Perhaps nobody embodies the famous boxing idiom coined by Muhammad Ali of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” than Pernell Whitaker. Able to float across the canvas and evade punches with amazing ease, Whitaker had the uncanny ability to suddenly sit on a cross and punish frustrated opponents. Hailed as one of, if not the, best defensive boxer ever, Whitaker combined work ethic, technical brilliance, and more than a bit of style to become one of the best Pound-for-Pound boxers of all time.
Pernell Whitaker was born on January 2, 1964 in the projects of Norfolk, Virginia. Fighting was a fact of life in that environment and Whitaker embraced it. Legend says he would wander around the neighborhood daring anyone to hit him, even adult men. So it comes as no surprise that Whitaker started boxing extremly young, starting to enter amateur competition at age nine. Known as “Sweet Pete” to his friends, the nickname would later be incorrectly reported as “Sweet Pea” and the moniker would stick.
It was rare for serious boxing talent to come out of Virginia, but the young Southpaw proved highly competitive. In his late teens he won the 1982 National AAU Lightweight Championship. He also competed on the international level, winning silver at the 1982 World Amateur Championships in Munuch, Germany. In the final match, Whitaker was faced with Cuban Angel Herrera. The Cuban boxing program is famous for keeping highly talented boxers as amateurs and pitting grown men against the young, up and coming boxers of other nations. Herrera was the Lightweight gold medalist in the previous two Olympic games and defeated Whitaker by a margin of just one round.
The year after losing to him at the World Championships, Whitaker again would fight Herrera, this time for the 1983 Pan American games title. This time Whitaker won all five rounds and claimed the gold medal and would finish his amateur career with a 4-1 record against Herrera.
Pernell Whitaker vs. Angel Herrera 1983
Whitaker was one of only two Americans to win a gold medal at that Pan Am Games, which was dominated by the Cubans that year. Whitaker rode the momentum of that Pan Ams victory to a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. And the kid from Norfolk put on a show for his home nation, not dropping a single round in his four tournament matches.
In the finals Whitaker faced Luiz Oritz of Puerto Rico, a match that was aired on national television. In the match Whitaker would show flashes of the defensive brilliance that would come to define his career.
Pernell Whitaker – 1984 Olympic Finals
The 1984 U.S Boxing team would claim a stunning ten medals and would go down as the best national team in the history of the Summer Games. The gold medal was the cap stone in Whitaker’s amazing twelve year, 201-14 amateur career.
Pernell Whitaker after being presented with the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics
Whitaker’s slick defensive stylings were called cocky, awkward, and also phenomenal by his fellow amateur competitors and coaches. After winning the Olympics Whitaker turned pro under Lou Duva, a boxing manager who had given the young Whitaker some key advice during the Olympic trails. Duva had assembled a team that included Whitaker’s 1984 Olympic teammates Evander Holyfield and Meldrick Taylor.
To help with Whitaker’s development, Duva brought in George Benton, a battle tested inside fighter with a deep knowledge of defensive boxing from Philadelphia turned trainer. Benton was excellent at instilling the finer details of boxing in his students, the tricks that could only be gained through long experience: feints, scattering the jab, proper head movement, how to step on an opponent’s foot to trap them for a fraction of a second.
Whitaker’s natural talent was obvious, even to himself, and it caused some tension in camp as Whitaker was a reluctant student. Benton, along with assistant coach Ronnie Shields, would earn the respect of the young Whitaker and would coach him for 10 years of his professional career.
Whitaker took his first professional fight just a few months after the end of the Olympics on September 15, 1984. The Olympic champion would debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City against then undefeated Farrain Comeaux.
Pernell Whitaker v Farrain Comeaux
Whitaker had his first win under his belt, and took six fights in 1985. The fights were primarily to get Whitaker ring time and experience. In the gym, Whitaker was a tireless worker. He honed his natural reflexes, which were impressive, with countless hours of drilling. He also worked hard on conditioning, mixing together boxing workouts with weight training and running, both distance and sprints. And in addition to all this, there was sparring. Whitaker loved sparring and used it to develop his strengths and fill in the holes in his game.
In early 1986 Whitaker was featured in his first main event against John Montes, whom he defeated by decision. After this big win, the young Virginian took several months off, he had been highly active for over a year at this point. In his return to action Whitaker was matched with 24-2 fighter Rafael Williams, who knocked Whitaker down in the 4th round. Sweet Pea rallied from this to win a fairly one-sided decision.
