“It’s difficult but my life has always been difficult, since the day I was born,” says Dillian Whyte as he prepares to step into the ring on Saturday to face Alexander Povetkin, the Russian heavyweight who knocked him out with a devastating uppercut last August.
Whyte needed to win that night to guarantee himself a shot at the world heavyweight title and he looked to be in total control after dropping Povetkin twice in the fourth round. He came out to finish the fight in the fifth when, out of nowhere, Povektin threw a ferocious punch that jolted Whyte’s head back with sickening impact. Whyte was unconscious before he hit the canvas.
The rematch has been postponed twice, after Povetkin was in hospital with Covid-19 and then struggled to overcome the effects of the virus. As a consequence, and apart from a break after the knockout, Whyte has been in training for Povetkin for more than a year as their first fight had been originally scheduled for last May. The lockdown intervened and, ever since, it has felt as if Whyte has been cursed by Povetkin. His career now hinges on the outcome on Saturday when they meet again in the bizarre setting of Gibraltar.
“I’m used to difficulties,” Whyte says with a shrug. “I was born in a storm, on the night of a hurricane in Jamaica, and we survived. It knocked some of the roof off our house but my mum is a soldier and she just climbed under the table to get the deed done – from what they tell me anyway. So adversity is the story of my life.”
Whyte was left to fend for himself as a small boy in Jamaica and came close to starving to death before he was reunited with his mother in London where he soon became caught up in gang culture. At 13 he fathered a child and his teenage years were blighted by crime and violence. He was shot and stabbed before he found refuge in kick-boxing, which led him to his current occupation where, until his loss to Povetkin, he was one rung below two world champions in Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury.
Last July, a few weeks before he fought Povetkin, he passed his 1,000th day as the No 1 contender in the WBC rankings – while he railed against his ill-fortune in not being granted a crack at the world title. He now has to risk everything once more against the dangerous Russian.
“If I said it doesn’t get me down sometimes, I’d be lying,” he says. “But my mum always says God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers. I keep ploughing forward because I don’t know anything else.”
Whyte takes me back to his destitute and often desperate childhood. “My mum left me in Jamaica when I was two and I didn’t see her until I was almost 13,” he says. “But even though she wasn’t there I sensed her. I always admired her and when we were together again she was always apologising. I said: ‘No, you went to England to make a better life for all of us. It took longer than you thought, but I’m here.”
During those 11 years without his mum did he ever speak to her on Skype or even the phone? “There was no Skype back then. In Jamaica you’d be lucky if you got on the phone once a month. Where we lived there ain’t no phone. My mum would write letters, but I couldn’t read.”
Did the adults around him read her letters out loud? Whyte shakes his head. “The people I was left with didn’t do a good job. I became a survivor. Once I didn’t eat for two, three days. I’ll never forget it because the pain in my stomach was so bad. I’ve felt a lot of pain in life, suffering ups and downs, mentally and physically. But the pain of hunger is crazy. But these things made me and gave me such a positive view on life. No matter how hard life is now, I’m still doing better than I was then when I was looking for food, for a home.”
Was he homeless? “For a time I was. The family my mum left me with just kept the money she sent them. They look after their own children first and if there are scraps left you get them. So we used to hunt for Fanta bottles. I’d get money from returning those bottles and I’d buy sweets as it was the cheapest thing.
“My dad was a farmer and a butcher and he was away selling livestock. When he came back I was almost dead and he kicked off. My dad went to their house and beat someone up. Obviously he wasn’t the greatest Dad. He is from a tough Irish background and he brought me up similar to the way he was brought up. My dad thought if I wasn’t dead I was OK. It was just a circle of ignorance.”
When his mother finally brought him to England, Whyte remembers meeting her at the airport. “My mum hadn’t seen me for years but as I walked out she knew who I was. She started crying and ran towards me. I felt good but I was like a rock. In Jamaica, at 13, you’re already a man. I was like: ‘Hello Mum, you all right?’”
He is endearingly close to his mother now but he put her through hell to reach this point. “I was different to everyone in London,” he says. “People thought it was funny to take the piss out of the way I spoke. So I got into fights and one thing led to another and then I’m in gangs. It was fucked up but you get drawn into it.
