Blood and Pain: Dillian Whyte Ready for Oscar Rivas, the World

Dillian Whyte celebrates knocking out Derek Chisora at The O2 Arena in London on December 22, 2018. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Dillian Whyte is ready to explode. At the far end of a sprint tunnel, within Loughborough University’s Powerbase Gym—a palatial strength-and-conditioning facility in England’s verdant heartlands—Brixton’s world heavyweight contender is grinding through plyometric drills. Midway through a grueling morning session, alongside fellow fighters Richard Riakpohe, and Charlie Duffield, he’s poised to execute a box jump.

“If you don’t explode when you jump, then it’s pointless,” he chides Riakporhe, in his laid-back Jamaican lilt. Whyte is a fortnight away from another explosion, another step. In another tough fight, he’ll face unbeaten, Montreal-based Colombian Óscar Rivas in London. Here sports science experts record his every move—via heart rate monitors and iPad-linked tech. Soon, he’ll be under increased scrutiny, in his position as the heavyweight no one seems keen to face.

The first thing you notice about Whyte, 25-1 (18 KOs), is that he’s enormous. His hulking back is asking questions of his oversized “Body Snatcher” t-shirt; he has shoulders like nearby Beacon Hill, and fists like medicine balls. Yet it’s his height that surprises you most. That and his easygoing vibe. As a young pro, Whyte could appear both wary and intimidating; but here, away from the cameras, he’s cracking jokes, rather than scowls.

The mood lightens further when gregarious former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney swings by. There’s a genuine affection between the pair. Amid the wisecracks, compliments, and photo-opportunities—everyone who’s struck a pose with Whyte is milling around with weightlifting chalk across their shoulders—Whyte slips in a serious poser. “Quick question for you,” he asks Cooney. “What’s the best punch you find to get your left hook off—the jab or the right hand? Especially with a shorter guy?”

When Hannibal Boxing catches up with Whyte again, ahead of a new working week, he explained the challenges presented by the shorter guy in question.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “I’m still relatively inexperienced. You’re talking about someone who’s had seven amateur fights and twenty-six professional fights. Óscar Rivas had over a hundred amateur fights and twenty-six professional fights. It’s good for me to fight these guys and prove to myself that I can deal with these guys with all this experience.

“He’s a top guy. He’s beaten [Kubret] Pulev, Andy Ruiz, and a few other top amateurs as well [as an amateur]. The guy’s a good fighter. He’s always in shape. He’s aggressive, he’s got good reflexes, he’s a good pressure fighter and all that. I do rate him highly—that’s why I’m training so hard for him . . . but I think he’s gonna get his head bashed in anyway.

“I’m just trying to give the fans the best fights I can give them. Seeing as these champions don’t want to fight me, I’m just trying to get the next best fights, you know what I mean? Rivas is the kind of guy you fight for a world title, or as a mandatory. He’s not the kind of guy you go and hand-pick to fight. Okay, I’ll fight him.”

A pay-per-view attraction in the UK, Whyte has yet to secure an overdue world title shot. The WBC’s number-one contender for close to two years, he seems no nearer to a crack at their champion, Deontay Wilder, than when he first made the top spot. And yet all he’s done is win, and improve, in the interim.

Rather than resting on his laurels, Whyte accepted a tough run of fights. On a winning streak that includes victories over Robert Helenius, Lucas Browne, Joseph Parker, and Dereck Chisora (twice) he’s confident he’s gathered enough experience to deal with Rivas.

“Part of being a champion, and a good fighter, is finding a way to beat all styles,” he said. “I’ve fought guys who are very quick. I’ve fought guys who are very strong, very slow. I’ve fought movers. I don’t think he’s got faster hands than Parker—and I just bullied Parker, and dealt with him. Parker is bigger than him, and more well-schooled than him, and a former world champion, and I still dealt with him. Óscar Rivas is shorter, has got quick hands and stuff, but listen: it doesn’t matter what these guys come with, the result is gonna be the same. I’m gonna bash these guys up, one by one.”

After leveling Chisora in December with a chilling left hook in the eleventh round, a more-seasoned Whyte explained how he’s learning to quell the street fighter in him and let the boxer hold sway.

