Willie deWit was supposed to be the Great White Hope, boxing’s next big thing, a heavyweight with a punch that could floor an elephant. It didn’t quite happen that way. What he did become was a successful criminal-defence lawyer who, at 55, is a newly appointed judge to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta. The 1984 Olympic silver medalist spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Allan Maki.
You’ve fought in prison; now you’re the man who puts people there. Is this how you imagined your career would end up?
We were down in Seattle sparring and one of the [other boxers] was going to [the Washington State Penitentiary] to fight and asked, “Do you want to come along?” We said, “Sure, we’ll go.” So we went and this was a fairly rough place. I can remember I fought some guy and knocked him out fairly quickly and the whole place went crazy. I find out after that the guy was the bully in the prison and they were all pretty happy he got his just reward. One of the big things in my life is I’ve met a lot of great people, a lot of role models, different people who, if I had not met even one of them, things might have been quite a bit different. You have to work hard in life and you have to have a little bit of luck.
Who influenced you to become a lawyer?
Milt Harradence was the Court of Appeal justice here in Calgary, one of the top criminal lawyers in the country before he became a justice. He was a big boxing fan and had boxed himself. I met him back in 1979, 1980, when I first moved to Calgary. I tell this story often but I can remember being on planes with him and him suggesting, “You might want to become a lawyer.” I said, “Not a chance. No way would I want to do that.” And when I did retire, I ended up doing that. And I know when I was practising, he said, “You know you might want to think of going to the bench someday.” I said, “Oh no, I would never want to do that” – now that’s happened, too. I had to eat a lot of my words with him. [Mr. Harradence died in 2008.]
When you fought, your manager [Harry Snatic] was a dentist from Louisiana, your trainer [Mansoor Esmail] learned how to box from Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and your backers [Billy Joe Fox and Ben Tamney] were a couple of good old boys from Texas. How did that entourage work for you?
They were characters. But the people around me, for the most part, always cared about me first and not the game. My father and brother were killed [in a plane crash] the year before I retired  and that was a big hit to me. It made me think about the future and bad things can happen. I can remember training and just thinking, “I’ve had it. I’ve had enough.” I always knew this isn’t an easy game and this isn’t something you want to do forever. I never really felt, “Well, geez, I should make a [serious] comeback.”
How do you feel when you see and hear once great fighters struggling to make themselves understood?
I remember watching a documentary about Ali, Holmes, Foreman, Frazier. I was retired at that time for about five or six years and I watched the beginning of that documentary and kind of got excited; things go through your head, like maybe you retired a little too soon. But as the documentary went on, these guys weren’t talking that well and I thought, “You know what? Better too soon than too late to retire from the ring.” Those guys were fierce champions but the boxing game took its toll and maybe they didn’t have a choice but to stay in for a long time.
You’ve said you lost the gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics rather than won the silver. Has some of that sting gone away over the years?
I have the medal with a picture of me on the speed bag. It’s something my wife put together for me. My attitude about taking the silver medal probably has changed since then. You come to look at it a little differently because oftentimes in life it’s not always first place. Life would be really easy if you always got first place every time. It’s when you get second and third and have to battle back that tells the story. My parents instilled a work ethic in me, “Work hard and you shall be rewarded,” and I’ve done that throughout my life in most of my endeavours. Certainly boxing taught me that, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.Report Typo/Error