Someone took something away from Pernell (Pete) Whitaker. Last March 12 in Paris, the judges said he lost a split decision to WBC lightweight champion Josè Luis Ramírez. Whitaker had broken his left hand on Ramírez's skull in the fourth round, yet still outboxed Ramírez over 12 rounds. Whitaker's handlers and most of the press at ringside were appalled by the outcome. Others shrugged it off. "That's boxing," they said. But that isn't boxing. That's boxing officials, promoters and judges. The boxers are boxing.
Fighters have handlers and sparring partners the way normal people have friends and acquaintances. Whitaker would rather be normal. He isn't. He's good, and he wants to be champion, which means that he's going to have to get to undefeated lightweight champion Julio Cèsar Chàvez. Chàvez unified the WBA and WBC titles by beating Ramírez on Oct. 29. On the one hand, Whitaker says. "Fight me, that's the worst day of your life. Chàvez belongs to me. I want to see what he had for breakfast. I'll dog Chàvez."
On the other hand, Whitaker also says. "I ain't better than nobody. I'll never act like that. People say that about me, but I'm not."
"He is better," says Whitaker's handler, George Benton.
"The best," says sparring partner Shelton Le Blanc.
"No," says Whitaker. "I'm not."
Whitaker, 24, became a superb, driven fighter because he had nothing to lose. He is from one of those places where nothing trickled down but hard liquor, tears and blood. Multiple-option career packages didn't rain on the two-story brick houses of the Young Park projects in the heart of Norfolk, Va. To Whitaker, this was home.
His parents, Raymond and Novella, raised their four girls and three boys in a three-bedroom apartment. For most of the boys around "the Park," the activity of necessity was basketball, although Whitaker threw in some boxing. "Every day it was the same thing," says Raymond. "Pete would box in the gym from four until seven, then play basketball on the hoop at the other end from seven until he came home."
Norfolk is, after all, within a 100-mile radius of where Moses Malone and J.R. Reid grew up. People related better to basketball than to boxing. "They understood it better," says Raymond. "It was normal." Although Whitaker still insists. "I can hoop," he is 5'5". That's not much to go to the hoop on.
So Whitaker turned to boxing because it was all he had left. For him, boxing became normal. He wasn't preparing for college, he wasn't handsome and he wasn't tall. What he was, was poor and black. Only in the ring could he be brilliant, desirable and beautiful. Only for his fists could he be envied. So he boxed, first against kids his age and then against sailors from the nearby naval base. "I fought sailors when I was 13 and 14," says Whitaker with a laugh. "I was too good for them after that." He went on to win 214 amateur bouts, including 91 KOs, while losing only 14. Eventually he couldn't get a good fight within 300 miles of Norfolk.
In 1984 Whitaker became the Olympic 132-pound champion, and then he turned pro. He was 15-0 until he came up against the judges at the Ramírez fight. Whitaker married a pretty girl. He bought a BMW. He will fight Chàvez someday, but first he is slated to fight IBF lightweight champion Greg Haugen early next year. Little Pete from the Park has become Sweet Pea the boxer. Someone to be envied.
Whitaker has just gone through his paces at the brand-new Wareing Gym in Virginia Beach, punching into black mitts with hard, dazzling combinations. He is not even breathing hard. Joey Fariello, who's training him for the Ramírez fight, is holding the mitts and watching him work. Fariello is tired.
"Want some water, Pete?" Fariello asks.
"No," says Whitaker.
"Well," says Fariello, "I do."
The workout ends, and not a moment too soon for Whitaker. He has been in training and seclusion for four weeks, all for the Ramírez fight. Now he's going out for the evening, to a basketball tournament he wouldn't miss for anything. "It's some AAU thing," says Fariello. Whitaker corrects him: "No. It's the C-I-double-A."
Soon Whitaker is headed into Norfolk, driving fast and talking faster. "I train where I want to train," he says. "My managers wanted me to train in Houston. They thought I'd get in trouble here. But I take care of myself. I told them, if you see me having a drink, don't say nothing. I drink from time to time—unless I'm training. They wonder why I didn't train in Houston, but they don't even know about the C-I-double-A."
CIAA stands for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and its tournament, simply put, is, for black colleges, the equivalent of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The CIAA semifinals are being played at Scope arena, across the street from Young Park. When he arrives, Whitaker is transformed from a fighter into a fan.
As he circles the floor, Whitaker draws a wave or two, a "Hey, Pete" or two, but for the most part he is ignored. The stares are directed at Hampton coach Bobby Dandridge and Bob Lanier, who was judging a slam dunk contest. One young man, reeking of alcohol, pays note. "Hey. Pete, remember me?" he asks. "I went to high school with you." Whitaker says he remembers. The young man smiles and follows Whitaker at a distance for the rest of the evening.
During the first half of Game 1, between Norfolk State and North Carolina Central, Whitaker goes up into the middle of the Norfolk State section and speaks to an older, distinguished-looking man. He is Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, president of Norfolk State. He had first met Whitaker when Pernell was in high school and was fighting as an amateur. Then, in the fall of '85, Whitaker and his managers came to the college to ask if the Norfolk State band could play at one of Whitaker's fights. For years Whitaker and Wilson lived the same distance off Brambleton Avenue in Norfolk—Whitaker in Young Park and Wilson in a fine old house next door to his office on the Norfolk State campus.
"Middle-class kids just don't become fighters," says Wilson. "Not fighters like Pernell. At age 15 he was amazing. Some kids might see a movie or somebody pumps them up for a while. They go after something, then slack off. But Pernell maintained that intensity because he felt he had to."
