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Spaddy and Sweet Pea: genius or disaster?

| Monday, June 22, 2009

They are boxing's odd couple, yet they couldn't be more alike.

Before his IBF lightweight title bout with Israel Cardona in 1999, Paul Spadafora watched endless hours of Pernell Whitaker fights on tape, trying to emulate the southpaw's slip-and-dip style.

That explains why Spadafora was so fascinated Friday, watching Whitaker fire jabs at an imaginary target, his right shoulder nearly popping out of its socket with each throw. Already wide-eyed and sitting up straight in his hotel room, Spadafora laughs with delight when Whitaker speeds up the pace with double jabs.

Once Spadafora's idol, Whitaker is now his trainer.

Though Spadafora studied the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Fame fighter who was a six-time world champion in four divisions, Whitaker claims he doesn't watch the sport on television and never before saw the McKees Rocks boxer. Whitaker said he accepted the trainer job after phone calls from Spadafora's promoter, Michael Acri, and manager, Al McCauley.

"What I liked the first day was his tenacity," Whitaker said. "Paul brought something to the table that's original. I didn't have hooks and uppercuts. I'm 5-foot-6, and dominated the welterweight division. Five-foot-nine with a jab that can snap• That's the only punch he needs. He can win a 12-round fight with that punch. We're going to put it out there and paint a portrait."

It won't be a Norman Rockwell. But this is boxing, after all, a sport familiar with tragic endings. Whitaker and Spadafora not only share similar styles but also battles with alcohol and substance abuse, not to mention controversy in courtrooms and stints in prison.

Yet here they are, Sweet Pea and Spaddy, working together as Spadafora (41-0-1, 16 knockouts) attempts a comeback against Ivan Bustos (25-12-3, 8 KOs) of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday night in the main event of a pro boxing card at the Amphitheatre at Station Square.

"I called my mom," Spadafora said, holding his hand to his ear to mimic their conversation, "and said, 'Can you believe five or six years ago I'm in the back of a police car, not knowing my fate• Now, I (have) my favorite fighter in the world working in my corner."

Whether that's a good move or bad one remains to be seen.

'I'm not a babysitter'

Whitaker is paunchy now, but the cold eyes that stared through opponents remain, and he is unapologetic about his lifestyle. If there is one thing Whitaker makes abundantly clear, it's that he is here to train Spadafora inside the ring, not counsel him outside it.

"The best I've got for him is this: He's still in the career," Whitaker said. "Whatever you do is your damn business. I'm not a babysitter. When it's time to go to work, you give 100 percent. "After his fight, he has 10 days to do his thing. You can't be all boxing and no Paul.

"Everybody has to have a release."

Spadafora's release was binge drinking, which led to two arrests in a span of 72 hours in October 2003. The first was relatively harmless, for public intoxication after urinating on a downtown street. The second, for shooting former girlfriend Nadine Russo outside a McKees Rocks gas station, sent Spadafora's life and career in a downward spiral.

Spadafora served 13 months in state prison, nearly half of it in a boot camp, for a reduced charge of aggravated assault. He has fought only three times in as many years since being released on parole in April 2006.

"I've heard bits and pieces," Whitaker said of Spadafora's story. "The choices he makes, he's got to take responsibility for. What I did in my life had nothing to do with my professional career. My episode, my adventure, my ride was during retirement."

Not exactly. Whitaker, now 45, was the same age as Spadafora - now 33 - when his career began to unravel. In 1997, after a controversial loss to Oscar de la Hoya, Whitaker was suspended from boxing for testing positive for cocaine. He entered drug rehabilitation the next year, after a 12-round unanimous decision over Andrei Pestriaev was changed to no-contest when post-fight tests revealed the presence of cocaine in his bloodstream.

After breaking his clavicle against Carlos Bojorquez in April 2001, forcing him to retire after the fourth round, Whitaker went into a freefall. He was hospitalized for several days after drinking beer while on painkillers. He was charged with possession for bringing cocaine to a Virginia Beach courtroom when arriving to serve a four-day sentence for two traffic convictions. While free on bond, he was arrested for driving under the influence and later sentenced to 27 months after a Virginia Beach circuit judge said he "arrogantly thumbed his nose" at probation rules.

When asked about how both fighters received draws in their biggest bouts — Whitaker after dismantling then-undefeated Julio Cesar Chavez in '93, Spadafora in a bloodbath with Leonard Dorin 10 years later — Whitaker snaps a directive to stop discussing the past and focus on Wednesday night.

"Don't go backward," Whitaker said. "You can't change it. It's done. Guess who will not forget what happened that night• The people. Negativity sells."

'If you hear me, show me'

The pairing of Whitaker and Spadafora is odd in that it would seem the fighter seemingly needs guidance outside the ring more than he requires it inside.

But to Whitaker, this is about boxing, nothing else.

Spadafora, for one, appears revitalized. Whitaker is his fourth trainer. The first, P.K. Pecora, schooled him on the game but died early in Spadafora's career. The second, Tom Yankello, urged Spadafora to fight from the outside and work the angles. The third, Jesse Reid, insisted that Spadafora stand in front of his opponent and rely more on his jab.

Whitaker is a screamer, not an enabler. He sits back, watches and says, "If you hear me, show me."

Whitaker wants Spadafora to stay out of harm's way, always circling to his right and using his jab as his primary weapon. Spadafora has rough edges, Whitaker says, but he's chiseling them down.

"It's a beautiful thing, when you can hit a man, and he can't hit you back," Whitaker said. "I'm not trying to teach him to be like me. You can't duplicate it. I can't teach him to be like me, but I can teach him to be damn near close. It's not like I had to reinvent him."

They've only been together a few weeks — not enough time to get the full Pernell Whitaker yet, the trainer says, only bits and pieces.

Spadafora recites Whitaker's words of wisdom like a mantra: If he's not moving right, he's not doing the right thing. If the fight is interesting, then he's probably losing. To appreciate Whitaker is to appreciate boxing.

"I'm surprised at how calm, cool and collected the kid is," Whitaker said. "He knows how important his life is and his career is."

The alternative is staring Spadafora in the face, the hero-turned-trainer who is all about Wednesday night.

Come Thursday, Spadafora is on his own.

Additional Information:

Fight night

What: Pro boxing card featuring McKees Rocks' Paul Spadafora (41-0-1, 16 knockouts) vs. Argentina's Ivan Bustos (25-12-3, 8 knockouts) at a catchweight of 143 pounds.

When: The undercard begins at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Amphitheatre at Station Square.

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