Rows of nondescript two-story brick apartment buildings line the street in the public housing project where Pernell Whitaker grew up. The area, where residents are quick to give an outsider an extra look, is literally across the street from the Norfolk Scope, a concrete bubble of an arena. Not far from here is the neighborhood elementary school, where a ring occasionally would be set up in the gymnasium and where, as a youth, Whitaker began to box.
About a 20-minute drive east, in a Virginia Beach strip mall, is the fitness center where Whitaker once trained. A boxing ring still stands in one corner, though it goes largely unused. Framed pictures of Whitaker -- a six-time world champion -- can be found on walls throughout the gym, but he has not worked out here in nearly three years.
A few miles to the north, just across from where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic, stands Whitaker's dream house. It is in a development of lavish residences with plenty of windows and well-manicured lawns, a place where residents are more than curious about outsiders -- upon entering there is a sign saying only members of the homeowner's association are permitted. Whitaker no longer lives in the home; it is occupied by his estranged wife, whom Whitaker married in a boxing ring at the Scope.
The 37-year-old Whitaker came out of the projects to reach some of the loftiest heights in the boxing world. He won an Olympic gold at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and, less than five years later, was a world champion by 25.
These days, though, Whitaker, once one of the flashiest and quickest welterweights in the division, is trying to keep a low profile. Only a handful of years since he was considered among world's best pound-for-pound boxers, Whitaker has endured a free-fall that culminated in a loss last month to an opponent whose full-time job is as an auto mechanic.
Those close to Whitaker say he is not interested in telling his story, which includes two failed drug tests for cocaine. His career record stands at an impressive 40-4-1, but he has one victory in his past four bouts -- and it was taken away after the first of his positive drug tests; officially it is a no decision.
Few boxers leave the sport before their skills have faded. They can not resist the temptation to get back in the spotlight and, because of the way they are brought up, have no lack of self-confidence.
"Most of the guys who have questions in their own minds are the guys who don't make it," said Tommy Brooks, Whitaker's trainer for the past few years. "Boxing is basically gambling. . . . You've got to believe in yourself in your ability."
Still believing he had a chance to make it back to the top, Whitaker returned to the ring April 27, ending a 26-month layoff. He said he wanted to see where he could go, and his handlers arranged for a bout most observers expected to be lopsided. The comeback lasted a little more than nine minutes of ring time, when the referee stopped it 27 seconds into Round 4. For the first time in his career, the left-handed Whitaker was unable to continue to fight.
Whitaker had fractured his left shoulder in the second round, yet fought one-handed through that round and the next. Finally, the referee determined Whitaker could not go on and declared Carlos Bojorquez the winner. Whitaker announced his retirement at a South Lake Tahoe, Calif., hospital that night.
For now, associates say, Whitaker wants to remain secluded. The recent memories of Whitaker are not pleasant for friends or those in the boxing community.
Two days after the aborted comeback attempt, back in his current Virginia Beach home, Whitaker's live-in girlfriend frantically called 911 as Whitaker writhed on a bathroom floor having an apparent seizure. She told emergency operators Whitaker might have overdosed on cocaine, though Whitaker -- who has denied allegations of drug use -- later said his condition was the result of taking pain medication and drinking alcoholic beverages.
Shelly Finkel, Whitaker's former manager, said he talked to Whitaker after the fight and again after the incident in Virginia Beach.
"The first time he was depressed, he told me," Finkel said. "The second time, he was like, 'I learned my lesson. I'll never do this again.' "
No one is quite sure what to expect next from Whitaker.
"This is a problem a lot of athletes have, a lot of fighters have," said Lou Duva, Whitaker's longtime manager. "Guys like Darryl Strawberry have the same problems. They've made a lot of money, but they don't know what to do with their life. It's a shame, they don't prepare for the rest of their life."
Peaks and Valleys To understand Whitaker, Duva and others say, one has to understand where he came from. Young Park, as it was known then (it is now Young Terrace), was a rough neighborhood. It was the type of place where police stood atop a nearby hotel to monitor illegal drug activity, says one woman who has been there for several years. Whitaker grew up in Apartment 831, on the right-hand side as one drives down what used to be known as Cumberland Street but has been renamed Whitaker Lane. The elementary school was less than two blocks away; there, he played basketball and enjoyed boxing.
And that is how Sweetpea, Pee-Wee or Pete, the nicknames Whitaker is known by, found his way out.
He was part of the 1984 Olympic class that included Evander Holyfield and close friend Mark Breland. Whitaker made his professional debut in New York's Madison Square Garden -- receiving $75,000 for knocking out his opponent in the second round -- and ascended through the ranks, earning millions of dollars.
On Feb. 18, 1989, Whitaker won a decision over Greg Haugen to seize his first title, the International Boxing Federation's lightweight championship. Eighteen months later, he unified that title by winning the championship of the sport's other two main sanctioning bodies.
