The first time boxing manager-trainer Billy Moore watched junior-middleweight Gilbert Baptist in action, he was less than impressed.
It was in San Diego in 1986, and Baptist was fighting a four-rounder against Manuel Vallejo.
Moore recalled: "I was doing the ringside commentary for a local TV station. In the second round, Vallejo dropped Baptist. He got up, but looked real shaky, and when Vallejo kept hammering him, I started screaming to the referee, 'Stop it, stop it!'
"Well, somehow, Baptist survived the round, took charge and stopped Vallejo in the fourth round," said Moore, the son of boxing legend Archie Moore.
"When he left the ring, Baptist winked at me. We hit it off after that. I became his manager a year later, but he still teases me about my lack of faith."
Six years later, Moore has a lot more reason to believe in Baptist, who will face Vincent Pettway of Baltimore for the vacant United States Boxing Association 154-pound title at the Pikesville Armory tomorrow night.
Ranked No. 5 in the world by the International Boxing Federation, Baptist (34-12, 8 KOs) went the 12-round distance with IBF champion Gianfranco Rosi in Italy last November. Two months earlier, he won the North American crown by stopping Ron Anundsen in three rounds.
Watching his awkward, aggressive style, opponents have made a mistake of underestimating Baptist, 28, who began to box as a 9-year-old in his hometown of Newark, N.J.
"Growing up in the ghetto, it was always a fight for survival," he said. "You'd fight your way to school, back home, and wherever someone wanted to challenge your manhood."
There were the usual temptations -- drugs, alcohol and crime -- that claimed neighborhood toughs such as former light-heavyweight contender James Scott, who is serving a life term in Rahway (N.J.) State Prison. But Baptist managed to avoid trouble.
"I was always into sports," he said. "I lived right down the street from [former middleweight champion] Marvin Hagler. I always had a lot of fighters back home to look up to -- Hagler, Mike Rossman, and Bobby Czyz, who all became champions.
"But it was my buddy, Reggie Jones, who fought in the 1988 Olympics, who first got me interested in fighting. I started following him to the gym. I had a few amateur fights, but it wasn't really until after I joined the Marines in 1983 that I got serious about boxing and really started thinking about fighting professionally."
After relocating to San Diego, Baptist turned pro in 1985. He hardly impressed anyone as a future champion, losing five of his first 11 preliminary fights.
"I had a lot of managerial problems at the start," Baptist said. "It was more a matter of not having a real trainer. I didn't know how to fight. I couldn't even throw a proper jab, and my record reflected that.
"In 1987, a man named Joe Bradley was booking my fights, but his son had a bad auto accident and he didn't have the time to handle my career. I had to go shopping for a new manager."
That's when Moore came into the picture, and Baptist has been climbing the junior-middleweight ladder ever since.
All of his losses in recent years came against contenders. In 1988, he lost a 10-round decision to Terry Norris, the WBC super-welterweight champion who knocked Sugar Ray Leonard into retirement last year.
"Actually, I fought Norris twice, the first time in a four-rounder in 1987," Baptist said. "That one was close. The last time we fought, I felt I was winning going into the 10th round, but let Norris off the hook."
Polite and soft-spoken, Baptist makes no excuses for losing to Rosi in his first bid for a world title.
"Frankly, Rosi surprised me," he said. "I had watched tapes of his past fights and thought he was just a rough guy with little ability. But when we fought, I couldn't believe his hand speed. If you rate a 10 for excellence, Rosi earned a 12 that night. It taught me champions do what they have to do to win."
Baptist said he knows there will be no second chance against Rosi unless he can get past Pettway (34-4, 27 KOs), ranked No. 4 in the world.
He will be a slight underdog fighting in Pettway's back yard, but as Billy Moore said, "I learned a long time ago never to sell Baptist short."