“Three times I thought I was going to die. I was shot and stabbed. You can’t outrun bullets so you need luck to survive. Most of the time I was a silly kid running around London wreaking havoc. It’s gangster stuff and you think it’s cool to go to prison. But there is nothing cool about it – you’re a fool.”
Whyte is 32 and his eldest son is 19. “He’s taller and a hell of a lot more handsome than me.” The boxer is thoughtful when I ask how he felt after becoming a father at 13. “I was a child but I was really growing up because of everything that happened. It was still frightening. As I got older it gave me more purpose because I had to work harder. I didn’t want the kid to suffer like I did. Now we are close. He’s like my mate.”
Whyte is at his most engaging when discussing his family – especially his mother. “My mum is my hero. She is probably the strongest woman around. Brought up all 12 of us kids by herself and worked three jobs. She is a nurse but she also used to be a dinner lady at school and a cleaner at night.
“She’s still working in Brixton today as a [community] nurse. Everyone is scared and trying to be safe but she is still helping people who have no family. They’ve been discharged from hospital after surgery and they can’t get care. So she goes into their homes to check on them and change their dressings. Everyone’s worried about Covid but people can also die if their [surgical] dressing is not changed or they don’t get their diabetic medication. My mother helps them.
“My oldest sister, Debbie, is also a nurse working 12-hour shifts in Covid wards. They have seen so many bad things in this pandemic. So on my hard days I think about my mum and sister. Boxing is difficult, but they do much more exhausting work.”
How did his family react to his knockout defeat to Povetkin? “It was devastating for everyone. I was devastated but you can’t start crying: ‘Oh God, I’m never going back in the ring.’ I accepted the loss. It was a major setback but let’s get it on again.
“The first fight was going to plan. My boxing was good. I was sharp. I was making Povetkin miss and I was hurting him all the time. But this is heavyweight boxing and it takes just one second and a lapse in concentration to end it. That’s why it’s the star division of boxing. You never know what is going to happen with the heavyweights.”
Has he watched the brutal knockout? “Two or three times. It’s high-speed, high-level boxing. I used a short right to set him up and I then threw the left hook, which was going to put him down for good. But he just came up the middle with the uppercut. It was just a good punch and I’m happy it wasn’t a sustained beating. That causes you more damage than one big punch. Within five minutes I was telling Eddie Hearn [his promoter] I wanted the rematch. I knew I had been dominating Povetkin until that mistake. So I was ready to go again.”
Surely there will be a psychological barrier for him to overcome on Saturday? “I look at it this way. I got knocked out by one punch. But he was more hurt and damaged than me because I was breaking him down with those body punches. He won’t have forgotten going down twice. So it’s very interesting. People won’t think, ‘Oh, Povetkin wins this easy’ or ‘Dillian Whyte’s going to win this sure.’ No. There are certain fights where it’s up in the air and you can make a case for both guys. That’s why this is the most intriguing fight out there.
“He’s taking the fight because he believes he can win again. And he seems to have a good chance of winning. That’s why I’m taking him seriously. That’s why I didn’t take no break over Christmas.”
Perhaps the greatest uncertainty surrounds Povetkin’s recovery from Covid at the age of 41. Whyte shakes his head. “He is a former world champion and an Olympic champion. He has already delayed the fight twice because of Covid so he wouldn’t fight if he didn’t think he is all right. His team is not going to put him at risk. He’s not a journeyman. He will come in ready.
“I want to fight the guy that beat me. I don’t want to fight a shell. And I think the time off has allowed him to recover. I’ve seen pictures of him and he looks good, he looks healthy.”
Will Whyte be more nervous than usual because his boxing future depends on the outcome? “Not really. I’m not going to be like; ‘Oh well, I got stopped last time so I’m going to run around and nick it on points.’ No, I’m coming to fight and do damage. I’ve made the adjustments I needed and I’m going to knock him out.”
Does he ever get tired of fighting after struggling most of his life? Whyte pauses. “I do,” he eventually says, “but you can never give up or stop fighting. That’s when you die early, man. That’s not me. I’m a survivor.”