Vincent Pettway stumbled several times in recent years on the way to a boxing title. But last night the Baltimore fighter took the final step, claiming the United States Boxing Association's junior middleweight championship by winning a split decision over Gilbert Baptist, of San Diego, in a spirited 12-round fight at the Pikesville Armory.
Ring announcer Rex Barney kept the overflow crowd of 2,000 and the two fighters in suspense by announcing the first two judges' cards, Chris Wollenson of Virginia, 116-112 for Pettway and Patricia Montgomery of Washington, 115-113 for Baptist.
But Larry Barrett of Baltimore cast the deciding vote for Pettway, 116-112, to set off a wild celebration in the ring by the hometown fighter and his supporters.
Pettway (35-4) is now second in line to challenge Internatinal Boxing Federation 154-pound champion Gianfranco Rosi of Italy, who first faces a mandatory defense against Gilbert Dele, of France.
Baptist (23-13), who lost a 12-round decision to Rosi last November, will have to redeem himself before getting back into the title picture.
Pettway, who at 151 gave away three pounds on the scale, was determined from the opening bell to crowd Baptist, forcing him to the ropes with hard body shots.
Baptist, an Ex-Marine, fought out of a low crouch, borrowing from the style of one of his mentors, former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore.
But Pettway used an effective jab and crisp combinations to win the first three rounds. Baptist did his best work by firing double hooks to the ribs.
As the fight progressed, Baptist got in an even lower crouch, bobbing and weaving his way inside. But Pettway would not allow himself to be trapped on the ropes, which had proved his undoing in his knockout loss to Stephan Johnson last year.
Midway through the fourth round, he ripped his California rival with three straight hooks. The rugged Baptist, who has never been stopped in his 35 pro fights, always fought back with combinations of his own in reply to a Pettway salvo.
Baptist flew out of his corner to start the fifth round, surprising Pettway, but unable to land a telling punch.
Pettway made Baptist hold after landing a solid hook. But once more Baptist staged a rally of his own, forcing the Baltimore boxer to give ground with a looping right on the chin. Then it was Pettway's turn, nailing Baptist with a right-left-right combination before the bell ended the fifth round.
Pettway continued to press the attack in the sixth round, with Baptist fending off blows with his cross-armed defense, another familiar Moore tactic.