Longform

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin