by Cliff Rold
On July 20th, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker was laid to rest in Norfolk, Virginia. It was the end of the story for one of the great fighters in the modern era. For fans of a certain age, it remains a hard loss. Only 55 years old, a car struck Whitaker in an unfortunate accident and the news sent a shock.
He feels taken before his time.
It’s been almost twenty years since Whitaker left the ring. He still seems present to the sport, even now. He’s the answer for many to the question of boxing’s best fighter since the 80s era of Leonard, Hearns, Duran, and Hagler, an impresario who appeared almost to float past world class fighters without being touched.
The four-division champion, undisputed at lightweight and lineal at welterweight, was a dominant force from the late 80s into the later 1990s, seldom losing three full minutes at a time much less fights. Often it seemed the only thing able to defeat Whitaker were boxing politics. The eyes of the public saw him move past those too.
In tribute, let us take a moment to remember the greatness of Pernell Whitaker, measured against all-time?
In going back over his career, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What Did He Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Born: January 2, 1964
Hailed From: Norfolk, Virginia
Turned Professional: November 15, 1984 (TKO2 Farrain Comeaux)
Record: 40-4-1, 17 KO, 1 KOBY, 1 No Decision
Record in Title Fights: 19-3-1, 4 KO
Lineal World Titles: World Lightweight (August 11, 1990-1992, 3 Defenses; vacated); World Welterweight (March 6, 1993-April 12, 1997, 8 Defenses)
Title Reigns: IBF Lightweight (February 18, 1989-1992, 8 Defenses; vacated); WBC Lightweight (August 20, 1989-1992, 6 Defenses; vacated); WBA Lightweight (August 11, 1990-1992, 3 Defenses; vacated); IBF Jr. Welterweight (July 18, 1992-93; vacated); WBC Welterweight (March 6, 1993-April 12, 1997, 8 Defenses); WBA Super Welterweight (March 3, 1995; vacated)
Entered Ring Magazine Ratings: November 1986 (#9 – Lightweight; Cover Date - February 1987)
Last Ring Magazine Rating: January 2000 (#5 – Welterweight; Cover Date May 2000)
Ring Magazine Pound for Pound #1: September 1993 – April 1996 (Cover Dates January 1994 – August 1996)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced: 7 (Alfredo Layne UD10; Roger Mayweather UD12; Azumah Nelson UD12; Buddy McGirt UD12, UD12; Julio Cesar Chavez D12; Oscar De La Hoya L12; Felix Trinidad L12)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced: 7 (Jose Luis Ramirez L12, UD12; Greg Haugen UD12; Freddie Pendleton UD12; Juan Nazario KO1; Rafael Pineda UD12; Julio Cesar Vasquez UD12; Jake Rodriguez KO6)
Record Against Current/Former Champions/Titlists Faced: 12-3-1, 2 KO
Prior to entering the professional ranks, Whitaker made his name as one of the nine Gold medalists from the United States, stopping Puerto Rico’s Luis Ortiz in the second round for lightweight honors. According to BoxRec, it was the culmination of a 201-14 amateur career also including an AAU national title, a Silver medal at the 1982 world championships, and Gold at the 1983 Pan-Am Games. While the competition at the 1984 Games was undermined by the lack of Cuban and Soviet participation, Whitaker’s Pan-Am win avenged a loss to Cuba’s Angel Herrera at the world competition the year before.
Managed and trained during most his paid years by Lou Duva and George Benton, Whitaker turned professional at age 20 following his Olympic triumph on a card highlighting six of his Olympic team members including the debuts of fellow Hall of Famers Evander Holyfield and Virgil Hill. Whitaker won his first 15 fights to earn a first title shot in March 1988, losing a controversial split decision to WBC lightweight titlist Jose Luis Ramirez. Two fights later, Whitaker won the IBF title with a unanimous decision over Greg Haugen in February 1989 and made one defense before adding the then-vacant WBC belt with a unanimous decision over Ramirez in their August 1989 rematch. Whitaker added two more defenses before completing the unification of the class with a first-round knockout of Juan Nazario for the WBA strap in August 1990.
