Heavyweight Survivor Hard knocks outside the ring haven't hindered big Lance Whitaker inside it

June 24, 2001

A Bible at one elbow, a bowl of Doritos at the other, the
God-fearing fight trainer Joe Goossen leans back in his
living-room La-Z-Boy and delivers his sermon on the Mount. "I
can't imagine the fear he faces in what must be the biggest
fight of his life," Goossen says of heavyweight contender Lance
(Mount) Whitaker. "At first he was shocked, crushed. Since then
he's been quietly possessed. I guess the greater the love, the
greater the pain."

It's been eight months since Whitaker, 29, a mountainous lollipop
of a man, learned that his son, Lance Jr., had chronic
myelogenous leukemia. The six-year-old boy, his lips festering
with cold sores, had gone to the doctor with his mother for what
Dad thought was a routine examination. "When Junior's mom called
with the diagnosis, I was hysterical," says Whitaker, who lives a
few miles from Lance Jr. and his mother, Whitaker's former
girlfriend Cynthia Cueva, in Mission Hills, Calif. "I felt like
I'd been sucker punched."

Devastated by the sight of his son hooked up to tubes and wires
at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, Whitaker withdrew from a
January fight against Michael Grant. For eight weeks he
maintained a bedside vigil while the boy underwent chemotherapy
and bone-marrow testing. Senior slept on a cot alongside Junior,
sometimes crawling into bed with him. "I'd look at him, so young
and sick," Whitaker says, pushing the words past the sharp stone
of sorrow in his throat. "All I could say was, 'I love you, I
love you, I love you.'"

Six months ago, in part to help pay medical bills, Whitaker
returned to the gym to train for a March 10 bout against highly
touted Oleg Maskaev. The Mountain came to Maskaev in Round 2,
decking him with a sweet combination. That gave Whitaker the
distinction of having knocked out the man who knocked out the man
(Hasim Rahman) who knocked out The Man (deposed champion Lennox
Lewis).

After five years of duking his way through the heavyweight
division, Whitaker (23-1, 19 KOs) is poised on the knife-edge
between anonymity and ubiquity. Ranked No. 8 by the WBA, he's a
strong and tenacious boxer with the bottled-up volatility of
nitroglycerin: Disturb him at your peril. Veteran cornerman Gil
Clancy thinks Whitaker may have the best right hand in today's
feeble field of heavies. "He's a big guy with a big punch,"
Clancy says. Another big-punching big guy agrees. "Whitaker hits
harder than I ever could," gushes George Foreman.

Teddy Atlas, who trained Mike Tyson, says Whitaker is "raw and
crude" but game and teachable. "Two years ago Lance didn't know
how to use his height," Atlas says. "He'd make defensive moves
slowly and prematurely, allowing smaller opponents to get in
close. Now he's got some fundamentals and keeps getting better."

Whitaker is the soul of amiability, and at 6'8" and 260 pounds,
it's a fairly big soul. "He's ridiculously lovable," says
Goossen, who dubbed him Mount. Growing up in Granada Hills,
Calif., in fact, the last thing Whitaker sought was action.
"Littler kids always tried to pick fights with me," he says. "I'd
be scared. I didn't want to be responsible for hurting them."

Whitaker's sensitivity toward the innocence of youth may derive
from having had his own innocence stamped out early on. He was an
infant when his father, Ricky, split. He was 11 when his mother,
Louise Thomas, cut out for Sacramento without him. Young Lance
drifted from friend's house to friend's house until, at 12, he
showed up at the San Fernando Valley home of his father. "Dad
gave me $15," Lance recalls, "and sent me on my way."

That was the last time he saw his father, who died in 1994. "Now
I wish I'd given him back his money," Lance says. He forgave his
mother long ago. She lives with him in a house he bought for her
in March. Of her son's unhappy youth, Thomas says only, "Lance
was always a little man."

At 13 Lance moved into a home for at-risk boys in Mission Hills,
where he stayed until he graduated from high school. "The other
kids had probation officers," he says. "I had a social worker.
The only reason I was there was I had no other place to go."

One day he and some pals cut English class and went to a Burger
King. While the 16-year-old Lance waited in line for a Whopper,
an ex-fighter, Francisco Ortega, tapped him on his massive arm.
"Hey, kid," the trainer said. "How would you like to make a
million dollars?"

"Sounds good to me" was Whitaker's fateful reply. Though a
standout defensive tackle in high school, he didn't like to
practice. Sparring, he would find, he loved.

Whitaker quickly became a top amateur, winning the U.S. super
heavyweight title in 1994. He still had a lot to learn, though.
Sticking and running, Alexei Lezin of Russia beat Whitaker 17-0
in the super heavy final of the '94 Goodwill Games. "Lance got by
on talent," says Tommy Brooks, his co-coach at the 1996 Olympic
trials. "He had to be taught to box."

The prodigy didn't learn fast enough: He failed to make the
team, so he turned pro with Goossen, whose Van Nuys gym is a
straight right from Whitaker's current home. Although he won his
first 13 professional bouts by KO, Whitaker went untested until
1999, when he faced Lou Savarese. In the sixth round of that
bout in Atlantic City, Whitaker unloaded an astounding 122
punches--landing 61 and dropping the veteran to one knee.

The length of the count is still in dispute. "I'll put it this
way: My clock was running a little bit faster than the ref's,"
Goossen says. "Mount is from the West Coast, Savarese from the
East. My clock was on Pacific time, the ref's on Eastern. The
fight was in the East." Savarese was spared, and Whitaker was
spent. He lost a split decision, his only defeat as a pro.

With the three major heavyweight belts in Don King's pocket,
Whitaker's promoter, America Presents, is angling to get him a
shot at Wladimir Klitschko's WBO title. Clancy and Atlas give the
edge to the 6'7", 245-pound Ukrainian, whose 35-1 record includes
32 KOs. However, Lou Duva, Whitaker's other coach during the '96
Olympic trials, says, "Lance would knock out Klitschko with a
barrage of punches."

Whitaker concurs. "I will not be defeated again," he says. "And
my son won't either." Released from the hospital in April, Lance
Jr. returned periodically for doses of chemo. Though Whitaker is
reluctant to discuss his son's prognosis, he does say that
doctors last week declared the leukemia to be in complete
remission. "The kid is looking good," Goossen says, "and he's in
great spirits."

As is Whitaker. "Considering the lousy hand that Mount's been
dealt, he's had every opportunity to veer off the tracks,"
Goossen says. "Yet hardship made him stronger. He's
well-balanced, mentally and emotionally. I'm not used to that in
a fighter."

Whitaker has long been up-and-coming. Now he has
up-and-come-of-age.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER

"He hits harder than I ever could," gushes George Foreman about
Whitaker.

"I will not be defeated again," says Whitaker, "and my son won't
either."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)