When Richie Whitson was 5 years old he mastered martial arts moves such as the body slam, dragon breath, backflip, and the chest buster. His instructors, or senseis, were named Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael.
“Even when he was a little boy he would watch those Ninja Turtles on TV,” Whitson’s father Rick said. “He knew all their moves and everything, even when he was tiny, from the time he could walk. He has always been into that.”
Being into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was just the beginning for the Sitka fighter.
On Friday Whitson, now 24, will take a professional mixed martial arts record of 11-1 into Canada for a Maximum Fighting Championship bout against “Raging” Kajan Johnson at the Mayfield Trade centre in Edmonton, Alberta. The bout is expected to be a title contending eliminator bout for the 155-pound championship.
It is a long way from green karate amphibians on television and small-town high school wrestling and his first professional bout in Juneau’s Marlintini’s lounge for the 2005 Southeast Showdown.
“I remember I was 19 years old when I first did it,” Whitson said of his only Juneau Roughhouse Fridays Boxing experience. “It was the first year they allowed people under 21 to be in it. It was different. I wasn’t 21 yet. It was my first fight other than the amateur setting. There was smoke, and people drinking, it was a completely different atmosphere.”
There was another atmosphere that Whitson created in that lightweight-division championship setting. He landed so many blows on opponent Shawn “The Comeback Kid” Beaird the boxer didn’t answer the bell for the final round. Whitson’s second-round opponent forfeited rather than fight. In the championship Whitson destroyed Julio “The Haitian Sensation” Gregoire in three rounds.
“It was a nice little tournament,” Whitson said. “I got 500 bucks and a nice little belt that I still have, it is cool.”
That belt is displayed proudly with a few other curios and mementos from a career begun in Sitka.
Post-Ninja-Turtle training began about age 7.
Older brother Bryan, now 32, remembers being 14 and bringing home Ultimate Fighting Championship tapes.
“My friends and I would watch them and it got us to wrestle,” Bryan said. “Richie took it a step further. We would just watch the tapes and be done with it, he would watch them and then watch the different competitors and rewind and play and rewind and play and watch all the moves. From there it just took off. He was always interested in any sort of combat, wrestling or boxing. He was one of those kids that if he got angry at you he would attack you, and I was way bigger than him so I would just toss him and he would always come back. He wouldn’t stop coming back, he always pressed forward and attacked, even when he knew it was useless.”
At age 10 Richie was serious about MMA and at age 13 took up boxing.
“He always told me, from when he first could watch MMA, he was going to do that someday,” Rick said. “He used to get me to watch it and back then it was pretty intense, I would be sitting on the edge of my seat during that stuff.”
When Richie turned 14 the thumpings ceased and Bryan’s “winning record” was put on hold.
“After he started wrestling and boxing it got extremely difficult to toss him around anymore,” Bryan said. “I was still a lot bigger than him but even if I picked him up and tried to man-handle him, he was quicker and he would utilize whatever technique he had learned to subdue me.”
Wrestling as a freshman on the 2000 Sitka Wolves team, Richie’s success varied.
“I weighed 112 pounds,” Richie said. “I didn’t like that submission holds were not allowed. I qualified for state but I was a s---head and didn’t get to go. I didn’t have good grades. Lesson learned.”
The next year he began boxing. He was thrown out of a high school weightlifting class because of differences in opinion with strength coach Steve Gillaspie.
“He could have been a star in any sport,” Gillaspie said in an earlier interview. “He had some fire.”
Whitson said he got an open period out of the encounter.
“I just liked punching people and full-on contact rather than wrestling,” Richie said. “It has always been up my alley. Since third grade I loved watching martial arts, all those early bare-knuckle bouts. I used to invite my friends over and practice moves on them. After I won a fight or two I was hooked. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I got into the cage action.”
Whitson began training with Victor Littlefield, a former professional boxer, and Jack Lew who fought in the Alaska Fighting Championship.
Roughhouse Fridays promoter Bob Haag began sponsoring Whitson in amateur fights, flying him out of Sitka to his first two wins in the Wasilla-based AFC.
