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“How the hell can they steal the title from a kid like that?”: Whitaker vs Ramirez, 30 years on

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Slick skills, trying to win with one arm and a Parisian robbery. 

PERNELL WHITAKER

It was their names on the posters but in most retellings of this night, Whitaker and Ramirez have only cameos. Judges Newton Campos and Louis Michel are the stars. In a sport where injustice is routine, it is a rare achievement to deliver verdicts bizarre enough to incite widespread shock and disgust.

As the introductions are made at the Stade de Levallois in Paris, the veteran Ramirez bounces nervously on the balls of his feet while Sweet Pea is all calm. This may be only the sixteenth fight of his professional career but he’s had a long time growing up in the amateurs. He has no doubts; he’s ready to win his first world title.

Warning - watching Whitaker orbiting the ring can cause dizziness. It’s as if the aim of the sport was to complete as many circuits as possible, or as Ray Mancini puts it: “Right now it’s just ring around the roses.” Sometimes he breaks the mesmerising pattern with shifts in direction. Late in the first, we get left, right, left, right all within ten seconds; if he was a running back pulling off jukes, the defence wouldn’t get near him. Neither does Ramirez, coming forward but creating no pressure. He can’t close off the ring so Whitaker has infinite space in which to go to work, repeatedly landing quick fire combinations.

Whitaker’s hands are so quick that at times it’s hard to count the shots. No-one should be able to triple a jab this often, the glove a wicked blur through the air. Nothing sums up the gulf in speed better than when in the fourth, Whitaker lands a four punch combination in the time Ramirez takes to wind up and throw a straight left. Whitaker makes Ramirez miss a lot. Near the end of the first, he misses by such a distance that he’d have failed to land even if there were three Whitakers standing side by side. While most of the work is on the outside, Whitaker can also dominate up close. The third round sees him willing to plant his feet for the first time and he fires off some heavy shots and is long out of range by the time Ramirez slugs back.

If insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result, then Ramirez is a true lunatic in these early rounds. His determination is admirable but his ring intelligence is less so; he does not stop coming but makes little effort to adjust. You don’t get points just for trying (although of course later we’ll find out that you do). This is raw effort against sheer skill, the workman against the artist.

The ease of these opening rounds is reflected in how comfortable things are in Whitaker’s corner. A relaxed Lou Duva is able to shower his fighter with praise:

“I got nothing to tell you except keep doing the same thing. . . Piece of Cake Pea.”

“You’re boxing beautiful out there. That jab of yours is gorgeous.”

The fight changes after the fourth. What has so far been an exhibition starts to become a contest. The gulf narrows partly through increased intensity from Ramirez but mostly due to a drop in output from Whitaker. You wonder if he’s got tired or whether he’s trying to be too cute. The mystery is explained after the fight when he reveals that he injured his left hand in the third.

Though a far inferior fighter to the genius of those early rounds, an apparently one-handed Whitaker still does more than enough to win this fight. If he is as hurt as he will later say, this is a canny effort to do just enough with what he has. Amidst the good work, however, he does plenty to infuriate the crowd and perhaps the judges as well. There is too much clinching, particularly crouching and grabbing around the shorts. He does it in the eighth with a broad smirk on his face, enjoying playing the villain in front of the booing crowd. The stoic Ramirez eventually snaps. When another “duck and grab” comes in the 11th, Ramirez slams Whitaker in the back. The ref makes no attempt to caution him. Given the injury, Whitaker’s caution is understandable but every grab looks like desperation. It also feels odd when there is nothing for him to fear on the inside; when they trade up close, Whitaker consistently gets the better of the exchanges

There are moments when effortlessly slick becomes overly casual. Too often he turns his back on Ramirez, getting away with it because of his pace but it doesn’t look good. On the few occasions when Ramirez is able to tag him with clean shots, it’s because Whitaker makes no attempt to shield his face when moving away. Most of the time he’s too quick for Ramirez but this over-confidence in his pace gives the Mexican free shots.

He’s still having most of the success but by the end of the tenth, things are no longer comfortable in Whitaker’s corner:

“This is a close fight now. You’ve got to win these last two rounds.”

Whitaker responds, closing the fight impressively. Ramirez has moments but again and again it is the American with the quality work. The job seems done but the sight of a furious Lou Duva needing to be restrained shows that all is not well. Whitaker still looks at ease as he waits for the scores. When they are read, his mouth gapes wide and he collapses to his knees, face on the floor of the ring. He stands up briefly to look into the crowd, possibly to find his family, but has to sit down again, exhausted and shocked. Ramirez is hoisted onto the shoulders of his entourage. His celebration is not entirely full-blooded; perhaps he has the decency to feel a little awkward about benefiting from the proceeds of a robbery.

Duva accused WBC President Jose Sulaiman of fixing the fight but backed down in the face of a $1 million slander and libel lawsuit. Ramirez said the judges were right and urged Whitaker to watch the tape. Eighteen months on, Whitaker would avenge the result with a comfortable decision victory back in his hometown of Norfolk, Virgina. That night in Paris should have been a routine victory for a true Hall of Famer but instead took its place in boxing’s house of horrors.