Whitaker lacked the power to knock out most opponents, but more than made up for it with a combination of agility and guile. He was able to elude punches and strike right back with punishing blows.
"It was like he had radar, he was very hard to hit," Breland said. "He wasn't a big puncher . . . his whole thing was making you miss. He had great defense and great reflexes.
"You couldn't hit him. When he was at the top of his game, he was at the top."
By September 1993, Whitaker was 32-1. Then he took on crowd favorite Julio Cesar Chavez (who was 87-0 at the time) in San Antonio in front of more than 65,000 and fought a brilliant 12 rounds. But while most observers believed Whitaker had won, two of the three judges scored it a draw. The next week's issue of Sports Illustrated showed a picture of Whitaker punching Chavez, with the headline "Robbed!" screaming across the page.
Whitaker won his next eight fights to improve to 40-1-1, then the plummet began April 12, 1997, when Whitaker lost a decision to Oscar De La Hoya. Six months later, Whitaker won a decision over Andrei Pestriaev, but a postfight drug test came back positive, and the fight was ruled a no contest.
Throughout his career, even when he was an amateur, Whitaker earned a reputation as a drinker -- local trainer Ollie Dunlap, who has known Whitaker for many years, referred to him as "always a Bud man, he liked his beer" -- but cocaine was a much more serious matter.
Whitaker managed to avoid a suspension and was lined up for a purse of close to $3 million to fight Ike Quartey, the undefeated World Boxing Association welterweight champion. Whitaker's promoters negotiated an agreement with the Meshantucket Pequot Gaming Commission (which had hosted the Whitaker-Pestriaev fight and administered the drug test) that Whitaker submit to random testing. Whitaker's first test came back positive for cocaine. Longtime trainer Bob Wareing confronted Whitaker and soon left the boxer, upset with Whitaker's response. The Quartey fight -- and its big payday -- was off.
Whitaker eventually checked into an undisclosed rehabilitation facility but left before completing the program. His drug addiction remains the dominant topic for many in the sport when the subject turns to Whitaker.
"I hope he hits rock bottom soon and asks for help," said Tony Wareing, whose brother passed away in February.
Wareing stressed he only wants to see Whitaker turn his life around.
"So he can get on and start picking up the pieces and realize there is life after boxing."
A Different Life As a boxer, Whitaker's greatest strengths were his elusiveness and his toughness. He was tough to hit, and if the punch landed, you knew he could take it.
Seventeen months after the Pestriaev fight, Feb. 20, 1999, he fought Felix Trinidad in Las Vegas. Trinidad, now a middleweight champion, was a welterweight at the time known, as he is now, for his heavy hands. He administered a beating to Whitaker, breaking his jaw in the ninth round. Whitaker did not quit, however, and lost a unanimous 12-round decision. He did not fight again until last month.
"I'm not going to kid you, he was hitting the streets," Duva said of Whitaker's layoff. "He didn't know where to go, he didn't know what to do with himself."
During that time, Duva said, Whitaker was good about making it to scheduled speaking engagements, where he often warned students or other groups about the potential pitfalls of life in the fast line. Problem was, Duva said, Whitaker had his foot pressed to the pedal. "Anything you can get away with: Girls, drugs, drinking . . . and anything in between. I don't want to glamorize that end of it, but I want to tell the truth."
When Whitaker returned to the ring, he talked of wanting to see how far he could go, of possibly making it back to the top. But the boxer, known for his defensive genius and almost unmatched ability to move around a ring, seemed a step slow.
"Typical boxer," Dunlap said of Whitaker and the stoppage in Lake Tahoe. "I didn't think he should [fight again], but for some reason 99 percent of them have to go out that way. I can't fathom why. That's the way they are: They all say goodbye and in a year or two, here they come. . . . It was a bad decision on his part. I hope there was some closure."
Whitaker received $25,000 for the fight, which took place before a crowd of 1,500 in a casino ballroom in Stateline, Nev., far from the glitz of fights in Las Vegas. After taking an ambulance to the hospital to have his shoulder examined, Whitaker accepted a ride back to his hotel from a reporter who wanted an interview.
Whitaker passed pre- and post-fight drug tests, according to Marc Rattner of the Nevada Athletic Commission, then returned home to Virginia Beach, where he lives in a two-story home in a new development on the southwestern part of town. It is nice, and the neighborhood is full of sport utility vehicles and other signs of suburbia, but it is far from the plush standard of his former home.
Duva said he has offered Whitaker a job working with his younger fighters and scouting up-and-comers but said the deal will not be finalized for a few months. Whitaker, Duva said, has some family problems to deal with first. Duva declined to be specific but said they were not drug-related.
"It's a shame," Duva said. ". . . In this sport business, they don't prepare you for the end, when you can't go any more."