Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker was no ordinary boxer, his achievements were many, he won Olympic Gold, he won multiple versions of the world Lightweight title and conquered four weight divisions as a professional, but what really set him aside was his uniqueness.
Sweet Pea was likened to Connecticut Featherweight Willie Pep, a world champion during the 1940’s who excelled at making opponents miss even when he fought right in front of them. Pernell could do the same and the fans loved it. Not blessed with devastating power the young Whitaker learnt at an early age that boxing’s oldest saying ‘hit but don’t get hit’ was made for him.
It wasn’t that ‘Sweet Pea’ couldn’t land with power, he scored 17 stoppages in his 40 wins, but his hit and not get hit style meant that his feet weren’t planted on the canvas the way bigger punchers were, hence he became one of the game’s greatest ever defensive wizards.
In 1984 Whitaker represented his country at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. The 1984 USA Olympic boxing squad:
– Super heavyweight – Gold
Henry Tillman – Heavyweight – Gold
Evander Holyfield – Light heavyweight – Bronze
Virgil Hill – Middleweight – Silver
Frank Tate – Super welterweight – Gold
Mark Breland – Welterweight – Gold
Jerry Page – Super lightweight – Gold
Pernell Whitaker – Lightweight – Gold
Meldrick Taylor – Featherweight – Gold
Robert Shannon – Bantamweight – 3rd Round
Steve McCrory – Flyweight – Gold
Paul Gonzales – Light flyweight – Gold
The 1984 games suffered from a Soviet boycott that meant no Russians or Cubans participated. Although that may have diminished the success the American team achieved it is still interesting that six of its members went on to win world titles in the professional ranks.
Whitaker was a hot property and the major promoters fought for his signature but it was Main Events Promotions run by the Duva family that looked after his career.
After 15 straight wins, Pernell was matched with WBC Lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez (100-6-0) in Paris, France. The 12 round split decision given to Ramirez is considered one of the most outrageous ever in boxing history. Only 2 fights later the Virginian became a Lightweight world champion for the first time when he floored and outpointed super tough Greg Haugen for the IBF version.
2 months after winning the title, Whitaker defended it at The Scope Arena in hometown Norfolk, stopping Louie Lomeli (24-0-0) in the 3rd round. This setup a rematch with Ramirez, this time at The Scope Arena and with both the WBC and IBF titles on the line. This time Whitaker won a clear unanimous decision.
Successful defences against future champion Freddie Pendleton and reigning WBC Super featherweight champion Azumah Nelson setup a unification bout with WBA champion Juan Nazario. Pernell ripped the title away from the Puerto Rican champion in the 1st round.
After another 3 title defences, Whitaker moved up and won the IBF Super lightweight title from Rafael Pineda before taking the WBC Welterweight title from James ‘Buddy’ McGirt. In a huge event called simply ‘The Fight’, Whitaker defended his Welterweight title against all-time great Julio Caesar Chavez at The Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas on September 10th 1993.
Once again, Whitaker got the wrong end of a decision that many saw as a robbery. Judges Mickey Vann and Franz Marti both scored the bout 115-115, overruling Jack Woodruff’s 115-113 in favour of ‘Sweet Pea’. The majority draw may not have been as blatant as the first Jose Luis Ramirez decision but it is still seen to this day as poor judging.
In March 1995, Whitaker moved up again and won the WBA Super welterweight title from tough Argentinian Julio Cesar Vasquez (53-1-0). This time though he moved back down and made a further five defences of his Welterweight strap before losing a controversial unanimous decision to Oscar De La Hoya.
As a way back to world championship status, Whitaker was matched in a WBA title eliminator with Russian Andrey Pestryaev. After winning a tight decision Whitaker failed a drug test and the result was changed to a No-Contest.
By now, Cocaine addiction had tainted the Virginian’s skills and he lost by unanimous decision to Felix Trinidad for the IBF Welterweight title in February 1999 and then by 4th round Tko to Carlos Bojorquez in April 2001.
Like so many genius’s, Pernell Whitaker had a troubled life outside the ring and it would be Cocaine addiction that provided the hardest fight he ever fought.
The question has to be asked; what would or could Whitaker have achieved if he had never come into contact with Cocaine?
We will never know the answer to that question, but as we celebrate the life and career of a boxer that we have to rank in the top 5 Lightweights in boxing history, lets hope he is up there explaining to Benny Leonard how he wouldn’t have been able to land a glove on him.