Apr 19, 2022
- •Reports on boxing for ESPN.co.uk, as well as several national newspapers
•Has been reporting on British boxing for over 15 years
•Appears on BoxNation’s Boxing Matters show
In front of approximately 200 people, Dillian Whyte had his arm raised in victory. Inside the Chadwell St Mary Working Men’s Club, just 40 miles southeast from Wembley in London, the then-amateur Whyte received no payment for a decision win over another rising amateur: Anthony Joshua. The modest venue held a small but emotional crowd, which witnessed a time in two heavyweights’ careers that few could predict would be forever remembered.
Both fighters turned pro a short time after that bout. After winning an Olympic gold medal in his last amateur bout, Joshua’s professional career moved faster and he won three of the four major boxing titles. En route to that stardom, he defeated Whyte at a time when winning fights mattered most.
Whyte has never been a full world titlist, but he does have WBC interim gold around his waist. On Saturday, 13 years after that amateur bout against Joshua, Whyte aims to change his own career trajectory. After waiting for years for other rivalries to settle, he will finally get the opportunity as he faces Tyson Fury for the WBC and lineal heavyweight championship (2 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV).
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Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on ESPN+: Tyson Fury vs. Dillian Whyte undercard
Saturday, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV: Tyson Fury vs. Dillian Whyte, 12 rounds, for Fury’s WBC heavyweight title
But the stakes don’t end there. In addition to the purse of £5.5 million, if he should beat his English rival he’ll set up the prospect of fighting the winner of Oleksandr Usyk-Joshua later this year for the undisputed heavyweight championship.
From 200 fans to an estimated crowd of 90,000 at Wembley, and a personal journey that he says included multiple stabbings and a shooting, the only thing missing from Whyte’s dreams are the belts that are now closer in reach than ever before.
Dillian Whyte challenges Tyson Fury for the WBC world heavyweight belt on Saturday. Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images
Chris Okoh, a former professional boxer who won the Commonwealth cruiserweight title and retired in 1999, guided Whyte from his first amateur fight against Joshua in 2009 until just before his professional encounter with Joshua in 2015. He was convinced of Whyte’s potential from the first time he worked with him at a south London boxing gym.
“I [will] never forget the first time I did a 30-minute pad session with Dillian,” Okoh told ESPN. “After that pad session I said this young man is good enough to become world heavyweight champion.
“I remember reading what Cus D’Amato said when he first saw Mike Tyson, and it was the same impact when I saw Dillian. He was raw but the ability was there. He had a great jab and he had that natural hunger, appetite. Sometimes fighters don’t have that drive or application, but he had it as well as the talent.”
Okoh believes Whyte acquired that hunger from his tough upbringing. Born in Jamaica, Whyte was brought up by relatives after his mom, Jerroleen, moved to England. According to Whyte, he experienced hunger and the threat of drug violence in early childhood.
Whyte joined his mom and siblings at age 12 to live in Brixton, south London. A year later he became a father. According to Whyte, he was stabbed three times and shot twice during a troubled adolescence.
“I’m used to hardship — there has been a lot of struggle,” Whyte told BT Box Office this week.
“Kids like me shouldn’t be where I am. I didn’t think I would be alive past 20, or otherwise be in prison doing some charges for murder or something. That was the lifestyle that was forced onto me … because of the way my life was.
“From eating out of trash cans … that’s an achievement in itself.”
Boxing was Whyte’s chance to steer his life to safer waters.
“I got into some major trouble when I was 15 and I was about to throw my life away,” Whyte told ESPN in 2018.
“Then a friend of mine took me down to a gym and it kicked off from there. I fell in love with it.
“I was one of those kids growing up that was written off and meant be in prison by a certain age. I was getting into trouble for fighting and being a bad kid on the street.
“I found kickboxing and MMA, and that kept me occupied. When I got into boxing, I became serious about it. It kept me out of trouble because I was too tired to do anything else.”
Meeting Okoh was a pivotal moment in Whyte’s life.
“Dillian was doing some kickboxing training with Leroy Harris,” Okoh added. “They got in contact with me about boxing about 2006. With kickboxing he was earning £200 to £300 a time, but with amateur boxing he wasn’t getting paid.
