TO the random observer, Otto Wallin probably cuts the profile of a certain male urban-dweller. You know the type: tall, rugged, and handsome, in his late twenties, blonde with pale blue eyes. The kind who was undoubtedly once recruited to play lacrosse at an Ivy League university and who now holds down a nine-to-five in finance. He joins his co-workers for pick-up basketball on every other Wednesday and lifts weights at least four times a week. On weekends, he bar-crawls the Lower East Side with his old collegiate buddies. He is proudly single, lives in a midtown apartment with tubs of whey protein powder stacked in a corner, and has his meals delivered from Seamless with frightening regularity. His summers are a blur of rooftop parties and weekend getaways to Montauk and Cabo. In the winters, he goes up to Vermont, bouncing from one ski resort to the next. Yes, walking past Wallin along 8th Avenue, you would think he is very much the ideal metrosexual Manhattanite.
Well, sort of. It is true that the 28-year-old Wallin, a native of Sundsvall, Sweden, is a tall, young blonde bachelor living in the thick of the bustling Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan’s west side, where greats crowds gather daily to patronise the famous theaters and adjacent restaurants. But any similarities to his supposed stereotypes end there. Wallin operates as a professional heavyweight boxer — undefeated at 20 wins against 13 knockouts — and spends his days in solitary, regimented preparation for the most improbable fight of his life. On September 14 in Las Vegas, Wallin will challenge Tyson Fury for the latter’s (dubious) lineal heavyweight title distinction.
In another era, such an occasion would have meant reporters of all stripes converging at Wallins’ scaffolding-covered doorsteps. But these days being a heavyweight contender involves a degree of anonymity. Even so, you would think that at the very least his next-door neighbors would be aware that one of their own was gearing up to face perhaps the most skilled heavyweight boxer of this era. Not a chance, it turns out. “Around here?” Wallin responded, when asked if his neighbours were aware of his occupation. “Nobody [knows] — Well, my roommate.” Indeed, as Wallin opens the door to take out the trash, a fellow resident of the first floor zips by obliviously, with not so much as a nod.
On this day Wallin, a quiet and personable 6ft 5ins southpaw, is wolfing down a Mediterranean bowl along with a gallon of milk in his apartment’s sparsely furnished, yet-still-cramped hallway that functions as the de facto living room. He has just finished up a workout at a private gym in the financial district with his longtime trainer, the former two-division champion Joey Gamache. In a few hours, he will walk over to a nearby New York Sports Club for his second workout of the day with his strength and conditioning coach, whom he flew in from Denmark especially for this fight.
Wallin shares the apartment with one other roommate — a friend of a friend — who occupies the basement floor. He has been living here since April. Before, he was up in Harlem, where he had been residing ever since he left his homeland of Sweden two years ago. Wallin had spent the bulk of his career under the Sauerland Promotions banner, but when Gamache returned home to New York after his contract with Sauerland as a house trainer expired, Wallin followed suit. Not long after, Wallin would also part with Sauerland after they failed to reach terms to renew a contract. Leaving home for Wallin was not as a difficult a decision as one might assume it to be.
“I mean this is my life. Boxing is my job,” Wallin said, as he pushed chunks of food into his mouth. “I want to do everything that I can do be as good as possible in boxing. And [being alone, away from friends and family] is part of it.” Plus, he added matter-of-factly, “I’m single, so I don’t need much. I’m only training. I rest, then I go training again. That’s basically my life. I’m close to the gym — only four subway stops away.”
There is nothing spectacular about his day-to-day life, Wallin stresses, but in a way, this only draws more attention to the rather extraordinary circumstance that he now finds himself in. Despite his undefeated record built up in places like Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, Wallin has almost no significant wins or milestones to point to, at least as a professional, that one would think would be necessary to have in any other sporting endeavor; his ledger is littered with wins over European journeyman and no-hopers. And yet, here he is, on the world stage. Such is boxing. Still, Wallin is under no illusions. He knows that the reason he is fighting Fury is because Fury — along with his co-promoters Top Rank and Frank Warren — approved him as an opponent. Fury, after all, has bigger fish to fry: a rematch with WBC heavyweight boss Deontay Wilder on PPV has been penciled in for the first quarter of 2020.
“Obviously he’s not looking to fight an elite guy, right now, and they don’t look at me like an elite guy,” Wallin admitted. “I’m pretty sure they know he’s going to win. I’m a big underdog.”