Whitaker would make three defenses of the unified crown before moving to Jr. welterweight where he added the IBF 140 lb. belt to his mantle with a unanimous decision over Rafael Pineda in July 1992.
Whitaker’s stay at Jr. welterweight was short. He conquered a third division in March 1993 with a competitive unanimous decision over Buddy McGirt to earn the WBC and lineal (traced to the unification of the division by Donald Curry) welterweight crowns. An infamous draw in his first defense against Jr. welterweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez in September 1993 saw Whitaker attain consensus recognition as the pound-for-pound leader of the sport.
Whitaker would ultimately make eight title defenses at welterweight along with a one-night trip to the Jr. middleweight division in March 1995 where he won the WBA crown with a unanimous decision over Julio Cesar Vasquez. Whitaker vacated the title without defending and lost his welterweight crown at age 33 to Oscar De La Hoya by decision in April 1997. Whitaker would never hold a major title again.
Among a sample of outside the ring honors, Whitaker was named as the:
• Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year – 1989
• Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year – 1989, 1993
• KO Magazine Fighter of the Year – 1989, 1993
• Ring Magazine - #21 of Top 50 Fighters of the Last 50 Years - 1996
• Boxing Digest - #2 All Time at Lightweight - 1997
• Ring Magazine - #14 of 20 Greatest Fighters of the Century – 1999
• KO Magazine Fighter of the Decade - 1999
• Ring Magazine - #3 All Time at Lightweight – 2001
• Ring Magazine - #10 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years – 2002
• International Boxing Research Organization - #7 All Time at Lightweight – 2005
• International Boxing Research Organization - #17 All Time at Welterweight – 2005
• Inducted First Ballot – International Boxing Hall of Fame - 2007
• Ring Magazine - #19 All Time at Welterweight – 2008
• BoxingScene - #5 Top 25 Lightweights of All Time – 2009
• BoxingScene - #18 Top 25 Welterweights of All Time - 2009
Whitaker was 27-1 when he left the lightweight division for good and he faced a sizable chunk of the best of his time in the class. Using the Ring Magazine rankings as a reasonable gauge of Whitaker’s overall era, the below were the top ten ranked opponents Whitaker faced while competing in the lightweight division. The ranking provided is the opponents most recent in the magazine prior to Whitaker facing them.
• 12/20/1986 – UD 10 Alfredo Layne (#5 at 130 lbs.)
• 03/12/1988 – L12 Jose Luis Ramirez (#4 at 135 lbs.)
• 02/18/1989 – UD12 Greg Haugen (#1 at 135 lbs.)
• 08/20/1989 – UD 12 Jose Luis Ramirez (#2 at 135 lbs.)
• 02/03/1990 – UD 12 Freddie Pendleton (#4 at 135 lbs.)
• 05/19/1990 – UD12 Azumah Nelson (#1 at 130 lbs.)
• 08/11/1990 – KO1 Juan Nazario (#2 at 135 lbs.)
• 02/23/1991 – UD12 Anthony Jones (#6 at 135 lbs.)
• 07/27/1991 – UD12 Poli Diaz (#6 at 135 lbs.)
• 10/05/1991 – UD12 Jorge Paez (#3 at 135 lbs.)
This list does not include two men who could easily be listed as top ten wins.
Ring rated Roger Mayweather #12 at lightweight prior to his clash with Whitaker. Mayweather would go on to win eight in a row at Jr. welterweight and add a title in the division immediately after his loss to Whitaker.
Louie Lomeli was undefeated (24-0) when Whitaker stopped him in the third round of his first IBF title defense in 1989. Lomeli likely would have been rated in Ring’s top ten (and very likely was by other publications like KO) going into the Whitaker fight but for a period from 1987-1989 when Ring opted to only recognize the ‘original eight’ division. It resulted in Ring’s consolidating the ratings of the Jr. lightweight and lightweight classes into a single top ten.
As is, Whitaker defeated eight Ring rated top ten contenders at lightweight including two men who were rated second to him (Ramirez and Nazario) at the time he beat them and a Haugen who was the leading contender to Ring’s recognized champion at the time, Julio Cesar Chavez. He also bested Ring’s leading Jr. lightweight, Azumah Nelson.
