Pink Cat, Underdog
The Pink Cat slumps on a folding chair in a makeshift dressing room at Phoenix Civic Plaza. The small cuts beneath his eyes sting, his hands ache, his arms throb.
But Scott Walker's pride hurts worse than his body. He heard the boos and the derisive meows from the small ringside audience when his close win over Steve Valdez was announced.
Walker has clawed for respect in this most macho of worlds since he first stepped into an Oklahoma boxing ring as a spindly 8-year-old.
His detractors consider him too frail, too weak-punching and too white. He looks more like a rockabilly guitarist, which he is, than a professional pugilist.
His own father says he's too scrawny to be mistaken for a successful professional fighter.
But he is. Now 26, Walker has a record of 21-3-1, and holds three regional titles in the 140-pound junior welterweight class.
Still, it takes large leaps of faith for fans to back a paleface James Dean look-alike who freezes his tall, '50s-style pompadour with Aqua-Net (Extra Super-Hold) before he enters the ring.
Besides that, Walker wears hot-pink boxing trunks when he fights--hence his nickname. He dreamed up the gimmick as a 13-year-old amateur, and has stuck with it. Only a very brave--or very foolish--man would wear pink into a boxing ring.
But Walker has earned grudging esteem, especially after a surprising, nationally televised victory in January 1995 over beloved exchampion Alexis Arguello. It must be noted that the Nicaraguan was at least 42 at the time.
Because Walker lacks a potent knockout punch, he's learned to win by guile and craft rather than brute force. But when he performs poorly, as he has tonight, fickle fans are quick to turn on him.
"I can't believe they booed me in my own state," Walker tells his trainer, Chuck McGregor, who nods and sticks the fighter's sore right hand in a bucket of ice.
"I know I was terrible. I don't need to look like that. I'm so screwed up. I should have been countering when he softball-jabbed me. I can dance with someone who can't dance, but it's hard to fight with someone who can't fight. At least I won."
He strips off his pink robe, pink boxing shorts, pink spandex undershorts, pink everything. There's no shower available, so he towels off and dresses, leaving his hair for last. Somehow, after eight sweaty rounds, the Extra SuperHold is still working, and his 'do returns to its prefight glory.
Walker takes a dip from his tin of Skoal, says his goodbyes and disappears into the cool November night with his girlfriend, Nancy Martinez.
Scott's father, Mack Walker, watches the couple for a moment, then shakes his head.
"How bad can he look?" he says, referring to the bout, not his son's appearance. Mack loves Scott dearly, but is a rare boxing dad in that he appears not to have convinced himself that his progeny is God's gift.
"We could have lost our ass and all its fixtures out there tonight," he continues in his Oklahoma twang, "but we squeaked by. I still believe that a big fight is in Scott's future. I really do."
Six weeks later, his faith is rewarded. On January 3, Mack Walker opens a letter from Top Rank Boxing, one of the sport's two heavyweight promoters. The contents send chills down his spine.
It's a contract for a February 9, 1996, junior welterweight title fight against Julio Cesar Chavez, one of his generation's most famed and feared champions.
Walker is offered $55,000 for the World Boxing Council bout, set for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Top Rank boss Bob Arum views Walker as a safe "opponent," a crucial component to his future plans for the 34-year-old champ.
In the works is a proposed June megafight matching Chavez against the undefeated Oscar de la Hoya, whois scheduled to fight shopworn Darryl Tyson on the same February 9 card.
Arum is gambling that the Pink Cat won't upset his plans, and few give Walker a chance in a million of doing so.
But Chavez isn't taking any chances. Word comes from his home in Culiacan, Mexico, that the champ isn't in shape and doesn't want to risk his title, even to a seemingly harmless opponent like Scott Walker. Arum's people accommodate Chavez, changing the fight to a ten-round, non-title affair.
The Walker camp is momentarily disappointed, but quickly realizes the opportunity is intact. It's literally the chance of a lifetime.
If Walker wins, it would rank as one of modern boxing's greatest upsets. Chavez has been to the lighter weight classes what Ali and Louis were to the heavyweight division when they were at their terrifyingly best.
