Twenty-two stories above the streets of San Antonio, high above the scene of the crime played out in the city's Alamodome the night before, Pernell Whitaker faced with resignation the world he had so wanted to embrace in celebration on this first morning of his reign as boxing's king.
"I knew this might happen," Whitaker said quietly. "But still it was like a bad dream. Last night it was like someone put a knife in me and twisted it." Now, from the balcony of his hotel room, in the clear light of a new day, the man they call Sweet Pea had only to hope that the message he had delivered 12 hours earlier was as unmistakable as he had intended it to be.
He then waved a hand at everyone beyond the balcony railing and said, "I want to tell the world that I beat the unbeatable. From now on they're all going to look at me and say, 'There's the guy who beat Julio Cèsar Chàvez. He has been beaten. Pernell Whitaker beat him up.' I'm not a tormentor; I'm not a tormentor. But I whipped his ass last night. And easily. I mentally and physically beat him. I put an old-fashioned project beating on him. A housing authority beating. A ghetto beating. Everyone tried to build him up, but I condemned the building. Pound for pound, Pernell Whitaker is the best fighter in the world. I'm not just a runner; I can fight. Give me credit. Give me the respect I deserve. Give I me this one!"
Last Friday night Whitaker put on one of the most dazzling ring performances in recent years. Yet, within minutes, two of the three judges reduced this magnificent show to a mockery by scoring the 12-round bout a draw. The third judge gave the fight to Whitaker, but the official result was declared a "majority draw"—a judgment so violently in contempt of plausibility that even a number of Chàvez's partisans in the largely Mexican-American crowd of 65,000 appeared embarrassed as they quietly left the arena.
Whitaker's boxing exhibition was a tactical and technical virtuosity that at times led Chàvez on a bewildered, groping circuit of the ring, as if Chàvez were chasing wisps of ringside smoke. That Whitaker, in a perverse reward for his brilliance, needed to plead for respect and recognition underscored how badly justice had been served. Expressions of outrage from Whitaker's camp were immediate and to the point. "The rat bastards!" said Lou Duva, Whitaker's co-trainer, as he plunged headlong for the exit. "I told you we were going to whip him. Then they stole the fight from us."
What doubly damned the outcome, and heightened the damage it inflicted on a wounded and dispirited sport, was the sheer importance of the fight. In the last few years, as his record built to 87-0, with 75 knockouts, Chàvez had emerged as the reigning king of the prize ring—a hard-punching bull with a killing body attack, a relentless style and the chin of your average tugboat. The 31-year-old Chàvez has held five world titles in three weight divisions (after the draw he remained the WBC'S super lightweight champion), and according to the consensus, he held the mythical title of the greatest fighter, pound for pound, in the world.
Facing him was the 29-year-old Whitaker, with a record of 32-l with 15 KOs, the one loss the product of a dubious bit of ringside sleight of hand. He was the stylistic antithesis of Chàvez—a southpaw, clever and quick-footed, with a bobbing, crouching, mobile style that made him an elusive target. Whitaker has also held five titles in three weight classes (he retained his WBC welterweight crown as dubious consolation for this draw), and his 12-round decision over Buddy McGirt on March 6 set up the match with Chàvez. On Friday they were fighting for Whitaker's title, with a 145-pound weight ceiling—two below the customary welter-weight limit—set to accommodate the lighter Chàvez, but there was a good deal more at stake. "This is for the best fighter, pound for pound," said Whitaker, a U.S. Olympic gold medal winner in 1984. "We may be fighting for my title, but that's not what everyone is talking about. This is like going for the gold again."
It was the ideal prizefight, the best boxing match in years. Chàvez would earn as much as $5 million, by far the largest purse of his career, and Whitaker $3 million. Most everyone envisioned Chàvez chasing the wisp through most of the fight, wearing Whitaker down with body shots—especially to the liver—until finally catching him in a late round with one of those sustained, devastating Hurries on the ropes. This was not even remotely what happened. For most of the 12 rounds Whitaker gave Chàvez a lesson on movement, on fighting at angles and in circles, that simply confounded Chàvez. Whitaker spun, ducked, crouched, dipped, weaved and slipped in and out of Chàvez's effective range, and he fairly stunned the house by mauling and out-muscling Chàvez on the ropes.
Chàvez came out pressing the attack, and in the first two rounds Whitaker backpedaled to his right and popped the occasional right jab, keeping Chàvez out of tempo. Roars went up whenever Chàvez landed a punch, and throughout the vast dome the crowds waved the red, white and green flag of Mexico. Chàvez was already having difficulty solving Whitaker's elusive movement, and here Duva made an adjustment that would make it even harder for Chàvez.
"You're moving too fast. Pete," Duva said after Round 2. "Slow down! Double up on the jab. Don't be afraid to throw the left hand. Start letting him get a little closer. Turn him! Set the tempo."
Whitaker felt a surge of confidence. He came out for the third with a crisper, sharper jab, nailing a pursuing Chàvez with three stingers in a row. At once he settled into what he called his "sleeping style," a kind of slippery, loosey-goosey way of carrying himself that made it harder for Chàvez to get to him. By the fourth round Whitaker was in control of the fight as Chàvez grew increasingly frustrated with his opponent's style.
In the fifth Chàvez's corner began yelling at him to renew the attack, and he charged back to score one of his best rounds of the bout. In one flurry he landed two sharp right-hand leads, another left to the body and a third right that had Whitaker, for the only time in the fight, looking chastened and doubtful in the middle of the ring.