Whitaker faced only one foe ranked by Ring Magazine during his short tenure at 140 lbs. but also added a solid victory over veteran Harold Brazier
• 07/18/1992 – UD12 Rafael Pineda (#3 at 140 lbs.)
For the next six years, Whitaker was a staple in the welterweight division. According to Ring Magazine, the below were the top ten opponents Whitaker faced at 147 lbs.
• 03/06/1993 – UD12 Buddy McGirt (#1 at 147 lbs.)
• 09/10/1993 – D12 Julio Cesar Chavez (#1 at 140 lbs.)
• 10/01/1994 – UD12 Buddy McGirt (#4 at 147 lbs.)
• 11/18/1995 – KO6 Jake Rodriguez (#6 at 140 lbs.)
• 04/12/1996 – SD12 Wilfredo Rivera (#7 at 147 lbs.)
• 09/20/1996 – UD12 Wilfredo Rivera (#6 at 147 lbs.)
• 04/12/1997 – L12 Oscar De La Hoya (#1 at 140 lbs.)
• 10/17/1997 – ND12 Andrey Pastraev (#10 at 147 lbs.)
• 02/20/1999 – L12 Felix Trinidad (#2 at 147 lbs.)
Whitaker didn’t defeat as many top ten welterweights as he did top ten lightweights but McGirt was the clear division leader at the time and to most eyes Whitaker also beat the leading Jr. welterweight of the day in Chavez. His second win over McGirt was even more impressive than his first. His loss to De La Hoya remains debated to this day and Whitaker fought bravely against Trinidad at the age of 35.
Excluding his career finale against journeyman Carlos Bojorquez, Whitaker’s lone notable fight at 154 lbs. came in 1995:
• 03/04/1995 – UD12 Julio Cesar Vasquez (#1 at 154 lbs.)
Competition Not Faced
As always, this section is concerned with what did not occur more than why it did not.
At lightweight, Whitaker and Chavez shared space but Chavez was on the way to Jr. welterweight by the time Whitaker beat Haugen to win the IBF title. Given his unification of the class, Whitaker could claim a clean out at 135 lbs. when he exited at the end of 1991. A notable name Whitaker might have faced is Edwin Rosario; Nazario stopped Rosario for the WBA crown and Whitaker faced Nazario instead.
Jr. welterweight was a hiccup in Whitaker’s career. Again he and Chavez shared space but only briefly and the two would finally face off at welterweight at a catchweight of 145 lbs. Whitaker’s welterweight run was more notable for how it started. He never participated in a unification bout in class. Fights with WBA titlists Crisanto Espana and Ike Quartey, or an earlier clash with Trinidad, would have been fascinating and enhancing to Whitaker’s welterweight stature if he had won. Oba Carr, Yori Boy Campas, and Jose Luis Lopez are additional leading welterweight contenders in the 1990s that might have made tough nights for Whitaker.
Whitaker didn’t stay at Jr. middleweight long enough for notable misses but the 1990s was largely defined by the career of Terry Norris in the division. Norris faced and defeated several notable welterweights during his three title reigns. Whitaker having fought there at all at least leaves one to wonder how he might have tackled “Terrible” Terry.
Reaction to Adversity
Whitaker’s defensive wizardry was a beauty to watch. So was his brutality in attacking the body. He won a lot of fights where he barely lost a round. The moments of adversity in his career showed off the character beneath the craft.
Despite his defensive prowess, Whitaker suffered several knockdowns in his career. He traded knockdowns with Mayweather, got dropped twice early in rematch with McGirt, was felled against Vasquez, and hit the deck twice against Diobelys Hurtado. It wasn’t until Trinidad in 1999 that someone who had Whitaker on the floor went on to defeat him. His response to McGirt in the rematch was one of the most brutal beatings he ever dished out, a testament to the courage of McGirt in seeing the final bell.
The Hurtado fight is a time capsule moment in his career. With a major money fight against De La Hoya on the line, Whitaker exploded in the eleventh round to stop the undefeated Cuban. It was Whitaker’s last great victory with Hurtado leading on the cards at the time.
