Whitaker: Modern Approach to Old Art


As much as any other prominent professional boxer today, Pernell Whitaker represents boxing’s modern era.

Boxing’s training practices--possibly the most archaic in sports--have changed. Trainers are tossing off cumbersome baggage from the sport’s past.

Weight training is used to develop quickness as well as strength. There are sophisticated running programs. Water is swallowed between rounds. And the very latest: Greco-Roman wrestling in the gym.

When Whitaker, 26, defends his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation lightweight championships against WBC super-featherweight champion Azumah Nelson, 31, tonight at Caesars Palace, viewers will see a fighter who has broken with boxing’s past.


Whitaker has a 21-1 record. Nelson, 32-1, is from Ghana. Whitaker is favored.

He is 5-feet-5 and has been a lightweight since he was 16. When he breezed through the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic boxing tournament and won the gold medal, he was a little little man.

Today, he’s a big little man.

“When Pernell turned pro in ’84, he could bench press about 90 pounds,” said Bob Waering, Whitaker’s strength coach.

“Today, he can bench something like 225 or 235. He’s also quicker, faster and delivers a harder blow than he ever did.”

Whitaker, 183-13 as an amateur, embarked upon an even more modern, six-week strength program for this fight, one developed in the Soviet Union.

“It was something I’d read about that I thought would work for Pete (Whitaker) and he liked the idea,” Waering said. “It’s used by athletes in a lot of different sports in the USSR.

“It varies, but basically it involves just three lifts--bench presses, squats and seated dumbbell presses--in three workouts a week. You do a lot of (repetitions), starting at 70% of your maximum lift and building up slowly to 80%. We’ve tailored it a little to give Pete more explosion on his punches.”


Whitaker, a left-handed counter-puncher whose body seemed soft when he fought as an amateur, is rock-hard with a sharply defined musculature. As an amateur, his greatest asset was quickness. He has never been a power hitter, but his punches always carried sting.

At short range, he is a master of the quick pivot and crossover, using short, jolting left hands. When an opponent misses with an overhand right, he’s sure to find a countering left crossover punch on the way.

Winning his IBF and WBC championships do not compare, he says, to winning an Olympic gold medal.

“Winning the gold medal is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said.


After his medal ceremony in Los Angeles, Whitaker draped the medal around the neck of his mother, Novella Whitaker.

“I gave it to her that night, and she still has it,” he said. “I love my mom. She deserved it.”

Whitaker, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., trains between fights at Waering’s Gym.

Waering, 39, a muscular 165-pounder, not only supervises his fighter’s strength training, he wrestles with him, too. The two have learned the Greco-Roman above-the-waist style to give Whitaker an edge in his inside game.


Said Waering: “I was a two-time state high school wrestling champion in Virginia, and I’m bigger than Pete, but he has such great natural balance, and his strength is at the point now where I know I couldn’t beat him in a wrestling match.”

If you mentioned interval sprint training to an old-school boxing guy, he wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

Whitaker’s running program differs sharply from boxing’s traditional roadwork regimen, right down to the time of day. Instead of long, punishing distances in combat boots, he focuses on interval running--perhaps a series of 45-second sprints broken by one-minute rests.

“For about a century, boxers have been doing roadwork at daybreak, and we think that’s dead wrong,” Waering said. “Your mind is sharper, more clear in the morning, and we think that’s when the fighter should be concentrating on boxing, sharpening technique, doing his sparring and boxing work. Late in the day, we feel, is the best time for running and weight training--the hard physical stuff.”


Whitaker loves basketball and wears caps and T-shirts with basketball logos to the gym. He and Lou Duva, his trainer, had a $12-wager riding on the NBA playoffs. Whitaker bet on the Lakers.

“Take it out of my purse,” Whitaker told him when Duva extended his palm. Whitaker’s purse is $500,000, Nelson’s $200,000.

Whitaker describes his boxing style in basketball terms: “fast break jabs” and “zone offense and zone defense.”

He won’t talk about moving up in weight or of future opponents until after tonight’s fight. Whitaker is even vague about whether he’s interested in unifying the lightweight championship should he beat Nelson.


If he wins, there will surely be talk of his moving to light-welterweight--140 pounds--and taking on Julio Cesar Chavez, who stopped Whitaker’s stablemate and Olympic teammate, Meldrick Taylor, in March.

And what of a match with Taylor?

“That would never happen,” Whitaker said. “He’s my friend, my teammate. We have the same manager, the same trainer. We don’t even spar. We wouldn’t want to hit each other. It would be wrong. It would be the most boring fight anyone ever saw.”

But as for stepping up in weight, Waering, for one, can’t wait.


“This kid is so strong. . . . Hey, if they want to move him to the 140s, believe me, he’s ready,” Waering said.

“Pete is a real student of training. He loves it. He likes learning new things, new ways to prepare his body. He’d live in the gym if I didn’t throw him out. He’s become so strong, it’s made him more confident in there. Now, he goes into a fight knowing that when he wants that one big shot, it’s there.”

Tonight’s fight will be his Las Vegas pro debut, as well as his HBO debut. But in a way, it’s a homecoming, too. The fight is in the same building, the Caesars Pavilion, where Whitaker earned his spot on the ’84 Olympic team with a victory over Joe Belinc at the Olympic team box-offs.

Although he has been one of the more successful champions of the class of ’84, he has kept a relatively low profile. Had it not been for time lost because of two broken hands and a broken foot, his career might have been much farther along.


And then there was Paris.

In March, 1988, Whitaker went to Paris to challenge Mexican expatriate Jose Luis Ramirez, the WBC lightweight champion who was living there.

U.S. television viewers and ringsiders that day were under the impression that Whitaker was easily beating Ramirez. But in one of the most criticized decisions of the 1980s, two judges scored it for Ramirez, 118-113 and 116-115. The third judge had Whitaker, 117-113.

Whitaker’s promoter, Dan Duva, trainer Lou’s son, protested bitterly, and his remarks about WBC president Jose Sulaiman prompted a libel suit. The Duvas countersued. Both suits were settled, and Whitaker, in a rematch 15 months later in Norfolk, Va., beat Ramirez easily.


Pernell (Sweetpea) Whitaker, from Norfolk, is also a modern man to the administrators of grammar and junior high schools in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area.

“Pete has given a lot of time and over $100,000 to kids’ charities in the past few years,” Lou Duva said.

Darleen Baldinelli, Lou Duva’s fiancee, handles Whitaker’s personal appearances in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach areas.

“He spends a lot of time at schools and also does a lot of work for the local multiple sclerosis foundation, Boys Clubs and Operation Smile, which is a charity group for kids with cleft palates,” she said. “It’s not unusual for Pete to spend four hours at one school and to say something to every child there. He tells them to avoid drugs and also to establish goals and dreams and not to give up, no matter what.


“I’ll never forget, one time he was asking a group of kids what they wanted to do with their lives. All the boys told him they wanted to be football or basketball players. Then one little girl told him she had a lot of goals but couldn’t decide on just one.

“The boys laughed at her, and Pete looked at them and said: ‘Don’t you dare laugh at her. She’s got a much better chance of realizing her goals than you do, because you’re too narrowly focused.’ ”