Though Chavez's skills have eroded, the great champion's ring record is 95-1-1, which speaks for itself. He's been knocked down but once in his career, and--thanks, in part, to friendly judges--he's proved all but impossible to beat in a decision.
If, as expected, Chavez pummels Walker into submission, it'll likely be back to $2,000 paydays and local fight cards for the Pink Cat.
The two men have little in common:
Chavez carries the honor of an entire nation on his bony shoulders. Scott Walker is the pride of Maxie's Boxing Gym in Mesa.
Chavez owns three limousines, three Corvettes, two Grand Marquises, two Lincolns, two Suburbans, two antique Fords, a Cougar, a Jaguar, a Lamborghini, a Mustang and a Stealth. Walker owns a 1974 Ford pickup with a broken radio.
Chavez has an entourage, replete with sycophants. Walker has his family, girlfriend, trainer and a few pals.
Chavez won his first professional fight on February 5, 1980. That year, 10-year-old Scott Walker won a tap-dancing contest in Oklahoma, collecting an Electric Light Orchestra recording as booty.
Chavez stands to collect $9 million if he and De la Hoya win February 9. Walker's largest boxing payday has been $5,000.
Chavez probably had never heard of Walker until he signed to fight him. Mack Walker has a framed poster of Chavez on a wall of his small office.
Mexico's president, Ernesto Zedillo, reportedly sought Chavez's blessing before he announced his candidacy. No one seeks Walker's blessing for anything.
Chavez has put several world-class fighters in hospitals. Walker occasionally knocks someone off his feet.
No one in boxing history had been undefeated for longer than Chavez--an incredible 14 years and 91 fights--before Frankie Randall beat him in January 1994. Walker lost his pro debut.
On paper, Walker's odds of beating Chavez are similar to those of the Arizona Cardinals playing in a Super Bowl. But, unlikely as it sounds, he does have some things going for him:
He's in the best boxing shape of his life, physically and mentally. Trainer Chuck McGregor says Walker has been honing his ring techniques, becoming ever more sophisticated between the ropes.
And there's something else that doesn't show up on paper: Walker has a huge heart and a cool demeanor, a mix that poses interesting intangibles on this, the cusp of his moment in boxing's spotlight.
He seems oddly unaffected by the thought of fighting a true boxing legend on worldwide television.
"I know it's a once in a lifetime," Walker says calmly, "but I'm not fighting God. He's great, but he's a person just like me. It hurts him when he gets hit, and it feels good when he hits someone."
Walker's face is unmarked after 25 professional fights and 142 amateur contests, but that's deceptive. He has endured harsh punishment in the ring--a broken eardrum, bruised kidneys, the usual assortment of cuts.
Walker knows that every fighter he faces aches to kick his pretty-boy white butt from here to eternity. But he's never pulled a Roberto Duranlike "no mas" during a fight, choosing instead to gut it out against more experienced, aggressive and stronger men.
Against Chavez, such courage may prove a blessing or a curse.
"Scott doesn't look at boxing as a macho thing," says trainer McGregor, "but he's genuinely fearless. He tries to impress his skill upon opponents, not his will. Rough guys don't faze him. Chavez will give him elbows, head butts, low blows, but I'm thinking he has a real chance to win. If things don't go well--put it this way--I'll stop the damned thing before he gets hurt."
The Pink Cat can't remember life before boxing.
"I say to myself, 'What did I do when I was 5 years old?'" muses Walker as he sits in the rented home he shares with a roommate. "I've tried to bring it back, but I can't."
Behind him on a living-room wall is a trio of posters: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and his look-alike, James Dean. Walker favors books and magazines on fishing, not boxing. A handwritten list of his original songs is tacked to another wall.
He selects a beat-up cowboy hat and steps into his backyard to check on his 12 pit bull puppies and their patient mother, Thelma. Always short of money, he plans to sell the purebred pups as soon as possible.
Walker's only job these days is boxing. The Dobson High School graduate took a few classes at Mesa Community College last semester, but he doesn't hold educational goals. He admits he hasn't given much thought to life after boxing.
He knows what he doesn't want to do, and that is to work for his parents at their furniture store.
"I love my parents," he says, "and I wouldn't be doing this right now if they hadn't sacrificed so much for me. But I've got to find my own way."
