"You know better," the young man replies.
This time, the young black man doesn't answer; he closes his eyes and smiles. Stripped down to his under-shorts, he is stretched out on a table in the back room of a cinder-block arena in Houston. He is a boxer, sweet and slick; he has the moves, everyone says, but tonight he is fighting a tough Mexican in front of a Mexican crowd, and now, as he tries to rest, another black fighter stands in front of him, trying to gauge his fear. "If you're scared, you can have a doctor come in and check you out," Pernell Whitaker says to the young man. "He can give you a shot."
August 8, 1993
Whitaker turns to listen to the conversation of the ring announcer. Whitaker, the WBC welterweight champion, has come to this arena to box a three-round exhibition, but more to the point, he has come to show himself to the Mexican crowd and to learn to brave their boos. On Sept. 10 he will defend his title against Julio Cèsar Chàvez, the WBC super lightweight champion—the man generally regarded as the greatest fighter in the world—in the Alamodome in San Antonio, before a crowd of 70,000, a great many of whom will be Mexican or Mexican-American and revere Chàvez with a kind of religious fervor. Tonight, Whitaker will step into the ring not to ingratiate himself with the audience but, rather, to incur its ire. He wants to be booed, and the ring announcer is party to his plans. "When I introduce Pernell as the Mexican Assassin," he says, "this place will go nuts."
Whitaker's eyes stray back to the table where the young black man lies waiting. They look at each other, Whitaker and the young man, and it seems that they are about to burst out laughing, until Whitaker suddenly scowls and asks it once again: "You scared?"
Scared? Whitaker strolls out of the dressing room to briefly check out the arena, and when he shows his face, that is what everyone in the crowd wants to know: You scared, Sweet Pea? You scared to fight the great Chàvez? Eighty-seven and oh, that's what Chàvez is. You fight Chàvez, you fight more than a man—you fight an entire nation. And now, as Whitaker lingers in the shadow of the bleachers to watch a fight, the denizens and descendants of that nation turn their eyes to him. Occasionally they rise from their chairs and approach the man called Sweet Pea.
"You Pernell Wheet-ta-ka?" says one man. "You fighting Chàvez? You really think you can beat him?"
"I know I can," Whitaker answers.
"I don't knoooow," the man says in a singsong. He is wearing a smile of suppressed hilarity, as though he's aware of something that Whitaker isn't, as though he's speaking to someone who doesn't have the sense to realize he's facing a death sentence.
Whitaker does not move. During these confrontations with the fans of Chàvez, he remains virtually motionless, except for his smile. It is a sly, secret smile, the smile of the condemned man who knows he has won a reprieve.
Scared? Why should Whitaker be scared? He's 29 years old, and he has been boxing for 21 years. He fought 215 times as an amateur, and he won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. His professional record is 32-1, and he quickly avenged his one defeat, a dubious decision to Josè Luis Ramírez in 1988. He has won five titles in three different weight classes. Hell, it was his idea to take on Chàvez. He loves this fight, everything about it: the hype, the preparation and the idea of settling, once and for all, the question of who is the best fighter, pound for pound, in the world.
Scared? No, he is not scared of Chàvez. He is not all that different from Chàvez, in size, age or temperament. They are both family men, devoted husbands and fathers, who like to stay out late and drink a lot of beer. In the ring they both seem less concerned with conventional notions of offense and defense than they are with the ownership of territory. Chàvez contracts the ring, until he has left his opponent nothing but a corner, a place to fall down; Whitaker expands the ring, until he has left his opponent nothing but space, a place in which to lurch and drift. What they both insist upon, what they both are about, is control, and it is their similarities as much as their differences that make their pairing seem inevitable.
This is a battle between water and rock, between comedy and tragedy, between hip and square, between irony and literalism, between the fighter who swings and the fighter who ducks. This is a battle between two peoples, between the two styles that dominate the world of boxing—the Mexican and the African-American—and it is being waged by the two men who have taken those styles as far as they can go, into their hearts, into their souls, into the very fabric of their lives.
"Chàvez too strong for Whitaker" is what they say in the arena, these men in their Chàvez T-shirts. "Whitaker run. Whitaker clown. Whitaker play. Chàvez no play." They are right, of course. In the Alamodome, Chàvez will chase and Whitaker will run, clown and play. Chàvez will move in straight lines, Whitaker in angles and circles. The pattern is almost preordained. In Mexico there is no dishonor in getting hit, only in not hitting back. In Young Park, the housing project in Norfolk, Va., where Whitaker grew up, people get hit too damned much to find much honor in it. In the projects, you try to avoid the punches and the dishonor, and to do so, you have to improvise, you have to master the art of paradox. Fear and courage, chaos and control, avoidance and attack—Whitaker has been wriggling between them for most of his life, from the moment he realized that he could win a fight without throwing a punch, that the worst thing he could do to a fighter was turn the ring into a playground, that he could call himself Sweet Pea in one breath and "a tough nigger from the projects" in the next, and somehow avoid the risk of contradiction.
