2019 was a fantastic year for boxing but was not without tragedy. On July 14th, 2019, Pernell Whitaker was struck and killed by a moving vehicle. Universally recognised as one of the sport’s most talented fighters of all time, he was elusive, slick and defensive-minded; simply majestic between the ropes, yet flashy, spiteful and dangerous in equal measure. Like many great fighters before, he overcame adversity both in and out of the ring. This is the story of how Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker became the most complete boxer on the planet during the 1990s.
Whitaker came from humble beginnings; the Young Park section of Norfolk, Virginia – well known for its military bases and dangerous neighbourhoods. He was raised by Raymond and Novella Whitaker, alongside his two siblings – brother Raymond Jr, and sister Monique. His parents were strict but did their utmost to provide their children with a stable home life, with an emphasis on good behaviour and hard work.
At the age of eight, Pernell attended his local boxing gym for the first time. His natural ability was apparent, and he instantly fell in love with the sport. He would enjoy a stellar amateur career, claiming silverware all over the globe, including the U.S. Golden Gloves, a silver medal at the 1982 World Boxing Championships, a gold medal at the Pan American Sports Games in 1983, and the biggest amateur prize of them all – Gold at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984.
To his friends and family, Whitaker was known as “Pete” and whilst rising through the amateur ranks, fans would chant “Sweet Pete”. A local reporter misheard the moniker as “Sweet Pea” and the new nickname stuck and endured throughout his career.
Despite Pernell’s claim to have fought over five hundred times as an amateur, his record is reported to be 214 fights, with 201 wins and 91 knockouts. He developed a famous rivalry with the tricky Cuban, Ángel Herrera Vera, who defeated Whitaker in the final of the World Championships in 1982. However, the American returned the favour in the final of the Pan American Games the following year, bringing his record with Vera to four victories and just one defeat.
Pernell was rewarded with a spot on the 1984 United States Olympic Boxing Squad, which proved one of the most talented groups of amateur boxers ever assembled. The team included: Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland, Virgil Hill, Evander Holyfield, Tyrell Briggs and of course, Pernell Whitaker. Half of the members of this squad would go on to earn over a million dollars in the professional game. Sweet Pea was a popular figure within the team and was awarded the role of captain.
Just a few months later, he waved goodbye to his amateur career and joined the paid ranks, guided by popular trainers Lou Duva and George Benton – a talented fighter himself back in the 50s and 60s.
A year into his career, he married Rovanda Anthony in a boxing ring at the Virginia Beach Pavilion Convention Center. They had four children together: Dominque, Pernell Jr, Dantavious, and Devon, before later divorcing.
In his eleventh bout, Pernell faced his first real test in former world champion in Alfredo Layne, whom he outclassed over twelve rounds. Another step up in class saw him take on former super-featherweight and light-welterweight world champion, Roger Mayweather – uncle of Floyd Mayweather Jr. Again, he proved to be too skilled over the distance, beating Mayweather by unanimous decision to pick up his first professional strap, in the form of the NABF lightweight belt.
Stylistically, Whitaker was near-impossible to nail with a clean shot. His cat-like reflexes and defensive instincts enabled him to avoid the majority of punches. His power was rarely concussive, but he combined hand-speed and accuracy to devastating effect.
An opportunity to win his first world championship came knocking in the spring of ’88 and he duly travelled to Paris to meet WBC holder José Luis Ramirez. Despite the hostile Parisian crowd, Whitaker proceeded to box rings around the champion, winning the fight with ease – or so it seemed. After twelve rounds, Ramirez retained his title on a split decision, in what is widely regarded as the biggest robbery in boxing history.
Sweet Pea was not made to wait long before receiving a shot at a different version of the world title, this time against IBF champion Greg Haugen. The fight was held in Hampton, Virginia, not far from his hometown, so he enjoyed a warm reception on the night of the contest – despite Baltic conditions outside the arena. Whitaker was simply different class, claiming every round on all three judges’ scorecards to become IBF champion.
His performance earned him a rematch with Ramirez on home soil, to unify the IBF and WBC strap. This time Whitaker was awarded the justice he deserved, cruising to a unanimous decision. In 1990, he knocked out Juan Nazario for the WBA crown, to unify all three belts. With limited competition remaining at lightweight, he chalked up several routine defences over the next few years, defeating all challengers comfortably.
In 1992, he made the jump to light welterweight. By July, he had picked up the IBF title from Rafael Pineda to become a two-weight world champion. A lack of worthy competitors at 140-pounds meant his stay was brief, gaining seven pounds to move up to welterweight, to pursue more lucrative match-ups.
He looked to become a three-weight champion against WBC champion Buddy McGirt at Madison Square Garden on March 6, 1993. McGirt was talented but was restricted due to an injury to his left arm. Whitaker beat him comfortably over the distance and took home another title. This feat proved significant, as Sweet Pea became just the fourth man in history – after Henry Armstrong, Barney Ross and Roberto Duran – to win world championships in the lightweight and welterweight divisions.
