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Remembering Sweet Pea

 

By Scoop Malinowski

Pernell Whitaker. Even his name flowed like the paint brush of an artist. And boy, could the Norfolk, Virginia boxer create artistry in the ring.

The four weight division champion – lightweight to light middleweight – died last week when he was hit by a car in Virginia Beach at age 55.

It was a pleasure to cover and watch much of Whitaker’s illustrious career from 1984 to 2001 and I remember many of his live performances. Most of them were one-sided demonstrations of a matador vs. an outclassed bull. He could make the very best look ordinary. Whitaker boxed during a golden era of the sport and was one of the biggest stars in the business.

I first saw him dominate Roger Mayweather on TV in 1987. The next year Sweet Pea earned his first world title shot in March of 1988 in France against WBC Lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez, who he clearly outboxed easily. It was a strange fight, in a strange venue with an even weirder split decision. What really happened? Probably some Jose Sulaiman home cooking for one of his favored WBC Mexican boxers.

Whitaker beat Greg Haugen for his first world title (IBF) and then avenged the loss to Ramirez in 1989 for the WBC belt. He beat Juan Nazario by first round KO in 1990 for the WBA title to unify the divisional titles.

For whatever charisma and color Whitaker lacked out of the ring, he more than compensated for it in the ring with his dazzling boxing skills and moves. He might have been the most elegant, flowing, master the ring has ever shown us. He was trained by George Benton and Lou Duva.

Whitaker’s first big superfight was at Madison Square Garden in 1993 vs. James Buddy McGirt. As usual, Whitaker won another easy decision. He was in a class of his own. My most memorable moment from this evening was seeing Joe Frazier introduced in the ring before the fight. The crowd was electric that night and roared in salute to the Mighty Frazier, who responded to the love by suddenly, instinctively, showing us his shadow boxing style as he ambled across the ring. It was Joe Frazier turning back the clock. Those spontaneous moments just don’t happen anymore in boxing.

After the McGirt win Whitaker beat Julio Cesar Chavez in San Antonio’s Alamo Dome but Jose Sulaiman or Don King’s judges ruled it a draw.

In 1995, Whitaker added the WBA Light Middleweight title to his collection by dominating the burly Argentine Julio Cesar Vasquez in Atlantic City. I was there for that and his next win vs Brit Gary Jacobs. Whitaker events were must-see for the boxing world.

In 1997, the 33 year old Whitaker also barely beat Oscar De La Hoya but again the judges saw it differently and gave the decision to the money maker. He lost the WBC Welterweight title he had won from McGirt. This was the last hurrah of Whitaker’s career.

McGirt beat Andre Pestrayev later in 1997 but the win was voided by a failed drug test.

At 35, the fading Whitaker challenged Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden in 1999 but absorbed brutal punishment at the hands of the devastating Puerto Rican. An hour after the fight in the bowels of the Garden, Whitaker could be seen crying, literally crying in pain and agony, that’s how much of a physical beating his body suffered that night.

Whitaker tried to fight once more in 2001 in Stateline, Nevada but he was a shell of himself and lost to Mexican Carlos Bojorquez by TKO 4.

Whitaker finished with a 40-4-1 record. He was inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006, in his first year of eligibility, with Roberto Duran and Ricardo Lopez.

I only managed to interview Whitaker once by telephone, set up by Main Events in the early 90s. There was nothing memorable from the interview except he said he never bothered to watch any film of his opponents.

To him, presumably, all boxers were all the same and he was on a different plane. But there was something very special and different about the one and only Pernell Whitaker, one of the greatest boxing artists in history.

 

 

 

 

 

About Scoop Malinowski

Author of six books including "Muhammad Ali: Portrait of a Champion" and "Heavyweight Armageddon: The Lewis versus Tyson Championship Battle" available at amazon