The fighters sold their rematch as high art, a little piece of culture. No blood sport this time. Pernell Whitaker, who is nicknamed for a member of the legume family, promised a "fast-paced chess match." Little Buddy McGirt, whose trademark homburg (he conducted his prefight interviews in bed, with the hat atop his glazed dome) lent an unusual civility to the scene, assured his fans that he would "make Sweet Pea think." This would be an entirely intellectual exercise, elegant and refined. Fans might want to bring their opera glasses.
And, given that these two boxers have been among the game's master craftsmen for a decade, men who favor technique over violence, it was perfectly reasonable to expect something more like ballet than a brawl. What they have done over the course of winning seven titles in three divisions has been more Bolshoi than backalley, the nuances of their performances a delight to the sport's aficionados. Their rematch, like their first fight, would be a showcase of complicated defenses, with a premium put on avoiding contact.
So why did they sling leather in the middle of the ring for 12 rounds, like miniature Joe Fraziers? Of course, throughout the fight at the Scope in Norfolk, Va., last Saturday night, there was more boxing than fight fans can normally expect to see in a year. Whitaker, who holds the WBC welterweight title but deems only the mythical "best fighter pound-for-pound" title worthy of his attention, was so smooth his fans could have just as easily named him Buttermilk as Sweet Pea. Still, didn't it look as if he busted up Buddy pretty good?
Whitaker, now 34-1-1 after winning an easy decision to retain his title and quiet the clamorings of McGirt and his New York legions, fought a surprisingly active fight, peppering the supposedly stronger McGirt with a right jab that had him staggering by the fifth round. Time and again McGirt (64-4-1) was hit with a second jab before he even had a chance to react to the first. And they were stiff jabs. McGirt's left eye was swollen midway through the fight, and his spirit obviously was sapped well before that. Not even his flash knockdown of Whitaker in the second round could bolster his confidence.
In the face of so much aggression—relatively speaking, you understand—all faith in McGirt's chances quickly evaporated. His manager, Secaucus, N.J., tailor Al Certo, said afterward that McGirt just, hadn't had it. Not after the second round? "Not after the first," he replied. "He didn't have it at all. Buddy looked weak in comparison to Whitaker. The other guy, he's a real tough guy to beat."
Whitaker might now be judged impossible to beat. Even before his widely disputed draw a year ago with the fading Julio Cesar Chavez, who once wore that mythical pound-for-pound mantle, Whitaker was regarded as the best boxer in the game. His fights appeal to the cognoscenti, and even though some regard his bouts as mostly boring, if sometimes playful, he has attracted a growing cult. HBO, which is giving him $18 million for four fights (this was the second in the contract), gets better ratings for Whitaker than for any other nonheavyweight. His skills are that obvious.
But now we have learned that Whitaker, when sufficiently motivated, can swing with the big boys. All he needs is the challenge to produce a big event, "a spectacle," as he calls his major fights, or perhaps just the opportunity to right a wrong.
Whitaker, it turned out, had been burning ever since he beat McGirt in March 1993 at Madison Square Garden. McGirt had made it through that fight with a bad left shoulder, had fought with one arm actually and afterward had had the bad sense to make his medical excuse public. Indeed, he had undergone surgery for a torn rotator cuff nine days after that bout, which had ended in a close decision that gave McGirt's welterweight title to Whitaker, and it was natural for McGirt to wonder how he might have done with a proper left arm to complement the right.
Whitaker, who operates out of Norfolk, a seaport that happens not to be a media center as well, has always been suspicious of the good press McGirt enjoys in New York. He was contemptuous of the speculation that was being published there, that McGirt, dually armed, might beat him. Of his own hometown folk, Whitaker said, "We don't like whiners."
Whitaker didn't even believe that McGirt had an excuse. "If you watch the fight on tape," he said, "you'll see he used his left as much as his right. That injury, just something to fall back on. Operation? That's what they say. He's a big phony. If he had an operation. Actually, I don't believe he had surgery."