Pettway on last leg of title pursuit

March 03, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- At 7 a.m., drenched in a bright desert sun, this synthetic town almost looks normal.

The neon signs no longer light the sky, and the jingling slots and gambling tables lie idle.

The sound of running feet suddenly breaks the silence. Baltimore junior middleweight Vincent Pettway is sweating profusely after completing a five-mile jog. He walks confidently through the ornate lobby of the MGM Grand, jabbing at the air, ready finally to cash in on close to 20 years of boxing.

"It's been a rough road, but I got here," said Pettway, who challenges champion Gianfranco Rosi of Italy for the International Boxing Federation title in the Grand Garden tomorrow night.

It has been an improbable journey for Pettway, 28, the first Baltimorean to engage in a world championship fight since 1941, when Harry Jeffra lost his featherweight crown in a rematch with Joey Archibald.

In actual distance, it is some 2,500 miles between Baltimore and Las Vegas. But in terms of sweat, blood and occasional tears, Pettway feels as if he has traveled light years.

It all could have ended in a gun flash last September.

"I'd dropped a friend off near Edmondson Avenue after I finished training," he recalled. "I walked to a corner phone. I wanted to order the Julio Cesar Chavez-Pernell Whitaker fight on cable so I could watch it when I got home."

Suddenly, Pettway felt a gun pressing against his face and heard a voice demanding money. There was a gunman and two accomplices.

"I only had some change in my pocket," he said. "For a second, I thought about being a hero and trying to punch the guy with the gun. But common sense took over. I saw my whole life gone and losing any chance of fighting for the title.

"I gave him the money, and he told me to start running. I must have come close to breaking Carl Lewis' record. When I got home, I cried like a baby, kissed my wife, Kathy, and my three kids, and praised the Lord."

Contender again

A 3-1 underdog to Rosi, Pettway has had a number of lives as a contender. He has overcome four knockout losses in an otherwise flawless 41-fight pro career to rebound as the mandatory challenger to end Rosi's five-year championship reign.

"God must be watching over me," he said.

"A lot of fighters who lose three or four fights never get back in the rankings. And I know a lot of people back home doubted I'd ever get this far. But through Mr. Mack's [trainer-manager Mack Lewis] management, some good timing and talent, I've finally got my chance."

Pettway's hopes of gaining a title fight all but vanished when, in a 15-month span -- August 1989 to November 1990 -- he suffered knockout losses to Augustin Caballero, Maryland rival Victor Davis and Stephan Johnson.

In Caballero's case, the loss appears in the record book as a four-round "no-contest" because the winner failed a post-fight drug test.

"Against Caballero, I twisted my leg in the first round and couldn't maneuver," he said. "When I got back to my corner, I said, 'Mr. Mack, my leg's bad.' He said, 'Son, just fight the best you can,' and that's all I could do."

His nonstop brawl with Davis in Philadelphia in April 1990 was voted USA Network's Fight of the Year. The two fighters took turns staggering each other before Pettway sustained an ugly gash over his left eye in the ninth round.

"Yes, it was a deep cut," he said, "but Mr. Mack stopped the bleeding before the doctor checked me. But he still wouldn't let me come out for the last round."

There were also extenuating circumstances to explain Pettway's sixth-round knockout by Johnson in Baltimore seven months later.

"I should have never fought that night," he said. "I tore an abdominal muscle in training, and I started passing blood. But fighting at home, I was concerned about letting down my family and friends and how many tickets had been sold. I learned you can't get caught up in all that stuff."

After the loss to Johnson, Pettway dropped from the IBF rankings, and Lewis set about resurrecting his fighter's reputation. The perfect opportunity came when promoter Don Elbaum proposed a showdown with popular crosstown rival Eddie Van Kirk at the Baltimore Arena in March 1991.

"Van Kirk had a lot of vocal support around town," Lewis said. "But I'd known Eddie since his amateur days and knew he couldn't withstand Vincent's power. For us, it was really a no-risk fight."

Lewis' intuition proved sound. Pettway destroyed Van Kirk in six rounds, and in less than a year, he won the U.S. Boxing Association junior-middleweight crown in a close 12-round bout with Gilbert Baptist.

Pettway successfully defended his title last May by stopping Dan Sherry, and then waited for Rosi and a willing promoter to grant him a title shot.

20-year journey

This journey began 20 years ago, when a Broadway neighbor and boxer, Jasper Garrett, convinced Pettway to join him in the gym just across the street.

"I was always fighting on the street, so I figured it couldn't be that much tougher," he said.

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