Lee Groves

10: Notable Super Bowl week fights

2. Jan. 24, 1997, Pernell Whitaker KO 11 Diosbelys Hurtado – Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey

Super Bowl XXXI matched a powerhouse Green Bay Packers squad that led the league in scoring (456) while also allowing the fewest points (210) with an upstart New England Patriots team that rebounded from an 0-2 start to finish 11-5 and crush the Steelers and Jaguars in the playoffs. The mighty Packers, 13-3 in the regular season, were favored by 14 points, and the 35-21 final score perfectly followed conventional wisdom.

Two nights before the game WBC welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker was involved in boxing’s equivalent of a conference championship game, for in order to achieve his latest version of the Super Bowl – a multi-million dollar payday against three-division titlist Oscar de la Hoya – he first had to get past an upstart Cuban named Diobelys Hurtado. The assignment was no gimmee for “Sweet Pete,” for his two 1996 fights against Wilfredo Rivera confirmed that the 33-year-old’s wondrous skills were waning. Whitaker still had enough in the tank to win, but one had to wonder how he’d fare against an ambitious youngster who had scored 13 knockouts in his 20-0 record.

At 5-11, Hurtado had a five inch height advantage and his 74-inch wingspan was a full nine inches longer. But Whitaker’s 214 rounds in championship competition dwarfed Hurtado’s 81 in his entire pro career. The mix of styles and experience would prove intriguing, but few had any idea how much so.

Hurtado’s crackling right to the jaw dropped Whitaker just five seconds into the fight, providing a mighty shock to the champion, the crowd at the Convention Center and De La Hoya, who was seated at ringside. Power, however, was not at the core of Hurtado’s fight plan. His blueprint was to use his lively legs to motor around the ring and side to side while constantly throwing swift, unpredictable combinations that tested Whitaker’s legendary defensive instincts. That, in turn, forced Whitaker to take on the unaccustomed role of aggressor. The tactics clearly got under Whitaker’s skin and both men would resort to foul tactics to express their mutual anger and frustration.

Referee Arthur Mercante Sr. penalized Hurtado a point in round six after the challenger pushed down on Whitaker’s neck while whacking him with a right to the back but the Cuban got the point back later in the round when he decked Whitaker for the second time with a left to the cheek. In round seven, Hurtado was assessed a second penalty point for rabbit punching and Whitaker responded by hurting the Cuban for the first time with a looping left, a right and a parting left near the end of the round.

In round eight Whitaker finally found his rhythm and began timing Hurtado’s movements better. The champion’s momentum was stopped cold in the ninth when he lost a point for hitting Hurtado from behind. After 10 rounds, the potential Whitaker-De La Hoya fight was in danger of vanishing as Hurtado led 93-92, 94-92 and 96-91. If Whitaker wanted to cement a decision win, he had to hurt Hurtado – and fast.

With 1:23 left in the 11th, Whitaker unleashed a monstrous left cross that snapped Hurtado’s head and buckled his legs. A snarling Whitaker then fired nine consecutive overhand lefts that left the Cuban’s body sprawled between the second and third ropes and only Mercante’s intervention stopped Whitaker’s animalistic assault.

It was a championship comeback of the highest order and it fulfilled the one missing piece of Whitaker’s resume – a clutch come-from-behind knockout victory. It served as a fitting prelude for the game to follow but the main event in many casual fans’ minds couldn’t live up to the feast that preceded it. While the first quarter produced a record 24 combined points, the Packers outscored the Pats 17-0 in the second quarter en route to a 35-21 win.

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