Wallin first got wind of the fight when he received a text message one day on WhatsApp from his co-manager, David Berlin, the former New York State Athletic Commissioner, inquiring about his interest in a fight with Fury. Wallin consulted with Gamache, who, without hesitation, gave his blessing. When the initial prod turned into an actual offer, Wallin seized it, despite having fought in only one round since April 2018. More than anything else, Wallin was confident in his conditioning. “I’m always training, so I never get out of shape,” Wallin stated, while claiming that he never hovers too far from his fighting weight of 232lbs. “My last fight was July 12, and I was training hard for that, so I was in good shape when we found about this. Been sparring a lot. Even without the fights [taking place] I feel good.”
Indeed, the irony is not lost on Wallin that the Fury fight has come a moment in time when his career seemed to be imploding, though through no fault of his own.
In March, Wallin was slated to compete for the European heavyweight title, but pulled out when he learned that Gamache, whose career ended with a brain bleed, had been sucker-punched on the street. “He was in pretty bad shape,” Wallin recalled, noting that his trainer’s jaw had been shattered in two places. It speaks to the duo’s level of trust and commitment that Wallin would never countenance entering a fight without Gamache. “He’s my only boxing trainer,” explained Wallin, who has been with Gamache since his third professional fight. “I wouldn’t want to go to a big fight without him. And also he wasn’t feeling well. [Pulling out of the fight] was the best thing to do.”
Then, in April, upon signing a promotional contract with Brooklyn-based Dmitry Salita, Wallin hit another roadblock, when his fight with Nick Kisner ended in a no decision due to an accidental head clash. The fight lasted one round. As if matters could not get any worse, a few months later in July, a scheduled tussle against gatekeeper heavyweight/cruiserweight BJ Flores was nixed on the day of the fight, because the chief ring physician — the card took place in Tacoma, Washington — would not give Flores medical clearance. (According to a source who was at the fight, the issue had to do with the fact that a BB-gun pellet was lodged inside Flores’ head from his childhood).
In an ideal world, Wallin pointed out, he would have like to have a fights under his belt, “but when you get an opportunity like this [Fury in Las Vegas], you just gotta jump on it. All the things that have happened have been frustrating and now we have this fight, which feels great.”
Public reception, of course, hasn’t been great for Wallin. The Twitterverse, among other social media cesspools, broke out in a hive of vitriol when the fight was first announced, with many comparing Wallin to Fury’s previous opponent, the German Tom Schwarz, whom Fury felled inside two risible rounds.
Wallin’s co-manager, the former boxing writer and New York real-esate agent Zachary Levin, brushed off the criticism. “No one’s saying that this isn’t a major step up in competition [for Wallin] — that’s understandable,” he said. “But there are plenty of examples in boxing of really good fighters standing up to the challenge.”
For Wallin, the experience of sparring world-class opponents, like (old amateur rival) Anthony Joshua and Kubrat Pulev, has instilled in him a quiet confidence. “I don’t care too much what people say,” he quipped. “I haven’t fought on that elite level before, but I’ve been on the elite level in sparring, so I know I can hang with these guys. But people don’t see the sparring, so…” He brings up, almost as a matter of course by now, the recent achievement of Andy Ruiz Jnr, the Mexican heavyweight whose stoppage of Joshua in June transformed him into the patron saint of all underdogs.
On the whole, Wallin feels no pressure, other than an urgency to whip himself into peak shape. But he would be lying if he did not confess to being alert to the potential goldmine of adoration that awaits him should he come out — somehow — victorious on September 14. In Sweden, where professional boxing was outlawed for nearly 40 years and people of still speak reverently about heavyweight great Ingemar Johansson, a win could catapult Wallin into a different stratosphere. He admits that the sport in many ways goes against his country’s reputation as a bastion of liberal democracy, where a robust welfare state, high standard of living, and affordable world-class healthcare routinely make it the object of the world’s envy. Still, Wallin argues, countries are always looking to root for their own, regardless of the seemliness of the pursuit.
“Yeah, boxing is not huge [in Sweden] and some people don’t like it,” Wallin began, “but the older people appreciate boxing, because they remember the good days — Ingemar Johansson, those guys. I think that boxing is on the rise and Swedish boxing needs someone to stand out and become a star. I think there’s a void there. Alexander Gustafson is an MMA fighter, and he is a big star in the UFC. But he’s at the end of his career, and I feel like there is a gap and I hope [I fill] that.
“We’ve had good boxers over the years…but I think we need one guy and the country will get behind that guy. In the end, don’t think it matters what sport it is. As long as you’re a big enough star, they’ll get behind you.”
Asked if a delegate from the Swedish Embassy in New York reached out to Wallin about offering support or encouragement, Wallin shook his head as he scraped up the last bits from his bowl.
“No,” he said, “but maybe that’s for after I win.”