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R.I.P. Pernell 'Sweet Pea' Whitaker, One of the All-Time Greats

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  • R.I.P. Pernell 'Sweet Pea' Whitaker, One of the All-Time Greats

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    By Arne K. Lang

    Tributes are pouring in for Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker who was killed last night (Sunday, July 14) after being struck by a car while walking across a busy intersection in Virginia Beach, Virginia. An Olympic gold medalist who won six world titles in four weight classes, Whitaker was a defensive wizard. At his peak he was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. In 2002, The Ring magazine named him the 10th best boxer of the last 80 years.

    Whitaker, who turned 55 in January, turned pro in 1984 at Madison Square Garden on a show that included five of his U.S. Olympic teammates – Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs, and Virgil Hill.

    As a pro, Whitaker was managed by Main Events, a Duva family company, and did most of his training in Philadelphia under the watchful eye of George Benton. In his 17th pro fight, Pernell ventured to Paris to challenge WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez who was 100-6 going in. Whitaker came up short on the scorecards, losing a split decision.

    This ranked among the worst decisions in boxing history. Whitaker’s chief second Lou Duva accused WBC president Jose Sulaiman of fixing the fight so as not to spoil an all-Mexico showdown between Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez.

    Two fights later, Whitaker won his first title, taking the IBF lightweight belt from Greg Haugen. Pernell won all 12 rounds on two of the cards. He added the WBC belt in a rematch with Jose Luis Ramirez, winning a wide decision, and added the WBA belt with a first-round stoppage of Puerto Rico’s Juan Nazario in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

    Between his first fight with Ramirez and his April 4, 1997 encounter with Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, Whitaker was undefeated, a span of almost 10 years consisting of 26 fights. During this run he won world titles at 140 and 154 pounds before dropping back to welterweight for four successful title defenses.

    There was one “blemish” late in this 26-fight run, a draw at the San Antonio Alamodome with Julio Cesar Chavez. This was also controversial. The post-fight report by William Nack was the cover story in Sports Illustrated. The headline was “Robbed!”

    Sweet Pea lost a unanimous decision to De La Hoya that most ringsiders thought was a lot closer than what was reflected by the scorecards (DLH won by margins of 4, 6, and 6 points). A poll of 26 ringside reporters by the Las Vegas Review Journal revealed that 14 scored it for Whitaker with one having it a draw.

    Six months after his bout with De La Hoya, Whitaker opposed Andrey Pestryaev at Foxwood’s Resort in Connecticut. He won a unanimous decision but wasn’t himself. A post-fight urine test revealed the presence of cocaine. That dictated a six-month suspension during which he failed a random drug test. He wouldn’t step back into the ring until Feb. 20, 1999, when he opposed IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden.

    This would the first fight in Whitaker’s remarkable career that he lost without controversy. Trinidad retained his title with a clear-cut unanimous decision.

    Whitaker retired, but launched a comeback 26 months later with a fight in Lake Tahoe against Mexican journeyman Carlos Bojorquez. In this fight, Whitaker suffered a fractured clavicle in the second round. He soldiered on, but 27 seconds into the fourth, seeing that Whitaker was a one-armed fighter in considerable pain, referee Joe Cortez pulled the plug. He wouldn't fight again, retiring with a record of 40-4-1 and one official NC (the Pestryaev fight).

    Less than 48 hours later, back home in Norfolk, Virginia, Whitaker was rushed to the hospital with an apparent overdose. His girlfriend called 911 after finding him having a seizure on the floor of the bathroom, his body covered in sweat.

    Sweet Pea, who worked as a boxing and personal trainer in retirement, appeared to have it all together back in June of 2007 when he was formally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was the highlight of the induction ceremony. But in 2014 he was back in the news again when he was forced to evict his 73-year-old mother from the home she had occupied for 30 years. He said that he could no longer afford to maintain the home which he had always kept in his name. The United Press wire story said that Whitaker had squandered millions on drugs and legal expenses.

    The man that struck Whitaker with his vehicle remained on the scene. Preliminary reports indicate that the driver was not impaired in any way. We here at The Sweet Science extend our condolences to Whitaker's family and loved ones.

    Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

  • #2
    Such sad news. Growing up watching the sport, Whitaker was one of my favorites. He was everything the sweet science was all about.

    When I covered the Bivol-Smith fight at Turning Stone in March, Whitaker was there and stopped by press row on a few occasions. He even said hello to me toward the end of the night as I was typing my ringside report (unfortunately I did not take the opportunity to engage him in conversation). He was very nice and personable to all us. Watching him make his way through the crowd that day, he accommodated anyone who asked for a picture or autograph.

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    • #3
      Boxing is not immune from tragedies. Terrible news here.

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      • #4
        This is terrible, he was hit by a car!

        After Whitaker lost to Trinidad he told Larry Merchant that he feels he still never lost a fight that he's still undefeated. I bet Whitaker is in boxing heaven right now with all the other all-time greats telling them that he actually kicked that car's asss! Rest In Peace Sweet Pea Whitaker arguably the greatest lightweight to ever do it. When I met him in 1994 in Atlantic City for Holy-Stewart II he was in rare form and he signed my ticket actually.

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