After that Whitaker got his shot at his first title belt, matched with Roger Mayweather for the vacant North American Boxing Federation (NABF) Lightweight title in a severe test for such a young fighter. At the weigh-ins for this match there was a scuffle and the emotion was carried into the bout. Whitaker dropped Mayweather with a left hand in the first round, and then at the end of the 8th round Whitaker, in clear control of the fight, tugged down Mayweather’s shorts, which were already riding low. At the end of the 11th round Whitaker unleashed a flurry on a trapped Mayweather that very nearly stopped the fight. Whitaker had notched an extremely impressive win very early in his career, but some grumbled about his lack of punching power.
After this win Whitaker took an inexplicable fight against the 0-3 Jim Flores on the undercard of a Texas card, which Whitaker ended in the first round. With that bit of odd business out of the way, Whitaker challenged Miguel Santana for the Untied States Boxing Association (USBA) Lightweight title, while putting his own NABF title on the line. At the time Santana had 21 wins to only a single loss and had just beaten Anthony Fletcher, a Philly fighter with a similar record.
Santana, however, had very little to offer Whitaker, who put one of the more complete performances of his young career. Whitaker showed off his quickly refining defensive skills and committed heavily on his power shots, eventually ending the fight in the 6th round.
Pernell Whitaker vs Miguel Santana
After this win Whitaker traveled to Paris, France to fight Davey Montana and won a quick technical knockout victory. Whitaker was then given a shot at World Boxing Commission (WBC) Lightweight Champion, Jose Luis Ramirez. The two engaged in a lively twelve round fight, but when a Split Decision was awarded to Ramirez, it was generally considered a disgrace of a decision.
After the loss Whitaker again took a staying busy fight against sub .500 fighter Antonio Carter. After getting a quick win there, Sweet Pea was then granted a shot at the International Boxing Federation (IBF) Lightweight champion Greg Haugen and dominated the fight, earning his first major title in professional boxing.
Now the champion, Whitaker was required to defend his title against undefeated Mexican prospect and #1 contender Louie Lomelli. Whitaker would dismiss this challenge with a spiteful let hook
Pernell Whitaker vs. Louie Lomeli
With a major belt around his waist, Whitaker was given a rematch with Jose Luis Ramirez. Since their first meeting, Ramriez had lost his title to Mexican great Julio Cesar Chavez, who had then moved up in weight, vacating the title. The vacant WBC Lightweight title would be contested in the Whitaker and Chavez rematch. Emotions ran high coming into the fight as Ramirez maintained he agreed with the decision that had gone in his favor and instructed Whitaker to watch the tape.
Whitaker took Ramirez’s advice, studied Ramirez on tape and this time around left no doubt of the winner, winning all twelve rounds on two scorecards, and claiming the WBC title for his own. In 1989 Whitaker had won two major titles and beaten three top level boxers, Ring Magazine declared him “Fighter of the Year” and he was already in consideration for being the pound for pound best fighter in the sport.
Whitaker entered 1990 with two major title belts and spent the first half of the year taking two title defenses. First Whitkaer defended against Freddie Pendleton in February and then Azumah Nelson, the #1 Super Featherweight in the World, in May. For August Whitaker faced World Boxing Association (WBA) Lightweight Champion Juan Nazario, who had won the title a few months ago at Madison Square Garden.
Whikater would score a rare first round KO with an overhand left, claiming his third major title and solidifying himself as one of the very best boxers of his era.
Pernell Whitaker vs Juan Nazario
Whitaker would go on to defend his Lightweight titles three times in 1991. Whitaker was at his peak as a fighter. His physical conditioning was superb, his craft had been honed by well over a hundred rounds of professional competition in addition to countless hours in the gym. He was already regarded as a defensive master, and while he was never a heavy-handed knockout artist, he had more than proven he could put down any fighter who attempted to simply walk through his punches. Whitaker had developed into a vicious inside fighter with a devastating body attack that wore opponents down.
Whitaker was 27-years-old at this point, and was firmly the best Lightweight in the world, having thoroughly dominated the competition for three full years. So in a legacy defining decision, Whitaker abandoned Lightweight and moved up to Welterweight, seeking to rule another division.