“I gotta go against my nature a little bit—but that’s all a part of maturing and developing as a person in and out of the ring. And being older and more experienced. What I know to do in life is to fight, and to be a survivor. But now, I realize it’s easier when you do these things more efficiently, and obviously that starts with being calm and confident, and cool within myself.

“I’m more relaxed in myself and more confident in myself. I try to power late into the fight. I don’t need to go out there and try and land that big one in the first three or four rounds. I can land it in the sixth round, seventh round, eighth round. I’m more balanced.”

He’s also more dangerous and has a gunslinger’s edge. Already carrying a busted rib into the Parker fight last summer, he kept quiet about breaking his hand until it was too late to pull out. At such a critical juncture in his career, would he consider fighting hurt again?

“I love fighting,” he said, in mitigation. “I enjoy fighting, man. It’s probably not the smartest thing to do, but I don’t like letting down the fans. And I like challenging myself as well. These guys complain about this and complain about that. You don’t hear me moaning about headbutts or this, that, and the other. These guys make a lot of excuses. I could have gone into the Parker fight saying, ‘Oh well, I had a broken hand.’ I never even mentioned it. It came out eventually. I’d do the same thing tomorrow, and beat him with two broken hands, and two broken ribs.”

This isn’t cheap bluster, but more a mindset Whyte had drummed into him long ago. After a crushing knockout loss to archrival Anthony Joshua in 2015 (Whyte had beaten “A. J.” in his amateur debut in 2009) he restarted his career from scratch. In a bid to replicate the sparkling facilities Joshua has been privy to since 2010 (care of Great Britain’s amateur headquarters in Sheffield) Whyte moved to Loughborough, and the sprawling, hi-tech complex he now calls home.

Overcoming the psychological horrors of a knockout loss was the first step. But to progress from it, and keep developing with each fight, is something else again. How has he managed it?

“It’s down to my mental strength,” he said. “My team’s forced me into a position where I have to adapt, I have to improve. They took me out of my comfort zone and put me into a new environment I had to adapt to. I had to improve, I had to listen to people. I had to change my mindset. It’s a combination of my mental toughness, [and] my team, obviously, putting me into stressful situations I had to adapt to.”

Another key move was teaming up with fellow Londoner Mark Tibbs (son of the revered Jimmy Tibbs, who worked with Nigel Benn, among others).

“Mark’s a very good coach,” Whyte explained. “He’s got a few different fighters with a few different styles, and he don’t teach us all the same. He don’t try to change my style; he tries to add little bits and pieces. He says: ‘Listen, you know how to fight, you know what to do, but it’s just the little in-between bits you’ve got to be more consistent in. You need to throw the jab more, throw the extra punch, remember to move your head after you move your feet’—little things like that.

“That’s what makes him a good coach. He don’t try and change your style at all. He looks at what you do well, and he just adds bits to it. The main thing with Mark is he’s very adaptable, and he accommodates the person he’s training.”

As others have found to their cost, it doesn’t pay to look beyond an opponent in heavyweight boxing. It’s a maxim Whyte values, as he bids to stay alive in a resurgent division.

“I’m just focused on what’s in front of me,” he said. “I’m not looking at what Wilder’s doing, or what Fury’s doing. No. I’m focused on Óscar Rivas and bashing his head in. Once I bash his head in, then we’ll look and see what’s going on. My team’s on it and working constantly, jockeying for position [and] doing a great job for me behind the scenes. For me, I’m just focused on Óscar Rivas.”

Despite his willingness to engage in competitive fights, Whyte’s world title snafu has met with both sympathy and scorn. Critics point out he rejected eliminators from the WBC and the IBF—along with a rematch against Joshua earlier this year. Yet Whyte explained that those deals were unworkable.

From the WBC-ordered match with Cuban Luis Ortiz—a ‘final eliminator’ for the right to become second mandatory challenger behind Dominic Breazeale (this despite Whyte having already won a WBC eliminator against Chisora)—to the thin end of the wedge in prospective fights with Kubrat Pulev and A. J. Just talking about it gets his blood up.

“They made Dominic Breazeale the mandatory before me—it’s crazy, man.

