SALEM — Lynn native Neil Whittredge knows what it’s like to stare adversity in the eye and give it his best punch. So when Whittredge makes his amateur boxing debut May 15 in Haymakers for Hope’s “Rock and Rumble Series IX” at House of Blues in Boston, he’ll be ready to fight.
Whittredge took a road less traveled during his childhood. His family was evicted from its trailer in 2003 when his parents suffered from mental illness and addiction. His grandmother, Doranne Whittredge, took custody of Whittredge and his siblings when he was 11 years old. At 21, Whittredge spent a few weeks in a psychiatric ward as he struggled with depression.
He found his motivation to become involved with Haymakers for Hope when his best friend’s mother, Maria Simpson, became ill.
“I just enjoy boxing, honestly, to begin with,” said Whittredge, 25. “Originally I wanted to participate, and it developed into something larger than that. My best friend’s mother was diagnosed with bladder cancer. I talked with her about what was going on and her recovery process. The good thing is she’s in remission now. I learned a lot about how deeply cancer can affect people and their families.”
Haymakers for Hope requires that those interested in boxing in their events undergo an application process, which includes an essay detailing the struggles they have faced during their lives. Originally, Whittredge was placed on a waiting list. When an injury sidelined another boxer, Whittredge received a call with an offer to fill in for the May event. He quickly accepted.
“I had been training a little bit as far as boxing goes,” Whittredge said. “I got a call in March telling me that someone had dropped out and I was next on the list, so we went for it. I’ve been training for the past six weeks.”
Whittredge trains at Wicked City Self Defense and Fitness in Salem with Alan Jenkins and Eric Kane. He splits his regimen equally between boxing work and cardio.
“We train six days a week,” Whittredge said. “We focus more on boxing three days, technique, we spar once a week. The other days we do some sprint work, running around Lynn Woods or the beach to get the legs wobbly. I’ve never trained this hard when it comes to mental discipline. There are days you don’t want to get up in the morning and go to the track. But if you want to win, that’s what you have to do.”
“Mental toughness,” Whittredge said, has been the key to staying dedicated through his grueling training regimen. Whittredge learned a thing or two about “mental toughness” during his days as three-sport athlete (football, lacrosse, track) at English High, where he was also class president for two years. But his childhood troubles brought a whole new meaning to the term.
“I didn’t have an easy childhood,” Whittredge said. “There’s definitely worse circumstances than I had, but I learned a lot about mental toughness through my life, that’s for sure.”
Whittredge’s training isn’t his only responsibility tied to May’s bout. Haymakers for Hope tasks each boxer with raising $7,500, with the funds going toward cancer research, care, awareness and survivorship. As a late addition to the event, Whittredge was asked to raise $5,000. By spreading the word via social media, he has surpassed the mark. Whittredge had raised $5,128 as of Monday night.
He’ll host a fundraiser Saturday afternoon (2-6) at Village Tavern in Salem, where he tends bar. The fundraiser will include a DJ and raffle prizes (including tickets to the sold-out event), and 10 percent of the food sales will go toward Whittredge’s cause.
“It’s amazing,” Whittredge said. “Every other fighter has had two more months to raise money. We’ve had more donations and more money than some fighters so far. At first I was nervous but everybody I’ve reached out to has been awesome. They’ve promoted my cause, my page and my fundraiser. I’m incredibly grateful for everyone.”
Whittredge admitted his nerves are intensifying as his fight nears. His goal is to stick to the strategies he and his trainers have drawn up when the bell rings.
“I’d say I feel anxious,” Whittredge said. “I went to the event last year. You can tell some of the fighters, their nerves got to them. All the training went out the window and they were throwing haymakers the whole fight. We’re training to keep our composure, stick to the game plan and win, no matter what.”
Those interested in donating to or learning more about Whittredge’s cause can do so by visiting https://haymakersforhope.org/event/boston/2019/rock-n-rumble-ix/neil-whittredge. Any inquiries in regard to donating or volunteering for Saturday’s fundraiser can be sent via email to [email protected].