LAS VEGAS — Oscar De La Hoya could not blast his way out of this one, or waltz in and wait for the postfight celebration.
He hunted and pecked, he sought but could not destroy. He fell in the ninth round, and was ruled to have been knocked down. He was frustrated for long periods, and angry for others.
And after it was over, De La Hoya spent an anxious couple of minutes after this battle of intention, waiting to see if the judges would appreciate his occasional piercing power punches--or Pernell Whitaker's continuous, crashing flashes and feints.
In a controversial, unanimous-decision victory, De La Hoya won Whitaker's World Boxing Council welterweight title before about 12,200 at the Thomas & Mack Center by receiving the blessings of the judges, but not the respect of Whitaker.
"I didn't think I had to knock him out," said Whitaker, whose much-clearer dominance of Julio Cesar Chavez four years ago in San Antonio was ruled a draw. "I put enough punishment on him, and that speaks for itself. That was the old Pernell Whitaker you saw out there. You guys all said I was 33 years old. And I wanted to come out and prove I had the legs of a 22-year-old.
"It's sad that we're going to have to do this again and I'm going to have to knock him out. I wasn't expecting anything would happen here what happened in San Antonio."
Whitaker's pumping right jab was the most effective punch of the fight, and according to CompuBox Inc. statistics, Whitaker landed 160--many of them blistering shots to De La Hoya's face.
De La Hoya, who landed only 34% of his punches overall, landed only 45 jabs.
But De La Hoya also was the aggressor for most of this fight--and landed 146 of his 363 power shots (40%). Whitaker threw only 192 power shots, and scored on only 72 of them (38%).
"I was frustrated but not hurt," said De La Hoya, who raised his record to 24-0 but went his second consecutive bout without a knockout. "His style confused me. I give him a lot of credit. He had a great jab."
Whitaker (40-2-1), who said he thought he won 10 of the 12 rounds, immediately called for a rematch, which looks probable.
"I said it all along his style is the most difficult style in boxing," De La Hoya said. "He has different moves. [But] I felt I did enough to win the fight, no problem.
"If he feels he wants a rematch, I would love a rematch."
For such a tight bout, the scoring was surprisingly lopsided: Judges Dalby Shirley and Jerry Roth scored it 116-110 for De La Hoya; and Chuck Giampa scored it 115-111.
The Times scored it as a draw, 113-113.
"If Oscar had beaten me, I would be the first to say he is the best fighter in the world," Whitaker said. "But it's a little sour right now. He can have the 'BC title, but we know who's the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
"He didn't come close to hurting me. He couldn't do the things he wanted to do because I was giving him different angles."
Said Whitaker's promoter, Dino Duva: "I just have to say the scoring was ridiculous. There's no way Oscar won this fight by six points. I don't want to take away anything from Oscar's performance, but having Pernell Whitaker winning only three rounds is ridiculous."
This was a fight that included an early head butt by Whitaker that opened a small cut below De La Hoya's right eye, several mocking gestures by both fighters and handfuls of body-to-body charges that resulted in few scoring blows but plenty of angry shoves and elbows.
From the beginning, Whitaker made the fight's pace his own by moving in and out on De La Hoya, pouncing in with the heavy right jab and flying away quickly before the challenger could counter.
De La Hoya fired hard overhand rights, but missed often, and did not seem to rock Whitaker when he landed.
"Whether you like it or not, you can't hit what your eyes can't see," Whitaker said.
The third round might have been the most fascinating of De La Hoya's career, beginning with some early Whitaker scoring, continuing with De La Hoya firing a hard left hook off a clinch, several De La Hoya taunts and De La Hoya flopping to the canvas after Whitaker crashed him with a head butt. Referee Mills Lane ruled an illegal butt, and penalized Whitaker a point.
De La Hoya ended the round with a sizzling right hand to Whitaker's chin, eliciting a broad smile from the champion.
"Every time I would feint him to the body and throw the right, it would land," De La Hoya said.
By the sixth, Whitaker's pattern of quick circling and jamming jab was clearly frustrating De La Hoya, who switched to a left-handed stance several times in the middle rounds.
After the seventh-round bell, De La Hoya pumped his right arm in mocking gesture as Whitaker retreated to his corner.
De La Hoya's glove hit the canvas in the ninth when he was charging forward, lost his balance and got winged by a Whitaker left. Lane ruled it a knockdown, the third of De La Hoya's career, but it clearly looked like a slip.