Looking Back at Whitaker-Chavez: A Bitter Pill for “Sweet Pea”

If you thought Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis were outnumbered at the Alamo, try to imagine how Pernell Whitaker and his small band of supporters must have felt the night of Sept. 10, 1993, in the Alamodome, within walking distance of the mission-turned-fort where 200 or so “Texicans” and other volunteers fought to the last man against a vastly superior force led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. When the 13-day siege ended on March 6, 1836, in the dusty little town of San Antonio, “Remember the Alamo!” became a rallying cry that led to Texas’ liberation from Mexican rule and, eventually, the granting of U.S. statehood on Dec. 29, 1845.

As Whitaker, the WBC welterweight champion, made his ring entrance for a title defense against Mexican  national hero Julio Cesar Chavez, virtually all of those in attendance – variously listed at anywhere from just shy of 57,000 (according to the San Antonio Express-News) to 70,000-plus, although the consensus seems to right around 60,000 – were vociferous Chavez fans. And that was more than all right with Whitaker. The man known as “Sweet Pea” earlier in the week had acknowledged that Chavez was indeed the overwhelming crowd favorite, but shrugged it off by saying, “I like to go on the road and take the hometown fans out of it,” even if San Antonio, by now a bustling city, ostensibly was American turf and not Mexico’s.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the emphatic victory Chavez’s army of fans assumed he would register en route to running his record to 88-0. He was befuddled and out-boxed from the get-go by the clever southpaw from Norfolk, Va., who pulled an assortment of spins, crouches and sidesteps from his seemingly bottomless trick bag. By and by, the deafening roars of support for El Gran Campion, widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, devolved into desperate pleas for a rally and, toward the end, stunned silence. When the verdict of the three judges was announced after 12 rounds, a majority draw that enabled Whitaker to retain his title and saved Chavez from taking his first loss, the sound you heard from a rabidly pro-JCC audience that supposedly was going to riot if their man did not win sounded more like a giant sigh of relief.

Although one judge, Texas-based Jack Woodruff, scored the fight for Whitaker by a still-too-close 115-113, Franz Marti of Switzerland and Mickey Vann of England each saw the bout as a 115-115 standoff, ignoring CompuBox punch statistics that showed the champ landing 91 more scoring shots. Writing for Sports Illustrated, William Nack called the Alamodome the “scene of the crime” that had been perpetrated upon Whitaker, and the controversial decision nothing less than “bald-faced larceny.”

Twenty-four years have passed since Whitaker was denied his just due. The rematch many presumed would take place because justice and common sense dictated that it had to, never came. Accusations and counter-accusations flew like tracer rounds from a machine gun, with the Mexico City-based WBC again targeted for criticism for possibly stacking the deck in favor of a popular Mexican fighter. Whitaker and his Main Events support team, most notably the always-excitable Lou Duva, were incensed, citing Whitaker’s only loss to that point – by hotly disputed split decision to then-WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez on March 12, 1988, in Levallois-Perret, France – as proof that easily passing the eye test isn’t always enough when you are going against a Mexican in a WBC-sanctioned title bout. As was the case with Whitaker-Chavez 5½ years later, Whitaker appeared to cruise against Ramirez, but judges Newton Camps and Louis Michel went with Ramirez by respective margins of 118-113 and 116-115, while Harry Gibbs submitted a more realistic scorecard of 117-113 for Whitaker.

Duva, Whitaker’s co-trainer, and Shelly Finkel, his manager, publicly said that the fix must have been in, leading WBC president Jose Sulaiman to file a $1 million lawsuit against them for slander. The legal action was dropped when Duva admitted he had no direct evidence the WBC had prearranged for Ramirez to win.

Having a perhaps even more egregiously wrong decision come down against Chavez, Duva and Whitaker went ballistic.

“The rat bastards!” yelped Cap’n Lou. “I told you we were going to whip (Chavez). Then they stole the fight from us.”

Said Whitaker: “I knew this might happen. But still it was like a bad dream. It was like someone put a knife in me and twisted it.

“I want to tell the world that I beat the unbeatable. From now on they’re all going to look at me and say, ‘There’s the guy who beat Julio Cesar Chavez.’ I whipped his ass, and easily. I mentally and physically beat him. I put an old-fashioned project beating on him. A housing authority beating. A ghetto beating.”

Taking a different view was Don King, Chavez’s promoter, who chortled, “Oh, yeah, I thought it was a draw” when asked if the decision was justifed and a repeat pairing advisable. “Nothing like a draw for a rematch.”

But there would be no do-over, not that media realists really expected one. When asked if he would order an immediate rematch to clear the air and settle any doubt as to who was the better man, Sulaiman said, “Ah, but there is no need for a rematch as Whitaker has retained the title on the draw. He is still the champion.”

That was another way of saying that no one connected with Chavez was going to let him anywhere near Whitaker again.  One of the boxing’s most accepted truisms is that styles make fights, and the “Fiasco at the Alamo” had served up ample proof that Whitaker’s unorthodox style was as ill-fitting for Chavez as Bermuda shorts on a polar bear.

Nor were Marti and Vann disposed to question their own performances in the judging of a fight nearly everyone else thought Whitaker had won.

“Some people thought one guy won; some people thought the other did,” Vann said of the furor that arose as soon as the decision was announced. “Who’s right? We’re right. I got it right, and that’s it.” Of those who disagreed with him, Marti shrugged and said, “Not everybody knows how to score a professional fight,” the implication being that thousands of on-site spectators and countless more on HBO Pay Per View did not possess his keen powers of observation.

The scoring of a boxing match is subjective, of course, and opinions sometimes vary. What’s the familiar saying? Oh, yeah, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To say the outcome of Whitaker-Chavez was an abomination, a stick-up by pencil, might be stretching a point; there have been worse miscarriages of justice in a sport where cynicism always is in plentiful supply. Still, Chavez’s insistence, even after all these years, that he was the actual aggrieved party lands somewhere between delusional and purposeful prevarication.

“I thought I won the fight,” Chavez maintained at the time, a contention he has repeated often. “I was not happy with the referee (Joe Cortez). I thought he allowed too much. I want a rematch.”

In 2012, a few days before his son, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was to take on Marco Antonio Rubio in the Alamodome, Chavez Sr. still maintained he deserved the victory because all Whitaker had done “was run.”

Controversy or not, that trip remains a highlight of my decades of covering boxing. Maybe that’s because San Antonio is my favorite city to visit in Texas, but probably more so because it marked another opportunity to see two of the best fighters of their era share a ring, even if one was at the top of his game that particular night and the other wasn’t.

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