“Why the hell am I going to be number-one and fight for a second mandatory [slot]?” Whyte railed about the Ortiz offer. “A second mandatory means that there’s a mandatory before you. The champion only has to fight one mandatory, one time a year. Why am I going to do something like that? When I’m number-one, I should be in position to fight the champion anyway.

“I accepted the Luis Ortiz fight, but Deontay Wilder didn’t accept the terms. I said, ‘After I fight Luis Ortiz and beat him, you have to fight me with no intervening bouts and no running away.’ And Deontay Wilder didn’t agree to it. We were trying to get him and the WBC to sign that off, but they didn’t want to do that.

“Had Deontay Wilder signed on the line and said, ‘OK, I’ll fight you next. There’s no intervening bouts, there’s no messing about,’ I’d have fought Luis Ortiz and smashed him to bits.”

After EPIC Sports outflanked Matchroom to win the purse bids for an IBF eliminator against Pulev, Whyte was staring at a 25 percent purse-split and an uncertain trip to Bulgaria. If the risk-reward ratio wasn’t egregious enough, his prospects of a tilt at champion Joshua appeared unchanged, whether he beat Pulev or not.

“I accepted the Pulev fight, but his team couldn’t come up with the money,” Whyte snarled. “People don’t know these things because I don’t talk about business in public.”

At that point, Matchroom produced a higher-rated opponent, for more money, exposure, and kudos: a PPV fight against Parker—then viewed as the third best heavyweight in the world. Victory would strengthen Whyte’s bona fides, along with his negotiating hand, ahead of the fight Sky Sports had built towards for years: a money-spinning Wembley rematch with Joshua in April.

Everything looked to be going to plan. And then everything fell apart when Joshua proposed to take the lion’s share of the rematch pot, and a contracted rubber match if he lost. The offer came too late to meet Whyte’s demands for a sixteen-week VADA program, and a second, slightly improved deal came nowhere close to meeting expectations. Whyte’s inner hustler called bullshit.

Convinced that Joshua was intent on making his US debut against Jarrell Miller on DAZN, Whyte, a free agent who works with Matchroom on a fight-by-fight basis, chose to make a stand.

For some, it’s a case of the boy who cried wolf. Others insist he belongs to a tradition of heavyweight bogeymen that includes Sam Langford, Harry Wills, Sonny Liston, Zora Folley, Cleveland Williams, and Nino Valdes. Only Liston endured long enough to rip the championship away from Floyd Patterson in 1962. Thankfully for Whyte, thirty-one, he is well-versed in persistence.

Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Whyte’s mother, Jane, migrated to London with his older siblings when baby Dillian was just two. Left behind with his father and extended family, while his mother worked to create a future for him, he experienced an agonizingly tough childhood. His father’s motto of “If you’re not dead, you’re OK” was only the half of it.

After more than a decade, he reunited with his mother in Brixton, the tough South London borough, brought to a standstill by visiting black icons Nelson Mandela, Muhammed Ali, and Mike Tyson.

A man-child at twelve, a father at thirteen, he’s been stabbed, shot, kidnapped, and tried every form of legalized combat from kickboxing to MMA. For Whyte, fighting has always been the easy part.

“I’ll fight anyone,” he declared. “I don’t really care. There’s only three things that could happen: I’m gonna win, you’re gonna win, or it’s gonna be a draw. That’s it. So, what? If you fight good fighters, you will lose. You fight tough fighters, you’re gonna get knocked down. You fight half-decent fighters, you’re gonna look bad. The only time you look good is when you fight a Tom Schwarz, or a forty-year-old [Bermane] Stiverne, you know?

“One thing my father taught me is to be tough, and to be stubborn, and never give up. That’s what I do, man. Life is not easy—whether you’re a boxer, or have a nine-to-five, or whatever. Life is not easy.

“It’s frustrating, it’s hard, and heartbreaking and all of that. But you keep driving, man. Just keep driving, and keep going forward, you know? You can’t be weak and mentally fragile in life. No way, man.”

On Saturday, at London’s O2 Arena, Whyte will look to explode again.

“It’s going to be brutal,” he said. “All I can predict is pain and blood. Listen, I’m going to really try to hurt this guy.”