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Getting Robbed Not Such a Bad Thing, After All

On the night of Sept. 10 in San Antonio, the pugilist, Pernell Whitaker, got a tremendous break. He got robbed.

That’s not robbed, as in mugged, but he got his pocket picked, as in Don King. He trounced the Latin idol, Julio Cesar Chavez, who, in Mexico, is held to be a combination of Montezuma and Pancho Villa. Whitaker demystified him, nine rounds to three or worse, but, by the time promoter Don King’s handpicked officials got through shuffling the cards, he was lucky to get a draw.

I say lucky because it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Look at it this way: Before that night, did you ever seriously hear of Pernell Whitaker? You ever see his name on “Wheel Of Fortune,” “Jeopardy” or in a crossword puzzle? You should get a free trip to the Bahamas if you could tell him from Meldrick Taylor or Terry Norris--or any other of the pugs in the alphabet soup the boxing standings have become.

We were not dealing with someone named Sugar Ray here. His nickname was Sweet Pea, but if you asked three people on the street who Sweet Pea was, all three would answer he was the baby in the Popeye cartoons.

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Whitaker was a guy who won a gold medal in the ’84 Olympics, but if you asked anyone to name the stars of that competition, they would have begun with Evander Holyfield, who got swindled out of his championship, or Mark Breland or Taylor, who won theirs.

Sweet Pea went on to a nice dull career. Nobody named any candy bars after him or starred him in shoe commercials. He was a “good field, no hit” fighter, which is to say he blocked punches better than he threw them. A good glove man. He could clinch with the best of them.

He lost only one fight. A mysterious, also obliquely scored fight against someone named Jose Luis Ramirez in Paris. That was a robbery, too. But no one cared. Ramirez was not Julio Cesar Chavez. When Whitaker said he was robbed, everybody yawned.

He was good. But dull. A contact hitter. No ticket seller.

He piled up championships. You know, the kind with more writing in front of them than park bench graffiti--NABF, IBF, UHF, WBA. Even when he lifted the World Boxing Council lightweight title--from Jose Luis Ramirez in the friendlier confines of Norfolk, Va., his hometown--he was still “Pernell Who?”

Actually, he got his nickname from a hard-of-hearing boxing reporter. His nickname was Sweet Pete, from the family shortening of Pernell, but the writer heard it as “Pea.” Pernell didn’t care. He was glad to be called anything but “Hey, you!”

Now look at him. He comes across as a combination of the prisoner of Shark Island, Joan of Arc and Nathan Hale. A historic victim of injustice.

It has made him an instant hero. Wherever he goes, he’s a tragic figure. Everyone sympathizes. Those who would have said, “What’d you say your name was again?” if he’d walked into the room a week ago, now blurt, “Oh, yeah! The guy who got the raw deal in Texas! What a shame! You ought to sue boxing.”

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He should actually thank God boxing is as corrupt as it is. From now on, he comes out as “Poor Pernell.” Guys who didn’t know whether Pernell was his first name or last now think of him as a symbol for the persecuted everywhere.

But consider what happened to “poor” Pernell. In the first place, he didn’t lose his title, he only lost the decision.

He kept the welterweight championship. He got $2 million. He didn’t get the satisfaction of being the only guy in his career to beat Julio Cesar Chavez in the ring, but supposing he had? Supposing he had knocked out Chavez? Where would that get him?

I’ll tell you. It would get him nowhere. It would get him resentment. He might live to regret it. The sympathy would swing the other way. To “poor” Julio.

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You see, the public otherwise does not cotton to people who destroy icons. Just ask Roger Maris. In some ways, the worst thing he ever did was break Babe Ruth’s one-season home run record. It wasn’t too felicitous when Henry Aaron broke the Babe’s all-time record, either.

The public never fully forgave Gene Tunney for whipping Jack Dempsey. They didn’t forgive Ezzard Charles for beating Joe Louis. A funny thing, but another fighter, Jersey Joe Walcott, first beat Louis. But they gave Louis the (raw) decision, which had the effect of making an object of sympathy out of Walcott.

The public never really forgave Larry Holmes for beating Muhammad Ali. They never forgave Sandy Saddler for beating Willie Pep.

And they might very well not have forgiven Pernell Whitaker if he had pounded Chavez to a pulp, to where he would be crawling, beaten and bloodied, to safety.

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Would he now be going on “The Arsenio Hall Show” if he had done that? Would he be getting interviewed by Roy Firestone, starring on a dozen talk shows, speaking at banquets?

He should kiss those judges and thank God Chavez didn’t walk into a right cross to the chin. Sweet Pea should be grateful he doesn’t hit hard enough to knock Chavez out.

This way is better.

Whitaker knew what he was walking into. Agreeing to fight Chavez in San Antonio is one of the most daring defiances of cultural geography since Senegal’s Battling Siki fought Ireland’s Mike McTigue in Dublin. On St. Patrick’s Day. (Siki didn’t get the decision, either; all McTigue had to do was survive).

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For $2 million, Whitaker would have fought Chavez in a bull ring in Tijuana. Yet he plays the aggrieved party to the hilt. He was through here last week on a round of appearances. Ask him how upset he was by the outrageous decision and he flashes a gold-toothed smile. “Oh, very,” he says. Then he chuckles. “I get more respect this way.”

Indeed. Chavez still has his undefeated record--87 victories, including the reversal of a referee’s decision on an early bout he lost on a foul, and one draw. But Whitaker has the spot in the hearts of sports fans that a knocked-out Chavez would otherwise have had.

They should change his nickname. From Sweet Pea to Lucky. He’s the only guy in the history of the fight game ever to win a draw.


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