Back in the dressing room two little boys are watching him. They are from the local housing projects, and they dream of being prizefighters. They stare at Whitaker, dancing and sweating in front of a mirror, with solemn faces and wide eyes. Now, when someone says, "it's showtiiiiime!" and the time has come to move to the ring, Whitaker puts his arm around one of the boys, the smallest one, and says, "Watch me." He does not let go of the boy. They leave the dressing room in a cluster—Whitaker and his trainers and seconds, Lou Duva, George Benton. Ronnie Shields, Bob Wareing and Ace Marotta—and head down the aisle toward the ring, and during the entire walk Whitaker keeps his arm around the boy's neck and speaks into his car. When he was a boy in Norfolk, Whitaker used to go with his first trainer, Clyde Taylor, to the lights at the Navy base and watch only how the fighters moved their feet, how far they stood from each other. Now that's what he's telling the boy to do, to follow his footwork, to work, to study, to take heart from Sweet Pea's example and make something of himself....
In the middle of the ring, the ring announcer is introducing Whitaker as the Mexican Assassin, and, as promised, the crowd is boiling with sweat and smoke and beer and scorn.
Whitaker touches the little boy's hands with his gloved fists and climbs into the ring. The crowd boos him. They sing the Mexican national anthem. Whitaker is sweating hard, and with his jazzman's goatee, his gold teeth and his almond-shaped, almost Asian eyes, he looks much older than 29. When you ask his friends, such as former Olympic and WBA welter-weight champion Mark Breland, what distinguishes Whitaker as a fighter, they will say that it is the strange sense of calm he brings to the ring, and now, as he stares at his opponent, it is this calm that settles into his eyes and makes him look at once ancient and ageless and predatory.
Whitaker is fighting a kid tonight, 19-year-old Rodrigo Cerda. He is going to play with this kid—that's what he has been saying—and now, when the bell rings, he lets the kid chase him across the ring, back into a corner, to throw punch after punch....
But throughout the exhibition, the kid can't hit him. In the corner Whitaker collapses into something resembling a squat, and, on his thick legs, he moves up and down like an accordion. This is Whitaker's secret; he works in the vertical dimension as well as the horizontal and turns the ring into air. He rarely attacks; even in the gym, working out on the heavy bag, he seems more intent on sizing it up, on calibrating distances, than on hitting it. He punches as much to unsettle as he does to hurt, and now, with the kid pressing him in the corners, against the ropes. Whitaker punches like a skittish child, in wide windmill arcs, and he looks at once innocent and cruel. The crowd doesn't like this? The crowd wants to boo? Let them boo. He'll use those boos.
"You like to play, Sweet Pea? Let's see you play like that against Chàvez!"
"Sweet Pea, you too sweet! You got to be a man to fight Chàvez!"
"Forget Chàvez, Sweet Pea! You might get knocked out to-night!"
It is this last gibe that gets to him, the one issuing from a heckler sitting at ringside. Whitaker lets his opponent swing and miss, swing and miss. Then he lets the kid hit him, three shots to the head, and then he backhands the kid 10 times in the face. The final bell rings, the crowd boos, and Whitaker takes the microphone from the ring announcer.
"You're a lovely crowd," he says. "You love your fighter, and Chàvez is a great fighter. But on September 10, he belongs to me. He has sold his soul to the devil."
He is gone now, on his way back to the dressing room with Duva and Benton and the little boy from the projects. Benton, his longtime tutor, is not pleased. Why hasn't Whitaker listened to him, listened to all his talk about respecting the other man? "I told him to box," Benton is saying. "I told him to act like a champion. Instead he does this showboating, and he turns half the crowd against him."
In the dressing room Whitaker changes into a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words NO FEAR. The boy is standing once again at the door. Did he learn anything tonight? Did he learn that you can control a man, humiliate a man, just by playing with him? It is something that Benton will never understand because, as Whitaker likes to say, "George, he don't play."
No, George don't, but Whitaker does. He played in his fight against Roger Mayweather in March '87: In the ninth round he pulled Mayweather's droopy trunks down around his knees and then hail to pull himself off the canvas to win a decision after an angry Mayweather dropped him with a right hand. He played in his last fight, against Buddy McGirt in March, when he showboated to such inexplicable purpose in the 12th round of a fairly close fight that even his wife, Von, screamed at him to stop.
