The first time I saw Pernell Whitaker box was in the early 1990’s. My brother called me over to watch one of his fights on TV(before the days of pay per view and fights were available on channels such as Sky Sports and Eurosport). Whitaker was regarded as the best boxer in the world at the time, and as I sat down and watched the fight unfold, it was easy to see why…
Whitaker wasn’t like Mike Tyson, who was the baddest man on the planet and putting bums on seats everywhere he went and had everyone glued to the television because if you blinked you might miss the knock out punch, no Whitaker was an artist, the way he moved was like an artist using their brush whilst beginning a new portrait. Pernell Whitaker was a defensive master, some would say he was the greatest master of defence that we have ever seen. His ability to slip and evade punches was mesmerising and it was so good that he often made perfectly good opponents look sloppy and mediocre.
Whitaker first gained prominence in the Olympics of 1984 where he won gold as part of the hallowed USA team that produced numerous world champions. He went on to be trained by former top contender in the middleweight division, George Benton. Benton was someone I wrote about in my book Forgotten Legends of the Ring and Benton helped craft Whitaker into the champion he would be. Whitaker went on to become a four weight world champion and ended his career with a record of 40-4-1. The style of Sweet Pea Pernell Whitaker was one that can be seen to have influenced the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr, the shoulder roll, used by many greats was also used in the philly shell version by Whitakers coach George Benton who in turn passed on his teachings to Whitaker. (You can read an article I did on eight great boxers with the best defence HERE)
The defence of Whitaker was so good that scoring his fights was often quite difficult. Whitaker wasn’t a big puncher, using his jab to poke his opponent and plastic man like ability to slip and slide their punches, much like people would say Mayweather Jr wasn’t the most exciting fighter but you couldn’t deny his skills. Pernell Whitaker was the same, that’s why he was the best boxer in the world in the early 1990’s. Some will see his record of 4 losses and wonder, but if you break those losses down, one was a downright robbery and awful decision that he should never have lost. Whitaker’s first loss to Jose Luis Ramirez is generally considered as one of the worst decisions in boxing history, most observers felt that Whitaker had won by a sound margin. His draw was equally controversial, fighting Julio Cesar Chavez, another legend of the sport who was undefeated at 87-0, Whitaker was given a majority draw. The decision was so bad that Sports Illustrated headlined their next cover with the words ‘ROBBED!’
As Whitaker faced the new golden boy of boxing, another undefeated boxer in Oscar De La Hoya in 1997, the warning signs of decline were already there, Whitaker was battling drug and alcohol problems but despite this he looked to have done enough to scrape a decision but again the fight was awarded to his opponent. The decision was controversial just not to the extent of his previous two losses. Whitaker’s third loss came at a time he was pretty much in retirement and a shadow of his former self, losing to another great in Felix Trinidad. Whitaker lost 3 of his last 4 fights, confirming he was past his prime and as many fighters do, continued to have one too many fights, his last fight ended with a broken clavicle, forcing him to end the bout.
None should forget the legacy of Pernell Whitaker though, very few fighters like Sweet Pea have graced the sport with his cat like reflexes. Whitaker defeated world champions and hall of fame fighters such as Roger Mayweather, Azumah Nelson and Buddy McGirt. Whitaker would be in the conversation as amongst the greatest ever lightweight boxers, the greatest ever southpaw fighters, the best ever counter punchers, the best defences of all time and also as one of the smartest boxers we have ever seen with a sharp ring IQ(you can read my article on the boxers with the highest ring IQ HERE)
Pernell Whitaker was just 55 when he was crossing the road and was hit by a vehicle, succumbing to his injuries and passing away on the night of 14th July. RIP ‘Sweet Pea’
Boxing Coach Strength and Conditioning Coach Boxing Author of: The Boxing Cheat Sheet - Your Ultimate Guide to Ring Survival Strength and Conditioning for Boxing - Work out Hits to get you Fighting Fit! Forgotten Legends of the Ring - Ten Past Masters of the Squared Circle *Any videos or images used on this site to support my articles that are copyrighted are used in accordance to the fair use act and are not my own - all credit is due to the respective owners. No copyright infringement intended.
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