Blood streamed down the left cheek of the challenger, a result of an accidental head butt. The champion then stepped forward and mauled his foe, forcing him to the canvas.
Most of the 12,000 plus fans packed inside the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas were standing. We were in the third round of a Welterweight title fight between challenger “The Golden Boy,” Oscar De La Hoya (23-0, 20 KOs) and champion Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker (40-1-1, 17 KOs).
While De La Hoya bled, Whitaker’s left eye swelled from the repeated left jab being pumped into his face.
The year was 1997.
Billed as “Pound-For-Pound,” the April 12 bout was more than a title fight for Whitaker’s WBC Welterweight championship. The pound-for-pound title within the sport was also a stake.
Sweet Pea, 33, was the recognized kingpin of the Welterweight division and of the sport. This night marked the ninth defense of his crown as he would face the young, up and coming De La Hoya.
Whitaker, a southpaw and defensive wizard, was a four-time world champion. The Ring magazine listed him as the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world three consecutive years, from 1993 to 1995.
The 24-year-old Golden Boy deserved credit. The reigning WBC Super Lightweight champion was moving into a new neighborhood, up in weight to 147 pounds, and challenging both the best in the division and that the sport had to offer.
Despite Whitaker’s storied past, De La Hoya was installed as a 3-1 betting favorite.
The bout was broadcast live on HBO’s Pay-Per-View arm, TVKO, with Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and Roy Jones Jr. seated ringside to call the action.
After De La Hoya climbed to his feet and referee Mills Lane wiped his gloves, fireworks ensued. Lampley went bananas, “Another hard left hand uppercut by De La Hoya! And a hard left hook! De La Hoya landing some solid blows! Whitaker sticks the jab straight into his face!”
The bell sounded to end the round and the crowd inside the Thomas and Mack Center let out a resounding roar. The early rounds were a combination of first-class boxing with hints of toe-to-toe brawling mixed in. Jones noted, “This is an excellent fight.”
De La Hoya, outfitted in red trunks, owned a four-inch height and four-inch reach advantage over the champion. Despite his advantages, the two took turns pursuing one another and each worked their offense off of their jabs.
The middle rounds slowed to a tactical battle, each picking and choosing their spots to unload heavy artillery. De La Hoya was now doing the pursuing and although he was being out-thrown and out-landed, he was landing the heavier bombs. As Lampley noted, “A scorer’s nightmare.”
After six rounds, unofficial scorer Harold Lederman had the bout scored three rounds apiece.
With just under a minute to go in the ninth round, Whitaker, wearing lavender colored trunks, stepped forward and cracked De La Hoya with a pair of short, crisp left hands. De La Hoya staggered and used his glove to keep from going all the way down to the canvas.
Merchant roared, “That could have been scored a knockdown! It is a knockdown!”
It was a good call by Lane in recognizing that De La Hoya’s right glove as well as his right knee grazed the canvas. Clear eyed and ready to continue, Lane finished the standing eight count and the action continued.
The late rounds proved to be more cautious than action packed. Each fighter was careful in pursuing and throwing power punches. The jab remained the weapon of choice in a scratch and sniff tactical affair.
The 12th and final round saw Whitaker boxing, moving, and firing his right jab. De La Hoya was clearly the aggressor in the final three minutes of action and the busier of the two fighters.
After the final bell sounded, the judges’ scorecards read 115-111, 116-110 and 116-110. Oscar De La Hoya had won a unanimous decision.
There was an air of controversy after the decision was announced. Merchant had Whitaker winning a narrow decision. Lederman’s final card had De La Hoya winning by two points, 114-112.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal polled 26 writers who covered the fight. Similar to many watching at home and from inside the Thomas and Mack Center, 14 writers had scored the bout for Whitaker, 11 for De La Hoya, and one scored it even.
The word “rematch” was mentioned multiple times after the bout, however, the two would not meet again.
Incredibly, Whitaker would never taste victory inside the ring again. He would fight just three more times, including a bout against Felix Trinidad, and walked away from the ring for good in the spring of 2001.
De La Hoya would fight another decade against the best the sport had to offer, including bouts against Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather. He retired in the spring of 2009.