He sees his way as the highway.
"I'd like to buy a nice vehicle for starters," he says, "then go head up north toward Alaska, across Canada, then down the East Coast into the South when it gets cold. I'll be fishing and camping out everywhere, playing my guitar, having a beer."
Though he's genuinely easygoing, Walker gets worked up when he relates his struggles for boxing respect.
"People don't know what it's like to have to hunt for fights," he says. "I've fought on a few days' notice ... and I've fought guys that weren't handpicked tomato cans. Michael [Carbajal] got set up like a king because he did so well in the Olympics. No one has handed me anything. I don't have a sugar daddy. I just have a family and a trainer and some friends who have stuck with me."
For Walker, that constitutes a diatribe. He smiles to break the momentarily bitter mood, then takes a different tack.
"By the time I'm 50, I'll probably look like an old man--bad knees, bad back and bad hands. I'll be telling people, 'I used ta be a contenda.' Now, I've got a chance to make some big money. I've got me a big, big fight. That's my story."
Actually, the Pink Cat's story starts well before he was born seven-weeks premature in Oklahoma. That's where Maxwell (Mack) Walker was raised, on a ranch about 35 miles from McAlester, population 12,000. Mack was the youngest of three children--his brother Charlie is 27 years his senior.
Alma and Perry Walker's small spread never generated much money. Some years, the couple was compelled to do seasonal labor in such faraway places as Queen Creek, Arizona.
"They'd pick lettuce, pop carrots, whatever it took to earn a few bucks," Mack Walker recalls. "They'd go wherever. I remember Arizona when I was 4 or 5--hot and sandy. My folks didn't have it easy, but they were honest and they kept at it."
Mack enlisted in the Air Force in 1964. On duty in Columbus, Ohio, late that year, he met a lovely girl named Pat Hoffman. They got married in April 1965; later that year, Mack was shipped to Vietnam for an 11month tour.
Mack returned to McAlester after his honorable discharge in 1966. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he helped his ailing father tend to the ranch as he dabbled in real estate, auctioneering, helicopter piloting, furniture sales and--for a few days--pea picking.
Pat would give birth to two boys, Scott in 1969 and Torrey in 1971.
Scott spent the first four weeks of his life in an incubator, and doctors predicted he wouldn't catch up in motor skills and emotional maturity until his late teens. They were right.
Scott adored his cousin Chuck--Charlie's boy--before he could talk. For his second birthday, Chuck gave him a pair of tiny boxing gloves and a boxing bag. (Chuck Walker went on to compete in the 1976 Olympics with Sugar Ray Leonard and company, and fought professionally after that.)
Pat Walker enrolled her older son in jazz and tap-dance classes as a youth. Those lessons continue to bear fruit, in and out of the ring: Scott's footwork and movement in the ring are outstanding--perhaps the biggest reason he hasn't become a punching bag. And to this day, he's as comfortable dancing the jitterbug at a honky-tonk as he is sticking a jab in someone's face.
Scott also took piano lessons for years, and taught himself to play a passable guitar, on which he has composed numerous songs. ("Hit Me Like a Freight Train" is a recent composition. He insists it's about a romance, not a left hook.)
Mack and Charlie Walker--both fought on the amateur level--raised their sons around boxing gyms. Scott Walker entered a boxing ring as a contestant for the first time at the age of 8.
The occasion was a peewee tournament in McAlester. He lost in the finals.
"I think I cried," Scott Walker recalls, "because losing basically sucks."
Around this time, Charlie Walker was trying to convince Mack to join him in the furniture business in Arizona. In 1979, an act of God sold the little brother.
"It was so cold [in Oklahoma] that the pipes froze at this little store we had," Mack Walker says. "Then they unfroze and exploded, and flooded our place. It froze up again and stuck the furniture to the floor. I told Pat, 'Babe, start packin' your bags, 'cuz we're out of here.' I fixed up my Okie rig and we hit the road. Looked just like The Grapes of Wrath."
In 1980, the Walkers opened their own furniture store on East Main Street in Mesa. Mack Walker rigged up a makeshift outdoor ring behind the store--later to be Maxie's Boxing Gym--where he trained his two sons, then reaching their teens. Torrey quit boxing at the age of 16.
