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RSR Looks Back at an Underrated All Time Great: Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker

By Mike “Rubber Warrior” Plunkett

Often RSR’s Managing Editor Geno McGahee and I will engage in a back and forth via email when the mood and moment demand entertaining distraction. The man knows his boxing and frankly I like his no-holds barred style of laying down a good point As is so often the case, our dialogue segued into another topic altogether, it turned into to talk of another smallish southpaw, this time about a fighter that had given a Zen Lesson to the very best of each division he conquered, that being four weight classes over a career that spanned some seventeen years. Our back and forth quickly became a rehash of our feelings and views towards Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, his extraordinary career as the slickest of the slick, and of course his place in history , as we both saw it, as an all-time great.

Fast forward to the present and George Diaz Smith and I are having one of our regular friendly disputes on RSR’s General Boxing forum regarding our oft at-odds views on fighters and fight politics as they pertain to the present. George is one of those great minds that views people and events and the politics that form those factors in what I have learned is an array of different ways. There are many subtle shades of color when he looks at something that may not necessarily be readily apparent to everybody else, but I have long since learned to pay attention to his points. In any event, our back and forth about somebody or another ultimately segued into talk of Whitaker. George would put up and from there I would look to dispute his stance on Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran, Kostya Tszyu, and if I could find a way, even his favorite actor and former next door neighbor, Erik Estrada, all as they pertain to “Sweet Pea”, dream match-ups and all-time ranking. So off of those two recent happenings I decided that the time was right to “put up” just a little on one of my favorite all-time fighters with a look back at his notable career and accomplishments.

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 revealed to be a few classes short of Whitaker’s level after “Pete” 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 Super Featherweight champion Roger Mayweather in an encounter that was punctuated by a well publicized pre-fight shoving match between both fighters, then later 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 Mayweather, a man bent on going out on his shield, the superior talent of his foe be damned.

On March 12th 1988 I watched “Sweet Pea” out-slick the 100-6 Jose Luis Ramirez 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 surprising power, managing to floor the soon to be ex-champ along the way. Two months later in another uncharacteristic demonstration of power and aggression, he defended his new title with an emphatic pasting of the undefeated Louie Lomeli, proving that he had underrated 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 and relieving him of his WBC 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, a 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 an 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, 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 defending his title and in the process 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 ninth round, but it wasn’t a classic, stellar showing from “Sweet Pea”. His offense was lacking commensurate to the offerings of his foe and there were points where he should have been letting his hands go or capitalizing on the moment when he was clowning. In my eyes, it looked as though he salvaged the matter by a point, but ultimately the judges awarded the points to Oscar 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 twelve 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 and 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.

“Pete” made a surprising return 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 imposter of “Sweet Pea” arrived for duty and was sent to the showers early when the match was stopped in round four on the advice of the ringside physician after breaking a clavicle in the third round. It was an inglorious end to a glorious and underrated career.

Getting back to the issue of my online sparring with RSR’s resident Boxing Historian George Diaz Smith over Pernell Whitaker’s net worth among a plethora of greats such as Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran, Wilfred Benitez, Aaron Pryor and even Kostya Tszyu, I believe that if I have seen any fighter equipped to defeat those great fighters over my thirty-plus years following the sport, it would be “Sweet Pea”. I realize that some of you reading this will scoff or dismiss my assertions out of hand, but the evidence is there that he had the talent, the drive, the speed and the style to make each of them have to dig down as deep or deeper than they ever had to in order to stay competitive with him. The very best brought out the best in Whitaker and in any fantasy match-up you would have to measure against the very best, the sharpest and slickest variant of Whitaker and somewhere in there hope to come out with a realistic scenario on the outcome. Think about it. If Ray Leonard was able to convince the macho Roberto Duran to simply up and quit in the heat of battle in front of the whole world, giving up a title in the process, there’s a very great chance that “Sweet Pea” would have made him piss from his ears after six or eight rounds.

Love him or hate him, as a fighter and multi-division world champion Pernell Whitaker was truly one for the ages.

