LAS VEGAS — Pernell Whitaker put on a demonstration of hit-but-don't-get-hit boxing Saturday night, beat a world-class fighter on a unanimous decision and looked for new worlds to conquer.
Whitaker, in preserving his International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council lightweight championships, turned away a determined challenge by Azumah Nelson of Ghana, the WBC super-featherweight champion.
For 12 rounds, Whitaker patiently retreated from the charges of Nelson and effectively countered with stinging straight left hands, uppercuts inside and sharp punches low on Nelson's rib cage.
Nelson, growing increasingly desperate by mid-fight, stepped up the tempo in the later rounds, but Whitaker's lead right hands and brilliant counterpunching never let Nelson establish a rhythm, although he did stun the Norfolk, Va., fighter several times.
The judges scored it for Whitaker, 116-111, 115-113 and 116-114. The Times card had Whitaker winning by 118-109. There were no knockdowns, although Nelson threw Whitaker down twice. And referee Mills Lane took a point away from Whitaker in the 12th round for showboating.
Whitaker, 26, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist, earned $500,000 and improved his record to 22-1. Nelson, 31, made $200,000 and his record dropped to 32-2.
It was Nelson's first defeat in eight years, or since the late Salvador Sanchez knocked him out in the 15th round in 1982. Nelson won the WBC featherweight title in 1984, defended it six times, then moved up to the super-featherweight title at the Forum in 1988. That title was not at stake Saturday night.
Nelson had won 11 championship fights in a row. But on Saturday night, Whitaker ended that streak before 3,283 at Caesars Palace.
It was Whitaker's Las Vegas pro debut, and it came in the same building--the Caesars Pavilion--where he clinched his spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
Afterward, Whitaker paid tribute to Nelson, said goodby to sleepless nights and took aim at the remaining lightweight champion, Juan Nazario of Puerto Rico.
Whitaker entered the interview tent first, and when the dejected Nelson appeared, Whitaker waved him to the empty seat next to him. Nelson sat down and Whitaker hugged him.
"I want this guy sitting next to me," he said. "This fight brought out the best in two of the greatest fighters in the world. You know, this guy was a champion when I was still in the amateurs. It's like I'm a senior in high school and he's a professor.
"I couldn't sleep without seeing this guy knocking out people, and I'd wake up saying: 'Not me!' 'Not me!' "
Whitaker then said he wanted to fight the World Boxing Assn. lightweight champion, Nazario, and unify the lightweight division.
The fight with Nelson had no ebb and flow, no dramatic turning point. Whitaker was simply in bell-to-bell command. From the first round, when he peppered Nelson with sharp counterpunches, Whitaker took charge.
After three rounds, this pattern was established: The left-handed Whitaker's stiff lead rights stopped Nelson in his tracks almost every time Nelson was ready to throw his right hand; and the always-retreating Whitaker countered effectively in every round inside and at long range.
Defensively, Whitaker was brilliant. Throughout, Nelson seemed to be expending far more energy with less effective results than the cool, more accurate, more efficient Whitaker.
In the fifth round, Nelson finally caught Whitaker with an overhand right. It stunned Whitaker momentarily and was to that point the fight's best punch . . . until Whitaker, half a minute later, rocked Nelson with a left hook that finished off a combination.
Nelson bothered Whitaker in the seventh round with two low blows that Lane apparently didn't see, but Whitaker weathered that storm and all others.
In the eighth, Whitaker approached mastery. Nelson, stepping up the pace to desperation level, but his head was still getting snapped back with Whitaker's jolting jabs each time Nelson prepared to throw a punch.
Afterward, Nelson smiled and patted Whitaker on the back.
"I feel good, I fought a champion . . . he's a great fighter," he said.
In his best performance as a pro, Whitaker pronounced himself still in school.
"I'm still learning the game from the best trainer in the world (George Benton)," he said. "I'm still a student."
Of Nelson's hitting power, Whitaker said he saw his kids, not stars.
"There was one punch that he hit me with that (was so hard) I saw my two children," he said.
There was a stunner on the undercard. Former WBA heavyweight champion Greg Page, who was extremely effective sparring with Mike Tyson in Tokyo before Tyson's loss to Buster Douglas, was taken out with one wild punch by journeyman Mark Wills.
Page, 31-9 at age 31 and thought to be on the way back to heavyweight contention, looked finished Saturday. He was laboring against Wills (12-9-1) when the end came suddenly. Referee Carlos Padilla had stopped the action in the sixth round to have Page's mouthpiece replaced after it was knocked out on a combination by Wills. When Padilla gestured for action to resume, Wills started a right hand from somewhere in Arizona and caught Page on the tip of his chin. Page crashed to the deck on his back.
He beat Padilla's count but on legs that barely held him up and Padilla stopped it.