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In Your Face, Buddy

Pernell Whitaker battered Buddy McGirt in a long-awaited rematch

The fighters sold their rematch as high art, a little piece of culture. No blood sport this time. Pernell Whitaker, who is nicknamed for a member of the legume family, promised a "fast-paced chess match." Little Buddy McGirt, whose trademark homburg (he conducted his prefight interviews in bed, with the hat atop his glazed dome) lent an unusual civility to the scene, assured his fans that he would "make Sweet Pea think." This would be an entirely intellectual exercise, elegant and refined. Fans might want to bring their opera glasses.

And, given that these two boxers have been among the game's master craftsmen for a decade, men who favor technique over violence, it was perfectly reasonable to expect something more like ballet than a brawl. What they have done over the course of winning seven titles in three divisions has been more Bolshoi than backalley, the nuances of their performances a delight to the sport's aficionados. Their rematch, like their first fight, would be a showcase of complicated defenses, with a premium put on avoiding contact.

So why did they sling leather in the middle of the ring for 12 rounds, like miniature Joe Fraziers? Of course, throughout the fight at the Scope in Norfolk, Va., last Saturday night, there was more boxing than fight fans can normally expect to see in a year. Whitaker, who holds the WBC welterweight title but deems only the mythical "best fighter pound-for-pound" title worthy of his attention, was so smooth his fans could have just as easily named him Buttermilk as Sweet Pea. Still, didn't it look as if he busted up Buddy pretty good?

Whitaker, now 34-1-1 after winning an easy decision to retain his title and quiet the clamorings of McGirt and his New York legions, fought a surprisingly active fight, peppering the supposedly stronger McGirt with a right jab that had him staggering by the fifth round. Time and again McGirt (64-4-1) was hit with a second jab before he even had a chance to react to the first. And they were stiff jabs. McGirt's left eye was swollen midway through the fight, and his spirit obviously was sapped well before that. Not even his flash knockdown of Whitaker in the second round could bolster his confidence.

In the face of so much aggression—relatively speaking, you understand—all faith in McGirt's chances quickly evaporated. His manager, Secaucus, N.J., tailor Al Certo, said afterward that McGirt just, hadn't had it. Not after the second round? "Not after the first," he replied. "He didn't have it at all. Buddy looked weak in comparison to Whitaker. The other guy, he's a real tough guy to beat."

Whitaker might now be judged impossible to beat. Even before his widely disputed draw a year ago with the fading Julio Cesar Chavez, who once wore that mythical pound-for-pound mantle, Whitaker was regarded as the best boxer in the game. His fights appeal to the cognoscenti, and even though some regard his bouts as mostly boring, if sometimes playful, he has attracted a growing cult. HBO, which is giving him $18 million for four fights (this was the second in the contract), gets better ratings for Whitaker than for any other nonheavyweight. His skills are that obvious.

But now we have learned that Whitaker, when sufficiently motivated, can swing with the big boys. All he needs is the challenge to produce a big event, "a spectacle," as he calls his major fights, or perhaps just the opportunity to right a wrong.

Whitaker, it turned out, had been burning ever since he beat McGirt in March 1993 at Madison Square Garden. McGirt had made it through that fight with a bad left shoulder, had fought with one arm actually and afterward had had the bad sense to make his medical excuse public. Indeed, he had undergone surgery for a torn rotator cuff nine days after that bout, which had ended in a close decision that gave McGirt's welterweight title to Whitaker, and it was natural for McGirt to wonder how he might have done with a proper left arm to complement the right.

Whitaker, who operates out of Norfolk, a seaport that happens not to be a media center as well, has always been suspicious of the good press McGirt enjoys in New York. He was contemptuous of the speculation that was being published there, that McGirt, dually armed, might beat him. Of his own hometown folk, Whitaker said, "We don't like whiners."

Whitaker didn't even believe that McGirt had an excuse. "If you watch the fight on tape," he said, "you'll see he used his left as much as his right. That injury, just something to fall back on. Operation? That's what they say. He's a big phony. If he had an operation. Actually, I don't believe he had surgery."

So, Whitaker adds a medical degree to his various other attainments (1984 Olympic gold medal winner and lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight champion). The doctor will see you now. But even if there was an injury, said Whitaker, that was no excuse. "I've been in there with a broken hand and won," he said. "It can be done." There is no honor in injury, according to Whitaker, only the seeds of a rematch.

McGirt has the MRIs and the scars to verify his medical history. But none of that medical documentation was enough to earn McGirt a rematch. He had to win five comeback fights—and make Whitaker mad besides. It was a calculated deal, McGirt calling Whitaker "a punk" and threatening to slap him in his hometown. McGirt admitted that it was all a bit childish, a little like passing notes in grade school, but apparently necessary. It seemed forever before Whitaker was angry enough to include McGirt in his HBO package, a logical rematch that paired two 30-year-olds still in their prime.

