Hard work puts heavyweight hopeful into the frame for Rio

Jason Whateley has qualified for the Rio Olympics but awaits formal selection.

Jason Whateley has qualified for the Rio Olympics but awaits formal selection. Photo: Joe Armao

Up above the little paint shop near the railway line, Jason Whateley stands in a modest first-floor gym, staring into a mirror.

He is not still, though, but rather working a speed ball into a rhythmic lather, thudding the little black bag with metronomic fury – a perfectly timed combination of repetition and resistance, concentration and constant tension.

When it is done he is spent, and dripping with sweat, but ready to move onto the next thing he needs to do. The regimen is not unlike the grind he faces simply living his life as an amateur boxer, training and earning, eating and crashing, waiting and hoping.

One week ago, Whateley, 25, qualified for the Olympics in Rio after a series of bouts in China. Now he nervously awaits formal selection – the payoff for years of sacrifice and expense.

The tall heavyweight recently paid for sparring trips to Sydney, Perth and Adelaide, training camps and fights in Cuba and the Philippines. He funded his own path to the world championships in Kazakhstan and Doha, and financed his journey to  Qian'an last week.

"It's been really tough. I've got good people around me, but I've got no sponsors," he says. "It's all long days, long weeks. There's no rest."

His work outside the ring is active, not passive, spending that time as a personal trainer and coach helping raw teenagers, yummy mummies and overweight middle-aged men throw punches.

His partner, Steph, supports him by working three jobs in catering, retail and bartending, while also studying counselling at university. When he travels, she shoulders the load at home in Box Hill. "Sometimes you're away a while," he says. "But you've still gotta pay rent. I don't want to get back and lose my house."

Boxing Australia president Ted Tanner said it was getting harder for athletes to launch serious Olympic campaigns as Whateley has done, but he hoped that – with success – there would be rewards.

Australia has never had a gold medal boxer in any division. Such a performance would likely land large sponsorships but also a potential $20,000 lump sum from Boxing Australia, even if such a payment weren't in the budget.

"We'd go short somewhere else," says Tanner. "We'd find it for them."

Whateley will have competition from international contenders, including boxers from Russia, but also from Sydney pugilist Daniel Lewis. Courtesy of his higher designation as a "potential medallist", Lewis, 22, has much more financial support in his campaign. Ninety per cent of his campaign trips are subsidised, yet even he struggles.

He lives at home, and on days off gets up at 5am to head to a sand quarry owned by his father, for 12-hour shifts driving excavators and dump trucks.

He is lucky, though, to have the support of his father and brother, who were fighters too. Both men tell him not to get caught up in the day job.

"Their philosophy is don't worry about money now," says Lewis. "Work hard and you can live life like a champion later. So I'm holding out and hoping."

Whateley, meanwhile, keeps labouring in the Surrey Hills gym of his coach, Gerry Murphy, going from the heavy bags to the uppercut bag, hook bag to technique bag, wall bag to floor-to-ceiling bag and, of course, to the bag shaped like a man, called "Bob", because he bobs and weaves when hit.

He hits the barbells and dumbbells, Swiss balls and skipping ropes, treadmill and Stairmaster, under posters of everyone from Anthony Mundine to Muhammad Ali.

If Whateley gets selected for the Games on Tuesday, the Australian Olympic Committee will cover his outfit and kit, board and lodging, and a portion of his airfare to Brazil. Then it's up to the 196-centimetre bruiser to maintain his work rate and practise his skills, punching in close and boxing at range. He will. His spirit will do that.

Murphy has seen Whateley so tired from his week-long grind that doctors initially thought he had chronic fatigue syndrome. Turns out he was just working too hard. The cagey "come forward" fighter and counter-puncher is as fast as a middle weight and quick to smile. Murphy says he's too nice.

"Quite often in the first round I hope he gets hit," he says. "Because once he gets hit, the devil comes out."

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