Someone took something away from Pernell (Pete) Whitaker. Last March 12 in Paris, the judges said he lost a split decision to WBC lightweight champion Jos� Luis Ram�rez. Whitaker had broken his left hand on Ram�rez's skull in the fourth round, yet still outboxed Ram�rez over 12 rounds. Whitaker's handlers and most of the press at ringside were appalled by the outcome. Others shrugged it off. "That's boxing," they said. But that isn't boxing. That's boxing officials, promoters and judges. The boxers are boxing.
Fighters have handlers and sparring partners the way normal people have friends and acquaintances. Whitaker would rather be normal. He isn't. He's good, and he wants to be champion, which means that he's going to have to get to undefeated lightweight champion Julio C�sar Ch�vez. Ch�vez unified the WBA and WBC titles by beating Ram�rez on Oct. 29. On the one hand, Whitaker says. "Fight me, that's the worst day of your life. Ch�vez belongs to me. I want to see what he had for breakfast. I'll dog Ch�vez."
On the other hand, Whitaker also says. "I ain't better than nobody. I'll never act like that. People say that about me, but I'm not."
"He is better," says Whitaker's handler, George Benton.
"The best," says sparring partner Shelton Le Blanc.
"No," says Whitaker. "I'm not."
Whitaker, 24, became a superb, driven fighter because he had nothing to lose. He is from one of those places where nothing trickled down but hard liquor, tears and blood. Multiple-option career packages didn't rain on the two-story brick houses of the Young Park projects in the heart of Norfolk, Va. To Whitaker, this was home.
His parents, Raymond and Novella, raised their four girls and three boys in a three-bedroom apartment. For most of the boys around "the Park," the activity of necessity was basketball, although Whitaker threw in some boxing. "Every day it was the same thing," says Raymond. "Pete would box in the gym from four until seven, then play basketball on the hoop at the other end from seven until he came home."
Norfolk is, after all, within a 100-mile radius of where Moses Malone and J.R. Reid grew up. People related better to basketball than to boxing. "They understood it better," says Raymond. "It was normal." Although Whitaker still insists. "I can hoop," he is 5'5". That's not much to go to the hoop on.
So Whitaker turned to boxing because it was all he had left. For him, boxing became normal. He wasn't preparing for college, he wasn't handsome and he wasn't tall. What he was, was poor and black. Only in the ring could he be brilliant, desirable and beautiful. Only for his fists could he be envied. So he boxed, first against kids his age and then against sailors from the nearby naval base. "I fought sailors when I was 13 and 14," says Whitaker with a laugh. "I was too good for them after that." He went on to win 214 amateur bouts, including 91 KOs, while losing only 14. Eventually he couldn't get a good fight within 300 miles of Norfolk.