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."