“I told him that in the long run you will earn more than £200 or £300 per fight, and he did listen so we trained him only to box, and he boxed for Chadwell St Mary.”
Okoh was head coach at Chadwell St Mary Amateur Boxing Club (ABC) and made the match with Joshua, who boxed for Finchley ABC.
“I was finding it difficult to match Dillian, but I was told about this young lad at Finchley ABC who was good, and that they would definitely make the match with Dillian,” Okoh said.
“It was … a really basic venue with a maximum 200 people capacity and in the middle of nowhere. It was the polar opposite to Wembley Stadium. The place was like the venue at the start of the first Rocky movie, where Rocky fought Spider Rico, a low-class joint. Dillian had more fans there that night.”
It was the 17th bout of the night at the intimate venue. They fought for three two-minute rounds inside a tiny ring.
“They got changed in a back room behind the stage,” Okoh told ESPN. “You could have swung a cat in that room, and it was a far cry from the sort of venues Dillian and Joshua fight at now.”
Whyte was aggressive and it paid off as he floored Joshua, who was competing in his fourth amateur fight, in the second round. Whyte won the fight on points.
Whyte turned professional in 2011 and a year later tested positive for a banned stimulant, methylhexaneamine, which had been in a sports nutritional drink he bought in a shop. Whyte served a ban and returned to action after nearly two years out in November 2014.
Dillian Whyte and Anthony Joshua’s first professional bout was in 2015, six years after they fought in front of 200 people at the Chadwell St Mary Working Men’s Club. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Okoh arranged numerous sparring sessions during the beginning of his career, including a set with Fury, to make up for the lack of amateur bouts.
“It was about 2013 and Tyson was living in Belgium at the time,” Okoh said. “We did ten days over there with Tyson, and it was a pure education. The first sparring session was very heated, I was very impressed with both of them. Dillian dropped Tyson with a left hook to the liver and Tyson went down on one knee and got up quickly. According to Dillian, he also knocked down Tyson again, but I can’t vouch for that.
“The sparring sessions with Tyson were competitive. The first day they did four rounds and it was very heated, and they sparred numerous times after that. We got on really well. The Furys were really accommodating.
“He also sparred with the likes of David Price, and of course Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. He was over there in Austria where they trained five or six times. Dillian excels with taller boxers, that early sparring with those guys was great learning for him, and it will stand him in good stead with Fury.”
Whyte and Joshua, who turned professional after winning Olympic gold in 2012, met for a second time — but this time Okoh was not in the corner.
“In 2015, I was involved in a serious road traffic accident and I was in hospital for a while,” Okoh said. “Dillian came to see me and I had a mutual friend who was going to train him while I recovered but he then went to train with Johnathon Banks … and that was it.”
Joshua survived a second-round crisis to defeat Whyte in the seventh round. It was a pivotal moment for both: Joshua was crowned world champion in his next fight (the first of two reigns) but it took Whyte seven years to land his first world title shot against Fury, who will be making his second title defense.
“I would like to see Dillian win, to fulfill that prophecy we had that he was going to become world heavyweight champion one day,” Okoh added. “Make no mistake, Dillian is capable of beating Tyson. Tyson will go in as a strong betting favorite, but I think this is a 50-50 fight. Dillian’s best option is to go for the knockout. He has to get his tactics right though. Dillian can be hotheaded at the best of times, but he needs to keep a calm head to be successful.
“He could lose his way otherwise. If Tyson underestimates Dillian in any way he’s in for a hard night. Tyson will never have faced an opponent that is going to have the hunger that Dillian brings to the ring. I can see Dillian knocking Tyson out if he sticks to the game plan and get inside with the jab.”
Okoh, who lives in south London, now works as delivery driver for a supermarket chain and plans to watch Fury-Whyte on television with friends.
“My son boxes for Chadwell St Mary and I’m in regular contact with the club still, the venue is still there where they boxed. I tell young kids that Anthony Joshua and Dillian Whyte once boxed there, and they don’t believe me.”