LAS VEGAS -- When Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker hears his World Boxing Council welterweight championship challenger Oscar De La Hoya called "the Golden Boy," he laughs derisively.
"Yeah, he's the Boy Wonder, but I'm Batman," said Whitaker, 33, nine years older than boxing's new matinee idol.
"Really, he's just a baby as far as boxing's concerned. The fight media has been breast-feeding him, doing what a mother does for her baby. But this daddy is going to show him the real world Saturday night.
"He's still in the amateurs compared to me," said Whitaker, who won the first of his six world titles when De La Hoya was beginning high school in Los Angeles. "This kid is no [Julio Cesar] Chavez. When I fought Chavez [to a draw in 1993], he was one of the best.
"Oscar hasn't been tested, and I'm bringing the noise. I'm going to ruin him and end his ring career. Then he'll have to take his good looks to Hollywood and try to start a new career."
Despite Whitaker's brash talk, the oddsmakers have made De La Hoya a 3-1 favorite. De La Hoya sliced and diced Chavez in four rounds last year. Last January, Whitaker was floored twice before recovering to stop inexperienced Diobelys Hurtado in the 11th round.
There was also his controversial victory over Wilfredo Rivera last year, adding fuel to the notion that Whitaker, who had beaten Azumah Nelson, James McGirt and Julio Vasquez in past title defenses, was showing signs of wear.
Boxing sources have also suggested that Whitaker was enjoying the good life, spending more time partying between bouts than working in the gym.
"Sweet Pea is just different than he was," co-trainer Bob Wareing said. "He's not the hungry kid from the projects anymore. He's got different motivation.
"You can't keep going from mountaintop to mountaintop. You've got to hit some valleys in between. There aren't any shortcuts in this business. You can grow a little fat and contented. That's human nature."
Whitaker defends himself by pointing to how he whipped Rivera in their rematch and to the recuperative powers he displayed in leaving Hurtado stretched over the ropes while he unleashed a barrage of brutal left hooks.
"If you add up my amateur and pro career, I've been fighting for 26 years," he said. "You don't last that long taking unnecessary risks. Hardly anyone can touch me, but if I catch a punch or two, the critics eat me alive.
"Nobody really knows if I've lost my legs or punch unless they're in the ring with me. But I've never backed away from a challenge. I've fought everybody worth fighting."
Putting up a brave front was a necessity for Whitaker, who grew up in a tough section of Norfolk, Va.
"I was from the rough, where fighting was how to keep your dignity," he recalled. "Otherwise, people use you and keep using you."
His father, Raymond, remembered when Pernell was 8 and chased home by bullies.
"I told him he couldn't keep running from trouble," his father said. "I said, 'If you walk away now, you'll be fighting every day. Don't let anyone put their hands on you.' "
Whitaker heeded his father's advice and quickly earned a reputation as a street brawler.
"I fought sailors when I was 13 years old," he said. "Pretty soon, I was too good for them."
During one of his impromptu brawls, he caught the eye of Clyde Taylor, who ran an area recreation hall.
Taylor took Whitaker under his wing. In a matter of years, Whitaker became one of the world's best amateur boxers, winning all but 14 of his 228 fights.
Using his elusive left-handed style and lightning hands, he dominated the competition to win a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Whitaker has outlasted Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs and Henry Tillman, all teammates and fellow gold medalists in 1984.
In 1993, after beating Chavez on everybody's scorecard but the three judges in San Antonio who called it a draw, he was widely hailed as the best boxer pound-for-pound. Now, four years later, many ring experts believe that accolade belongs to De La Hoya.
But Whitaker remains supremely confident.
"A lot of people are going to be fooled Saturday night," he said. "Oscar may be a great fighter, but I'm going to take him to another level, a level he hasn't seen yet.
"Remember, I'm the teacher and he's the student. And school will be out when I finish giving him his boxing lesson."
Whitaker at a glance
Hometown: Norfolk, Va.
Pro record: 40-1-1, 17 knockouts over 13 years. Only loss was disputed decision to Jose Ramirez in 1988. Had questionable draw with Julio Cesar Chavez in 1993 after appearing comfortably ahead.
Career highlights: Won 214 of 228 amateur fights. Won Olympic gold medal in 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Captured six world championships, including current World Boxing Council welterweight title.
Who: Pernell Whitaker (40-1-1, 17 KOs), Norfolk, Va., vs. Oscar De La Hoya (23-0, 20 KOs), Los Angeles.
What: For Whitaker's World Boxing Council welterweight title, scheduled 12 rounds.
When: Saturday night.
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas. Purses: De La Hoya will make $10 million, Whitaker $4 million. TV: TVKO, pay per view. Suggested price, $39.95. Time: Telecast begins 9 p.m.
Pub Date: 4/10/97