Having ticked several goals off his boxing checklist, his next target was to become the number one pound-for-pound in the sport. He felt that could be achieved by defeating WBC light welterweight holder Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. The Mexican boasted a staggering 87-0 perfect record and was considered God-like in his native Mexico and the Latino population of America.
The bout took place in San Antonio, Texas, so Chavez enjoyed the lion’s share of support. Both men’s WBC belts were on the line, with the winner expected to be crowned the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. The decision, like the first Ramirez bout, proved to be highly contentious and is still spoken about amongst the fight fraternity today.
The contest was ruled a draw, despite Whitaker controlling the action throughout and dominating most of the rounds. The New York Times ran an informal poll with a dozen ringside reporters, with the results ruling ten in favour or Whitaker and two others scoring the fight level.
Although he wasn’t awarded the decision, he did earn the crown of best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. A rematch with Chavez never came to fruition, so Whitaker instead re-matched a fully-fit McGirt, winning without difficulty for a second time.
His next aspiration was to join the elite club of four-weight world champions, so he climbed up to light middleweight to challenge for the WBA crown against the holder, Julio Cesar Vasquez. The American would defeat the Argentine over twelve rounds to secure another world title and further cement his legacy.
The weight climb was short-lived as he moved back down to his more natural welterweight limit. He continued to defend his WBC and lineal titles against below-par opposition, before facing a legitimate challenge in two-weight world champion and superstar, Oscar De La Hoya, in April 1997.
Whitaker would be handed his second career defeat by another contentious decision. The champion used his crafty defence and fluid footwork to evade De La Hoya’s punches, making him look silly on several occasions. However, his preoccupation with defence resulted in a failure to mount consistent attacks. American judges score aggression highly and although arguments can be made for both men, the main issue was the margin of the victory. 111-115, 110-116 and 110-116 for the challenger didn’t accurately reflect what was a close, high-level contest between two elite athletes.
No longer a world champion, for the first time in four years, he was forced to rebuild. He took a final eliminator for the WBA championship, held by Ike Quartey, against Russia’s Andrey Pestryayev. Whitaker won the fight comfortably by decision, however, the fight was later ruled a no-contest because he failed a post-fight drugs test. The subsequent six-month suspension was reversed after he consented to random testing for the Quartey fight. The bout would eventually be cancelled after Whitaker tested positive on a second occasion.
On February 20, 1999, Whitaker challenged unbeaten Puerto Rican prodigy, Félix Trinidad, for the IBF welterweight strap. For arguably the first time in his career, he suffered a legitimate defeat, as Tito proved too strong and too fresh for the fading former champion. This would prove to be Trinidad’s breakout victory, and he would enjoy a highly successful career of his own thereafter.
Realising that his peak years were now behind him, his final outing came against Mexican journeyman Carlos Bojorquez in April 2001. An out of shape Whitaker broke his clavicle in the fourth and was forced to retire, whilst behind on the judges’ scorecards. He announced his retirement following the defeat and bowed out of the sport with an impressive record of 40-4-1, with seventeen of those coming by way of knockout.
A year into his retirement Whitaker was convicted for cocaine possession, violating the terms of a previous sentence for overdosing on the same substance. Despite the lingering shadow of drug and alcohol addiction, he found a new release through training upcoming fighters. Although his physical abilities had diminished, he was eager to impart the wealth of ring-knowledge that had been accumulated over three decades.
He trained lesser-known names such as Dorin Spivey and Joel Julio, but also more popular figures such as Calvin Brock, whom Whitaker helped prepare for a heavyweight title fight against Wladimir Klitschko in 2006. He also worked with former undisputed welterweight champion, Zab Judah.
In 2006, he was recognised for his ring achievements and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, alongside Roberto Durán and Ricardo López – all elected in their first year of eligibility.
Whilst a trainer, Whitaker lived in the wealthy city of Virginia Beach, in relative obscurity. However, he returned to the headlines in February 2014, upon the conclusion of legal proceedings to evict his mother Novella from her home of nearly 30 years. He’d purchased the house for her shortly after turning professional but a hefty tax debt prompted his decision to use equity from the property to fund the payment. The court ruled in his favour and his mother and two siblings were instructed to vacate the property.
On July 14, 2019, he was crossing the intersection of Northampton Boulevard and Barker Road in Virginia Beach when he was hit by a car. Despite the efforts of first-responders, he died at the scene – aged 55.
We dedicate this piece to the late, great Pernell Whitaker – possibly the greatest southpaw and astute defensive combatant of all time.
R.I.P Pernell Whitaker (02/01/1964 – 14/07/2019)