Pernell Whitaker
Nickname: “Sweet Pea”
Division: Lightweight
Professional Record: 40-4-1, 17 KO’s

Date Opponent Location Result

1984-11-15 Farrain Comeaux New York, US W TKO 2

1985-01-20 Danny Avery Atlantic City, US W TKO 4
1985-03-13 Mike Golden Norfolk, US W TKO 4
1985-04-20 Nick Parker Corpus Christi, US W UD 6
1985-07-20 John Senegal Norfolk, US W TKO 2
1985-08-29 Teddy Hatfield Atlanta, US W KO 3
1985-11-12 Jesus De la Cruz Norville, US W KO 1

1986-03-09 John Montes Hampton, US W UD 10
1986-08-16 Rafael Williams Atlantic City, US W UD 10
1986-10-09 Rafael Gandarilla New York, US W UD 10
1986-12-20 Alfredo Layne Norfolk, US W UD 10

1987-03-28 Roger Mayweather Norfolk, US W UD 12
NABF Lightweight Title
1987-06-28 Jim Flores Houston, US W KO 1
1987-07-25 Miguel Santana Norfolk, US W TKO 6
NABF Lightweight Title
USBA Lightweight Title
1987-12-19 Davey Montana Paris, FR W TKO 4

1988-03-12 Jose Luis Ramirez Levallois-Perret, FR L SD 12
WBC Lightweight Title
1988-11-02 Antonio Carter Virginia Beach, US W TKO 4

1989-02-18 Greg Haugen Hampton, US W UD 12
IBF Lightweight Title
1989-04-30 Louie Lomeli Norfolk, US W TKO 3
IBF Lightweight Title
1989-08-20 Jose Luis Ramirez Norfolk, US W UD 12
vacant WBC Lightweight Title
IBF Lightweight Title
1989-12-11 Martin Galvan Paris, FR W TKO 3

1990-02-03 Freddie Pendleton Atlantic City, US W UD 12
WBC Lightweight Title
IBF Lightweight Title
1990-05-19 Azumah Nelson Las Vegas, US W UD 12
WBC Lightweight Title
IBF Lightweight Title
1990-08-11 Juan Nazario Stateline, US W KO 1
WBC Lightweight Title
WBA World Lightweight Title
IBF Lightweight Title
1990-11-22 Benjie Marquez Madrid, ES W UD 10

1991-02-23 Anthony Jones Las Vegas, US W UD 12
WBC Lightweight Title
WBA World Lightweight Title
IBF Lightweight Title
1991-07-27 Policarpo Diaz Norfolk, US W UD 12
WBC Lightweight Title
WBA World Lightweight Title
IBF Lightweight Title
1991-10-05 Jorge Paez Reno, US W UD 12
WBC Lightweight Title
WBA World Lightweight Title
IBF Lightweight Title

1992-01-18 Harold Brazier Philadelphia, US W UD 10
1992-05-22 Jerry Smith Mexico City, MX W KO 1
1992-07-18 Rafael Pineda Las Vegas, US W UD 12
IBF Light Welterweight Title
1992-12-01 Ben Baez Virginia Beach, US W KO 1

1993-03-06 James McGirt New York, US W UD 12
WBC Welterweight Title
1993-09-10 Julio Cesar Chavez San Antonio, US D PTS 12
WBC Welterweight Title

1994-04-09 Santos Cardona Norfolk, US W UD 12
WBC Welterweight Title
1994-10-01 James McGirt Norfolk, US W UD 12
WBC Welterweight Title

1995-03-04 Julio Cesar Vasquez Atlantic City, US W UD 12
WBA World Light Middleweight Title
1995-08-26 Gary Jacobs Atlantic City, US W UD 12
WBC Welterweight Title
1995-11-18 Jake Rodriguez Atlantic City, US W KO 6
WBC Welterweight Title

1996-04-12 Wilfredo Rivera Cupecoy Bay, St Maarten, W SD 12
WBC Welterweight Title
1996-09-20 Wilfredo Rivera Miami, US W UD 12
WBC Welterweight Title

1997-01-24 Diosbelys Hurtado Atlantic City, US W TKO 11
WBC Welterweight Title
1997-04-12 Oscar De La Hoya Las Vegas, US L UD 12
WBC Welterweight Title
1997-10-17 Andrey Pestryaev Mashantucket, US NC ND 12

1999-02-20 Felix Trinidad New York, US L UD 12
IBF Welterweight Title

2001-04-27 Carlos Bojorquez Stateline, US L TKO 4

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