Whitaker moved up to Light Welterweight, working his way up in weight, against a counter-puncher Harold Brazier and won every round. Sweet Pea, working on bulking up to his new division, then defeated Welterweight journeyman Jerry Smith by first round knockout.
Whitaker then won the International Boxing Federation (IBF) Light Welterweight with a win over Rafael Pineda. He won a throw away fight over a local Virginian, and then defeated James McGirt for the WBC Welterweight title.
With that win Whitaker was set for arguably the biggest fight of his career, Julio Cesar Chavez. Coming into the fight an amazing 87-0, Chavez was a towering figure in the boxing landscape. It is impossible to overstate how beloved Chavez is by Mexican fans, and his absolutely brutal body attack made him a feared knockout artist.
It was a titanic matchup of two all-time greats with a fantastic contrast of styles; the slick defensive mastery of the American Lightweight and Welterweight Champion vs the aggressive, tireless power attack of the undefeated Mexican legend.
Pernell Whitaker vs Julio César Chávez
Whitaker put on a brilliant performance against Chavez, but the fight ended in a Majority Draw, with one judge scoring the fight in favor of Whitaker. It is considered one of the bigger robberies in boxing history and famously made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But even robbed of win, Whitaker still retained his title and snap Chavez’s amazing winning streak. And Sweet Pea would defend his title seven more times across the next four years. In that time he even pick up a Light Middleweight title with a very tough fight over a talented fighter in Julio Cesar Vasquez
In hindsight the move up in weight was a wise move by Whitaker as he wasn’t punishing his body to make weight, which likely help preserve his all important speed and then amplified his speed advantage by fighting up in weight. No longer the quick, cocky kid, Whitaker was now a wily veteran with over ten years of professional fighting under his belt and was considered the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet from 1993 – 1995.
Now 33-years-old in 1997, Whitaker was match with an another Mexican star, the up and coming star Oscar De La Hoya. An American with proud Mexican heritage, De La Hoya had collected the World Boxing Organizing (WBO) Super-Featherweight, Lightweight, and Light-Welterweight titles. To win the most recent title De La Hoya stopped Julio Cesar Chavez in the fourth round in Las Vegas.
At 24, the young Mexican-American power-puncher was nearly a decade junior to Whitaker and was about to enter the prime of his storied career. A fight between the two had been talked about since De La Hoya’s TKO of Chavez and was hotly anticipated once announced.
Whitaker appeared to be in decline to many, coming into the this match Whitaker had lost his pound-for-pound crown to Light Heavyweight star Roy Jones Jr, and in recent fights had struggled with opponents at times many thought he would deal easily with.
However, Whitaker still had one brilliant performance left in him.
Pernell Whitaker vs Oscar De La Hoya
His defense swagger was on full display as he dipped and dodged, bobbed and weaved, around De La Hoya and knocked the challenger down in the ninth round. This was not to say De La Hoya was outclassed, he was extremely aggressive and landed his fair share of punches, but when the judges’ scores cards were read 111-115, 110-116, 110-116 all in favor of De La Hoya, there was controversy. It wasn’t to the same degree as the Chavez fight, but there were many who considered Whitaker the winner.
Whitaker had stated before the fight that win or lose he would like to fight De La Hoya twice, and after the fight the new Champion stated he thought a rematch with Whitaker would be a good idea because he was not happy with his own performance. But the rematch would never come to be as in Whitaker’s bounce back win against Andrey Pestryaev he tested positive for cocaine and was suspend.
Whitaker returned to the ring over a year later in 1999 against Puerto Rican great Felix Trinidad, and received the only clear beating of his career. Whitaker would only fight once more, in 2001 against Carlos Bohorquez in which he would be forced to retire due to an injury. It was a sudden and sad end to a brilliant career.
Sweet Pea now coaches, instilling his vast boxing knowledge to students, including Welterweight Champion Zab Judah and former Heavyweight contender Calvin Brock.
Pernell Whitaker is hailed one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the history of boxing, winning titles in four different weight-classes from Lightweight to Light Middleweight. He is arguably the best Lightweight ever to grace the squared circle, is possibly the best defensive boxer of all time, is a worthy addition to the Gods of War pantheon.
Pernell Whitaker – Can’t Be Touched
Thanks to Bloody Elbow boxing aficionados Brent Brookhouse, Connor Ruebusch, and Kyle McLachlan for their help with this article.
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