On May 27, David Whittom walked into a Fredericton boxing ring to the tune of Duran Duran’s “Wild Boy,” wearing his trademark red and white trunks. Emblazoned on his white frilled belt were the three capitalized words he wanted every opponent to read: MADE IN HELL.
Whittom was still struggling to escape that hell. The fight in Fredericton — against Gary Kopas for the vacant Canada Professional Boxing Council Cruiserweight title — was his last chance to do so.
At 38, Whittom was past his prime and his coach, Frank Duguay, knew it. He only agreed to train his former student on the condition that this be his last fight before retirement.
Whittom’s career was one of unfulfilled potential after an on again, off again battle with drug abuse and alcoholism. Heading into the fight, Whittom was sober for 26 months. Retiring after winning his first Canadian championship would seal his redemption.
But on March 16, Whittom died of pneumonia after spending 10 months in a vegetative state. He was 30 seconds away from becoming a champion, his coach figures, when he lost by TKO. Hours after the fight, Whittom was diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage from which he never recovered.
“He fought his addiction. He fought in the ring. And in the end, he fought for his life,” Duguay said. “That’s the definition of a real fighter.”
Watch David Whittom’s final fight against Gary Kopas
Despite fighting in multiple international bouts, Whittom received no media attention outside Quebec before his death. Members of his family did not wish to speak to the Post and so the details of Whittom’s early life were gathered and pieced together from the stories he had share with his friends.
Whittom was born on March 10, 1979, in Saint Quentin, N.B. When he was a boy, his parents separated and he went to live with his father Jean, who worked as an RCMP officer, in Quebec City. Later, Whittom would get a “mommy’s boy” tattoo on his shoulder to show which parent he preferred. His father was “rough” with him, Whittom’s friends explained.
As a boy, he would later tell a psychologist, he felt abandoned and rejected. He rebelled, according to his girlfriend Jelena Zerdoner, and that lead to him spending time at youth centres in Quebec.
It was there that he got a taste for boxing, a sport that would allow him to unleash his anger on an opponent. It was also here that he began taking street drugs, according to Zerdoner.
Fighting always seemed to be the answer for a young Whittom and, in 2000, he began trying to make a career of it. Whittom was looking to fulfill a childhood dream of being a hockey player in a semi-pro league, where he was, of course, an enforcer.
Whittom wanted to become a better fighter on the ice and so at 19, he signed up for boxing classes at a local gym. Amateur boxing offered better combat for a man always looking for a fight. Searching for another, he joined the Canadian Armed Forces in February 2002. Private Whittom would be in service for two years until he was released in 2004.
That same year, Whittom travelled to Winnipeg to compete in the national amateur boxing championship and placed third — one spot from qualifying for the Pan American Games. The pattern of coming close — but always failing to win his fights — had started.
Duguay would be in Whittom’s corner for most of those losses but when they first started training together in 2004, there were only victories. The coach, who was only 11 years older than his pupil, became like a father to Whittom.
“Boxing saved his life,” said Duguay, pausing, “much more than it put his life in danger.”
Their initial run together saw Whittom go on a 7-1-1 tear in which he became the Canada-Quebec Council Light Heavyweight champion. Duguay and Whittom’s hot start didn’t go unnoticed and, in 2006, the two were offered an international bout against Mikhail Nasyrov in Moscow. Whittom broke Nasyrov’s nose and had the local star spitting his mouthpiece out multiple times. The Russian judges never penalized Nasyrov for the foul and gave him the unanimous decision.
“David, for me, won that fight,” Duguay said.
The boxing world took notice. What followed was a series of bouts against world-renowned fighters in Adonis Stevenson, Joey Spina, Manny Siaca and Adrian Diaconu.
Stevenson, a Canadian and multi-World Boxing Council champion who still has only one loss on his record, was the heavy favourite and bludgeoned Whittom for 10 rounds. But the underdog, invoking the movie magic of Rocky Balboa, went the distance. Whittom, who often fought as a cruiserweight or light heavyweight, could take a punch — he had been doing it all his life — and eight of his first 10 losses went to decision. That alone was a victory.
Two weeks after another loss on March 20, 2008, Whittom lost 24 pounds to be able to fight Spina in Rhode Island, N.Y. There was no fight — regardless of weight class or recovery time — the bruiser wouldn’t take.
The reward outweighed the risk. Whittom, who worked construction during the days, would be in for a substantial payday. The fight would also be broadcast on ESPN.
In desperate need of a cut-man to treat any wounds in the ring, Duguay and Whittom hired Dominic Cote, a Quebec City firefighter.
“To be honest with you, they were searching for a driver,” chuckled Cote, remembering the nine-hour trip to Rhode Island. “They didn’t tell me that, but that’s fine.”
Cote was called into service in the fourth round when Spina busted Whittom open above his eye and left a four-inch gash. The boxing fan’s only clue on how to close it was to try to imitate what he saw qualified cut-men do on TV — soak a Q-tip in adrenaline and press down into the bloody wound.
Watch David Whittom vs. Joey Spina
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Duguay and Cote still insist Whittom should’ve won, but in a split decision, the judges chose Spina. It was supposed to be an easy fight for the Rhode Island native, but Whittom gave him a war.
Even in defeat, there were highs in the ring, but they couldn’t sustain Whittom. So he searched for artificial ones, too.
Duguay banished Whittom from his gym multiple times during his career. When Whittom was high, he was reckless while training — roughing up 16-year-old inexperienced prodigies during sparring sessions.
