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Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker – An Underrated All-Time Great


Pernell Whitaker

Pernell Whitaker was born January 2nd, 1964. A native of Norfolk, Virginia, the slick 5’6 southpaw amassed a 201-13, 91 KO’s amateur record, taking silver as a lightweight at the 1982 World Championships, followed by gold at the 1983 Pan American Games, then ultimately going on to win a gold medal on the world stage, representing the United States at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Turning pro later that year, ‘Sweet Pea’ became a regular feature on network television, easily outclassing his opposition and building a reputation as a slick defensive wizard with an arsenal of formidable offensive moves. One of my first recollections of ‘Pete’ beyond his initial pro encounter was seeing him uncharacteristically caught off guard and floored by Rafael Williams in Atlantic City in August 1986. Though a solid journeyman with some talent, Williams was exposed; thoroughly outclassed after ‘Sweet Pea’ climbed off of the canvas, switched gears and literally cruised to an otherwise effortless win. Three fights later, ‘Sweet Pea’ displayed his solid pedigree and competitive spirit by out-slicking and ultimately toying with former WBA World super featherweight champion Roger Mayweather in an encounter that was widely showcased on network television and punctuated by a well publicized pre-fight shoving match between both fighters, then later again by Whitaker’s unceremonious attempt to pull down the sagging trunks of an increasingly depleted ‘Black Mamba’. It was a curious affair that showcased some of the best and worst of Whitaker, most notable being the moment he was floored for his unbecoming antics, his skill-induced arrogance blinding him to the cause of the talented and still dangerous, proud Mayweather, a competitor all of the way and not afraid of being carried out on his shield.

On March 12th 1988 Whitaker looked to have out-slicked the hard punching 100-6 Jose Luis Ramirez for the WBC lightweight title only to be turned back on two of the three score cards in his bid to win the WBC lightweight title. The disappointment of that obvious robbery aside, Whitaker annexed the IBF lightweight title a year later, surprising the doggedly determined and rugged Greg Haugen and his critics with his speed and pinpoint punching, managing to floor the soon to be ex-champ along the way. Two months later in another uncharacteristic demonstration of underrated power and aggression, he defended his new title with an emphatic pasting of the undefeated Louie Lomeli, proving that he had the thump when the occasion and his ambition called for it. A few months after that, Whitaker completely routed his old foe Ramirez in their rematch, rendering him essentially impotent; finally relieving him of WBC lightweight title in the process.

The next big blips on Whitaker’s lightweight score sheet are the unanimous decision win over reigning WBC super featherweight champion Azumah ‘The Professor’ Nelson, another all-time great who managed to prove competitive in a rugged encounter, and the one-round destruction of Juan Nazario in a unification bout that saw the WBA lightweight title added to his ever-growing collection of title belts.

In July 1992, ‘Sweet Pea’ won the IBF light welterweight title, his fourth world title, this time in a second weight class by easily avoiding the dangerous advances of the power punching Rafael Pineda, a powerful Colombian known for bludgeoning his opponents into submission. In that one, ‘Pete’ looked the part of the supreme professional, knowing his queues and diffusing the explosive threat Pineda presented demonstrating the measured precision of a bomb squad expert.

Moving up further in weight, he won the WBC welterweight title in March 1993 from defending champion James ‘Buddy’ McGirt, 59-2-1, an accomplished stylist and two-division champ with old school talent in a rousing and competitive bout that saw several picturesque exchanges. Now a three-division champion and the consensus pound-for-pound king, big fights and big challenges were all that seemingly interested Whitaker, and fortunately for him, there was another undefeated three-division marquee name out there at the time that wanted to win the welterweight title, looking to make it four world titles in four weight divisions. Better yet, the masses figured ‘Pete’ was in way over his head. Only a select few figured on what was about to happen.

In September 1993, ‘Sweet Pea’ underlined his greatness forever, defending his WBC welterweight title against the seemingly impervious 87-0 Julio Cesar Chavez. Despite a ludicrous and loaded official verdict that was ruled a draw, I watched Whitaker take but one round to figure out his opponent before administering a protracted disassembly of a once thought-to-be invincible ring force. On my scorecard I had ‘Pete’ winning by a 10-1-1 count, and I could even make a case for it being 11-1 in his favor, but the judges at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas saw it differently. In any event, history will show that ‘Sweet Pea’ burst the bubble and sullied the legend of ‘J.C. Superstar’, hurting him at various points later in their contest with surprisingly heavy, pinpoint body shots, something not expected of this writer going into the event.

