The Fighting Life Of Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker
By Sina Latif
It was on this day last year, 14 July 2019, when a boxing great died aged 55.
Although the greatness of Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker is largely appreciated amongst the pugilistic community, the extent of his greatness is arguably under-appreciated. He was not a devastating puncher racking up highlight-reel knockouts, nor an outrageous bragger who makes headlines and sells tickets.
As a result, one of the greatest boxers to ever lace a pair of gloves never received the credit or recognition he truly deserved.
The reason for this was his pure brilliance.
Whitaker was arguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of his generation and his ring excellence did not provide the excitements fans crave.
People like to witness knockouts, or two fighters punching the living daylights out of one another in a brutal war. With Whitaker, fans would not witness this because he was a defensive wizard, almost impossible to hit. Many of his fights were so one-sided and although they weren’t particularly exciting in terms of action for spectators, his opponents would always realise he is special.
It is imperative to take into consideration when outlining his phenomenal defensive abilities, these opponents that Whitaker appeared to be floating past were world class fighters, fellow Hall of Famers, and they just couldn’t hit him cleanly. Fans simply cannot witness the excitement they crave when a fighter is so defensively adept he cannot be hit.
However crazy it sounds, it’s difficult to not feel a sense of regret for this fighter who won six titles in four weight divisions.
Whitaker is one of the unluckiest fighters ever. The only thing seemingly able to beat a prime Whitaker was not another boxer, but boxing politics. They took what would have been great wins away from him when he clearly outboxed Jose Luis Ramirez and an undefeated Julio Cesar Chavez, and arguably beat Oscar De La Hoya too.
Nevertheless, the hardcore fans and true supporters of the sweet science have respect and admiration for the fighter nicknamed ‘Sweet Pea’, and have not allowed what Lewis referred to as ‘politricks’ to defeat Whitaker.
When boxing historians are mentioning modern greats such as Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard alongside the great boxers of old such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong, Whitaker should be mentioned alongside them. The Virginia-born southpaw is one of the greatest defensive fighters of all time.
‘Sweet Pea’ was Olympic gold medallist for the legendary US team at the Los Angeles 1984 Games, and subsequently became a four-weight division champion.
After 15 consecutive victories to kick-start his professional career, Whitaker lost a very controversial points decision in one of the worst decisions in boxing history to Jose Luis Ramirez in a world lightweight title challenge for the WBC belt.
Even in his first professional career setback, Whitaker showed everyone that he is a potential all-time great. In his 16th fight, against a fighter with a record of 100-6 who had turned professional at 14 years of age, Whitaker’s ring generalship, defensive prowess and timing was brilliant.
A year later in 1989, Whitaker won his first lightweight world title, the IBF strap, beating Greg Haugen in a convincing points victory, flooring Haugen for the first time in his career. This started one of the most distinguished lightweight reigns ever.
After one defence of his title against Louie Lomeli, Sweet Pea got an early chance for redemption in a rematch against Ramirez, and got his revenge, adding the vacant WBC title to his IBF belt.
Deservingly, Sweet Pea was named Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1989.
In 1990, Whitaker inflicted a first defeat in 8 years on Azumah Nelson.
Sweet Pea then knocked out WBA lightweight champion Juan Nazario in the first round to become the first undisputed lightweight champion since Duran.
Whitaker proceeded and embarked on an era of glory, beginning his domination of the sport over the next few years, which stretched until 1997.
In 1992, he defeated Rafael Pineda to become IBF super-lightweight champion.
Then in March 1993, Whitaker became the lineal and WBC welterweight champion after outpointing James “Buddy” McGirt.
This set up “The Fight” against the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
By the time he was in the ring set to face Chavez at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, in front of a 60,000 crowd, Whitaker was on a 17-fight winning streak and was a three-weight division champion at lightweight, super lightweight and welterweight.
Whitaker was defending his WBC welterweight title against an undefeated Chavez with a mind-boggling record of 87-0 with 75 KO’s, and instead of running away, Whitaker did everything he could to accommodate the fight happening, and once it did, he showed everybody just how special he really was.
He out-boxed Chavez and should have become the first man to defeat the legendary Mexican, but got awarded a draw after a shocking judges decision. Nevertheless, that night, Whitaker established his pound-for-pound supremacy.
In 1995, Whitaker beat the considerably bigger Julio Cesar Vasquez to become WBA super-welterweight champion, only the fourth fighter in history after Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard to become a four-weight division champion.
In the latter stages of Whitaker’s career, drugs and alcohol began to take effect, but this wasn’t before cementing a lasting legacy.
Sweet Pea’s last great performance was against De La Hoya in 1997. De La Hoya was the 1992 Olympic gold medallist with a record of 23-0 with 20 KO’s, and was a three-weight division champion, having won titles at super-featherweight, lightweight and super-lightweight.
De La Hoya audaciously faced Whitaker, who was making the 9th defence of his WBC welterweight title, on his 147lbs debut. Though not as controversial as the Ramirez and Chavez fights, Whitaker harshly lost on points yet again. Many observers felt he had beaten his younger and bigger foe. This was the most controversial fight of De La Hoya’s career.
His last few fights were marred by issues with drugs and injuries, but these did not take away from the legendary career Sweet Pea had.
Whitaker was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006.
The main objective of boxing is simple, ‘hit and don’t get hit’, and with that in mind, if ever one wants to see what perfection inside a boxing ring looks like, just watch Sweet Pea in full flow.