Scott kept boxing, even after he grew eight inches in the year after his 13th birthday. To call him thin understates it. At almost six feet two and 140 pounds, try rail-thin. Or desperately thin.
That year, Walker decided he needed a special identity in the ring. He chose the persona of the Pink Cat. "It just came to me," he says. He started wearing custom-made black shorts with pink trim. A few years later, he evolved to hot pink with white trim.
"Pink on a boxer is like waving a red flag at a bull," Mack Walker says, "but he wanted to do it, and he kept winning."
The Walkers' near-obsession was for Scott to make the 1988 Olympic team. His amateur record of 125-17, with 30 knockouts, indicated a level of skill. But he lacked the luck, timing and physical strength.
"I'd taught Scott a thing or two about boxing," Mack Walker recalls, "but I was too dumb to know crap about weight training. Scott was fighting monsters, and he didn't have the strength to fend them off."
Scott, then 18, didn't make the team, losing in the Western regionals. He watched morosely as a local boy named Michael Carbajal went on to fame, a medal and, after the Games, a large signing bonus with Top Rank.
Father-son combos are notoriously dicey in boxing and, for a time after the Olympic setback, the Walkers were no exception. The fighter wanted to turn pro immediately; Mack said no, citing his son's lack of physical strength inside the ring.
"I was hangin' with the ladies," Scott says, "playing music, dancing a lot, just hangin'. I didn't know what I was doing. Figured I'd turn pro and see how it went. My dad didn't see it that way."
Scott finally agreed to lift weights. He gained some much-needed weight and strength. In the summer of 1989, Mack Walker decided it was time for Scott to test the professional waters.
"The boy had no promoter, no Olympic medal, no recognition, no nothing," Mack says. "And I wasn't his damned sugar daddy. Hell, we've never had money to speak of. You can say we were a bit on the naive side. But we gave it a shot."
Professional boxing is a cruel, sometimes evil vocation. For every Julio Cesar Chavez, and even every Michael Carbajal, there are 10,000 wanna-bes who don't have a prayer of making money in the ring.
But for untold youngsters--mostly black and Hispanic these days--the fantasy of hearing a crowd roar for you, of having strangers ask for your autograph, of having an entourage, of being The Man, is alluring.
The reality, unfortunately, is more like Scott Walker's experience than, say, Michael Carbajal's. Carbajal's pro debut was on ESPN before millions of fans. The Pink Cat first fought professionally on a sparsely attended August 28, 1989, card at a Tempe nightclub.
Walker learned who his opponent would be just six hours before he stepped into the ring. Walker lost a close decision to the forgettable, but more experienced, Sugar Ray Collins. The promoter cut Walker a check for $275 for his efforts.
Walker won three fights, then lost a split decision to a bruiser named Joey Orantes on the July 1990 Phoenix undercard of Carbajal's first title fight. Orantes broke Walker's left eardrum with an overhand right in the first round.
That loss shoved Walker even deeper into boxing's bush league. The low point may have come in August 1991, when Mack Walker and Scott drove to South Dakota for two outdoor fights in three days on a remote Indian reservation.
"We got all of $300 a fight against these lousy, build-your-record-against-them guys," Mack Walker says. "It's moments like those when you start wondering what in the world you're doing in this business."
Scott Walker recalls those experiences wryly: "I hated it sometimes and I liked it once or twice."
A controversial loss to southpaw Brandon Croly in August 1992 left Walker with a soso 9-3 record and a cloudy boxing future. Frustrated and tired, he quit for about eight months. At the age of 23, his pro career seemed stalled, if not over.
But time healed Walker's psychological wounds and, by early 1993, he was ready to box again. A key factor in his renewed enthusiasm was Chuck McGregor, who had recently hooked up with Maxie's Boxing Gym.
McGregor took over most of Walker's training, improving his skills and soothing his sometimes-testy relationship with his father.
"There's no such thing as an Ozzie-and-Harriet family," explains Mack Walker, "and we're no exception. Boxing puts a strain on father-son relationships. It's a sport that boils down to hurting the other guy, and not getting hurt yourself. That can mean a lot of mental strain because if you do things, you better do them right. Chuck coming along when he did meant everything to Scott."
