Boxing legend Pernell 'Sweet Pea' Whitaker dead at 55

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Pernell Whitaker, who forged a reputation as arguably the greatest defensive boxer who ever lived, died late Sunday in Virginia Beach, Virginia, when he was struck by a car while crossing a bridge. He was pronounced dead on the scene.

He was 55.

A gold-medal winner on the legendary 1984 U.S. Olympic team, Whitaker was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006, his first year of eligibility. He won world championships at lightweight, super lightweight, welterweight and super welterweight. He was the lineal champion at lightweight and welterweight.

At his peak, he was almost impossible to hit, fighting out of a crouch and swiveling like a corkscrew out of the way of punches.

“He was an original and will be remembered as one of the most talented boxers of all-time,” his promoter, Kathy Duva, said. “ … While he was far from a perfect human being, he was pretty close to a perfect fighter. In the ring was where he was most happy and in control. I will choose to remember him in the pocket, making his opponent miss and letting the world know that nobody could touch him.

“I love him very much, in spite of and because of his flaws. I’m going to miss him very much.”

Pernell Whitaker (R) lands a punch against Azumah Nelson during a May 19, 1990, fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Pernell Whitaker defended the WBC lightweight title and IBF lightweight title. (Getty Images)

Whitaker, who was 40-4-1 with 17 knockouts and a no contest, was also on the wrong end of two of the worst decisions in boxing history.

The most famous of those was his Sept. 10, 1993, majority draw in San Antonio, Texas, with Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. for the WBC and lineal welterweight title. Whitaker seemed to badly outbox Chavez, who entered the fight 87-0 with 75 knockouts, but two of the three judges called it a draw.

In his account of the fight in the Sept. 20, 1993, edition of Sports Illustrated, the late William Nack wrote, “Whitaker’s boxing exhibition was a tactical and technical virtuosity that at times led Chavez on a bewildered, groping circuit of the ring, as if Chavez were chasing wisps of ringside smoke. That Whitaker, in a perverse reward for his brilliance, needed to plead for respect and recognition underscored how badly justice had been served.”

While he was too proud to admit defeat, the great Chavez admitted he’d had difficulty in the bout.

“I feel a little bit beat up," Chavez said. "It was a difficult fight. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything better. I still think that I forced the fight, I kept going forward. There was something I kept doing wrong.”

The draw with Chavez, though, was not even the worst bad decision of Whitaker’s career. His first loss came five years earlier in France, when he seemed to outbox José Luis Ramírez but dropped a split decision.

Pernell Whitaker grimaces as he listens to the judges' decision following his title fight with Julio Cesar Chavez in San Antonio in 1993. (Getty Images)

The New York Times, in its March 13, 1988, edition, wrote, “Whitaker … appeared to have an easy time from the start and was peppering the champion with right jabs throughout the fight.”

He came back and defeated Ramirez the next year to capture the IBF and WBC lightweight belts.

Among the elite fighters Whitaker defeated in his professional career were Hall of Famers Buddy McGirt and Azumah Nelson, Ramirez and Roger Mayweather.

In 1995, he became just the fourth boxer to win world titles in four weight classes when he moved up to super welterweight and outboxed Julio Cesar Vasquez to win the WBA title.

Whitaker never defended that belt, moving back to welterweight and defending his WBC belt five more times. That led to an April 12, 1997, showdown in Las Vegas with Oscar De La Hoya. Whitaker was 33 at the time and slowing down, while De La Hoya was 24 and on the rise.

Whitaker, though, was typically brilliant and out-landed De La Hoya 232 to 191. Whitaker denounced the decision after as similar to those disappointments he’d suffered against Ramirez and Chavez, though in a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll of journalists who’d covered the fight, 14 scored it for Whitaker, 11 for De La Hoya and one had it a draw.

Nonetheless, Whitaker believed deeply he’d won and said, “I was robbed. What happened to me tonight was what happened to me before.”

Whitaker had personal issues outside the ring and was convicted of cocaine possession in 2002. He had five children, though he was predeceased by his son, Pernell Jr. He is survived by sons Dominique, Dantavious and Devon and daughter, Tara.

Services are pending.


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