Vincent Pettway has stumbled several times in recent years on the way to a boxing title.
But last night the Baltimore fighter took the final step, winning a split decision over Gilbert Baptist of San Diego to capture the United States Boxing Association's junior-middleweight championship.
The overflow crowd of 2,000 that lined the walls of the Pikesville Armory was kept in suspense by ring announcer Rex Barney. The first two judges' cards announced were Chris Wollenson of Virginia, who backed Pettway, 116-112, and Patricia Montgomery of Washington, who favored Baptist, 115-113. But Larry Barrett of Baltimore cast the deciding vote for the hometown fighter, 116-112.
On the undercard, Local welterweight Eddie Van Kirk, who hopes to challenge Canada's Donovan Boucher for the WBO title, improved his chances by knocking out Jose Torres of Hartford with an uppercut to the midsection in the eighth and final round. Van Kirk (24-6) also floored Torres (11-6) with a short right in the second round.
Also, Rockville's Les Johnson knocked out William Galliwango, Baltimore's Mike Whitfield decisioned Carlton West, Ed Griffin outpointed Elvis Deloatch and Rockville's Aaron Smith defeated Loch Raven's Gerry Walker.
"This is only the first part of my dream," said Pettway, 26, sporting the heavy USBA championship belt that was presented by International Boxing Federation ratings chairman Doug Beavers of Virginia. "My ultimate goal is to win the world title from [Italy's] Gianfranco Rosi."
Beavers assured Pettway, ranked No. 4 in the world, he would get his chance, but Rosi first faces a mandatory defense next month against top-ranked Gilbert Dele, of France.
But Pettway has learned patience from his veteran manager-trainer Mack Lewis, who maintained confidence in the fighter even after disheartening knockouts by Javier Suazo, Victor Davis and Stephan Johnson ruined earlier bids for a title match.
"A lot of people threw in the towel on my career after those losses," said Pettway. "But Mr. Mack told me even great fighters like Ray Robinson, Willie Pep and Muhammad Ali lost fights. He stood behind me, and that gave me the confidence to finish the job."
Pettway (35-4, 27 KOs), who doubles as a model and recreation supervisor for a clothing chain, used a stiff jab and crisp combinations to pile up a big lead in the first six rounds.
But Baptist (23-13, 8 KOs), a rugged ex-Marine, kept up constant pressure. Using a bobbing-weaving style and the cross-armed defense of the legendary Archie Moore, who helped school him, the Californian scored with short, chopping punches to bruise Pettway's left eye and keep his taller rival from mounting a sustained attack.
"I thought this was another hometown decision," said the loser. "He was running and holding the last six rounds, and scored most of his best punches after the bell sounded.
"But I felt all along that if I didn't knock him out I couldn't win here," added Baptist, who last November lost a 12-round decision to Rosi in Italy. "But I'm a fighter, not a baby, and I'll fight anyone, anywhere."
Baptist, who first fought for survival growing up in a Newark, N.J., ghetto, has never been stopped as a pro. He felt his stamina and conditioning ultimately would wear down his opponent.
But Pettway, who never had fought more than 10 rounds, proved surprisingly strong in the last two rounds, sticking and moving to keep out of harm's way.
"Mr. Mack, my father and my wife Kathy kept after me to get up at 5 every morning so I would have the extra stamina," he said. "All that hard training paid off. Baptist tried to force me into a fast pace, but I knew I was in shape to go 12 hard rounds."
Neither fighter was seriously hurt in the lively bout, but Pettway's hooks and right crosses appeared to carry more sting.
This was the first title fight staged in Baltimore since then-light-heavyweight champion Bob Foster stopped Mark Tessman at the Baltimore Arena on June 27, 1970.
It was a solid night of boxing staged by promoter Stuart Satosky, with the show grossing more than $50,000.
In the best fight of the night, rawboned slugger Johnson (15-1) stopped Galliwango of Richmond at 2:15 of the eighth round of their middleweight bout.