In the name of the father: Otto Wallin interview
Luke G. Williams
Photos (top to bottom): Ethan Miller / Getty Images; Otto Wallin; Ethan Miller / Getty Images; Ethan Miller / Getty Images
After a turbulent year, during which he has battled bereavement, Swedish heavyweight Otto Wallin tells BM it “feels like fate” that he faces Tyson Fury for the lineal heavyweight crown on Saturday night…
“There’s been a lot of up and downs this last year or so,” Swedish heavyweight hope Otto Wallin tells Boxing Monthly as the days slowly tick down to hours and his lineal heavyweight title showdown with Tyson Fury amid the gaudy lights of Sin City looms ever closer.
The affable Swede is not one for hyperbole. Quite the opposite, in fact, for in a business as enveloped by bluster, hype and showmanship as prize fighting, his words above could be said to represent the understatement of the year.
As he recounts the turbulent events of which he speaks, it becomes clear that Wallin – despite his characteristically rational and understated nature - feels shaped by a sense of what we might call ‘destiny’ as he prepares to face ‘the Gypsy King’.
BM has spoken to Wallin many times over the past few years, and can’t help but notice a new quality in his voice, a new steeliness in his outlook.
“It’s like all these events have led me to this point,” he says. “I’m not religious or anything, but it kind of feels like fate.”
Tyson Fury be warned…
In order to understand the mental space that Otto Wallin now occupies, we need to travel back to April 2018 and the Gärdehov ice hockey arena in his hometown of Sundsvall, a pretty albeit sleepy city on the east coast of Sweden.
That heady night, in front of a packed crowd, Wallin defeated countryman and bitter rival Adrian Granat in a heavyweight showdown labelled ‘The Battle of the Vikings’.
The unexpectedly wide points victory (118-110, 117-112, 117-111) in Wallin’s favour placed a definitive full stop on his rivalry with Granat (who has not been seen in a professional ring since).
“That was very nice,” was how Wallin described the night to BM in April. “He [Granat][had] always been talking a lot so we’d been on a collision course for a long time - it was nice to finally get that over with and to do it in my home town in front of my people.
“I have a lot of good memories from that night.”
In many ways, the Granat victory marked the end of an era for Wallin. The 28-year-old had been based in New York since spring of the previous year, following the decision of trainer Joey Gamache to return to America after many years based in Denmark.
Post-Granat, though, Wallin went further in strengthening his ties to the US - splitting from long-time promoters Sauerland and going it alone while he weighed up his options.
Having manoeuvred his way into a mandatory position for the European heavyweight title, Wallin was all set to face the German-based Kurd Agit Kabayel in March, but a shocking event left those plans in tatters.
It was a typically crisp and cold New York January morning - at around 4.50am - when Wallin’s devoted trainer Joey Gamache – a former two-weight world title holder – was walking to work at the Mendez gym (the gym opens at 5am on weekdays, and the heavy bags are pounded until midnight each evening).
A cup of iced coffee in his hand, it was a trip that Gamache makes virtually every day – part of his routine. Just another regular morning.
But then - seemingly out of nowhere - a man ran up from behind Gamache, blindsided him, and punched him in the face.
“It’s very possible he had brass knuckles,” Gamache later told the New York Post. “He broke my jaw in three places. He had something in his hand.”
The surgeon who treated Gamache at the Mount Sinai medical Center labelled the damage to the 53-year-old’s jaw one of the worsts breaks he had ever seen.
“My mouth has a lot of metal [now], a titanium plate,” Gamache later said. “It’s pretty wired up. I’m lucky that it wasn’t a gun or a knife. I could have been killed.”
Wallin, speaking to BM in April, admitted the attack affected him deeply, even more so because the bond he shares with Gamache, forged over more than six years working together, is so deep.
“Joey is my friend,” he recalled, “and it was hard seeing him in the hospital hurt. He looked terrible after what happened.”
Refusing to countenance the possibility of fighting Kabayel without Gamache in his corner, or with him still recovering, Wallin cancelled the fight.
Not long after Wallin signed a deal with Salita Promotions, and elected to drop his pursuit of the European title in favour of a different, US-based pursuit of a world title shot.
With Gamache recovering well, Wallin’s US debut against Nick Kisner was set for a high profile event– the undercard of Claressa Shields’ middleweight unification against Christina Hammer in Atlantic City on 13 April.
With Showtime televising, Wallin was all set to make a big splash.
But once again the fates intervened - an accidental clash of heads in the opening round left both men cut and when Kisner complained before the start of the second that he couldn’t see out of his right eye the referee halted the contest and declared a no contest.
A frustrating night for Wallin to be sure, but far worse was to come.
* * *
It was Otto Wallin’s father, Carl, who introduced him to boxing as a child. A former amateur boxer himself, Wallin Senior loved the sport, and passed that love on to his son, mesmerising the young Otto with his account of staying up and listening to radio commentary the heady 1959 night when Swedish icon Ingemar Johansson deposed Floyd Patterson as heavyweight champion of the world.