The 52-year-old McGregor says he was burned out on boxing's Byzantine politics and dirty dealings when he and his wife, Doris, migrated from Chicago to Arizona in 1986.
But the sport has been in his blood since his father, a steelworker and topranked amateur boxer, first took him to a gym as a boy. McGregor is an inveterate talker who loves to spin yarns about unforgettable fighters he's known.
He's much more, however, than a captivating storyteller.
"I always was a pest at those old south-side gyms, always asking why," says McGregor. "The why of boxing is important to me. In Scott, I saw a lot of natural movement and agility, and the thinking kind of style I like to teach best. I don't think he's ever taken boxing seriously enough to know how good he is or can be. He's not big-headed. He's always just done it."
New obstacles--physical, not emotional--conspired to keep Walker from fighting for six months in 1994. Surgery on his right hand for a tendon injury proved successful, and Walker returned to the ring in September 1994.
After more low-paying wins against generally weak opposition, Walker finally caught a break. ESPN wanted to showcase Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello in his second comeback fight.
The Arguello people considered their would-be victim carefully, finally settling on Walker. The Pink Cat signed a contract for $4,000 to fight the ex-champ at a casino in Las Vegas.
Arguello stunned Walker with his famous right hand in the first round--"The hardest anyone has ever hit me"--but he couldn't put down the Pink Cat.
Walker kept out of harm's way for the rest of the ten-rounder, piling up points with slick jabs and effective counterpunching. Most observers had Walker winning the fight easily on points, though two of the three judges scored it closely. The third judge gave it to Walker in a rout.
Naysayers pointed out that, in boxing years, Arguello was older than dirt. Still, the unexpected victory thrust Walker into the international boxing picture.
Last March, Walker won the Arizona state 140-pound championship. Then, in July, he took a 12-round fight on ten days' notice against Francisco "Paco" Cuesta, a tough Mexican veteran.
The bout was supposed to be on the undercard of a nationally televised card in a tent at Gila River Casino. But Walker-Cuesta became the main event shortly before showtime, after fight officials learned that Michael Carbajal's scheduled opponent was scratched for medical reasons.
The promoter informed the packed house of almost 2,000 that ticket refunds were available to anyone who wanted them. After 12 rounds, only about 30 cheapskates asked for their money back.
Walker took a unanimous decision and the Continental Americas title from Cuesta in the action-packed win. For this he earned $5,000, his biggest payday to date.
After Cuesta came the close call in November against Steve Valdez. Mack Walker says his son's poor performance against the inferior Denver fighter had an unintended benefit.
"Top Rank looked at those tapes and said, 'This kid will be a piece of cake for Chavez,'" he says with a chuckle, citing conversations with boxing insiders as evidence. "Talk about twists and turns. That fight was just one of those things that happens. Scott is going to be a whole lot better than that. A whole lot better."
Two weeks before the Chavez fight, Scott Walker saunters into Maxie's Boxing Gym for his late-afternoon workout.
Most of the regulars are present, including Mack Walker, Chuck McGregor, talented 15-year-old amateur Mike Sandoval and heavyweight hopeful Obed Sullivan.
The Pink Cat wears jeans, a tee shirt and a hat on backward that says, "I'm suffering from CRS--Can't Remember Shit." Scott immediately switches the stereo from a rock 'n' roll station to country standby KNIX.
He opens his locker and pulls out his boxing shoes, head protective gear and a box of Kotex. He cuts a maxipad and tapes one half to the palm of each hand. Serves as a hand cushion, he explains.
As Scott steps to the mirror to start his 90-minute session, he engages Sullivan in friendly repartee.
"I got a belt from the WBC, baby, the oldest body in the world," Scott tells the bigger fighter, referring to his Continental Americas title. "That makes me No. 1 in this gym."
Sullivan, who currently holds something called the IBF Inter-Continental Americas title, joins the challenge.
"You're at a subordinate level in this gym and you should know it," Sullivan retorts as he jumps rope. "There's a pecking order here. WBC has you picked as their sacrificial lamb. Chvez is saying, 'I'm gonna let that little sacrificial lamb live 'til February ninth.' That's it."
