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Whitaker Meeting Lofty Expectations : Northridge’s 6-8 Heavyweight to Make Festival Debut Tonight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The temperature is hot and the air heavy in a small and poorly ventilated square room where posters advertise bouts between boxers who are has-beens or never-will-bes.

Heavy bags, lined up like sides of beef in a meat locker, hang from the ceiling. Speed bags, small, leather, pear-shaped targets, are anchored to brackets attached to the side walls.

The floor, cluttered by benches and chairs and strewn with towels, jump ropes, tape and water bottles, resembles an obstacle course.

There are mirrors on one side of the room, and young men, such as Northridge’s Lance Whitaker, find them.

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They pose. Their feet shuffle. They fake a jab, once, twice. Then they return to the task of punching. Always punching.

These are top amateur boxers, representing every corner of the nation, tuning up for bouts in the Olympic Festival. Among them, one man--Whitaker--stands out.

He stands 6-feet, 8-inches and weighs 240 pounds, a mighty oak among fir trees. He is wearing black high-top shoes, black shorts and a white T-shirt with the sleeves cut out. His biceps are massive.

He is training, of all places, in the San Fernando Gym.

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Whitaker, 22, used to play high school basketball in a gymnasium of the same name. That gym had similar mirrors and he used to gaze into them, imagining himself a champion boxer.

Back then, his nickname was Sweet Pea, a label created by coaches who said he was too nice.

Outside the ring, Whitaker is still that way. He is soft-spoken, polite, almost shy, traits that are altered once boxing gloves are securely laced to his fists.

Toward the end of his workout, he is hitting a heavy bag. It splits open, causing Whitaker to direct a questioning glance at his trainer, Charles (Blue) Allen.

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Allen shrugs. “It’s OK,” he said.

Added Whitaker: “This is a hurtin’ business. This ain’t no game. The ring is no place to be nice.”

Maurice May is Whitaker’s opponent in his first bout of the super heavyweight division tonight at 7:30 PDT in Freeman Coliseum. May was a bronze medal winner at this year’s national championships, but Allen is confident.

Why wouldn’t he be?

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Whitaker has had 15 bouts. He has won 14, the only loss having been dismissed as a fluke.

In his third bout as an amateur, Whitaker was disqualified by the referee for continuing to hold his left arm out away from his body.

After issuing two warnings, the referee ended the bout in the second round. In the first round, Whitaker had forced two standing-eight counts.

“I’ve never seen a guy more embarrassed to take a trophy,” Whitaker said.

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Seven bouts later, Whitaker was California Golden Gloves super heavyweight champion. Five bouts after that, he was National Golden Gloves champion.

Most of the time, what he hasn’t known, hasn’t hurt him.

At the national Golden Gloves tournament in May, Whitaker scored a decision over Alvin Manley in the round of 16. Later he learned that Manley was the defending champion.

“I didn’t know who I was fighting, and I didn’t care,” Whitaker said.

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Ed Mahone, whom Whitaker defeated in the title bout, was among the most experienced amateur boxers in his weight class.

“He got right on him, didn’t give him a chance to use his boxing skills,” said Jerry Moore, Whitaker’s coach on the festival’s North team. “He smothered him, which is what he had to do. He surprised a lot of people by winning the (Mahone) fight, including me.

“You don’t see a big man like him moving laterally like he does, slipping punches. He’s got to move. He can’t stand in front of these little guys and let them get inside on him.”

Allen, who works out of the Broadway Gym in Los Angeles, has a motto: “You don’t win fights with your fists. You win with your brains.”

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Whitaker has won both ways. And some of those fights haven’t been sanctioned.

Whitaker used to work as a security guard at a popular hamburger joint in San Fernando. One night, a large group of young men got into a shouting match with another member of the security force. The other guard pushed one of the men and a fight ensued.

Whitaker was trying to avoid such a confrontation, but after it started he waded in.

“They started hitting me and I just went off,” he recalled. “I was like, Bam! Bam! Bam! , doing it right. Each one, one hit. Then all of a sudden everyone stopped.”

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Four men lay on the ground.

“I wish somebody would have taped that,” Whitaker said. “I’d like to see that. There were a whole bunch of people there. All the brothers were saying, ‘Hey man, I like the way you walked through that crowd.’ ”

Said Whitaker, “I got a raise after that.”

Several colleges were interested in him as a basketball or football player, Whitaker said. He wasn’t interested.

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“SC, UCLA, they’d come down and say, ‘We’ll make you a football player,’ ” he recalled. “But I like boxing because it’s an individual sport. It’s self-motivating. If I don’t get out of bed and go run, I’m going to get my butt kicked.

“I look forward to going to the gym and working with my trainers, hitting the big bag, the speed bag and sparring. Basketball and football I didn’t look forward to like that.”

Whitaker’s rapid rise in the boxing ranks has been fueled by the ferocity with which he trains.

Dee Collier, Alex Garcia and former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes have been among his sparring partners.

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When he spars, Whitaker doesn’t simply dance and tap. He goes six to eight rounds with only 10-second stops between.

“We have wars,” he said. “We hit hard and just go at it.”

Whitaker has long been accustomed to such battles. He has a twin brother, Stacey, who lives in Pasadena. Stacey is 6-5 and gave his brother all he could handle.

“We used to fight like we didn’t know each other,” Lance said. “Man, we used to fight. Bust each other’s heads up with rocks.”

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Whitaker was born in San Fernando, but grew up mostly in Los Angeles. He never knew his father. His mother moved to Sacramento when he was 15, just before he entered high school.

While Whitaker attended San Fernando High, he lived in a Mission Hills boys home, an experience he credits for teaching him discipline.

At San Fernando, Whitaker was befriended by Dana Pump, an assistant basketball coach. Pump and his brother, David, are now Whitaker’s roommates in Northridge.

“They’re like my little brothers,” Whitaker said.

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Allen and the Pumps are about the only people Whitaker consults on career decisions.

“A lot of people have tried to talk to me behind my trainer’s back,” Whitaker said. “They all have their different ways of doing things and reasons why I should listen to them.”

He has been told several times that he should turn pro. So far, the advice has been easy to decline.

Opposing boxers may not scare Whitaker, but binding legal documents certainly do. “I don’t like contracts,” he said. “Blue, he’s like my father. I trust him a lot.”

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Allen has provided Whitaker with direction, pointing him toward the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

He also has given him a new nickname. Sweet Pea has become “The Undertaker.”

Said Allen: “We’re going to bury some guys.”


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