Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker

By Jim Galiano.

Years ago, an article about lightweight champion Pernell Whitaker happened to catch my attention. I wasn’t what you’d call a big Whitaker fan. In fact, it took many years before I actually came to appreciate his sublime boxing skills and ring accomplishments.

As a local reporter was covering an amateur tournament Whitaker was competing in, he was taking notes when he heard a group of Whitaker’s friends chanting “Sweet Pea, Sweat Pea” during his fight. The reporter attached the nickname to Pernell Whitaker in the final draft of his report. The only problem was, his friends were actually chanting “Sweet Pete” – not “Pea.” It was too late. The name stuck. “Sweet Pea” Whitaker was born.

Pernell Whitaker went on to win a gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games and was also the team’s captain. It was one of the last great, high-profile teams featuring such standout fighters as Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland, Evander Holyfield, Virgil Hill and himself.

Whitaker was a pure boxer and completely unapologetic about his safety-first style. With only 17 stoppages in his eventual 40 wins, Pernell Whitaker won by employing “the sweet science” as opposed to  brute force.  As far as pure, God-given boxing skills go, Whitaker may have been without peer among his contemporaries. He once told an interviewer, “I’m just not ferocious, and I don’t equate ferocity with greatness. I’m slick and classy and graceful and I think, in time, people will recognize my artistry in the ring and give me my due.”

Whitaker turned pro on November 15, 1984 in Madison Square Garden along with several of his fellow Olympians who signed with Lou Duva & Company.  From an Olympic gold medal to a televised pro-debut at Madison Square Garden – it’s hard to get off to a better start than that. He wound up stopping a fighter named Farrain Comeaux in the 2nd round.

He feasted on the “usual suspects” as most up and coming fighters do. His first real test against a seasoned opponent occurred on August 16, 1986 at The Sands Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. His opponent was Rafael Williams, whose record stood at 24-2. Although he defeated Williams by a clear-cut, unanimous decision, Whitaker was sent to the canvas for the first time in his career in the 4th round. It would be accurate to say that Pernell Whitaker didn’t exactly have an iron chin. He could be hurt. On the few occasions he did get nailed with a big shot and hurt, he was very adept at bear-hugging his opponents and holding on until his head cleared. He just protected his chin and head from punches so well – it became a moot point against most opponents.

As Whitaker’s career progressed, he began to incorporate “hot-dogging” antics more frequently into many of his bouts. I personally believe this was Whitaker’s way of adding a little bit of emotion into his fights to counter those who criticized his style and his overall entertainment value. Personally, the hot-dogging attitude was one of the main things that made me root against him on several occasions.

By the time the mid-80’s had arrived, the depth of the lightweight division was a fraction of what it had been in decades past. The general belief has always been, there’s no such thing as a fighter with so much talent – there isn’t anyone who can push them to their uttermost limits. Not unless the division is weak. If this was true of Ray Robinson in his time, arguably the greatest fighter who ever lived, it would be true of anyone in any era.

As the sport’s popularity waned with the general public, so did the number of participants turning to the sport to make a living. Professional Basketball, Football, Baseball and other sports were certainly viable alternatives for young athletes as opposed to taking punches for a living.

In boxing, the balance between winning fights and entertaining fans can be a tricky one. Most fans are not as quick to embrace the sublime aspects of the sport as they are the more brutal, ferocious ones.

By the time Pernell Whitaker faced a very good Roger Mayweather for the NABF lightweight belt in front of his hometown fans at the Scope arena in Norfolk, Virginia, his defensive abilities had evolved from good – to great. Mayweather was dropped briefly in the opening round. He returned the favor in the 9th. When the fight went to the scorecards, Pernell Whitaker had his first belt via unanimous decision. He defended the minor belt against Miguel Santana in front of his hometown fans four months later. He stopped Santana in six, one-sided rounds.

A tune-up bout followed. Then, on March 12, 1988, Whitaker stepped through the ropes to face the defending WBC Lightweight Champion – Jose Luis Ramirez. Ramirez boasted an amazing record of 100-6. Ramirez pressed the action but landed infrequently while eating counterpunches in return. When the fight went to the scorecards, most viewers assumed Whitaker would be crowned the new champion. Instead, Ramirez kept his title by split decision. At time, I couldn’t help but wonder if the judges hadn’t penalized Whitaker for clowning too much. While he certainly outpunched Ramirez throughout, his punches never came close to rattling or even slowing the stoic-faced Mexican down.

Still, Ramirez’s aggression through the fight was anything but effective. Either way you look at it, Whitaker was on the receiving end of a bad decision.

Eleven months later, Whitaker received another shot – this time against IBF Champion – Greg Haugen.  A perfectly timed hook dumped Haugen on his backside for the first time in his career in the 6th round and Whitaker went on to lift Haugen’s title via 12-round unanimous decision. An easy first defense against an overmatched Louie Lomeli followed which set up a return against Jose Luis Ramirez. The fight took place right in Whitaker’s backyard at the Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia. This time Whitaker was all business – zero clowning. He completely shut Ramirez down from the opening bell. When the bout went to the scorecards, he had scored a shutout on two of the three scorecards – winning every single round.

Wins against a tricky Freddie Pendleton and tough Azumah Nelson followed. Both were decision wins. A rare first round knockout victory over Juan Nazario three months after the Nelson victory added the WBA belt to his WBC, IBF collection. Pernell Whitaker had become the first fighter since Roberto Duran to unite the Lightweight title.