“He is a guy with red hair that looks like a choir boy but is tougher than hell,” Haag said. “He is the furthest thing you will ever see from an MMA boxer, but he is a really talented young man. He is a superstar.”
Whitson said Haag was responsible for his getting to all his bouts in Anchorage.
“He has been involved from the beginning,” Whitson said of his 5-0 amateur record.
Whitson’s first professional MMA match was in the AFC in 2007, where he beat Joe Degroff by rear naked choke in round one.
Since then, he’s rolled up 11 wins, with his only loss coming in Hawaii to Harris Sarmiento in 2009, a split decision that Whitson said even had hometown boy Sarmiento’s fans booing the judges’ scores.
“A five round split decision to a Hawaiian in Hawaii,” Whitson said. “It was a fight. Five five-minute rounds of non-stop action, we went at it. It was tough. It was good. I would like to fight him again but I don’t think he wants to, he knows he got away with one.”
Whitson has fought in Thailand, Sweden, Canada, Mexico and Australia. The events have been called Rumble of the Kings, Total Combat, Supremacy, Pandemonium, and Prestige.
In a muay thai kickboxing training session in Bangkok, Whitson ran into an old friend who moved away in childhood. Victor Jenning went on to become a state wrestling champion in Petersburg.
“It was sad when your friend moves away when a kid,” Whitson laughed. “We got over that in a few practice bouts. This was the first time I had seen him since… and we are in the same city, at the same time and the same class in Thailand. We hung out again.”
Whitson was a semi-finalist in the reality television show “The Ultimate Fighter: United States vs. United Kingdom” in 2009. His six-week stay included a loss in a bout to the eventual champion, Ross Pearson, who has moved into a contract with Team Rough House and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“That really got me exposure,” Whitson said. “And led to all these big fights.”
Whitson’s nickname “Hell Boy” is becoming world-renowned. The moniker was bestowed by his Team Quest fighting partner Fernando Gonzalez, because of Whitson’s fighting style, red hair and his pale skin that burns red when in action.
“I am nervous before a fight,” Whitson said. “It is a nerve-wracking ordeal. Especially now that this is my job, this is my living.”
Said Whitson, “I have been hit with some pretty good shots, never been put flat on my back but my last fight I got a flash knock down, my legs gave out for a second. I came right back up, kind of mad. My strategy is to push forward and land a shot right after.”
Whitson now watches his diet, trains twice daily and teaches fighting and exercise classes for Team Quest in California.
Whitson is currently in a four-fight contract with Maximum Fighting Championship. If he wins the next three he gets a shot at the 155-pound title.
Against Kajan Johnson — a jujitsu black belt — on Friday night, Whitson said he will try not to be his normal crazy and brawling self.
“I have all the skills,” Whitson said. “I should definitely beat this guy. I just need to be smart about it. I have fought black belts in jujitsu before. It is a lot different when you punch a guy in the face, it changes everything, every belt size. I am anti-jujitsu. I am good at staying out of submissions and grounding and pounding.”
Continued Whitson, “If it was all about the money I would be in a different line of work. I like the sport. I used to fight for free. I like training every day, its fun and makes me happy. It is just fun to go in there and hit (stuff).”
Whitson’s advice to young kids wanting to pursue the sport is too learn whatever is available wherever they are. Wrestling is a good base with jujitsu.
“Train hard,” Whitson said. “Listen to your coaches and be open to new advice.”
On Friday Whitson moves a step closer to being the main event of MFC and crossing over to UFC fight cards, a long way from what he misses most in Alaska.
“Well, my girlfriend of course,” Whitson laughed. “She works with troubled kids there. My family and friends are there. The outdoors and the ability to get away from people. I go back a lot.”
Whitson said he never looks past his family and friends in Alaska, the support of Team Quest, his sponsor Clinch Gear, and those first green-skinned fighters.
“I wonder if I still know their names,” Richie Whitson laughed. “Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rocksteady and Bebop, I am sure I am missing a few.”