Whitaker didn’t need similar desperate finishes against most of the other men who knocked him down. He simply dominated them too fully for the knockdowns to raise much sweat on the scorecards. It was a focus, professionalism, mental toughness, and consistency that kept Whitaker a riddle for close to a decade.
His mental toughness was also present in the greatest performance of his career, draw verdict be damned. Whitaker’s poise and focus was never greater than on the night when he silenced an overwhelmingly pro-Chavez crowd at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. More than 60,000 fans came to see him lose. The world was watching. Whitaker rose to the occasion. There was no flinch in “Sweet Pea.”
What Did He Prove
The qualities he displayed in his moments of adversity combined with his moments of sheer dominance against a range of the best of his time in multiple weight classes proved Whitaker to be one of the more versatile fighters of any era.
He was capable of winning multiple ways. He could beat men off the back foot, walk them down, box them silly, or knock them out. He had an excellent chin; his only stoppage came by way of busted clavicle in his final fight and he faced plenty of punchers who could have done the honors.
Whitaker was a defensive genius also possessing a dangerous and active offense. Whitaker wasn’t a guy who made men miss and then relied on single pot shots at his best. He was a combination puncher who was as comfortable in the trenches as he was at range. Whitaker didn’t have an overwhelming knockout percentage but his southpaw left hand hurt plenty of men and his body work left a durable puncher like Rafael Pineda spitting blood.
Occasionally, defensive gems become big business. Whitaker was one of them, a talent so respected the lack of action in some of his fights didn’t cripple his career. Whitaker never became a singular pay-per-view draw but he was a powerful B-side for Chavez and De La Hoya, his name adding extra credibility to the marquee. A consistent local draw at the Scope in Norfolk, Whitaker would be one of the last fighters featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for a generation when it still mattered.
Whitaker also showed an old school willingness to set the record straight. While the controversial blemishes on his career get more attention, there were those who found him very lucky to get the decision in the first Wilfredo Rivera fight. He confronted the outcome the right way, facing Rivera in an immediate rematch and settling the matter in another competitive affair.
Whitaker proved a showman over the years as well. He pantsed Mayweather and sometimes suffered knockdowns or near knockdowns in dropping nearly to the floor while attempting to embarrass opponents. It wasn’t enough to win. Whitaker could be mean, willing to humiliate in stamping his superiority. Against Chavez, he responded to the Mexican icon’s penchant for working the belt line by going lower to check the foul. It wasn’t always pretty but Whitaker was there to win.
In his finest hours, Whitaker proved better at winning than almost anyone else in his time.
Measured Against History
The verdict was reached long ago. Whitaker wasn’t the last great fighter of the 20th century but he was arguably the last fighter who defined his greatness entirely there.
Look again to the accomplishments of his career and the accolades he’s received. No one argues the greatness of Pernell Whitaker. It’s rare a fighter with less than fifty professional fights is heralded even by the most grizzled of fight watchers as a peer to men of old who had three and four times as many fights.
Whitaker was that good.
What can be found among his forty wins explains much of why. There are not many men who can say they beat arguably the best man of the day from five different weight classes. Whitaker did.
At lightweight, his unification of the class settled the question in the ring. He didn’t reign over an all-time great lightweight class but he defeated who was there and did it in impressive fashion. Consider that in his first two title wins, over Haugen and in the Ramirez rematch, Whitaker pitched shutouts on four of six scorecards. Throw in the Nazario knockout and there is an argument that Whitaker didn’t lose a single round in unifying 135 lbs.
If Whitaker falls short in comparison to lightweight legends like Roberto Duran, Benny Leonard, Joe Gans, or Ike Williams, and it’s up for debate, some of the falling comes from the greater depth of those men’s resumes in terms of contenders faced and Whitaker’s lack of rivals. Duran won the title from a Hall of Famer in Ken Buchanan and had Esteban DeJesus. Ike Williams had Bob Montgomery and Beau Jack.
Whitaker doesn’t have the same and so can fairly be rated behind those men all time. That’s not the same as saying any of those men would have beaten Whitaker. Can anyone be sure Whitaker couldn’t have outfoxed Leonard or frustrated Duran. His name doesn’t sound out of place with theirs.