Once the deal had been signed—McGirt got $600,000 to Whitaker's $2 million plus—the challenger had to reach under his homburg and scratch his shaved head and wonder what the fuss had been all about. "Everybody's making him out to be King Kong," he said of Whitaker. "And I just don't see it."

Certo seized on the idea, saying, "I mean, who is this guy? All he does, he ducks and bobs, and then he jumps on the ropes." With one arm, McGirt had kept the first fight close (Whitaker ducking and bobbing and then jumping up on the ropes in celebration). So what might happen if McGirt were to have two arms?

Warned Whitaker, "He better have three arms this time."

An octopus couldn't have beaten Whitaker last Saturday, though he looked vulnerable early on. McGirt issued a combination in the second round that dumped Whitaker but raised nothing more on his face than a smirk. In the third McGirt landed a kidney punch, and Whitaker spilled down the ropes in what was ruled a slip. But, from the third round on, Whitaker was in control. His jab was magnificent, and he countered furiously out of the corner or locked McGirt in the middle of the ring and flurried impressively. By the fifth McGirt looked spent.

Later McGirt complained that his punches had no zip. It was mysterious. Perhaps he can no longer fight at 147 pounds. "Maybe I need to put on weight and fight the big boys," he said.

Certo said that his man had no problem making weight—he was actually 146—but that, perhaps, he no longer had strength at welterweight. This became the working theory among those in the McGirt camp, if nowhere else. "When he was in the gym," Certo said, "he was unbelievable. Now he looks like slow motion. At 147 he doesn't have the strength he needs. He was spreading his legs, trying to get leverage for a desperate punch. He didn't have it. Tell you the truth, Buddy did better with one hand than he did with two hands."

McGirt would not have troubled Whitaker at any weight. How dominating was Whitaker? Well, during introductions he was sharp enough to pick out a row of McGirt kin and friends just behind the press row. "One of those guys had a penguin suit on," Whitaker said, "and he was just asking for it." So, in the middle of the fight Whitaker maneuvered McGirt into the corner closest to the McGirt clan and leaned out to wink at them. It was infuriating, and the McGirt supporters were beside themselves. But Whitaker, master thespian, always has time for burlesque, although it's not intended to demean his opponent (well, tugging Roger Mayweather's shorts down to his ankles was not particularly ennobling to either man). "We've got to put our tap shoes on," he explains. "I'm an entertainer."

What is impressive is not what he invents—he's always working on some move, some silly dip or shoulder fake—but that the margin of his victories allows him to indulge in his largely useless improvisations. He didn't enhance Saturday's fight by backing into a corner, as he did in the final round, and playfully feinting one way or another. But, except for the spectators in that row of McGirt supporters, it was fun to watch.

Unfortunately, it's not something we'll get to see much more of. Whitaker's agenda is designed almost exclusively to cement his pound-for-pound championship. The addition of more crowns does not mesmerize him. He couldn't care less about the distinction that some cheesy governing body sees fit to provide. All he wants is recognition as the best fighter...pound for pound.

And he knows what will secure it. "There's only one fight out there," he says, "and I might not get it." Beating Chavez officially—most observers believe the draw was a gift for Chavez—would lay the matter to rest. However, Chavez is going fast and is not likely to grant Whitaker a rematch during his 1995 victory lap. Promotional conflicts and tics with competing cable companies also contribute to an impasse. Whitaker, meanwhile, will accept no opponent who cannot go partners in a spectacle: no youngsters trying to make their career, no old-timers looking to profit from their reputation. Under these guidelines, it is pointed out to him, there might be only three or four fights out there for him. "Interesting, isn't it?" he says, Hashing his gold teeth.

Indeed, his management team is dedicated to signing Chàvez as one of those three or four, but that effort is regarded as wasted motion. Perhaps Whitaker will fight Frankie Randall, the only man to officially defeat Chàvez, or perhaps he'll go up in pounds to fight junior middleweight Terry Norris in a nontitle bout. His options have become sharply reduced since he decided he was in the event business.

And that will be sad, the day Whitaker no longer sees any importance in boxing, or not enough for him to bother with displaying his skills. Going into last Saturday's fight there was an anticipation that few other fighters can provide today. You couldn't say it would be a great fight, a significant fight or even an action fight. (As it turned out, it was all three.) But you knew, just knew, it was going to be fun. "Fun?" Sweet Pea asked, his baseball cap on backward, looking like a guileless 12-year-old. "Oh, yes. It'll be fun. I promise you that." That's one promise he'll keep.



In Round 6, Whitaker showed with a blistering uppercut that he was ready to brawl, not just box.



McGirt's fabled hook (opposite) was rarely in evidence, but Whitaker did lots of his signature showboating in the late rounds.



Whitaker ended up atop the ropes—and atop his sport