Pernell Whitaker, who is the world's top-ranked amateur lightweight (132 pounds) boxer, stormed from the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas last Friday night, intending to grab his bags and head for his Norfolk, Va. home. "To hell with tomorrow," he snapped to a friend. Whitaker had just been upset by unranked Joey Belinc of Marysville, Wash., in the opening round of the U.S. Olympic team box-offs. Whitaker, 20, a three-time world champion, thought he had won, but all five judges disagreed.
However, as a winner at last month's Olympic trials, Whitaker would get another chance at the 19-year-old Belinc the next day. In a system that is more complicated than it should be, each winner at the trials had to win only one box-off bout to make the team, while the 12 "Most Noteworthy Opponents," as the Amateur Boxing Federation called the losers in the trials, had to win both.
On Friday night, six trials winners won and made the Olympic team. Six others, including three world champions, lost and would have to fight again.
"No way," growled Whitaker, who had decisioned Belinc 4-1 in the trials. "I don't want to fight anymore. I'm going home."
July 15, 1984
Three hours later, Whitaker's father, Raymond, and mother, Novella, reminded him of his 192 victories in 206 bouts, of his world titles and of his 11 years' work. When his parents finished, Whitaker's girl friend, Rovanda, took over. Then it was Lou Duva's turn.
After the Olympics, Duva, a fight manager and promoter from New Jersey, along with Shelly Finkel, a rock promoter from New York, will co-manage Whitaker as a professional. Shortly before talking to Whitaker, Duva was informed that Belinc had been sparring every day in secret with Bret Summers, a professional junior welterweight with a 16-0 record. Summers, like Whitaker, is a southpaw counter-puncher.
"No wonder the guy improved so much," said Duva, rushing off. A few minutes later he showed Whitaker a tape of his loss to Belinc that night.
"You see what you're doing?" Duva kept asking as they ran the tape twice. "You're moving straight in and he's unloading on you."
"But that's the way I fight," said Whitaker, puzzled.
"And that's why you lost," said Duva. "He was ready for everything you did before you did it. Now come with me."
Duva took Whitaker into one of Caesars' banquet rooms, which had been set up for a dinner. Within a few minutes, Duva had moved enough tables to form an area the size of a ring.
"Now," said Duva, "you come at me. But instead of coming in straight, I want you sliding off to the sides. I want lateral movement. O.K., come at me, and if you come straight I'll punch you in the nose."
For 45 minutes, Whitaker and the 62-year-old, 221-pound Duva shadow-sparred in the silence of the empty banquet room. Finally the heavily perspiring Duva called time. "I think you got it now," he gasped.
Whitaker's loss wasn't the only surprise Friday night as the MNOs led a charge that threatened to rewrite half of head coach Pat Nappi's Olympic lineup. Six world champions and one former champion entered the ring, and only three won. One champion, the world's top-rated 119-pounder, Floyd Favors, was gone for good.
Dropped in the second round, Favors, a 20-year-old from Capitol Heights, Md., was knocked out by Robert Shannon (officially the referee stopped the bout) as the bell rang to end the last round. Shannon, 21, was the only Olympian left over from the 1980 team that never made it to Moscow because of the Olympic boycott imposed by President Carter. Now 13 pounds heavier than he was four years ago, Shannon, a 5'6" hair stylist who's also from Marysville, Wash., is glad he didn't join 10 teammates from 1980 in fighting for pay. "I almost did," he said, "but I only weighed 106 pounds and everybody said I was too small. Then it looked like everybody had forgotten Robert Shannon. I almost quit fighting. In 1982 I went to work on a fishing boat in Alaska, and when you are cutting up salmon 15 or 20 hours a day you have a lot of time to think. It was then I decided I wanted to go back into the ring."
This Olympic year's 106-pounder is Paul Gonzales, a 20-year-old from Los Angeles. A tall (5'8½"), classic boxer, his only liability is a short temper, which, he says ruefully, "turns me into macho man, which isn't too good."
Keeping his temper in check Friday, Gonzales scored a clean 4-1 victory over Israel Acosta, a 29-year-old from Milwaukee who has been fighting for 12 years. "Man, that Acosta is my friend, but he knows my temper and he was trying to needle me," Gonzales says. "Acosta kept stepping on my feet and hitting me with his elbow. But I said, hey, cool it, macho man, don't get mad."
Steve McCrory, the younger brother of WBC welterweight champion Milton, was tabbed as a sure gold medal winner a year ago—and then he ran into problems. Called the Professor by the denizens of Detroit's Kronk Gym because of his textbooklike style, McCrory, 20, spent most of the past year worrying more about what he wasn't making as a professional than about what he was doing in the ring as an amateur. After losing to Santo Domingo's Laureano Ramirez in last August's Pan American Games, McCrory said he was going home to restructure his thinking. But while defending his 1983 world championship three months ago in Los Angeles, he was stopped in two rounds by Cuba's Pedro Reyes.
"That is what got my head straight," said McCrory with a small grin. "A good ass-kicking. It was embarrassing."
Forgetting his recent passion for a dazzling but passive defense, McCrory stayed flat-footed and gained an impressive 5-0 victory over Bernard Price of Muncie, Ind.
