He’s a shooting guard trapped in a welterweight’s body, a left-handed, shorter Magic Johnson mixing it up in Mike Tyson’s sport.
Pernell (Sweet Pea) Whitaker, basketball nut, what are you doing in boxing?
“After this is over,” Whitaker says with a grin, “I can pursue my basketball career. That’s why I’m working on it. Not would have or could have. . . . I’m a second-rounder right now.
“I’m above CBA. I’m above that level right now.”
Whitaker, 29, only days before Friday’s long-awaited fight against Julio Cesar Chavez at the Alamodome, traveled straight from sparring sessions to shooting sessions. Monday night, he found himself in a spirited four-on-four, full-court game.
To the great relief of his handlers, Whitaker, who once broke his ankle playing basketball days before a fight, says he won’t be taking any more full-court runs until after Friday night.
“Just shoot-arounds from now on,” he says.
Here is a man preparing for the reality of a loud, pro-Chavez crowd Friday by thinking of the fight as a road game.
“Like basketball, I love taking it on the road,” Whitaker says. “Take the crowd out of the fight. About the third, fourth round, they’ll be cheering. You’ll be thinking I’m part of these people.”
Talk to Whitaker, who is putting his World Boxing Council welterweight title on the line against Chavez, long enough, and you get the feeling that the essence of the Sweet Pea science comes right out of an NBA highlight film.
Other fighters, with Chavez a prime example, are all charge and bully, seek and destroy. Macho mayhem. Whitaker goes about his boxing less furiously.
Whitaker is rhythm and fakes and body control. When he is going right and feeling frisky, his opponent tends to be numbed by the show.
“Let’s put it this way,” says his trainer, George Benton. “I don’t say he’s got something that other people don’t have. He’s got all of the things. He’s got the speed, the agility, the smarts, a pretty good punch. . . . “
His jump shot is reported to be better than half-bad, too, although his ability to drive with the right hand doesn’t quite have the scouts drooling.
If he sounds more like Charles Barkley than Iran Barkley, Whitaker (32-1 with 15 knockouts) is not going to argue. He pulled Roger Mayweather’s trunks down in the ring. He did a full revolution jump spin and hit Alfredo Layne. He has thrown punches behind his back.
“He is a clown,” Chavez says of Whitaker.
He calls himself a showman, although often his antics draw boos, not applause.
“Just making a guy look stupid, that’s what I call fun,” Whitaker says. “Keep the punches going and not getting hit.
“I can do it in basketball, too. I see those big guys coming at me, and whooo , I blow right past them. . . . I can make them look stupid.”
Whitaker’s hoops obsession alters his corner’s strategy, too. Impatient with watching fight film, Whitaker has been studying tapes of another indomitable Bull, Michael Jordan, thoughtfully provided by manager Lou Duva.
“I took it away from boxing,” Duva says. “I know his love for basketball, so I’ve been having him watch Michael Jordan tapes, the moves and the feints, you know? The layups and all that stuff.
“And the reason I had him do that was because of the analogy. Michael Jordan’s doing this thing, this fake, this quick move . . . same thing. When you get the guy in there, you want to bust his rhythm up, you want to get him frustrated, you give him feints, you give him moves, then you get him out of position. You stop his rhythm.”
Against Chavez, in a fight between the two boxers generally conceded to be the best, pound-for-pound in the world, Whitaker’s handlers say rhythm will be all important.
And they feel secure that Whitaker can turn the fight from a half-court slugfest into a full-court, fast-break game.
“I want him to clown a little bit out there,” Duva says. “Usually I say, ‘C’mon, Pete, you’re doing it again.’ This time here, I’m not going to be telling him that. I want (Chavez) so frustrated it drives him nuts.”
Benton merely nods slowly when asked if Whitaker has an NBA mind that he uses to his advantage in the ring.
“That makes sense,” Benton says. “You have to outmaneuver a guy, same way you do in boxing. You want to make him do the things you want him to do.
“In basketball, you want a guy over there, you feint him, put him where you want him to be. Same way you do it in boxing.”
The same ring precision that sets Whitaker apart, though, might also have diminished him until recently in the eyes of a public that loves the big bombers.
Although Whitaker was the acknowledged spiritual leader of the successful 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team, and was the only American fighter who won his gold medal by knockout, Mark Breland and Evander Holyfield dominated the scene at the Games and then later when all three were in the Duva camp.
Because of some injuries, and a split-decision loss to WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez in 1988, it took Whitaker more than five years to get his first world title. He dominated Ramirez on Aug. 29, 1989, in Whitaker’s hometown, Norfolk, Va., in winning that title.
Whitaker thinks criticism of his style originated in the first Ramirez fight, when he broke his left hand early in the fight and ran for the rest of the fight.
“Anybody who fights me, only tape they watch is of that first Ramirez fight,” Whitaker says. “That’s it. Only one. Nobody wants to see tapes of the second one.”
Whitaker, though, was criticized as recently as March, after his less-than-spectacular decision over then-WBC welterweight titlist James (Buddy) McGirt, a fight featuring Whitaker showboating against a foe with a shoulder injury.
“I was overshadowed at the Olympics, that’s how I snuck through, and stole the show,” Whitaker says. “This is my show this time. This is all about me and all about (Chavez), also.
“We’re just trying to find the best fighter in the world. That’s the fun part about it.”
Even so, Whitaker refuses to say that this is the most important fight of his life.
“I’ve already fulfilled my fantasy, and that was winning the gold medal,” he says. “This fight, whatever fight, it doesn’t overshadow my Olympic gold medal.
“Nothing I do for the rest of my life will equal ’84. That was my dream, get a gold medal for my mother. Pound for pound, ounce for ounce, whatever it is, it’s not as big as that.”
And, Sweet Pea, how might a one-on-one basketball matchup between yourself and Chavez go?
“I would probably give him 10,” Whitaker says, “and beat him to 11.”