"You know better," the young man replies.
This time, the young black man doesn't answer; he closes his eyes and smiles. Stripped down to his under-shorts, he is stretched out on a table in the back room of a cinder-block arena in Houston. He is a boxer, sweet and slick; he has the moves, everyone says, but tonight he is fighting a tough Mexican in front of a Mexican crowd, and now, as he tries to rest, another black fighter stands in front of him, trying to gauge his fear. "If you're scared, you can have a doctor come in and check you out," Pernell Whitaker says to the young man. "He can give you a shot."
Whitaker turns to listen to the conversation of the ring announcer. Whitaker, the WBC welterweight champion, has come to this arena to box a three-round exhibition, but more to the point, he has come to show himself to the Mexican crowd and to learn to brave their boos. On Sept. 10 he will defend his title against Julio César Chávez, the WBC super lightweight champion—the man generally regarded as the greatest fighter in the world—in the Alamodome in San Antonio, before a crowd of 70,000, a great many of whom will be Mexican or Mexican-American and revere Chávez with a kind of religious fervor. Tonight, Whitaker will step into the ring not to ingratiate himself with the audience but, rather, to incur its ire. He wants to be booed, and the ring announcer is party to his plans. "When I introduce Pernell as the Mexican Assassin," he says, "this place will go nuts."
Whitaker's eyes stray back to the table where the young black man lies waiting. They look at each other, Whitaker and the young man, and it seems that they are about to burst out laughing, until Whitaker suddenly scowls and asks it once again: "You scared?"
Scared? Whitaker strolls out of the dressing room to briefly check out the arena, and when he shows his face, that is what everyone in the crowd wants to know: You scared, Sweet Pea? You scared to fight the great Chávez? Eighty-seven and oh, that's what Chávez is. You fight Chávez, you fight more than a man—you fight an entire nation. And now, as Whitaker lingers in the shadow of the bleachers to watch a fight, the denizens and descendants of that nation turn their eyes to him. Occasionally they rise from their chairs and approach the man called Sweet Pea.
"You Pernell Wheet-ta-ka?" says one man. "You fighting Chávez? You really think you can beat him?"
"I know I can," Whitaker answers.
"I don't knoooow," the man says in a singsong. He is wearing a smile of suppressed hilarity, as though he's aware of something that Whitaker isn't, as though he's speaking to someone who doesn't have the sense to realize he's facing a death sentence.