, danced, taunted and punched his way to a fifth round stoppage of Khalid Graidia.
Some fighters liken that altered state to being in The Matrix. They can see everything coming their way and feel like they have all the time in the world to not only avoid the incoming artillery, but to move into position to counter and then thread their own punches through gaps before they close. Other say that the feeling is just a result of supreme confidence and having the self belief and conviction to put all the things they do in the gym into practice.
Whittaker has his own way of describing the feeling that coursed through him.
“When I’m in that state - a few boxers will know this, people like Sunny Edwards - when I’m in that flow, I don’t really think nobody can touch me. When you’re in it you see everything, even though it might not look like you do if that makes sense,” the unbeaten light heavyweight told BoxingScene.com.
“It’s like slow motion but fast at the same time. You see everything. Sometimes, I see something I’ve anticipated would happen and think to myself, ‘Ah, I did see it. I knew it was coming!’ You always have to stay one step ahead and thats what my game is. Think what they’re gonna do. Be two or three steps ahead and if that doesn’t work that time, I know what they’re gonna do next.”
The commotion that Whittaker’s performance generated overshadowed that fact that the first two rounds of last weekend’s fight won’t make many highlight reels. Whittaker was serious, boxed smartly and kept the fun and games to a minimum until he had made Graidia realize that he couldn’t win.
Slowly but surely, he ramped up the showmanship. When the Frenchman did try to put some punches together, the 26 year old baited him into losing his shape and composure, calmly made him miss and returned to the center of the ring before making him pay.
In some ways, watching a fighter like Whittaker is similar to watching a magician perform. Those who truly understand the art probably know the reason for every flourish, every over-the-top movement and every distraction technique. Those who don’t care about the technicalities just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
I may be wrong - and if I am, somebody from the Magic Circle please correct me - but there probably isn’t another group who watch the performance with gritted teeth and then complain that the magician should tone down the flamboyance when they produce the coin from behind the toddlers ear.
Whittaker believes that some people comment on his style without truly knowing what they are watching or without taking note of when and why he performs his tricks.
“There’s method to the madness. There are so many tactics and gameplans that we go through,” he said. “I don’t know about other boxers but for me, we have gameplan A,B and C. I came out for the first round using Plan A. After a couple of rounds of breaking him down I thought, ‘Ok, let’s show him something different.’ When I showed him that the fight was completely gone.
“They don’t get it. They think it’s like Strictly Come Dancing. No, there’s method to the madness and people who know boxing see what I’m doing and why. The reason is the result. I got Graidia out of there. It could have been a hard fight. At the end of the day he took Dan Azeez all the way and Ben [Shalom] told me it was a fifty-fifty. Even the fight with Zach Parker [Parker stopped Graidia in seven rounds last September], in parts it was quite a close fight. He was getting hit and stuff. Look at my performance compared to that.”
The fallout from the fight highlighted the difference between the way British and American fans watch sport.
Super Bowl LVIII takes place in Las Vegas this weekend. The event will be an extravaganza with a massive pre-game show and Usher performing at half-time. English football’s traditional showpiece event - the FA Cup Final - is a staid affair which is proceeded by the hymn Abide with Me and a marching band. Attempts to make the the event into a more modern spectacle are usually forced, half-hearted and go down as well in some quarters as well as Whittaker’s showboating did.
In America the fight has turned Whittaker from a nobody to a somebody overnight.
Three division world champion Shakur Stevenson loved what he saw and the Sportscentre instagram account got over a million views on the highlight clip they posted.
He also broke through into a much bigger market. Hollywood actor O’Shea Jackson commented on the fight and basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal and NFL star Odell Beckham Jnr both got in touch to praise him.
In Britain, his performance opened high and mighty debates about whether he should tone down his theatrics and if an Olympic silver medallist was disrespecting inferior opponents and demeaning the sports with his antics.
“That’s the big eye opener,” he revealed. “A lot of American people have been posting it and their comment sections are nothing but positive. If anything, they’re going in on the referee [who twice warned Whittaker about his behavior]. When it comes to the English fans sadly, it’s all on me. I understand the sport is all about opinions and that’s what we love about it.
“The thing is - and the most annoying part of it - is that they say I’m disrespectful. You don’t see me at press conferences like the Billy Joe’s and Tyson Fury’s, swearing at the opponents and dissing their appearance. I’m just going in the ring and using a completely different style. It’s been done before but this is me and it’s getting called disrespectful.”