Whitaker’s welterweight years could have been better and the best work came in his first two years in the class. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He shared a twin bill with Trinidad in November 1995 with an eye on a unification showdown. Trinidad’s contractual battles with Don King kept them apart; both men would have preferred each other years sooner. A fight with Ike Quartey was scheduled for 1998 but a failed drug test killed the fight.
Whitaker’s documented issues with recreational drugs are part of his story. Would he have extended his prime with better habits? At the least his record would have another win; a positive test reversed what should have been his final victory over Andrey Pastraev to a no decision.
Then again, with different scoring, he could well have three more wins. There are some who will argue Whitaker never genuinely lost a fight until Trinidad in 1999. The verdicts in the first Ramirez fight and the Chavez bout are universally decried. Plenty of folks, including Al Bernstein, Roy Jones, Larry Merchant, and roughly half of the ringside press, thought Whitaker beat De La Hoya in 1997, almost all on his jab and defensive guile.
We’ll never know what more there could have been if Whitaker’s outside the ring life was as clean as his work in the ring. It may all have played out the same as it did. Whitaker got older in the ring at a fairly normal age for any fighter. Slipping in one’s 30s can happen no matter what.
What he did before he slipped was more than enough. Along with beating the best lightweights of his day, he defeated the 130 lb. leader in Nelson, whipped the 140 lb. leader in Chavez (no matter the official outcome), and the division leader in McGirt at 147 lbs. All three of those men are in the Hall of Fame and while some came up the scale to him it wasn’t size beating them.
While Norris can be viewed through the lens of history as the best Jr. middleweight of the 1990s, Vasquez had a fair claim to the top spot when Whitaker defeated him. Context matters here. Norris was in between a pair of consecutive disqualification losses to Luis Santana, enduring a 2-3 stretch over five fights including splitting a pair of fights with Simon Brown.
In contrast, Vasquez was 53-1 in March 1995 with his lone loss coming via disqualification in 1991. Vasquez had made ten title defenses including wins over former welterweight titlist Aaron Davis, future titlist Javier Castillejo, and a five knockdown victory over a young, undefeated Winky Wright. Vasquez would briefly regain his title after the loss to Whitaker.
The steady proliferation of titles in boxing since the 1960s has made winning belts in lots of weight classes less daunting than it once was. Almost no one does it beating the top dog in every class they conquered. Beating so many men who could claim the top spot in their division when defeated, as Whitaker did, is rare in any era and compares with some of the finest names of all time.
As a sample, Henry Armstrong beat the top dog at featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight and, at welterweight, a future middleweight champion in Ceferino Garcia who he also drew with for the middleweight title to enduring controversy. Ray Leonard beat the leading welterweights, an Ayub Kalule who was regarded as the Jr. middleweight leader at the time, and Marvin Hagler at middleweight.
A more exact comparison in contemporary time considering defensive prowess could be Floyd Mayweather. Mayweather at some time or another in his career beat the top rated, or next top rated to him, men from 130, 135, 140, 147, and 154 lbs. Some of those fights happened in the weight classes proper. Juan Manuel Marquez and Ricky Hatton came up the scale to face Mayweather at welterweight much the same way Nelson and Chavez came up to face Whitaker. It’s remarkable relative to any era.
Whitaker is also remarkable in comparison to other southpaws and defensive specialists. When fans debate the greatest defensive fighters, Whitaker’s name isn’t far behind the standard bearer of unhittable giants, Willie Pep. He conquered more divisions from his stance than Marvin Hagler and was arguably more dominant than Manny Pacquiao at his best.
It’s great company and who beat the better opponents, versus how they did it, is always up for debate. Whitaker beat what was available in his time and did it often with room to spare. It’s why, on the occasion of his passing, it’s not a debate about whether Whitaker was great but only the enduring question of what makes one fighter greater than another.
That’s a debate that belongs to all time, never to really be solved. For Whitaker, it’s a perfect note to end on because, at his peak, no one solved “Sweet Pea.”
Verdict on Pernell Whitaker: Rest in Peace to one of the Genuine Greats
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com