"Middle-class kids just don't become fighters," says Wilson. "Not fighters like Pernell. At age 15 he was amazing. Some kids might see a movie or somebody pumps them up for a while. They go after something, then slack off. But Pernell maintained that intensity because he felt he had to."
"I'm from the rough," says Whitaker, "where fighting was how to keep your dignity. Otherwise people will use you and keep using you."
Raymond came home one day when Pete was eight, and the boy came running in behind him, panicked and screaming. "A boy had hit him in the head with a stick," recalls Raymond. "He was bleeding, but it looked worse than it was. I sat him down right then. He was always smaller than the boys his age. I told him he had to take care of himself, because in the Park it's going to happen. Let nobody feel like they can put their hands on you. Fight with everything in you. Then the next time you've got to walk away from it or you'll be fighting every day. And you don't want that."
Whitaker did want that. He had found what he did right. Clyde Taylor, a recreation-center director in the area, took Pete in one day after he saw the boy fighting in the street. Taylor turned Whitaker and his instinct for survival into a boxer. "If Clyde Taylor hadn't gotten Sweet Pea in the ring, there's no telling what would have happened," says Wilson. (Whitaker's boxing nickname Sweet Pea, came about when some sportswriters at ringside misunderstood Whitaker's friends screaming "Sweet Pete!")
"Pernell wasn't a troublemaker, but he didn't run from trouble either," says Novella. "At first, Pete did a lot of losing. I'd say, 'Pete, you can't lose 'em all.' Then he started winning. He won all those [amateur! titles. He said, 'Mama, I'm going to be world champion one day.' I said, 'If you believe it, Pete, I believe it.' "
Not long after he started working with Taylor, he said to Novella, "Mama, I'm going to be the one who gets you out of here." She sobbed like a baby. Whitaker eventually did buy his parents a house in outer Norfolk, near the botanical gardens, a house his mother picked out. Still, Novella spends much of her time back in the Park, where her daughters, Monique and Lucinda, and their five children live.
Following the '84 Olympics, fight manager Lou Duva and his partner, Shelly Finkel, came to Young Park looking for Whitaker, which meant they had both nerve and good instincts for choosing boxers. They ended up signing him to a contract, as they did most of the other medalists from that U.S. Olympic boxing team. Duva and Finkel have since choreographed the professional careers of Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Evander Holy field, Tyrell Biggs and Whitaker, whom some observers believed should have been voted the outstanding boxer of the '84 Games. Instead, Paul Gonzales of Los Angeles, another gold medalist, was given the honor.
"They said Gonzales won it because he was from the ghetto of Los Angeles," says Duva. "Well, where in the hell did they think Pete was from?"
Around the same time, after Whitaker had returned from Los Angeles, Wilson invited him to enroll at Norfolk State, where he remained for about a year. Wilson assigned a teacher to work with him on communications skills. To Whitaker, who had taken great pains to graduate from Norfolk's Booker T. Washington High, attending college was a great honor. None of his brothers or sisters had even dreamed of going to Norfolk State. Yet there he was, contributing to the school from his fight purses and taking a few courses. Norfolk State's band played on Dec. 20, 1986, when Whitaker had a nationally televised bout with Alfredo Layne at the Scope.
Whitaker was married to Rovonda (Von) Anthony on Dec. 21, 1984, and they bought a little house in a subdivision on the grassy plain between Virginia Beach and Norfolk. Von brought a son. Dominique, 7, to the marriage, and she and Pernell are the parents of Pernell Jr., 4. "My boys don't know anything about fighting," says Whitaker. Von sat at ringside at the Ram�rez fight, as did Whitaker's parents. "Pete won," Von says stoutly. "My husband is the best."