"My father was a big boxing fan," Wallin explained to BM. "He had maybe 20 amateur fights back in Sweden. He used to train people. He was always involved in boxing and he helped me a lot. Without him I wouldn’t be here today."
Carl Wallin was ringside for his son's US debut against Kisner and enjoyed his time in the United States, a period of about ten days or so, which Otto recalled fondly to BM.
"We had a great time. He was so happy to be here. He had a great time meeting all the guys at Mendez gym – it was the only place he wanted to go to in New York! We spent our days there, sitting around, watching sparring, talking to the trainers.
"He even met Freddie Roach one day, he was really happy about that because my father had watched him so many times on youtube. It was a great fit for him."
What happened next rocked Wallin's world to its foundations.
A heart attack claimed the life of Carl Wallin on 22 May, aged just 68. There were no prior warning signs for a man in good health.
Wallin's description of what happened is without adornment - as though he is still struggling to accept the whys and wherefores of what occurred: "We went back - the both of us - to Sweden and a month later he passed away."
Determined to honour his father's memory, the grief-stricken Wallin continued with plans to fight BJ Flores on 12 July, only for the American to be denied a medical licence on the day of the fight.
Wallin's American dream was now looking more like an American nightmare.
* * *
They say that there's always sunshine after the storm and one day in Otto Wallin's August proves there is some truth in that old adage.
A Whatsapp message suddenly appeared on his phone.
“It was from a member of my team saying we’ve got an offer to fight Tyson Fury in September.
“At first I didn’t think much about it – I figured they probably had several guys they were reaching out to – and I’m sure they did. But after a couple of days it seemed like he really wanted to fight me and I realised there was a big chance for the fight to actually happen.”
Amid the tumult of what was shaping up to be the worst year of his life, it was a staggering development for Wallin.
And an opportunity he was determined to grasp.
“I’m always in good shape,” Wallin pointed out to BM. “I’m always training and putting in the work because I always want to be ready if fights come. I think I’ve been preparing mentally for a very long time for a fight like this.
“I always had it in mind that I really wanted to fight on this stage and at this level. It’s been an ongoing process in my career.
“It’s very exciting for sure. It’s fantastic. It’s a dream come true to fight a guy of this calibre in a fight of this magnitude. It’s amazing - something that I’ve been dreaming about for a long time.”
Once the deal was sealed, Wallin began preparing meticulously.
“I’ve been getting different guys in to spar with,” he explained. “It’s hard to get someone like Fury because he’s an awkward guy, a big guy. It’s hard to find someone with all his attributes – so we’ve tried to find a range of different guys - someone who’s fast, someone who’s a southpaw and so on and so forth.”
Although the legitimacy of Fury’s lineal title status has been questioned by some, Wallin views him – without equivocation – as the top dog in the division.
“I would say he’s the number one heavyweight right now. He beat Klitschko when he was at the top and I think he beat Wilder too. He’s the number one guy. He’s a big guy but he uses his size well. He’s a really good boxer. He’s awkward, he can fight southpaw or orthodox. He’s an awkward guy. A special guy in that sense.
“Against [Tom] Schwarz he did what he had to do. I don’t want to say that Tom Schwarz is a bad fighter but he wasn’t on Fury’s level. It felt like he kind of gave up in the second round after he missed and got hit by a few shots. I think Fury made him feel like he didn’t belong and then it was only a matter of time before he got taken out.”
The unique talents of Fury have caused Wallin to alter his usual approacjh to training.
“Usually I don’t watch too many films of my opponents. My trainer Joey watches a lot, like every day. But I follow heavyweight boxing so I’ve seen all of Fury’s recent fights and now even more of them.
“This fight is a little different as he’s so awkward and does a lot of unusual things so I want to study him more and I’ve studied more fights than I usually do. I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of him and I think we have a good game-plan.
“I’m a smart fighter, a good boxer. I can do a lot of different stuff. I’m always in good shape. I’m just trying to stay focused on the goal and I hope to put it all on the line and leave it all in the ring.”
If there’s one thing we can expect of Otto Wallin – a decent and honourable man – it is that he will give it his all on Saturday.
It’s a lesson his father taught him after all.
“It really does feel like it’s all worked out for the best,” Wallin argues, “except for the fact my father can’t be here. This fight means everything to me. It’s what I’ve been working for since I was a kid.
“The day is finally here. I’ve put in so much hard work, been away from my family for a lot of years, travelling a lot. It’s paying off now. I’m very happy about that. If I win this fight it will change my life and my family’s life so that’s what I plan to do. I have everything to gain and nothing to lose, he has everything to lose. I just want to win.
“This is the fight I really wanted. It’s huge. I’m just sorry my father can’t be here.”