Unable to secure the rematch and perpetually dissatisfied with the money and acclaim that came his way in the aftermath of the Chavez mugging, Whitaker seemed bored cruising through the welterweight ranks in defense of his title. Looking to enhance his standing whilst putting an exclamation point on his legacy and claim to greatness, Whitaker moved-up yet another division, to light middleweight, taking on the heavy-handed Julio Cesar Vasquez in March 1995. Tempting fate against a much larger and more powerful man, Whitaker had to climb off the canvas before out-hustling Vasquez, a fighter that was just a few fights removed from defeating the slick future light middleweight champion, Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright. Winning a wide unanimous decision, Whitaker became a four-division champion in winning the WBA light middleweight title. Larry Merchant, HBO’s celebrated Godfather of boxing, made a very astute observation. “Like any outstanding fighter who is dominant, they move up in weight to look for competition, and sometimes they over extend. It’s sort of like a child who builds a skyscraper out of blocks. You add one you add another one, and still another one, and one time – crash! They all fall down. As great as Pernell Whitaker is, as a classic pure boxer, if he keeps moving up in weight, one of these nights it’ll be his turn to fall down”.

It would be accurate to point out that after relinquishing his WBA light middleweight title in order to move back down to welterweight, and despite further success defending his WBC welterweight title after the Vasquez challenge, Whitaker seemed to largely lose interest in his profession. His arrogance and the boredom that had seemed to work its way into his career was manifest in his less than stellar showings against opposition he would have otherwise once easily routed. The finely contoured musculature and tight midsection he previously brought to each assignment were replaced with a smooth, even lax appearance. Rumors of drug use and run-ins with the law only served to underline his declining state.

In 1997, ‘Sweet Pea’ lost the WBC welterweight title via dubious unanimous decision to three-division champion Oscar De La Hoya in a bout that saw a slight return to form. Showing a semblance of the slippery defensive tactics of his previous years, Whitaker befuddled ‘The Golden Boy’ at various points in their contest, obviously frustrating his foe and even flooring him momentarily at one point in the 9th round, but it wasn’t a classic, stellar showing from ‘Sweet Pea’. His offense was lacking and there were points where he was clowning when he should have been letting his hands go. In my eyes, it looked as though he eked out the matter by a point, but ultimately the judges awarded the verdict to De La Hoya and Whitaker suddenly found himself on the outside looking in.

In February 1999 Pernell challenged long-time IBF welterweight champion Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad. It was a bout long in the making in that as far back as 1994, Whitaker and his team had been trying to make a unification match with the undefeated Puerto Rican star, a tall and talented great that had time and again demonstrated explosive dynamite in either hand. But the Trinidad camp seemed to not want the bout back when Whitaker was still in form, opting only to accept his challenge after a period of significant extended shelf time and the persistent rumors of cocaine use. Showing up as a mere shadow of his former self, Whitaker was floored and pounded at points over an extended 12 rounds that saw him clearly and correctly defeated for the first time in his career. Notable in that encounter were the flashes of defensive brilliance he demonstrated when set-up for the finish by the powerful Trinidad; the still-beating championship heart that took him right up to the final bell, a point driven home by the knowledge after the fact, that in the bout he had had his jaw broken by the Puerto Rican slugger.

‘Sweet Pea’ made a surprising comeback in April of 2001 amidst swirling rumors of jail time and continued drug use against rugged journeyman Carlos Bojorquez at 154lbs. Without going into the matter in great detail, a bloated fraction of the fighter that had conquered every division from lightweight through to light middleweight was soundly battered and sent to the showers early when the match was stopped in the 4th round on the advice of the ringside physician after breaking a clavicle in the 3rd round. It was an inglorious end to a glorious and underrated career. His career total, 40-4-1, 17KO’s (1 no contest)

In 2002 Ring Magazine ranked him at number 10 in their list of The 100 Greatest Fighters of the Last 80 Years. In December 2006, Whitaker was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in his first year of eligibility. Given his body of work, Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker was undeniably one of the all-time greats.