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.