The last time Pernell Whitaker fought Jose Luis Ramírez, in Paris 17 months ago, he broke his left hand early and was robbed late: Two of the three judges gave the fight to Ramírez, allowing him to hang on to his WBC lightweight championship. The two fighters met again on Sunday in Whitaker's hometown of Norfolk, Va.—Paris is the Mexican-born Ramírez's adopted home—this time for Whitaker's IBF championship and the by-then-vacated WBC title. "How do you feel?" Lou Duva, Whitaker's cotrainer, asked his fighter when he returned to the corner after the eighth round. "How are the hands?"
Whitaker shook his head. "I don't know, Lou. I think I need something."
"What?" asked Duva, his voice rising.
"I could use a beer."
The fight was going that smoothly for the 1984 Olympic 132-pound gold medalist. As Ramírez said afterward, "I knew I was in for a long night in the first round. He was so much stronger, so much faster."
In Paris, with his power hand suddenly useless, the southpaw Whitaker had had to resort to fighting on the run. On Sunday at Norfolk Scope arena, he gave the veteran from Culiacàn, Mexico, a whole new look. "He paint-brushed him," says Georgie Benton, Whitaker's creative trainer.
The 30-year-old Ramírez is a veteran of 109 professional fights. He had lost seven times, most recently to countryman Julio Cèsar Chàvez, who relieved Ramírez of his WBC lightweight crown last October before moving on and up to the junior welterweight division. But no one, not even Chàvez, who is regarded by many as pound for pound the best fighter in the world, handled Ramírez quite as easily as Whitaker did.
"I don't want you running all over the ring from this guy," Benton had ordered his 25-year-old prodigy during prefight strategy meetings. "Just walk and slip. Be a ring general. Don't get cute and try and knock him out. Don't load up. Stick and slide, use the jab and when you see a chance for a big shot, throw it. If you see something you don't like, walk away."
Call it painting by numbers: Benton outlined the picture, and Whitaker flawlessly put the colors in their proper places. Everything began with his right jab, which is a rocket, delivered hard and accurately. "I could have tied my left hand behind my back," says Whitaker. "The jab did everything."
Off the jab came an endlessly varied series of sharp combinations: a double hook; two left hands and a hook; a blurring burst of five machine-gun punches. Midway through the eighth round, Whitaker hit Ramírez on the chin with a hook-straight left combination that was almost too fast for the eye to follow. "Good lord," said his teacher, Benton, watching in awe at ringside. Yet, seemingly unfazed, Ramírez shook his head and shuffled forward, slowly.
In Whitaker's corner, in the middle rounds, Duva and Benton worried that their fighter would become frustrated. He was throwing his best stuff, yet Ramírez was unmarked and seemed unhurt, though his charges had been slowed. "Forget about a knockout," they chorused to Whitaker. "He's got an iron chin. What you are doing is better than a knockout. You're beautiful. Keep the same tempo. Don't change the tempo."
Only in the last round, the 12th, did Whitaker change his approach. There's a performer buried deep inside his fighter's body. "I knew I had the fight won," he said of his 19th victory in 20 professional fights. "And I am an entertainer. I knew the fans would like to see a little show."
Before he went out for the final round, Duva told him, "Don't take any chances with this guy. Keep moving and keep working that jab. Remember, no crazy chances." Whitaker laughed and planted a kiss on the grizzled Duva's cheek. "Don't worry, baby," he said. "Don't worry."
Duva immediately began to worry. "Cut that crap out," he screamed a moment later, his right fist slamming into the ring apron, as Whitaker began his 12th-round performance. In the ring, Whitaker had taken a flat-footed stance in front of Ramírez, who was firing punches in desperation. With a slight smile creasing his face, Whitaker casually ducked and slipped everything Ramírez could throw at him. At one point he sat on a lower strand of the ropes; Ramírez still could not hit him. Tiring of that, Whitaker arose and strolled away from his frustrated challenger, contemptuously turning his back on his beaten opponent.
Obviously annoyed by the champion's antics, judge Syd Nathan gave the last round to Ramírez, but he gave the fight to Whitaker 117-111. In the opinion of judges Larry O'Connell and Miguel Donate, Whitaker did not lose a round. O'Connell, who scored the last round even, had the fight 120-109. Donate gave the champion a clean slate, 120-108.
Later, someone asked Whitaker what he would have done if the judges had repeated the Paris robbery. "They never would have got out of the building," he said, laughing. "They [his hometown fans] would have locked the doors. Those other guys got away from me in Paris. This time I would have found them."
For much of the week before the fight, there was concern that Whitaker and Ramírez might be fighting for nothing more than the lightweight championship of the state of Virginia. At different points during the week both the IBF and the WBC said that they would not sanction the fight. For the most part, the two organizations were squabbling over who would name the officials for the fight, the sanctioning bodies or the Virginia Athletic Commission. And there were a few more trivial debates—like which of the two organizations' logos the referee would wear on his shirt (as it turned out, the ref, Chris Wollesen, a Virginian, wore neither).
"For about a day and a half," said Doug Beavers, the no-nonsense Virginia boxing boss, "I actually thought about having three sets of officials. I was going to let the IBF name three judges to determine the IBF championship, and I was going to let the WBC name three judges to determine the WBC championship. And I was going to name three Virginia judges to determine the winner. The whole thing was getting to a point of silliness."
At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, four days before the fight, Beavers and Bill Brennan, the IBF representative, convinced IBF president Bob Lee to sanction the fight. The announcement of the decision was made at noon. Thirty minutes later Beavers got a call from Bob Lee Jr., his father's top assistant.
"Dad changed his mind," said Lee Jr.
"It's too damn late," said Beavers.
"O.K. Dad said if it was too late, to go ahead."
The WBC sanction came on Saturday. "I had talked to both fighters," said Beavers. "They both said if neither organization sanctioned the fight, they'd go out in an alley and settle it. They just wanted to fight. If nothing else, one of them would have been the 135-pound world champion of the Commonwealth of Virginia." Fortunately for Whitaker, reason prevailed; he has far bigger worlds to conquer.