“He was out of control,” Duguay said. “I had to protect the people around me.”
Boxing wasn’t a game to Whittom but for weeks at a time, he treated it like one. The gym rat stopped showing up for training sessions and personal appointments.
His drug abuse began to hurt his career in more ways than keeping him out of shape. When Whittom was out of Duguay’s gym, he’d still schedule fights, forgoing anything that resembled an actual training camp, because he was in debt with his drug dealers and desperately needed the funds to pay them off, Cote and Duguay said. Over the final nine years of his career, Whittom won only two fights and lost 19.
Battles with sobriety lasted for weeks or months before Whittom disappeared again. Multiple rehab stints were wasted when Whittom left early, thinking he was cured.
Like a father, Duguay would extend his arms and welcome back his surrogate son when he showed remorse. Whittom would convince Duguay to take him back every time, pleading with what his coach described as a “velvet” voice. That’s how he earned the nickname “sweet punisher.”
But the vicious cycle would turn and Duguay would lose him again.
In the ring, his heart was his greatest advantage. Outside, it led him to blindly accept dangerous fights. In a June 2011 bout against Tye Fields, Whittom fought a knockout artist eight inches taller and 75 pounds heavier. Fields nearly knocked him out of the ring, leading Whittom’s corner to forfeit.
And after the Fields fight, on Sept. 10, 2011, Whittom brought his career to an end. He told 12 Rounds, a boxing magazine, that he wanted to stop “before I’m no longer able to see clearly, before I start stammering or having problems in my brain.”
The flirtation with retirement ended after nine months when he returned to the ring. In 2013, he would leave boxing for another two years before returning for the final time. When he wasn’t active, Whittom lost the conduit he used to unleash his rage.
Without an opponent to hit, he turned on an ex-girlfriend on March 23, 2015. According to Le Journal de Quebec, Whittom punched the woman in the face and broke her nose in a fit of jealousy. The relationship was toxic and fuelled by drug use, Cote said. Whittom was convicted but received a conditional discharge.
Two months later, Whittom was sober. He had a son, Zach, from a short marriage between 2010 and 2012 and he wanted to see the boy grow up. Professionally, he turned his life around, opening a bathtub repair business and was proud of his success.
Watch David Whittom vs. Tye Fields
“Thank you, my God, for taking away my addiction,” a grateful Whittom wrote on Facebook after 22 months sober.
For years, Whittom boxed to drown the pain. But even having quieted his demons, he couldn’t resist another fight. His next fight was always his last fight.
In 2015, the losses were piling up, but Whittom still scored a title fight against Kopas. This time, in New Brunswick, he would be the hometown boy with the advantage.
A loss, he told Le Journal de Quebec, would end his career. Sweet-talking Duguay into one last fight was no problem. “Frank, I love to fight. I want to. I’m built to fight,” Duguay remembers Whittom saying.
Duguay would only agreed if Whittom — win or lose — would retire. Whittom agreed, but only months later, the agreement changed. Whittom told local media he hoped a victory could get him another international fight. His 10-year-old son begged him to retire. Not even those pleas could sway Whittom.
Zerdoner had her reservations when she started dating Whittom three months before the fight, but couldn’t keep away from his passion. They were in love, Zerdoner said, and their short-lived romance spawned plans to travel to Croatia. They even spoke of getting married.
“It all fell apart,” Zerdoner said. “He was torn away from me, from my life.”
Before Whittom was knocked out by Kopas, he had the lead in the fight, according to two judges’ scorecards. But Kopas caught Whittom with a combination of punches that left him dangling on the ropes with only seconds left in the final round. The referee called for the fight to continue, leaving Whittom to stagger — barely lifting his feet from the ground — toward Kopas, where he would eat one last blow.
According to Duguay, Whittom showed no signs of being injured afterward in the locker room. He took a shower and went to meet with promoters to demand a rematch, ignoring his promise to Duguay.
Only hours later, Zerdoner interrupted Duguay’s dinner with news that Whittom had a headache. Eight minutes later, Zerdoner called again because Whittom was throwing up.
He was rushed to Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton where a CT scan revealed brain bleeding. Hours later, he was transferred to a hospital in Saint John, N.B. to undergo surgery. Whittom was still fighting as doctors tried to help him; They broke two of his teeth attempting to intubate him.
According to Duguay, doctors removed a piece of Whittom’s skull to ease the pressure of the swelling. When Duguay first saw Whittom post-surgery, his head was deformed and he had been placed in an induced coma. Three months later, he was removed from his respirator.
“His eyes were open, but he wasn’t seeing anything,” Duguay said.
Months into recovery, Whittom still had almost no control of his limbs. During a visit from Quebec, Duguay spoke to Whittom as if they were still in the ring. But instead of a knockout, Duguay just wanted a pinch. “Come on, Whittom,” he said at his student’s bedside, before feeling his grip.
It was the last time Duguay would coach his former student. There was no chance, Duguay said, that he would ever recover.
“He was a prisoner of his own body.”
This was one fight Whittom would not go the distance. Like his bouts against undefeated champions and mountain-sized knockout machines, he took on a fight he couldn’t win. When his spirit wouldn’t give out, his body quit. It had taken too much punishment.
“It wasn’t a Kopas punch that killed him,” Cote said.
And so a promising start in the ring ended in a career of chasing cheques. A burgeoning relationship and a life of sobriety were cut short by unfilled promise.
He was MADE IN HELL and lived in it. The great tragedy of Whittom’s life is that he could never escape it.
With files from Chris Hanna
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