Not much calm before the storm

In the long hours before a boxer enters the ring, he must battle fear, doubts and-toughest of all-time.

He looks directly at you but doesn’t really see you. He hears your words but doesn’t really listen. He is doing time in another place. He’s a boxer on ice, a puncher who cannot yet punch. All he can do is think, warm up, wait, and think some more.

Charles Whittaker

The loneliness of the long-distance boxer. Caymanian Charles Whittaker left home to pursue boxing glory and make himself into a champion in the United States. The miles mean nothing, however, as he says he has never felt closer to his country and his people. In the long hours before every fight, here or away, he spars with memories, debts owed and the haunting images of those who doubt him.
Photo: Guy P. Harrison

As in any sport, the hours before a competition are a tense time for a boxer. Boxing brings additional layers of anxieties and concerns, however. Not only does one have to contemplate losing publicly, there is also the danger of losing consciousness publicly.

What really goes on inside the mind of a fighter just before a big fight? How do they transform themselves from normal people into warriors capable of waging hand-to-hand combat in front of an audience?

‘Before the fight I try to stay relaxed,’ explains Charles Whittaker, Cayman’s most accomplished boxer ever. ‘I try to think about what I have to do. I concentrate on making sure that my punches are precise, that I’m not wild.’

There are more than mechanics and strategy to sort out before the first bell rings, however. Boxing is a sport that demands extreme emotion. While rage or fear may not be necessary to box, there is a certain fire from within that must be present if one is to trade blows with a well-trained athlete and hope to come out on top. Whittaker stokes this furnace in the hours before a fight just as diligently as he reviews his fight plan.

‘Before the fight I think about where I’m at and where I’ve come from,’ he says. ‘I tell myself that this is just another fight. I’ve been here before.’

He says he thinks about his mother, his friends and all the people who helped him along the way. He also thinks briefly about those who said and still say he’s not good enough.

About an hour before the first bell, trainer Norman Wilson begins taping Whittaker’s hands. Wilson pays close attention to every finger, every knuckle. At various stages of the process he asks Whittaker if it feels right. Wilson is upbeat and cracks a few jokes. But Whittaker is all business throughout. No smiles. Not a thing to say. It seems he would prefer to end the waiting and get into the ring now.

After getting taped, the boxer roams the room, glancing at his reflection in the wall mirror. The slide of Whittaker’s boots is the only thing heard as he shadowboxes. He is quick and sharp. His punches snap like the strikes of venomous snakes. A rare and powerful union of mind and body is nearly complete. The Charles Whittaker boxing ensemble is about to play.

As the time draws closer, the quiet intensity within the room rises. He jabs and moves, boxing an opponent that is not yet in front of him. Sweat flows now. Wilson barks the occasional encouraging word but it mostly respectfully of the silence. Whittaker, the WBA, WBC and IBO junior middleweight champion, is ready. He’s ready to climb into the ring one more time. Before taking that long walk through the cheering crowd, however, he does one more thing.

Charles Whittaker raises his arms in triumph. In his mind, he as already won. The rest is a formality.

Whittaker earned his 16th career knockout in the first round that night. He is now 26-12-1, and already thinking about his next fight.