Twenty-two stories above the streets of San Antonio, high above the scene of the crime played out in the city's Alamodome the night before, Pernell Whitaker faced with resignation the world he had so wanted to embrace in celebration on this first morning of his reign as boxing's king.
"I knew this might happen," Whitaker said quietly. "But still it was like a bad dream. Last night it was like someone put a knife in me and twisted it." Now, from the balcony of his hotel room, in the clear light of a new day, the man they call Sweet Pea had only to hope that the message he had delivered 12 hours earlier was as unmistakable as he had intended it to be.
He then waved a hand at everyone beyond the balcony railing and said, "I want to tell the world that I beat the unbeatable. From now on they're all going to look at me and say, 'There's the guy who beat Julio César Chávez. He has been beaten. Pernell Whitaker beat him up.' I'm not a tormentor; I'm not a tormentor. But I whipped his ass last night. And easily. I mentally and physically beat him. I put an old-fashioned project beating on him. A housing authority beating. A ghetto beating. Everyone tried to build him up, but I condemned the building. Pound for pound, Pernell Whitaker is the best fighter in the world. I'm not just a runner; I can fight. Give me credit. Give me the respect I deserve. Give I me this one!"
Last Friday night Whitaker put on one of the most dazzling ring performances in recent years. Yet, within minutes, two of the three judges reduced this magnificent show to a mockery by scoring the 12-round bout a draw. The third judge gave the fight to Whitaker, but the official result was declared a "majority draw"—a judgment so violently in contempt of plausibility that even a number of Chávez's partisans in the largely Mexican-American crowd of 65,000 appeared embarrassed as they quietly left the arena.
Whitaker's boxing exhibition was a tactical and technical virtuosity that at times led Chávez on a bewildered, groping circuit of the ring, as if Chávez were chasing wisps of ringside smoke. That Whitaker, in a perverse reward for his brilliance, needed to plead for respect and recognition underscored how badly justice had been served. Expressions of outrage from Whitaker's camp were immediate and to the point. "The rat bastards!" said Lou Duva, Whitaker's co-trainer, as he plunged headlong for the exit. "I told you we were going to whip him. Then they stole the fight from us."
What doubly damned the outcome, and heightened the damage it inflicted on a wounded and dispirited sport, was the sheer importance of the fight. In the last few years, as his record built to 87-0, with 75 knockouts, Chávez had emerged as the reigning king of the prize ring—a hard-punching bull with a killing body attack, a relentless style and the chin of your average tugboat. The 31-year-old Chávez has held five world titles in three weight divisions (after the draw he remained the WBC'S super lightweight champion), and according to the consensus, he held the mythical title of the greatest fighter, pound for pound, in the world.
Facing him was the 29-year-old Whitaker, with a record of 32-l with 15 KOs, the one loss the product of a dubious bit of ringside sleight of hand. He was the stylistic antithesis of Chávez—a southpaw, clever and quick-footed, with a bobbing, crouching, mobile style that made him an elusive target. Whitaker has also held five titles in three weight classes (he retained his WBC welterweight crown as dubious consolation for this draw), and his 12-round decision over Buddy McGirt on March 6 set up the match with Chávez. On Friday they were fighting for Whitaker's title, with a 145-pound weight ceiling—two below the customary welter-weight limit—set to accommodate the lighter Chávez, but there was a good deal more at stake. "This is for the best fighter, pound for pound," said Whitaker, a U.S. Olympic gold medal winner in 1984. "We may be fighting for my title, but that's not what everyone is talking about. This is like going for the gold again."
It was the ideal prizefight, the best boxing match in years. Chávez would earn as much as $5 million, by far the largest purse of his career, and Whitaker $3 million. Most everyone envisioned Chávez chasing the wisp through most of the fight, wearing Whitaker down with body shots—especially to the liver—until finally catching him in a late round with one of those sustained, devastating Hurries on the ropes. This was not even remotely what happened. For most of the 12 rounds Whitaker gave Chávez a lesson on movement, on fighting at angles and in circles, that simply confounded Chávez. Whitaker spun, ducked, crouched, dipped, weaved and slipped in and out of Chávez's effective range, and he fairly stunned the house by mauling and out-muscling Chávez on the ropes.
Chávez came out pressing the attack, and in the first two rounds Whitaker backpedaled to his right and popped the occasional right jab, keeping Chávez out of tempo. Roars went up whenever Chávez landed a punch, and throughout the vast dome the crowds waved the red, white and green flag of Mexico. Chávez was already having difficulty solving Whitaker's elusive movement, and here Duva made an adjustment that would make it even harder for Chávez.
"You're moving too fast. Pete," Duva said after Round 2. "Slow down! Double up on the jab. Don't be afraid to throw the left hand. Start letting him get a little closer. Turn him! Set the tempo."