The Art of Journeyman Boxing: Inside the Mind of a Professional Loser

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Published in ShortList Magazine on 08 Dec 2016

Sonny Whiting is a journeyman boxer: a man paid to make other fighters look good. Matt Blake finds out how he’s making a success out of being second best…

© ShortList Media/Greg Funnell

On a rainy November night, Sonny Whiting, a 28-year-old middleweight boxer with a missing tooth and a Hollywood bone structure, is warming up for his 16th professional fight.

He twists his torso, sucks in a breath and uncoils a sledgehammer right-hook that roars when it smashes his trainer’s outstretched hand. “That’s a big shot, Son,” his trainer, Johnny Greaves, pants. “Be careful how you use that in the ring; you’re not here to knock the lad out.”

It’s 7pm on a Saturday in the away fighters’ dressing room – a vast, anonymous function room – at Brighton’s Hilton Metropole hotel. Whiting, a quiet, muscular bruiser with cheesegrater abs and a face far too handsome for a professional punchbag, is a scaffolder by day. But tonight he has driven 100 miles, from Rochester in Kent, for his other job. That job is to hammer it out with a younger, undefeated, local fighter with his sights set firmly on the Big Time. That prizefighter is a 23-year-old named Max Wicks, which is all Whiting knows about him. That, and the fact his chances of winning are slim to none. But that’s not why Whiting’s here tonight. With 10 losses in 15 fights, Whiting is learning the art of journeyman boxing. He is here for £1,000 in cash.

“I don’t expect to win, no,” he tells me in between bursts on Greaves’s pads. “I’m a stepping stone; the gatekeeper for guys who want to go on to bigger and better things. I make more money here in 12 minutes than I do in two weeks at work.” He laughs. “It’s a no-brainer, really.”

Travelling man

‘Journeyman’, ‘on-the-road fighter’, ‘tomato can’, ‘palooka’ or just ‘the opponent’; the job has many names, but one motto: have gloves, will travel. They are the foundations of a sport built on blood and cash, happy to drive across the country – often alone, at very short notice – to take a beating for a grand. They are the footsoldiers sacrificed on boxing’s body-strewn no-man’s land to protect a king, or make way for a charging knight. They provide more promising fighters – the “ticket sellers” of the sport – a chance to pad their records and boost their careers. Without men like Whiting, and Greaves before him, there would be no Anthony Joshua, no Amir Khan and certainly no David Haye. In boxing, like in war, footsoldiers never become kings.

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