Scott smiles, and goes to work on theheavy bag, singing along to a twangy tune through his mouthpiece: "I'm in love with you, baby, and I don't even know yourname." He times his punches to theuptempo number, thwack, thwack, boom, thwack, stopping only after Chuck McGregor yells, "Time!"
Scott then steps to the speed bag, mumbling something to himself. Asked to repeat it, he does: "I said I just have to win this thing."
This thing, of course, is his date with Julio Cesar Chavez.
And he knows he has less than a prayer if he doesn't continue his rigorous workouts morning and night until just before fight time. Few, if any, sports are as taxing on the body and spirit.
"The thing about boxing," says Mack Walker as his son climbs into the ring for a sparring session with amateur Jesse Varela, "is that you gotta get hit to learn how not to get hit. It's like trying to get to your car in a rainstorm: You're gonna get to the car eventually, but you're gonna get wet gettin' there."
It helps if your navigational guide is a Chuck McGregor.
"I want you to concentrate on one-two, straight down the tube," the veteran trainer tells Scott as the session starts. "Step angle, left uppercut, right uppercut. Change your angle all the time. You don't want to shoot out the hook without making a little move. You got to freeze him. No freebies."
Despite McGregor's longevity, the Chavez fight is titanic for him, too.
"I surely don't have to tell Scott he's going to be in a tough fight," says McGregor, whose resume includes stints as a police officer and a bartender around his native Chicago. "He's going against one of the toughest guys in the history of boxing. Butas big as it is, you don't want to overstate it."
He interrupts himself briefly.
"Scott, try putting your left foot in between Chavez's and try grabbing his left hand to avoid those liver shots."
McGregor returns to a discussion of his psychological game plan, noting he intentionally called the sparring partner "Chavez" instead of his real name.
"I'm starting to get Chavez-oriented now, starting to put a more serious reality game face on it. You can't be too lax. Chavez hits in the hips, hits low all the time. I'm telling Scott that the first time he does that, Scott is to hit him as hard and as low as possible, to take his balls off. I'm reversing it for him. Julio has never fought a Scott Walker before."
McGregor and the Walker clan have become close in their two years on the same team. He admires how hard Pat and Mack Walker work so they can keep their furniture store and gym alive. He has seen the time and money Mack Walker invests> in amateur fighters, without benefit of grants, loans or financial aid.
And he respects his fighter for continuing to work hard and for being a gentleman.
"This is a good kid from a good family who has the chance to do something really amazing," McGregor says. "What more can youask for?"
Though his trainer is far from wealthy, Scott Walker says McGregor never has accepted a cent after working a fight.
McGregor shrugs and says, "He's always offered, but he hasn't made enough yet. I always tell him to give his mom my 10 percent. If I need $500 that bad, I'll try another line of work."
He freely admits the Chavez fight means almost as much to him as it does to Scott.
"I've never been in the big, big dance," McGregor says. "This is big, and it's going to be tough. Chavez is like Michael Jordan. He gets a step on you and any touch is a call against the other guy. Scott will have to win at least seven rounds clean to have half a chance. I know that."
Walker finishes working with Varela, slaps the younger fighter's gloves in appreciation, then returns to his locker at the rear of the little gym.
Standing on the ring apron, McGregor responds to a question about the dangers of boxing.
"Back in Chicago, they said I had the quickest towel in town," he says. "When I know a fighter isn't ever going to make the big score, I'll tell him at some point to get out of it. You can get hurt as bad in a $4 million fight as in a $400 fight. I can't tell you how often I've retired guys."
Where will Scott Walker fit into this blunt analysis if Chavez dispatches him?
"Making a couple of thousand three or four times a year isn't going to cut it," Mack Walker offers. "Scott wants to be out of this by the time he's 30. Four things can happen in Vegas: He does great, good, poorly or he gets taken out early. The first means big paydays ahead. The second one is okay. The third and fourth I don't even want to think about."
Scott is within earshot, but he's listening to Pam >Tillis wail, not his handlers. He hums along as he unwraps his hands and tosses the Kotex into a basket.
The Pink Cat has only one thing to say before he leaves Maxie's for the evening.
"February 9, 1996," he says with a purr. "I like the sound of it.
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