"I'm from the rough," says Whitaker, "where fighting was how to keep your dignity. Otherwise people will use you and keep using you."
Raymond came home one day when Pete was eight, and the boy came running in behind him, panicked and screaming. "A boy had hit him in the head with a stick," recalls Raymond. "He was bleeding, but it looked worse than it was. I sat him down right then. He was always smaller than the boys his age. I told him he had to take care of himself, because in the Park it's going to happen. Let nobody feel like they can put their hands on you. Fight with everything in you. Then the next time you've got to walk away from it or you'll be fighting every day. And you don't want that."
Whitaker did want that. He had found what he did right. Clyde Taylor, a recreation-center director in the area, took Pete in one day after he saw the boy fighting in the street. Taylor turned Whitaker and his instinct for survival into a boxer. "If Clyde Taylor hadn't gotten Sweet Pea in the ring, there's no telling what would have happened," says Wilson. (Whitaker's boxing nickname Sweet Pea, came about when some sportswriters at ringside misunderstood Whitaker's friends screaming "Sweet Pete!")
"Pernell wasn't a troublemaker, but he didn't run from trouble either," says Novella. "At first, Pete did a lot of losing. I'd say, 'Pete, you can't lose 'em all.' Then he started winning. He won all those [amateur! titles. He said, 'Mama, I'm going to be world champion one day.' I said, 'If you believe it, Pete, I believe it.' "
Not long after he started working with Taylor, he said to Novella, "Mama, I'm going to be the one who gets you out of here." She sobbed like a baby. Whitaker eventually did buy his parents a house in outer Norfolk, near the botanical gardens, a house his mother picked out. Still, Novella spends much of her time back in the Park, where her daughters, Monique and Lucinda, and their five children live.
Following the '84 Olympics, fight manager Lou Duva and his partner, Shelly Finkel, came to Young Park looking for Whitaker, which meant they had both nerve and good instincts for choosing boxers. They ended up signing him to a contract, as they did most of the other medalists from that U.S. Olympic boxing team. Duva and Finkel have since choreographed the professional careers of Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Evander Holy field, Tyrell Biggs and Whitaker, whom some observers believed should have been voted the outstanding boxer of the '84 Games. Instead, Paul Gonzales of Los Angeles, another gold medalist, was given the honor.
"They said Gonzales won it because he was from the ghetto of Los Angeles," says Duva. "Well, where in the hell did they think Pete was from?"
Around the same time, after Whitaker had returned from Los Angeles, Wilson invited him to enroll at Norfolk State, where he remained for about a year. Wilson assigned a teacher to work with him on communications skills. To Whitaker, who had taken great pains to graduate from Norfolk's Booker T. Washington High, attending college was a great honor. None of his brothers or sisters had even dreamed of going to Norfolk State. Yet there he was, contributing to the school from his fight purses and taking a few courses. Norfolk State's band played on Dec. 20, 1986, when Whitaker had a nationally televised bout with Alfredo Layne at the Scope.
Whitaker was married to Rovonda (Von) Anthony on Dec. 21, 1984, and they bought a little house in a subdivision on the grassy plain between Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Von brought a son. Dominique, 7, to the marriage, and she and Pernell are the parents of Pernell Jr., 4. "My boys don't know anything about fighting," says Whitaker. Von sat at ringside at the Ramírez fight, as did Whitaker's parents. "Pete won," Von says stoutly. "My husband is the best."
"If I had three wishes, they've already been granted." says Whitaker, moving into the kitchen after Von leaves the house on an errand. "I wished to win the gold medal. I wished I could buy my mother a house—a real house, a nice house. And I wished I could have a home and a family of my own. Fighting Chàvez? Fighting Chàvez is my—what do you call it?—my destiny."
Now that Chàvez has the WBC and WBA titles, his handlers are talking about moving him up, possibly starting at the junior welterweight class and eventually fighting in the junior middleweight division. Meanwhile, Whitaker just waits. And while he waits, he must deal with all sorts of distractions. He doesn't worry.
"The cocaine pipe is here, and it's here to stay." he says. "Yeah, people have offered it to me. Walk through the Park. You can see the broken pipes on the ground where there used to be liquor bottles. Crack is everywhere. Women selling their bodies just so they can inhale something. Why don't they stop it? They got no hope. Smoking that stuff is the one way they can be like a movie star. So they say to me. 'C'mon, Pete, let's have a good time. Let's party. Nobody care but us, Pete. You just like us.' Man, the pipe is here to stay."
Whitaker stops, grows quiet and says, "Nobody will run me away. I'm strong. Somebody asks for something from me, even my own brothers and sisters, I say the best way is for you to get it yourself."
"He loves himself," says Wilson. "He managed that in spite of it all. He is a special boxer. But people don't expect someone special should or could come from the projects. Some minds are still being enslaved."
Whitaker pulls out a loaf of white bread, some slices of bologna and ajar of mayonnaise from the refrigerator and makes himself a sandwich. "I think my managers were surprised when I didn't trust them at first," he says. "Sometimes my brothers and sisters are surprised when I don't trust them. I trust nobody. I only trust me."
But if boxing has made Whitaker, then what will become of him if he doesn't get a shot at Chàvez's title? "Chàvez is the best, and everybody knows it," says Whitaker, "I'm the best, too. It's meant to be. If I don't fight him...I can't see not fighting him. I've never run from trouble in my life. I've heard people say, "We know Pete. He ain't gonna do nothing. He ain't no better than us." But I've got a surprise for everybody. I've always been around bullies. I always had to survive."