Robert checks in with the second greatest lightweight of all time, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker.
Less than two months ago, the world of boxing suffered a huge loss with the death of arguably the greatest defensive fighter in the sport’s history, Pernell Whitaker. Whitaker was struck by a car and killed while crossing the street near his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Media outlets around the world spoke highly of the man nicknamed “Sweet Pea” and about his incredible exploits inside the ring. It was another example of a fighter my father and I loved watching passing away. Whitaker was only 55 at the time of his death, still a young man in a world where people are living longer than ever. From the very first time my father and I saw him while winning a gold medal in the 1984 Summer Olympics, we knew we saw a special fighter. In addition to possibly being the greatest defensive fighter of all-time, Whitaker is also one of the 10 greatest fighters of all-time. Both are major reasons why “Sweet Pea” is the second greatest Lightweight in boxing history.
After winning the Lightweight gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Whitaker immediately turned pro at the age of 20. Right from the very outset of his career, my father and I saw how special of a fighter he was. He was a slick southpaw who practically had radar as he stood right in front of you and made you miss. To this day, I’ve yet to see another southpaw boxer land the right jab to the body like Pernell. Pernell, for a boxer with such a slick style, was a tremendous body puncher. His foot speed and hand speed was at the highest level among boxing greats. The only thing that Whitaker seemed to lack was punching power. Whitaker’s punching power was deceiving. He just never depended on it. Like Floyd Mayweather would do years later, Pernell depended on his incredible ring acumen and defense to win the vast majority of his fights by decision.
It was Floyd’s uncle Roger who gave Pernell the toughest fight of his career as a Lightweight. On March 28, 1987, in front of his hometown fans in Norfolk, Virginia, Whitaker faced the former 130-pound champion Mayweather in only the 12th fight of his career. In the opening stanza, Pernell knocked down and badly hurt Roger. Whitaker had completely dominated Mayweather until he walked into Roger’s signature right cross. Whitaker went down like he was shot. While virtually out on his feet, Whitaker survived the first major hurdle of his career to win a convincing 12 round decision, earning him his first shot at a world championship. It would also be his first disappointment in the ring.
In only his 16th professional fight, Whitaker traveled to France in an attempt to wrest the WBC 135-pound title from the Mexican Jose Luis Ramirez. Ramirez was a very good, but not great, inside fighter with the prototypical Mexican aggressive style of boxing. This was a style tailor made for Whitaker’s counterpunching and defensive acumen. Whitaker fought a near flawless fight as I had him winning 10 out of 12 rounds. Incredulously, Whitaker lost via split decision in one of the worst decisions in the history of boxing. This loss only heightened Whitaker’s quest to become world champion. It would be the only blemish in his career as a lightweight, although a dubious one at best.
Eleven months later, on February 18, 1989, Whitaker wrested the IBF Lightweight title from Greg Haugen in typical Whitaker fashion. Whitaker completely dominated the game Haugen in winning a very easy 12-round decision. Then, after destroying an overmatched Louie Lomelli, Whitaker and Ramirez fought a second time, on August 20, 1989 in Whitaker’s backyard of Norfolk. The fight was to unify Ramirez’s WBC and Whitaker’s IBF Lightweight titles. In what was his finest performance up to this point of his career, Whitaker dominated Ramirez with incredible combinations and a radar like defense. Ramirez desperately kept swinging for the fences and had nothing but air to show for it. Not only did Whitaker gain redemption after being shafted against Ramirez 17 months earlier, he became the first Lightweight since Roberto Duran in 1978 to unify two of the alphabet titles at 135 pounds. Whitaker had one goal left at 135: to become the first undisputed Lightweight Champion since Duran.
After successfully defending his titles two more times, Whitaker met the WBA champion Juan Nazario on August 11, 1990 in an effort to become the first 135 undisputed champion in over 12 years. With less than 10 seconds remaining in the first round, Nazario walked into a blistering left cross that put him to sleep. The renown defensive wizard proved that if needed, he had one-punch knockout power. Just like that, “Sweet Pea” had become the Undisputed Lightweight Champion of the World.
Whitaker would successfully defend his title there more times before moving up to 140 pounds in 1991. Overall, he reigned for three years and eight successful title defenses. In none of these fights was there ever a sliver of hope for his opponents, as Pernell’s defensive wizardry and speed was unparalleled in the history of the 135-pound division, making him the second greatest Lightweight of all-time.