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Contender or Pretender

Heavyweight Lance Whitaker of Granada Hills Is a Mountain of a Man Who Takes His First Big Step to Climb Into Title Contention

January 14, 1999|VINCE KOWALICK | Times Staff Writer

Lance Whitaker guards himself closely and can be as elusive as a shadow.

If only he can perfect those traits in the boxing ring.

Whitaker would be the tallest world heavyweight champion in history, as well as the first from the San Fernando Valley.

But that's a very tall order.

Whitaker, 6 feet 8 inches tall and a chiseled 240 pounds, has plodded a slow path as a professional and appears a longshot at reaching the summit of boxing's most lucrative and storied division.

Like much of his life, Whitaker's prizefighting career has been a struggle simply to fit in.

Whitaker, undefeated with 15 knockouts in 17 bouts, will face his toughest challenge when he enters the ring against veteran Alex Stewart for a 10-round bout on the undercard of Mike Tyson's comeback bout Saturday night at the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas.

The fight marks a crossroads for Whitaker, 26, a former San Fernando High basketball player who began boxing in 1992 and was a Goodwill Games silver medalist in 1994.

A victory would vault Whitaker, still largely an unknown, closer to his immediate goal of being ranked by one of boxing's major sanctioning organizations.

A loss to Stewart, a seasoned fighter who has gone the distance with Evander Holyfield and George Foreman, would be a devastating setback. At worst, Whitaker's shortcomings as a fighter could be exposed.

"Lance is ready for this fight," said Joe Goossen, Whitaker's trainer since he turned pro in 1996. "I feel confident that this is the right time to make this move, based on what Lance has shown in fights and during sparring. I think he's ready to capitalize on his talent and move up against better fighters."

Most of Whitaker's opponents have been short on talent, long on years or both. All have been overmatched. That shouldn't be the case against the 6-3 Stewart, 34, whose record is 43-8 with 40 knockouts.

Whitaker's size and 87-inch reach present problems for matchmakers in search of capable opponents. Several of Whitaker's opponents have withdrawn at the 11th-hour, presumably because of his imposing stature.

"The small heavyweights aren't going to fight you when you're 6-8," said Don Chargin, a longtime promoter and matchmaker. "And [handling] heavyweights is hard. The earning potential is so much, you don't want to put him in a fight he's not ready for, either."

Goossen is confident Whitaker will make his mark.

"Take a look at who have been champions over the past five years," Goossen said. "Michael Moorer? I'd put Lance in there right now with him. Oliver McCall, the same thing. Those people have been champions. So, why not Lance Whitaker?"

Whitaker, characteristically, doesn't waste words summing up his task.

"This is a big step up," he said. "All I can say is, I'm ready for this guy."

Whitaker says little, especially about himself. He speaks in a soft baritone and usually needs prodding to elaborate.

His tale is winding and tumultuous, involving more stints living with friends, relatives and assorted guardians than he can recall--which he doesn't care to do.

"It hasn't always been easy," Whitaker said. "Living in a boys' home and all that stuff. There were hard times growing up."

Whitaker was born in San Fernando, but grew up mostly in Los Angeles. He never knew his father. He has spent much of his life apart from his fraternal twin, Stacy, and his two sisters.

Whitaker's mother moved to Sacramento when he was 15, although they currently live together in Granada Hills. While attending high school, Whitaker lived in a boys' home in Mission Hills.

Such an upbringing understandably did little to promote stability or self-esteem.

"Lance is very, very shy, very insecure about himself," said Dana Pump, a close friend and former assistant basketball coach at San Fernando High. "Boxing has made him more sure about himself."

Even so, Whitaker canceled a recent television talk-show appearance for no reason other than stage fright. Praise usually elicits a broad, bashful smile from Whitaker, whose demeanor belies that of a fighter's ferocity.

"It ain't like I'm that big or anything," Whitaker said with a shrug.

Indeed, there was a time when Whitaker would rather take a beating than deliver one. Growing up, he towered over classmates, topping 6 feet by sixth grade. But he avoided physical confrontations.

Dick Crowell, former basketball coach at San Fernando, recalls Whitaker being timid.

"He had a tremendous fear of his own ability to do harm," Crowell said. "He had a man's body with a 16-year-old's mind."

He also had a troubled past.

Soon after Whitaker's arrival at San Fernando, police interrupted practice one day in search of Whitaker. As Crowell recalled, Whitaker neglected to report to a probation officer in a matter that stemmed from him being caught with a small amount of marijuana a few years earlier.

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