Whitaker sole survivor from class of '84 Of 5 Olympians, he's still champ


NEW YORK -- When Pernell Whitaker challenges Buddy McGirt at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night for both McGirt's welterweight crown and the mythical best fighter-pound-for-pound title, he will remember his pro baptism in this same ring nine years ago.

The date Nov. 15, 1984, marked the coming-out party for five 1984 Olympic medal winners and was ballyhooed as a "Night of Gold." But first there would be a final reunion as amateurs for heavyweight Tyrell Biggs, light-heavyweight Evander Holyfield, welterweight Mark Breland, junior-welterweight Meldrick Taylor and Whitaker, a lightweight, at an Italian restaurant a few blocks from the Garden.

The Brooklyn-born Breland drew the largest media crowd. Biggs, heralded as a future heavyweight hope, occupied several notepads, and Holyfield, cheated of a gold medal by a disqualification in the Olympic semifinals, had the best human interest story to tell.

The baby-faced Whitaker, known as "Sweet Pea," was all but ignored as he demolished a huge plate of pasta.

Some 24 hours later, they would all win their pro debuts. Ultimately, all, save for Biggs, would go on to win one or more world boxing crowns and attract million dollar purses.

But today, only Whitaker, who was the undisputed lightweight king and currently owns the International Boxing Federation junior welterweight belt, remains a champion.

"I was overshadowed by Holyfield, because he was the heavyweight champ and made over $70 million," said Whitaker. "And Breland got a lot of hype because of his New York roots and a taste of Hollywood. But there was never any jealousy among us. We were always like a team, rooting for each other whenever we stepped in the ring.

"Even though Evander, Mark and Meldrick all lost their titles, they're still in my corner. I always knew my time for recognition would come. Now I'm the only champion left, but I'm still carrying the torch for my friends."

Whitaker's principal trainer, George Benton, alias "The Professor," said he always believed Whitaker had the tools to outlast his former Olympic teammates. "It's simple," said Benton, explaining Whitaker's longevity. "Sweet Pea don't get hit. Some of his fights, I could count the number of solid punches he got caught with on one hand.

"I'm not bragging, but he reminds me a lot of myself," said Benton, who was also a master of self defense. "I lasted 21 years, and might have fought another five years if some guy hadn't shot me on the street.

"There's no telling how long Whitaker can last. He's a boxing master, and can beat you every which way. He can hit you with punches you can't see. He can box punchers like Jorge Paez, Roger Mayweather and Rafael Pineda, or out-fight a boxer. He makes you miss and pay dearly.

"A lot of people were concerned when he fought Azumah Nelson three years ago, when Nelson was in his prime. But Sweet Pea played with him, beat him every round in my book."

Blessed with dazzling hand speed, elusive feet and the ability to embarrass his ring rival, the left-handed Whitaker, 29, reminds some boxing historians of legendary featherweight Willie Pep.

"I don't like to compare fighters from different eras," said Benton. And you never want to insult boxing giants like Pep, Henry Armstrong and Ray Robinson. I'll just say that right now Whitaker is one of the best of his time along with [Julio Cesar] Chavez, [Terry] Norris and McGirt. This fight should prove where he belongs."

His only loss in 32 professional fights came on a disputed split decision to Jose Luis Ramirez in Paris five years ago. Rematched a year later for the lightweight title, Whitaker pitched a 12-round shutout on the cards of two judges.

After cleaning up the lightweight division with eight title defenses, Whitaker sought new worlds to conquer in heavier weight classes.

"When I started fighting, I had three wishes, and they've already been granted," he said. "I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal, I wanted to buy my mother a nice house, and I wanted a family and home of my own, and I've got that, too."

Now he only wants his due. Beating McGirt would put him in the exclusive company of Armstrong, Barney Ross and Roberto Duran as lightweight champions who also ruled the welterweight class.

And then there perhaps would be a greater challenge waiting for him in the still-unvanquished Chavez.

"Me and Chavez," Whitaker said. "That would be something. We're both generals. But only one man can run an army."

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