Whitaker plays because there is power in play, and when he is at play in the ring, he feels what he calls "a rush—to think the guy can't hit me. People are saying, 'Jesus, why can't this guy put his hands on Sweet Pea?' Most fighters don't even know what's happened to them. I've taken something from them—their confidence, their fight plan. They can't hit you, the fight is yours. They get self-conscious about punching. After a while they start reaching, just hoping they're going to hit me. I don't care who I'm fighting. I don't care if it's God. If I don't want God to hit me, he's not going to hit me."
He was a rapacious street fighter in his day, and he fought in the streets as he fights in the ring. He would bide his time and let his man tire himself out. "Two minutes and two seconds"—that's about how long most street lighters are good for, Whitaker says, and then they get tired. "And once you're tired, I own you. You've sold your soul to the devil."
The persona Whitaker has developed in the ring translates to the other walks of his life. In virtually everything he does, he is wary, wily, mischievous, impulsive and always in control. He is there and not there. Although he is the father of three boys and has three other boys living with him, he is at heart like a little kid, says Von. "He wants things his way or no way," she says. He likes to stay out late and then sleep for 12 or 15 hours at a stretch. He plays basketball obsessively.
He has never done anything but box for a living. He has never held a job, not even for a summer. Although he grew up on the edge of chaos, his parents, Raymond and Novella Whitaker, preached, by word and deed, the virtues of control. He would finish his homework, head to the recreation center to train, and stay until his mother called him home.
Whitaker remembers his first flourish of success as an amateur boxer as the best time in his life. He traveled all over the country, and met the lighters who would eventually constitute the U.S. boxing team in the 1984 Olympics, and he became their captain and their leader. Tyrell Biggs, Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor, Breland. Oh, he loved those guys, and when they were all professionals and Taylor fought Chàvez and, with two tragic seconds left in the 12th and final round, lost a fight he was leading—well, Whitaker cried bitterly.
Whitaker is fighting for Taylor now. And for Breland and Holyfield, fighting to culminate what was started in 1984, the promise of greatness. He is fighting for Duva, too. Duva, who was Taylor's co-manager, regards Chàvez as Ahab regarded Moby Dick. Whitaker is fighting for his parents, his two brothers and four sisters, his wife and his children.... Hell, it has been said that Chàvez fights for his family, his people, his nation. Whom do you think Whitaker fights for? "It's not about me anymore." he says. He, too, has a family, and a people, and a nation. He has Young Park. He is the most respected man in Young Park, lie says, and he never wants to lose that, because Young Park needs him as a shaper of its dreams.
There is a breeze blowing in Young Park today, the day Whitaker comes home. He stands on a corner, and men leave their homes to join him. His sister, Zelda, stops by on her way home from work, and in time, so do some old friends. There are moments when Von wonders why her husband, who has built his family a huge home in nearby Virginia Beach, keeps going back. Yet, Whitaker tends to look back on his time in the projects as a moment of relative innocence.
At sunset Whitaker says goodbye to his friends and his sister so he can get out of Young Park by dark. He drives to a club in another part of town—a quiet club full of smartly dressed black men and women. They are older, and Whitaker gravitates to them because they leave him alone and because "I figure I'm an older person myself now that I have kids." When he goes to a club and he sees the rough young men he calls "ghetto boys," he draws a line. "I acknowledge them," he says, "but I tell them to keep their distance."
He is not a warrior, and he does not like wars. In clubs, when people get too close, when they want something from him, he walks away. In the ring when his opponent tempts him to trade punches, when the crowd is roaring for blood, he walks away. He will never give them what they want, when what they want is blood. Only a chump, only a fool, only a man with no other options will give them that, and Whitaker, well, he always has other options, he always knows how to escape.
He has fought with a broken hand, but if he were cut, he says, and blood ran into his eyes and stole his sight, he would simply quit and "live to fight another day," because his eyes are more important than his legs or his hands. His eyes are the extension of his mind, and his mind is what makes him Sweet Pea.
On that awful night when Chàvez beat Taylor, Whitaker looked at Taylor before the 12th round and told Wareing, his physical trainer, that if he ever looked like that during a fight, if he ever appeared so beaten up and bloodied, that Wareing damn well better throw in the towel.
Whitaker fears no man, he says, and yet such is the nature of his courage that he would rather flee or surrender than be vanquished. If Chàvez should beat him, says Whitaker, "I would have no problem raising his hand at the press conference and saying that he's the better man." No, Whitaker does not fight as a test of his courage, or of his machismo. He fights, instead, for the same reason he ventures again and again into the night, into the bars and clubs, and stays out until the far side of midnight: To test his ability to throw himself into the thick of darkness and emerge, as if by magic, untouched and shiny and clean.