Then the MNOs began to assert themselves. Seventeen-year-old Meldrick Taylor, a 125-pound buzz saw from Philadelphia, scored the first of his two victories, 4-1, over Andrew Minsker, 22, the trials winner, from Milwaukie, Ore. Then, on Saturday, Taylor became the youngest U.S. Olympic bo xer, with a 5-0 decision over Minsker. If Taylor can hold up under a grueling Olympic schedule of what may be as many as seven fights in two weeks in the lighter classes (because of a record entry of 403 boxers), the U.S. will have a solid shot at a gold medal.
"He beat me in the trials," Taylor said of Minsker. "But after we fought he said I had hurt him to the body, and I said, 'There you go. You gave up your secret. Goodby.' For the last two days I just kept banging his body and listening to him grunt. I knew I owned him."
Jerry Page, a clever 23-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, came off knee surgery, lost in the trial but pitched back to back 5-0 shutouts against tough Tim Rabon, 20, of Broussard, La. to win the 139-pound division.
Although suffering from a stomach virus, Mark Breland, the 147-pound world champion from Brooklyn, kept his weakened body together long enough to take a unanimous decision over stubborn Louis Howard of St. Louis. But Breland saved his best shots for later, when he objected to the team's next training camp in Gonzales, Texas, 65 miles east of San Antonio, and criticized Nappi for refusing to bring in more coaches for the U.S. boxers.
"Gonzales," Breland spit out. "It's a farm in the middle of nowhere with nothing but heat, cows and horses. The fighters will get so frustrated we'll start fighting among ourselves. Hey, if I get there I'm going to saddle me a horse and ride away. They better not give me a horse with license plates."
The camp (it's actually a ranch), along with $150,000, was donated by Josephine Abercrombie, the wealthy Houston socialite who recently joined the world's boxing promoter fraternity/sorority. She tried to add Nappi to her staff, but so far he has held her off. Nappi flew to Texas to help her set up a boxing camp but accepted only partial expenses.
Against Nappi's wishes, Loring Baker, the president of the U.S.A. Boxing Federation, is leading a move to have more coaches added to the team. The United States Olympic Committee will decide the issue soon.
"We need more coaches," said the disgruntled Breland, who has been working with Emanuel Steward, the boss of Detroit's Kronk Gym, who also trains WBC junior middleweight champion Thomas Hearns. "Nappi is a fine conditioner. And Roosevelt Sanders [Nappi's assistant], well, he's a marine. When I get into trouble in a fight, I want to go back to the corner and get some advice that will help me. All these two do is give you water and say drink and jab. Jab? Any kid on the corner could tell you that."
Detroit's Frank Tate, 19, another world champion, won a berth on the team with a 5-0 defeat of Ron Essett of Indianapolis. A shy 156-pounder, Tate thought the ranch in Gonzales was a fine training camp. "We've been there twice before, and it's just what it's supposed to be, a training camp," he said. "And you can fish there, and there's a room to play video games. I like it."
In the middleweight (165 pounds) class, Virgil Hill of Williston, N. Dak. had to win on Saturday after Michael Nunn of Davenport, Iowa won 5-0 on Friday, and Hill did, by the same score.
Detroit's Ricky Womack may be the world 178-pound champion, but he had two shots against Evander Holyfield, 21, of Atlanta, and he came up empty both times. On Friday, the 6'1" Holyfield, who fights a lot like former heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles, won 4-1. Saturday, same score.
Twice within the past month Cus D'Amato, Floyd Patterson's former manager, waited for his 18-year-old protégé, Michael Tyson of Catskill, N.Y., to take out Henry Tillman, the 23-year-old heavyweight (201 pounds) from Los Angeles. D'Amato is still waiting. As he did in the trials, Tillman staved off the short-armed Tyson with a snake jab and earned his Olympic uniform on Friday, 4-1.
Tyrell Biggs, the 6'5" world champion super heavyweight from Philadelphia, had to work an extra day for his. On Friday he came in flat, complaining of sore ribs and not in the finest condition, and he lost 4-1 to a determined Craig Payne of Livonia, Mich. It was Payne's first victory over Biggs in five tries. But on Saturday, Biggs found his jab, his pride and the legs that have made him a gold medal choice in L.A., and won 3-2.
Whitaker, too, had a different look on Saturday. To make sure he didn't forget his new strategy, Duva brought him to the Sports Pavilion early Saturday morning. There, in an empty press room, Duva sat on a folding chair and had Whitaker move around him. After 30 minutes of that, Duva stood and said, "O.K. Now do the same against Belinc."
As ordered, Whitaker came out moving, and punching. Belinc seemed frustrated. But he's a gutsy boxer, and by the second round he began to find Whitaker more and more. The third round was a desperate three minutes for both, and neither stopped hammering. Then the judges voted 3-2 for Whitaker.
"Lord, I hope I'm not favored in Los Angeles," said Whitaker, who owes his nickname of Sweet Pea to his pleasant personality. "I just want to be a guy nobody notices as I work my way up."
By next month, everyone, especially the 391 foreign boxers who'll come to Los Angeles, will notice Sweet Pea and his 11 mates on the U.S. team.