Ben Kelleher seeks validation against ‘golden boy’ Whateley

FEAR the man who has nothing to lose.

More than a half century of fights across a myriad of disciplines has allowed Ben Kelleher (13-1-2, 4 KOs) to develop a mindset that few can mirror in combat sports.

As a professional boxer, Kelleher has picked up a handful of belts, but along the way the Auckland-born cruiserweight has secured something far more lucrative — the respect of his pugilistic peers.

The 32-year-old will next face unbeaten former Olympian Jason Whateley as part of the fifth instalment of WILDFIGHTER on March 28th in Melbourne, with plans of solidifying his place as the best domestic fighter in his division not named Jai Opetaia.

“People want to build their records and are scared to have blemishes,” he told Aus-Boxing.

“The Jai Opetaia’s and Jason Whateley’s of the world, people don’t want to fight them here in Australia. I’m at the point of my career where I just want the best guys; the guys that have the best records.

“I think that Jason is one of the golden boys, which is why I want to fight him. Given his background and how he represented Australia at the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, he’s touted as one of the best talents we have, and I agree with that.

“To be honest — I’m a fan of his — I think he boxes really well. That’s what gives him that status and I think everyone believes him in. In this fight, I think I’m certainly the underdog and I’m okay with that.”

There’s an air of confidence that comes with competing professionally, which is only strengthened with time and quality of opposition.

Despite the shortened tenure of his time as a punch-for-pay combatant, the Ipswich-based Kelleher speaks with the conviction of a fighter that is genuinely at peace with their legacy.

“Nothing is new to me at this stage of my career,” he explained.

”I’ve had more than 70 professional fights across three sports, and fought in different countries as well. People dont know that about me. I’ve fought some decent guys in boxing, but other than that, they don’t really know me.

“In the past, I’ve shown that I’m able to rise to the challenge. The only other thing that separates me from these guys is time. I’ve been here for long a time.”

Kelleher has lost just once as a professional, falling short against divisional leader Jai Opetaia two years ago, with a hand injury ultimately compromising a fight that promised so much.

As a reflective Kelleher reveals, the opportunity to face Opetaia again is one he’d like to revisit.

“Looking back, I lost that fight because my body wasn’t conditioned to compete,” he added.

“I was at a time in my life where I needed my body to heal, and I probably ignored that. I went into that fight injured and I’m upset about it. But looking at it now, it doesn’t change my trajectory, it’s all good.

“I’m happy that I fought Australia’s best, and I’d like to fight him again. If I don’t get that fight, it doesn’t frustrate me though. It’s actually a fight that has presented itself again, even before this fight with Jason as well.

“Given the circumstances, it wasn’t right for us, and I’m glad I listened to my team. As much as I want to fight everyone, I listened to them and I know it will present itself again.”

As the clash with Whateley approaches, Kelleher sees the next chapter of his career as the swansong.

Whenever the curtain calls, the quietly spoken Queenslander will be at peace with the decision, having separated the fighter from the human being.

“I’ve got to be honest — I probably don’t have much time — my focus has changed towards other things,” he said.

“That does two things for my career now. Firstly, when I look into the future, I know that there isn’t much time left and that takes the pressure off me.

“Secondly, because I know I’m towards the end, I’m going to go 100 percent into this. There’s no stone being left unturned and that can be daunting. But there’s no excuses, if I win, I’m better.

“I used to attach my identity to being a fighter. When I did that, I put so much pressure on myself, and that’s when I lost fights. Now that I’m older, I understand the mistake that I made.

“The trigger was recent. I’ve had a lot of things happen to me personally that made me reevaluate what’s important in my life. Now that I understand that fighting isn’t as important, it makes me think about the pressure that I used to put myself under.

“That other shit in normal life is easy. Training is easy and fighting is easy. Shit like having no money, or having issues with a girlfriend or wife, that’s hard. Everything else becomes very simple.”

At the highest level, the difference between winning and losing is miniscule.

As Kelleher freely admits, the difference between himself and Whateley is yet to be decided. But from his own perspective, the distinction between them could go beyond their concurrent training camps.

“With all due respect, I don’t think Jason has been in the trenches before,” he concluded.

“Not in his personal life because I can’t speak for that, but definitely not in the ring. There’s a different person in you that comes out in the eighth, ninth or tenth round, when you don’t want to be there.

“That takes a different person to get past that, and if Jason does, I know he’ll be a better fighter for it. I’ve been there, in both boxing and life, and I think I’m better prepared for it. That’s the key for me in this fight.

“I used to base a lot of my decisions on what people thought, and under a lot of undue pressure. At that time of my life, I used to worry about opinions if I lost. That really doesn’t matter now, all of the opinions, they fall away.

“I realise the ramifications of losing, and that opportunities will come my way if I win. It helps me to stay focused. That would’ve made me question myself a few years ago, but that’s not the case this time.”

Photo: Provided