Wallin channels Ingemar inspiration
Luke G. Williams
Ahead of his appearance on this Saturday’s eagerly awaited ‘Capital Showdown’ bill in Stockholm, Boxing Monthly speaks to rising Swedish heavyweight star Otto Wallin and discovers that he takes inspiration from a Scandinavian ring legend of days gone by.
Of the 38 men who can truly be considered to have earned the right to be referred to as World Heavyweight Champion – by which I mean the genuine, lineal title, not some whimsical alphabet belt bauble – only seven were born outside North America; English-born trio Bob Fitzsimmons, Lennox Lewis and Tyson Fury, German Max Schmeling, Italian Primo Carnera, Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko and, arguably the most remarkable and unlikely champion of them all, Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson.
Considering Sweden’s population during Johansson’s title reign was a mere 7.5 million, the fact the Scandinavian country was able to produce a World Heavyweight Champion at all is an astounding and all too often overlooked sporting feat.
And, whisper it quietly - as befitting a country renowned for its polite manners and understated attitude - but in 14-0 heavyweight prospect Otto Wallin, Sweden currently boasts a rising heavyweight contender who is determined to emulate Johansson’s astonishing achievement.
“I grew up hearing stories about him,” the 25-year-old Wallin tells BM when asked to explain what Johansson’s career still means to him and Sweden as a whole. “Stories about how he took the title. Everyone who was around then remembers it. It was a very big moment for Sweden. [Johansson] was a big icon in Sweden - not only in boxing, but for all Swedish sport.
“I take a lot of inspiration from him. He showed that it’s possible to become a world champion coming from Sweden and he did it when there was only one champion, one belt. That’s very inspiring.”
Since turning pro in 2013, Wallin was won all of his professional contests, ten by stoppage. His 15th pro bout takes place this Saturday on the Sauerland brothers’ enticing ‘Capital Showdown’ bill in Stockholm’s historic Hovet Arena, the very same stadia where Johansson sparked Henry Cooper in 1957 and held on desperately to squeak past Brian London in 1963.
Given that the ‘Nordic Fight Night’ event is the biggest boxing event in Sweden since the 1960s, it is unsurprising to learn that Wallin is positively relishing the opportunity to shine alongside other rising and established stars of Swedish boxing who are appearing on the bill, including Erik Skoglund, Mikaela Laurén, Oscar Ahlin and Klara Svensson.
“All the best fighters in Sweden are going to be fighting and it’s the first time we’ve fought in the capital,” he enthuses, childlike excitement registering in his voice. “It’s going to be the best show in Sweden for a very long time. Almost every fight on the bill has a Swedish fighter and it feels great. I’m very happy to be fighting in Sweden. My first 12 bouts I had abroad and then the next three I’ve had in Sweden, which has been very nice.”
A 6’5½” tall southpaw, Wallin was born in 1990 and hails from the town of Sundsvall on the east coast of Sweden, but is based in Denmark, where he is trained by former WBA super-featherweight and lightweight titlist Joey Gamache.
“It has been great training with Joey,” Wallin emphasises. “We started off when I’d only had two professional fights. I got with him early and I think that was important, to get with somebody who I can trust. We have a close relationship and the training is very good. I really trust him.”
Although no longer a permanent resident of Sweden, there is still a refreshingly down-to-earth and ‘hometown’ quality to Wallin, who speaks warmly of his upbringing. “I grew up good,” he explains. “I first started boxing when I was 15. My father used to box and my brother, too, so that’s why I started. It was something I wanted to try. I’d done other sports before, like ice hockey and soccer, but I wasn’t that good at those.
“When it came to boxing right away it was something I wanted to do and that I realised I could be good at. I had a good family and friends. In fact, I have the same friends now as I did back then. It’s always nice to come home and meet them. They’re all coming down on 23rd April so that will be nice.”
When he first started boxing, Wallin admits that the idea of eventually turning professional was not uppermost in his mind. “Originally, my dream was to go to the Olympics,” he recalls. “We had a guy in my boxing club [Ugandan-born Kennedy Katende] who qualified for the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing - that was big for me. I wanted to do the same.
“But then the opportunity came about to turn professional with Sauerland. I decided this would be a better path for me. I could get better training and train full time, too. I thought turning professional would give me the opportunity to become as good as I could.”
In a sport often renowned for its absurd bluster and hyperbole, Wallin strikes BM as unusually and endearingly understated and modest. For example, when asked to assess his own strengths and weaknesses, he is more than willing to admit the need for improvement.
“I’m a pretty fast heavyweight and I move well,” he explains. “I’ve got good footwork. So I’ve got good fundamentals, but I’m looking to work on my power, and become more explosive. I feel that’s where I can improve the most. Of course, you can always improve in every area, but the most would be in my power and explosiveness.”
Turning his attention to his opponent on Saturday, Brazil’s Irineu Beato Costa Junior, Wallin’s assessment is equally honest. “[He’s] nothing special. I mean he’s a big puncher [17 of Costa’s 19 wins have been by stoppage], but to me he hasn’t knocked out any really good opponents. Yes, he can punch, so I have to be careful but I’m aware of that so I’m ready for it.”
Having spent several weeks sparring with Britain’s newly-crowned IBF title holder Anthony Joshua prior to his two-round destruction of ‘Prince’ Charles Martin, Wallin is accustomed to being across the ring from a big puncher. The experiences he accrued working in Joshua’s camp certainly appear to have made a big impression on him.
“I really enjoyed my time in England,” he explains. “I was supposed to go for five nights at first, so I went there thinking I’d take each day at a time. In the end, I was there for seven weeks. It was amazing. We did a lot of sparring and that’s the most important training you can get. I feel like I improved and he improved, too, so it worked out very good.”
Joshua, of course, may prove a significant obstacle to Wallin’s future world-level ambitions should both men continue their unbeaten runs. However, the Swede emphasises that the murderous-punching Englishman isn’t the only threat out there – indeed, the heavyweight division is positively stacked with exciting talent.
“There’s a lot of good fighters coming up,” Wallin argues. “The division is doing great right now, it’s opened up nicely. There’s a whole bunch of guys coming up who will be dangerous in the future. I just have to stay focused and do my best to improve. I’ll be ready when the time comes.”
Among the other dangerous up-and-comers in the division is Wallin’s compatriot Adrian Granat, who is a few months younger than Wallin with a similarly unblemished record of 12-0 (11 KOs). When asked about the possibility of a blockbuster domestic showdown against ‘The Pike’, Wallin is enthusiastic and also, for the first time during our conversation, deviates slightly from his previously laidback demeanour.
“He likes to talk …” he says of Granat, before pausing diplomatically and then adding. “That fight would be great for Swedish boxing. I’m looking forward to it. If we both keep doing well we will see that fight absolutely. Two hopefully unbeaten heavyweight in a domestic fight? It doesn’t get better than that.”
Although Granat is an itch Wallin is clearly keen to scratch, he is far too polite to engage in any genuine trash talk about his 24-year-old rival. Indeed, as the interview comes to a close, he re-adopts his gentlemanly demeanour by ensuring he gives a shout-out to all his fans.
“I just wanted to say thanks to everyone that supports me and follows me on social media,” he announces. “The support means a lot and I’m looking forward to showing everyone a good fight on 23 April.” A gentleman outside the ring and a fierce competitor within it – Otto Wallin is certainly a worthy successor to the spirit of his hero Ingemar Johansson.