By ALLISON LAWLOR
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
By coming out of retirement to fight one last time, professional boxer David Whittom clung to the hope that the promise he had shown early in his career would re-emerge, allowing him to exit the ring with a national title.
But Mr. Whittom's dream of winning the Canada Professional Boxing Council's national cruiserweight title tragically ended when he lost in the 10th round to Saskatchewan's Gary Kopas. The fight on May 27, 2017, resulted in a brain hemorrhage, followed by an induced coma. After spending almost 10 months in a coma, Mr. Whittom died on March 16 at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton. He was 39.
Going into the May 27 fight, Mr. Whittom knew he was at a crossroads. He was 38 and past his prime.
Though he started his career in 2004 with wins in seven of his first nine fights and took on world-champion fighters Adonis Stevenson, Eleyder Alvarez Baytar and Adrian Diaconu, Mr. Whittom's struggles with drug and alcohol addiction stymied his boxing career. With an overall record of 12-24-1, including eight knockouts, he had lost 18 of his last 20 fights.
"David was a real fighter in all the departments of his life," said his trainer François Duguay. "He fought his addiction. He fought in the ring. He fought for his life. He was always fighting somewhere."
Going into what would be his final fight, Mr. Whittom was physically strong, optimistic, and believed that he could fight his way back to becoming a dominant fighter.
Mr. Duguay, who had coached him early in his career, only agreed to train him again on the promise that this would be his last fight, and that his retirement would be permanent - unlike the previous times he had said he was retiring.
Mr. Whittom agreed. Having been sober for more than two years and having trained hard with Mr. Duguay at the Centre Sportif Empire in Quebec City, Mr. Whittom went into the fight ready to redeem himself.
"My record does not reflect who I am," he told Kevin Dubé in a May, 2017, interview with Le Journal de Québec before his last fight. "The times when I got myself into really good shape in my career, I had close fights with champions." In a 2007 bout in Montreal, he fought 10 rounds against Mr. Stevenson for the vacant Canada Super Middleweight Contest.
Calling him a cerebral fighter, Mr. Duguay said Mr. Whittom shared his view that being in the ring was more of a chess game than a fight, having so much to do with strategy, self-awareness and self-control.
"He knew that it is more a fight against yourself than your opponent," Mr. Duguay said.
"David was really smart in the ring," he added. "He would listen to us from the corner. He was able to adjust. He was listening and trying new things."
The fight in Fredericton on May 27, in front of a crowd of about 3,000 people, was a closely contested one. Wearing his trademark red and white trunks, with the words "MADE IN HELL," emblazoned on the belt in large upper-case letters, Mr. Whittom looked poised to win. Going into the 10th and final round, Mr. Whittom, who was 185 centimetres tall with an arm span, or reach, of 187 centimetres, was ahead on points, according to two out of the three judges' scorecards, said Denis Léger, the executive director of the New Brunswick Combat Sports Commission, which oversees professional boxing, judo, karate and other combat sports in the province.
"He had determination," Mr. Léger said. "He was a very passionate fighter."
With just 37 seconds left in the 10-round fight, Mr. Kopas beat him by technical knockout. Mr. Whittom's dream of winning the championship slipped out of his hands for the last time.
"That dream was 37 seconds shy," Mr. Léger said.
At the end of the fight, Mr. Whittom was up against the ropes with his back to his opponent. The referee called a break so Mr. Whittom could turn around. He signalled for the fight to start again, Mr. Whittom moved forward. Mr. Kopas landed a punch and Mr.
Whittom was unable to defend himself, so the referee moved in between the fighters. Mr. Kopas got in one last left hook over the referee's shoulder, but with less power, Mr. Léger said. The fight ended.
"There was not a single knockout in this fight," Mr. Léger said. "David was never knocked down even at the end."
Mr. Whittom was checked by a doctor after leaving the ring. He was then escorted back to the dressing room. He showered and dressed and even complained about the cold water. Shortly after midnight he collected his paycheque for the fight from Mr. Léger and expressed his disappointment in the outcome, knowing it had been so close. He even talked about wanting to have a rematch with Mr. Kopas. He shook Mr. Léger's hand and left.
"He was extremely professional," Mr. Léger said. "In the boxing community he was very well respected."
Later on, he is reported to have suffered severe headaches and began to vomit at his mother's home in Fredericton. He was taken to the emergency room.
Suffering from a brain hemorrhage, he underwent surgery and was placed in a coma. He remained in a coma until his death.
Born in St. Quentin, New Brunswick, on March 10, 1979, Mr. Whittom was the son of Hélène Moffatt and Jean Whittom, who later divorced. As a teenager, he started boxing and was soon hooked. It was his passion and a way to deal with his inner demons. His battles with substance abuse hurt him, and those around him. Boxing helped him to turn his life around. He lived by the motto: Winners never quit, and quitters never win, coined by NFL player and coach Vince Lombardi.
"He was up and down. It was a lot of time. Too much for me. I had to throw him out of the gym," Mr. Duguay said. He pushed Mr.
Whittom to get sober and when the boxer eventually did, Mr. Duguay agreed to train him again.
"For the last 26 months, he was clean. His life was going well," Mr. Duguay said, adding that Mr. Whittom also had a new romantic relationship and had started a small bathroom-repair business.
Mr. Whittom spoke openly about his substance abuse problems in an interview with Le Journal de Québec before his last fight.
"I have been clean for more than two years, I have changed my entourage and I've gone back into training. To finish my boxing career well, that is good for me, because I am doing it for myself," he said.
Before his last fight, he was looking forward to the possibility of an even brighter boxing future, despite having promised to retire.
"This fight could open doors for me for something bigger - in Europe, maybe. My goal is to win [against Kopas] to go to Europe. If I surprise them over there, I could get a fight against one of the top 15 fighters in the world. Once I'm there, you never know what could happen," he told Le Journal de Québec.
The New Brunswick Combat Sports Commission completed its own investigation into Mr. Whittom's last fight and found there was no neglect on anyone's part and that all procedures were followed. The New Brunswick coroner service is investigating the death.
"Coroners investigate any sudden or unnatural death, as per the criteria under the Coroner's Act," the agency said in a statement.
Mr. Whittom leaves his son, Zack; Zack's mother, Melissa; his sister, Christine; stepsister, Marie-Eve; stepbrothers, Eric, Shawn and Dave; several aunts, uncles and cousins.
"He was a pretty tough customer," Mr. Duguay said.
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David Whittom, right, of Saint Quentin, N.B., takes a left to the jaw from Montreal's Adrian Diaconu during their light heavyweight bout in Montreal in 2009.
RUAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS