When the casual boxing fan thinks about the sport, it’s easy to get blinded by the warrior who packs explosive power. The fighter who has dynamite in each hand, and the grit to keep coming forward and look to deliver that explosiveness will steal the spotlight more times than not. However to some fans (mostly the die hard fans and purists), it is the elegant and graceful defensive capabilities that capture the eye, and perplex the mind. When discussing these defensive skill sets, it is hard to think of anybody who has displayed more technical acumen than Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker.
Pernell Whitaker was born January 2, 1964 in Norfolk, Virginia to a large family in a rough neighborhood. He entered the world of amateur boxing at a young age and began to hone his craft, having competitive bouts as young as nine years old. He amassed a wealth of amateur experience, competing in 214 sanctioned matches and acquiring a silver medal in the 1982 World Championships, a gold medal in the 1983 Pan American Games and a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (all in the Lightweight division). In the 1982 World Championship finals, his loss was to two-time Olympic Gold medalist Angel Herrera Vera, but the loss was avenged four times throughout his amateur career.
Whitaker then made the decision to turn professional, winning his first bout on November 15th 1984 by a second round TKO. His highly defensive counter-punching style proved overwhelming for his opponents. Over the next two years, Whitaker maintained his undefeated status, gathering eleven wins, and paving his way to his first national title fight. March 28th 1987, he would step in the ring with former world champion Roger Mayweather. Whitaker was able to deliver a knockdown in the first round, but Mayweather returned the favor later in the ninth round, forcing Whitaker to the canvas. After the dust settled, Whitaker was awarded the unanimous decision, and the NABF Lightweight Championship.
After gaining notoriety from his style, and another three wins, Sweet pea (known as Sweet Pete in his childhood years) was due his first chance at a world championship, the WBC lightweight held by Jose Luis Ramirez. The bout took place on March 12th 1988, and was Whitaker’s 16th professional outing, his opponents 107th. The difference in professional experience didn’t make much of a difference, though; Whitaker received his first defeat, by way of split decision.
Less than a year later, Sweat Pea would succeed in his second world title outing, winning a unanimous decision over Greg Haugen and earning the IBF World Lightweight strap. After defending his title once, Whitaker got his chance for revenge in a rematch against Jose Luis Ramirez. This time around however, Whitaker used his superior defensive skills to coax to a unanimous decision victory, and picking up the WBC Lightweight Title as well.
Sweat Pea continued winning fights (and titles) working his way up in weight class toward bigger money fights and climbing the P4P rankings. “The Fight” he was waiting for took place on September 10th 1993 against the famed Julio Cesar Chavez. The popular consensus was Whitaker out boxed, out maneuvered, and outworked the pound for pound king. Two of the three judges however saw the fight as even, resulting in a draw (with the third judge scoring the bout for Whitaker).
Shortly after, on March 4th 1995, Whitaker would make his way up another weight division to add WBA Super Welterweight (Light Middleweight) Title to his list of accomplishments. This made him the forth boxer to become a world titlist in four different weight divisions, ranging from Lightweight through Super Welterweight. After attaining that title, he would choose to move back to the Welterweight division for the remainder of his career.
Whitaker’s career started seeing a steep decline starting on April 12th 1997 suffering a unanimous decision loss to the “Golden Boy” Oscar De La Hoya, dropping his WBC Welterweight belt. In his next bout, he would have a short lived victory against Andrey Pestryaev, after failing a post fight drug test (testing positive for cocaine). After being removed from the ring for 16 months, he would return on February 20th 1999 to face future Hall of Famer Felix “Tito” Trinidad. Sweat Pea would drop a unanimous decision in this bout as well. He would enter the ring on final time in 2001 against Carlos Bojorquez, suffering his first knockout loss and decided to retire from the sport, ending his career with a outstanding record of 40 wins (17 by knockout) and only 4 losses.
Despite struggling with drug addiction and financial difficulties since his retirement, Whitaker’s legacy has left a lasting impression on the sport. The popular Ring Magazine listed Whitaker as the 10th greatest fighter of the last 80 years in 2002. Sweat Pea was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on December 7th 2006, his first year of eligibility. He now works as a boxing trainer, trying to pass down his exceptional skills. He has worked with numerous boxers, including Ab Judah. If we examine anybody’s life and or career, we will see many ups and downs, but after all of his trials and tribulations Pernell “Sweat Pea” Whitaker will remain an important figure in the great sport of boxing.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article, I intend to write more about former greats in the future. Please follow me on Twitter @TheGreatToddman, I would love to hear your opinions and talk boxing with you.