The savage in man is never quite eradicated.
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU
They stand with boyish grins in the wings of boxing's largest amateur stage, two handsome blond Canadians with fearless blue eyes who have measured the world carefully. They carry their knowledge as though it were a secret, hiding it behind soft words and refined manners, and only the tiger in their eyes betrays them.
That Willie deWit, 23, and Shawn O'Sullivan, 22, stand to the same national anthem dictates that they will also share the same page of Olympic history if they both, as they're favored to do, win the gold medals in their classes: deWit as a heavyweight, O'Sullivan as a light middleweight. Despite their difference in size, they are as alike in the ring as a pair of chain saws biting through soft pine. And after the Aug. 11 finals in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, they could be to professional boxing what Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali was after the 1960 Games, and what Sugar Ray Leonard was after the '76 Olympics.
"They could open the door to Fort Knox," declares promoter Don King, who, along with every other manager and promoter in the world, covets the charismatic pair. "In today's world, a white heavyweight who can punch like deWit alone could be a gold mine. Having the two of them, that would be like having a license to print money."
Canada hasn't won an Olympic gold medal in boxing since Horace Gwynne was the 119-pound titlist at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. That now, after 52 years, Canada has a solid chance for two is indeed surprising, but what's truly astonishing is that the biography of each of the lads should begin, well, "Once upon a time...."
As in:...there was a tall slender boy named Willie deWit who was taught to box by a transplanted dentist from Lake Charles, La. in, among other places, the dentist's garage in Grande Prairie, Alberta. For three years his only sparring partner was a heavy bag. The boy's mother was born Christina Van Dyk in Veenendaal, the Netherlands, and moved with her family to Canada when she was 13. His father, Len, is also Dutch, born in Woerden, and when he was 21 he decided to pass through Canada on his way to Australia. He has been passing through since 1953.
And:...there was a skinny boy named Shawn O'Sullivan who first learned boxing under his father, Michael, a Toronto bus driver who reads quotations from Bartlett's at work when he isn't actually driving. His next teacher, a member of the Toronto police department, a specialist in defusing bombs, trains boxers in an ancient warehouse in a tough Toronto neighborhood called Cabbage-town. The boy's mother, born Margaret Mary Dillon, is a first-generation Canadian with roots buried deep in County Antrim, Ireland. The father was born in Bantry, County Cork, and in 1948, after returning home following three years with the British police force in Palestine, he left home again to become a London bobby. Along the way he found himself on a ship bound for Ontario, and he, too, decided to remain in Canada.
Len deWit, who was unable to speak a word of English when he arrived in western Canada, found work operating a gravel crusher in Grande Prairie (pop. 24,263) where the deWits now live. "I think maybe if I hadn't had so much pride, I would have gone home," he says, in his heavy accent, "but I'm not that way. My father always told me, and I tell Willie the same thing, you work hard and you never fail. Make up your mind you are going to do it, and you'll get it done."
Shortly after Len arrived in Canada, he struck up a friendship with Jake Van Dyk, a construction worker he met on a job. Van Dyk introduced him to his sister, Christina, who was 15. "I told Jake then," Len says, "someday I am going to marry your sister. He just laughed." They were married seven years later, in 1960. "Sometimes I am a patient man," Len says, laughing.
Willie, who was born on June 13, 1961, was 17 when he lost patience with his high school football teammates. An all-star quarterback, he'd been offered a scholarship to the University of Alberta. He was then 6'1" and weighed 175 pounds, 45 more than the year before. "I kind of got sick of team sports," he says. "I got tired of busting my ass while the guy next to me was just fooling around. I wanted to control my own destiny."