No one, except perhaps the oddsmakers, thought Pernell Whitaker would have it this easy. The Vegas bookmakers had entrenched Whitaker as a 3½-to-1 favorite over International Boxing Federation lightweight champion Greg Haugen for their fight last Saturday in snow-blanketed Hampton, Va. Nothing unusual there. Haugen has been the underdog in most of his fights. But the champion had proved the oddsmakers wrong, winning 23 of his 25 bouts, with one draw. As Haugen informed Whitaker's people in his George Raft growl: "Guys who make the odds don't fight."
In this case it was Whitaker who did most of the fighting. He dominated virtually every round to win a unanimous decision and set up a likely rematch with former World Boxing Council title-holder Josè Luis Ramírez.
Whitaker's strategists had come up with a three-part fight plan. In Phase One, they would send the 25-year-old 1984 Olympic gold medalist off with orders to hammer Haugen's body. "No sense hitting him on the chin," said Whitaker's trainer, George Benton. "The sucker's got a pretty good chin. Nobody's ever knocked him off his feet. The body, though, I don't think he likes it there." If that proved hazardous, they would try Phase Two: Go toe-to-toe with Haugen, a bite-off-your-nose hard case who had developed his style in Tough Man fights at an Alaska saloon.
"Right on his chest," said Whitaker's comanager Lou Duva. "There he can still work the body, and Haugen won't be able to touch him. Haugen needs room to punch."
February 27, 1989
"And three?" asked Whitaker, just in case phases one and two had to be scrapped. "Run," said Duva and Benton in unison.
Whitaker recoiled at Phase Three. No way. Last March in Paris he had run Ramírez, then the WBC lightweight champion, into a near frenzy, and he had seemed to win the fight and the championship easily. All it had earned Whitaker was the wrong end of the vote from two judges who seemed to have been watching another fight. The third judge, Harry Gibbs of England, had Whitaker the winner. Later, Gibbs told Whitaker, "I'm sorry. There is no doubt in my mind that you won."
After that adventure, Whitaker's people were more cautious: When this fight, a mandatory defense for Haugen, went to purse bids, Dan Duva, Lou's son and Whitaker's personal promoter, bid $568,000, which turned out to be some $300,000 higher than the next best offer.
"We weren't going to lose this one," said Dan Duva. "We wanted the home court advantage. It's a gamble, but if Whitaker wins he's going to be champion for a long time. Anybody else would have put the fight in Las Vegas, Haugen's hometown."
Whitaker grew up in Norfolk, Va., and now lives in Virginia Beach. Both are about 20 minutes from the Hampton Coliseum. ABC lessened Duva's gamble considerably by paying $400,000 to telecast the fight.
"I'm glad it's going to Norfolk," said Haugen, when he learned he would be making $426,000—75% of the purse bid. "But I won't help promote it. I hope it snows all day and only five people show up."
The snow began falling in Virginia on Friday night. By Saturday morning a half foot lay on the ground, and at least that much more would fall before the snow turned to rain. Still, by the time Whitaker began Phase One of the Duva-Benton plan, more than 6,000 fans were in place, just what the promoter needed to break even. As it turned out, Phase One was all Whitaker needed. No toe dancing this time. He came out flat-footed and stayed that way, right in Haugen's face. He used jarring double and triple jabs to turn Haugen and to confuse him, then he ripped into Haugen's body, digging in hooks from both sides. The fight started badly for the champion, then got worse; he was never able to mount a counterattack.
With Whitaker in command, each round seemed a rerun of the last and a preview of the one to follow. The pattern was broken only in the sixth: Haugen threw a right hand, which Whitaker took on his right shoulder. Then Whitaker, a southpaw, fired a straight left hand to Haugen's head. It caught the champion flush, and as he started to fall forward his rear foot was snagged by Whitaker's leg. Haugen fell to his knees. Rising quickly from the first knockdown of his career, he shook his head in disgust as he listened to referee Al Rothenberg count off the mandatory eight. Haugen later said he had tripped.
Whitaker won every round, although one judge, Paul Gibbs of Washington, scored it only 118-109. Jim Traylor of Virginia and Mike Glienna of Illinois gave Whitaker a shutout, 120-107.
A few minutes after the fight, Haugen sat in his dressing room while a trainer held a cold Endswell iron under his swelling right eye. His face was a quilt of tiny cuts and bruises. "My timing was off," Haugen said in disgust. "He wasn't that much quicker. I couldn't get no punches off. I can't win if I don't punch. He's a real tough kid. He deserved to win. He kept throwing me off with the jab; I never could counter it. I knew what I had to do, I could see what I had to do; I just couldn't do it. I don't know if it was him or me. One punch. One freaking punch at a time. That's all I threw. Awful. Just awful. I'm a better fighter than that. They told me he was good. Now I know."
Whitaker said that for his first title defense, he would like to fight Ramírez, who has since lost his WBC title to Julio Cèsar Chàvez. This time Whitaker won't run, and it won't be pretty.