Whitfield hungers for fighting fame

Ken Rosenthal

February 19, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

They look alike. They eat alike. They even repent alike. Oh, the possibilities would be endless for a heavyweight fight between George Foreman and his Baltimore alter ego, Mike "Little George" Whitfield.

Granted, Little George has had only one professional bout, but here he comes, proclaiming "I can be heavyweight champion of the world!" from the back seat of trainer Mack Lewis' car.

The car is parked at the corner of Broadway and Eager, just outside Mr. Mack's gym. The mean streets form the perfect backdrop for Little George's first official news conference. They're the core of his life story.

His mother raised 10 children without a father. His boxing career resulted from a seventh-grade arrest for shoplifting. His work history features brawls that got him fired from two jobs.

But tonight at 7:30 at the Pikesville Armory, Little George faces Carlton West (6-9) in his second professional four-rounder. He won his first by decision over Joe Hamilton Dec. 4, won it at the age of 26, won it 13 years after entering Mr. Mack's gym.

Little George says if not for Mr. Mack, "I'd have been dead or in the big house." For once, Mr. Mack finds it impossible to forsake his modesty. What can he say? Little George is probably right.

"He was something else," the 72-year-old trainer says from the driver's seat with a sigh. "He respected me, but he's a determined little fella. He don't take a back seat to anybody."

Well, this one rainy day's an exception, and only because it's Mr. Mack. The 6-foot, 245-pound Little George reformed after his shoplifting incident -- naturally, he stole a candy bar -- but that doesn't mean he stayed completely out of trouble.

The way Little George describes it, at first everything was fine. He graduated from Lake Clifton High and spent one year at Coppin State, then took a $12-an-hour job at the Coca-Cola syrup plant in Locust Point.

"I was livin' large," Little George recalls from the back seat. "But after I lost that job. . . ."

"Tell him how you lost the job," Mr. Mack interjects.

"I hit a guy," Little George replies.

The co-worker, it seems, made the mistake of spending an entire week ribbing the 21-year-old Little George for dating a girl who was 17.

"At the end of the week, he faked throwing a bottle cap at me. In the process, I hit him with a right hand," Little George says. "It wasn't a good right hand, but he got the boss on me."

From there, Little George became a supervisor at the Charles H. Hickey Junior School, a juvenile detention center for boys. "I was trying to be Mack Lewis," he says. "I wanted to save people."

But after 11 months, he grew so frustrated, he got himself fired. Little George says he was late 12 times, late because he couldn't bear seeing all those kids repeating their mistakes.

"I didn't want to get there -- I'd be riding down 695, twiddling my thumbs, going 35 mph," he recalls. "I was losing my mind. I felt like I wasn't helping anybody. All my kids were either dead or in the Maryland Pen."

Still, he kept trying. His next job was at the Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center, a residential treatment facility in Carroll County.

"I loved that job," Little George says.

So what happened?

"A juvenile hit me."

And?

"I'm from northeast Baltimore, Mack Lewis' gym," Little George explains.

So, you hit back?

Little George shrugs.

"Instinct."

Yet for all that, it seems Little George is finally going straight, or as straight as one gets, being a fighter. He's been married five years to a medical secretary at Children's Hospital. Together, they're raising three daughters.

His latest job is at the Woodbourne Center, a shelter for neglected and abused children. Little George works two 12-hour days as a weekend security guard, and devotes the rest of his time to training.

In the past six months he has dropped more than 30 pounds -- quite a feat, for Little George shares not only George Foreman's shaved head, but also his gargantuan appetite.

Lewis' star fighter, Vincent Pettway, once tried to put Little George on a prescribed diet, to no avail. Another time, Pettway and others promised to take Little George on a cheeseburger-eating binge after a fight, but only if he won by knockout.

"Sure enough, he knocked the guy out in the second round," says Pettway, who faces Gilbert Baptist for the USBA junior-middleweight title in tonight's main event. "As soon as the fight was over, he hollered out of the ring, 'I'll get some cheeseburgers now!' "

Pettway and Co. reneged on the deal, but Little George didn't care. He calls Mr. Mack "the only positive male role model I've ever had." And he loves his stablemates like brothers.

"This is the only family I've got," he says from the back seat. "When the world out there treats me bad, I come home. I relate it to the TV show 'Cheers.' This is my bar. This is where I go. I'm just at ease in the gym."

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