A prime Whitaker stood atop the lightweight mountain at the close of 1990.  In boxing, knockouts are scored by two kinds of punches. The kind that carry brute force… and the kind the opponents never see. It was with the latter that Pernell Whitaker scored the majority of his stoppages. Three title defenses of the undisputed title followed in 1991 – each by unanimous decision.

Then, in 1992, Pernell Whitaker stepped up in weight. He challenged the IBF Jr. Welterweight Champion, Rafael Pineda on July 18th and took his title by unanimous decision. Pineda was a slow puncher and didn’t stand a chance. Whitaker once again jumped up in weight and added James “Buddy” McGirt’s WBC Welterweight title to his collection in March of 1993. It was a tough fight that McGirt was doing very well in until he suddenly abandoned his jab. Whitaker dug deep and outworked McGirt down the stretch – pulling out a close but unanimous decision victory.

In what should have been the biggest fight of his career, his first defense would be against the undefeated Mexican legend – Julio Caesar Chavez. Chavez was the reigning WBC – Jr. Welterweight Champion and was rising in weight to face Whitaker. With a record of 87-0, he was considered to be an invincible fighting machine by many experts. Trainers Lou Duva and George Benton crafted the perfect fight plan for the Chavez fight and he executed with style on October 10, 1993 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas before a crowd of roaring Chavez supporters.

When the fight ended it appeared that Whitaker had captured a clear-cut decision victory. Moments before the scorecards were read, commentator Bobby Czyz said, “I think you’ve just witnessed the best performance of his career – bar none.”

The judges, however, saw it differently and scored the fight a draw.

Whitaker shook off the setback and went on to defend his WBC Welterweight title and even stepped up in weight one last time to collect the WBA Jr. Middleweight title from Julio Caesar Vasquez.

It wasn’t until 1996 until the first signs of “slippage” began to occur. On April 12th, he struggled in capturing a 12-round split decision victory over Wilfredo Rivera. Rivera was given an immediate rematch and Whitaker came away with a close, but unanimous decision. In his very next bout, he struggled against Cuban Diosbelys Hurtado and, behind on all three of the judges’ scorecards by varying degrees, poured it on and stopped Hurtado in the 11th round.

Some people said that Pernell Whitaker had begun using cocaine at this point in life, but it’s difficult to say either way. In his next bout, he would lose his WBC Welterweight title to a young, undefeated, Oscar DeLaHoya. I watched the fight, and like many of Whitaker’s fights, he landed more punch, made DeLaHoya miss more punches… but didn’t capture the hearts and minds of the most important people – the judges at ringside.

DeLaHoya captured the title by scores of 115-111 and 116-110 (twice).

With this loss, Pernell Whitaker’s record stood at 40-1-1. Yet, one could make a strong case that he’d never actually been beaten in his entire career.

Six months after the DeLaHoya fight, Whitaker returned to face Andrey Pestryaev in what was called an eliminator bout for the WBA Welterweight title. A decision victory for Whitaker was overturned when he later tested positive for cocaine. He wouldn’t fight again for another year. You could say 1998 was a bad year for Pernell Whitaker. With multiple driving infractions piling up, including one for driving under the influence of alcohol, he entered a drug rehabilitation facility.

Whitaker returned to action in February of 1999. He did so against the undefeated Puerto Rican slugger, Felix Trinidad. Trinidad’s height, reach and jab proved too much for Pernell Whitaker to overcome. Whitaker took more punishment against Trinidad than he ever had before in his entire career. He dropped a 12-round unanimous decision but refused to fold against Trinidad’s pressure and was standing when the final bell sounded.

He would fight one final time, two years later, in 2001. The fight was against an unheralded fighter named Carlos Bojorquez who sported a modest record of 14-2-5. The fight was stopped in the 4th round on the advice of the ringside physician after Whitaker broke his collarbone while throwing a punch.  His problems with sobriety, the police and cocaine seemed to continue throughout 2001.

Today, it seems as though Pernell Whitaker has finally put the worst problems of the past behind him. As a fighter, it’s all too easy to look at him with a critical eye. There were times during his prime years that he often seemed to run out of gas during the championship rounds. Other times, when hurt, he’d practically bear hug an opponent until his head cleared. Cases have been made that fighters like Chavez, Roger Mayweather and others weren’t in top physical condition when they faced him – or, had injuries that were unknown to the media at the time.

The bottom line, however, was simply this; Pernell Whitaker was a winner and world champion in four different weight classes. He won titles at Lightweight, Jr. Welterweight, Welterweight and Jr. Middleweight. He undeniably had one some of the best defensive skills of his era – if not the very best. He logged approximately 16 title defenses into his Hall of Fame career. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that on the right night, he could have out-boxed any lightweight who ever lived. Yes, I believe a fighter like Duran at Lightweight or Hearns or Leonard at Welterweight could have beaten him… but it’s not a stretch to see him out-boxing them either – on the right night.

It took Ray Leonard 15 rounds to finally catch and Wilfred Benitez, another defensive genius comparable to Pernell Whitaker. Is it so difficult imaging him having as much difficulty with Whitaker? Against Benitez, Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns had to settle for a decision win. To assume Whitaker couldn’t have given Leonard and Hearns as much trouble as Benitez doesn’t seem too grounded in the obvious facts. And yes, I can picture either man catching him and stopping him as well.

As time and distance enables us to put the career or Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker in better perspective, I think it’s finally time to give the guy the only thing he really asked for throughout his career… a little respect. Here’s to Sweat Pea Whitaker – you’ve earned you due in this writer’s opinion as one of the great boxers of the modern era.

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