Yet Whitaker clearly won the sixth through the eighth, as the crowd fell ominously silent and the flags stopped fluttering. Whitaker had done what he had promised to do: "I like to go on the road and take the hometown fans out of it," he had said earlier in the week.
In the sixth Whitaker accidentally caught Chàvez with a low left to the groin. Referee Joe Cortez stopped the fight to give Chàvez a minute to kick away the pain, but Chàvez needed more than that to shake off the larger effect Whitaker was having on him. Whitaker had taken away most of Chàvez's arsenal of punches, save for the occasional right-hand lead, and Chàvez had nothing close to Whitaker's jab. Chàvez never mounted a sustained attack to the body, and he began to appear not only feckless and confused but also desperate and despondent as the rounds rolled by. He was losing the fight, and he couldn't come up with anything to turn it around. Chàvez did win the ninth, scoring several times with left hooks and right hands.
After that round a frantic Duva exhorted Whitaker to make adjustments. "Pete, where's that jab?" Duva cried. "Where's that left hook? And get that uppercut going as soon as you see him get set."
Still, by the late rounds Whitaker appeared to be on his way to a win, but his strength trainer, Bob Wareing, knew better. Standing at ringside, he watched as Josè Sulaimàn, the president of the WBC, collected the judges' scorecards at the end of each round. Wareing was astonished. "I'm watching one fight and seeing something else on the scorecards," he said later. Incredibly, at the start of the 10th Whitaker was behind 86-85 on the card of judge Jack Woodruff of Dallas, and even with Chàvez, at 86-86, on the cards of Franz Marti of Switzerland and Mickey Vann of England. Wareing yelled at Duva, "Lou, we got to win two of the last three rounds to win the fight."
Duva barked the message in Whitaker's ear. Chàvez came out fast, but Whitaker blunted his attack with sharp lefts, and by the round's closing moments Chàvez seemed to be underwater. Whitaker won it. He took the 11th even more easily, and for most of the final round he moved and backpedaled out of harm's way while a tired Chàvez chased after him. At the bell, looking perplexed, Chàvez raised his arms in a wishful gesture.
A check of veteran fight observers revealed that most of them had it eight rounds to four for Whitaker—SI had Whitaker nine rounds to three. Yet Chàvez nearly got his wish. Everyone knew, going in, that Whitaker was in hostile territory, and all that remained to speculate about was how bald-faced the larceny would be if Chàvez were to take a licking. It went as far as it could go without someone actually calling the police. Marti and Vann arc fixtures at fights sanctioned by the WBC, an organization synonymous with Don King, Chàvez's promoter and the man who put on the San Antonio show. Woodruff was assigned to the fight by Texas officials. None of the judges covered himself with glory in this affair, though Woodruff gave Whitaker the last three rounds, awarding him the light 115-113. But how he had Whitaker losing by a point after nine rounds is a mystery.
Marti and Vann disagreed about what they were watching—they scored six of the 12 rounds differently—but they both came out with even scores, 115-115, and so carried the day for the WBC with the majority-draw decision. "I don't think there was an outcry," said Vann the morning after the outcry. "Some people thought one guy won; some people thought the other did. Who's right? We're right. I got it right, and that's it." Asked what he saw that others might not have seen, Vann said, "Attack. That's what Chàvez did: Attack!" So much for the boxer's art. According to Marti, who said he saw Chàvez dominating the fight, the criticism nettled him not. "Not everybody knows how to score a professional fight," he said. Marti provides the proof of that.
It was also left to the impartial observers at ringside to ponder how Dan Duva, Whitaker's promoter, could have yielded so thoroughly to King and the WBC in the selection of the judges, especially knowing, as he must have, that his man was not likely to win by a knockout. In fact, says Duva, after much heated negotiation Texas officials assembled a pool of five judges who had worked fights for the WBC, and he and King were allowed to strike one each. A reasonable compromise? Hardly, says Duva. "It was clear to me that the five were not among the best in the world," he says. "Early on I had suggested getting Jerry Roth of Nevada, the guy who is recognized as the best." But, says Duva, the Chàvez camp did not want Roth. "My opinion," says Duva, "is that he was turned down because he had Meldrick Taylor ahead when Taylor fought Chàvez." In that 1990 fight Chàvez KO'd Taylor when referee Richard Steele stopped the fight with two seconds remaining in the final round.
Last Friday night, says Duva, a number of WBC officials approached him with strange expressions of condolence. "They said to me, 'What arc you complaining about? This is the perfect result. Everyone wins,' " says Duva. "That's just sickening. On the day of the fight everyone who knows me knows that I had one fear: that Pernell would get robbed. That these people, for their own political interest, would deny him his victory."
In the end, of course, it is the fighters who suffer the most. The Chàvez record now bears a tainted gift that is far worse than any defeat. No one in the spoil has lived a more definitive life between the ropes than Chàvez—it is all there, in black and white, in black and blue—and now there is this nettlesome ambiguity, this grayness that will never go away. Better that he should have lost and gone on. So the events of last Friday night were as unfair to him, and all he has meant to the sport, as they were to Whitaker.
"I feel a little bit beat up," Chàvez said quietly, laughing, the morning after the fight and a night of partying. "It was a difficult fight. Unfortunately, I couldn't do anything better. I still think that I forced the fight, I kept going forward. There was something I kept doing wrong...." It was nothing more than meeting the first man in his life that he could not handle.
That man was left treading the same murky waters. Whitaker knew he had won, but the record books will say he didn't. He was left talking to the world beyond the balcony, as though trying to convince himself of something of which he was sure yet not quite sure. "Deep down I know I won it," Sweet Pea said. "Deep down you know it. Deep down...."
Just where those judges left it.