By Lyle Fitzsimmons
It’s counterintuitive to a trained journalist.
Nevertheless, Monday was one of those days where breaking news was a real drag.
Upon learning via social media that gold medalist/hall of famer Pernell Whitaker had been struck and killed by a car in his native Virginia, I immediately scrapped my planned Tuesday morning column and set out scrolling through contacts to solicit reactions from his friends, contemporaries and admirers.
Not surprisingly, the sting was real and raw for those who hadn’t already heard.
“What!!!!!!!” read the text reply of Virgil Hill, an Olympic teammate of Whitaker’s on the history-making 1984 unit that overran the medals stand in Los Angeles with nine golds, a silver and a bronze.
Upon steadying from the initial shock, Hill – himself a two-division champ in a pro career that touched four decades – was reverential in praising Whitaker, labeling him the best of a 12-man U.S. team that saw all but two members challenge for world titles and six others combine for belts in 12 weight classes.
Whitaker was the most decorated pro, becoming a champion at 135, 140, 147 and 154 pounds.
“My favorite fighter,” Hill said.
“Not to take anything away from the amazing group, what he could do in that ring was breathtaking. I don’t ever think we will see one like him in our lifetime. He was blessed with amazing abilities and what he did in the ring you can’t teach. He will be missed by many.”
Veteran writer Tim Smith, who’s since become VP of communications for Premier Boxing Champions, said his lingering memories of Whitaker revolve around the Olympic team’s infectious camaraderie.
“Whenever one of them fought all the other guys would hang out in the same city as the fight,” he said. “When Evander (Holyfield) fought in Atlanta, before the (Dwight Muhammad) Qawi fight, Pernell was part of the group of guys in that camp. He was playful, funny and kept things loose.
“He was always looking for a pickup basketball game. That’s the Pernell that I always remember, the jokester kid who liked to play basketball.”
Whitaker turned pro at lightweight on a primetime broadcast in November 1984, five months after fellow 135-pounder Ray Mancini dropped his WBA championship to Livingstone Bramble.
Mancini lost a return match with Bramble the following February and was no longer a factor in the division by the time Whitaker first fought for a belt three years later, but that didn’t stop “Boom Boom” from pondering what might have happened had he and “Sweet Pea” gotten together at their bests.
The two men last spoke in 2016, when they were jointly enshrined in the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame.
“He would’ve been a headache for anyone, including myself,” Mancini said. “The only way you beat a guy like (Whitaker) is with pressure and I was a pressure fighter. That’s why it would’ve been intriguing. You never know until you put the two guys in there together to see what would happen.
“One of the greatest fighters over the last 35 years and one of the greatest lightweights of all time.”
Whitaker was in the homestretch of a 45-fight run by the time light heavyweight Antonio Tarver captured bronze at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but that didn’t mean the “Magic Man” – even at eight inches taller and boasting a six-inch longer wingspan – was unaware of his fellow southpaw’s mettle.
“A dogged competitor that hated to lose with a passion,” said Tarver, who ultimately became a two-division champ with 31 wins and 22 KOs across his own 18-year career. “Pernell was one of the most gifted pure boxers the ring has known. His timing and reflexes were off the charts.
“His feet were nimble and quick, always on balance and (he) was able to contort his body in positions that allowed him to punch out of weird, awkward angles.
“Mr. Untouchable in his prime. A real defensive wizard.”
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
IBF super middleweight title – Las Vegas, Nevada
Caleb Plant (champion/No. 12 IWBR) vs. Mike Lee (unranked WBA/unranked IWBR)
Plant (18-0, 10 KO): First title defense; One stoppage win in three Las Vegas fights (3-0, 1 KO)
Lee (21-0, 11 KO): First title fight; First fight below the light heavyweight division
Fitzbitz says: I like Plant. He’s got skill, a great story and projects a star’s image. But how the WBA sanctions an unranked foe who’s never fought at 168? Hmmm. Oh well. Plant by decision (90/10)
WBA welterweight title – Las Vegas, Nevada
Keith Thurman (champion/No. 5 IWBR) vs. Manny Pacquiao (unranked WBA/No. 3 IWBR)
Thurman (29-0, 22 KO): Fourth title defense; Went distance in five of last six fights (2 of first 23)
Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KO): Twenty-fourth title fight (17-4-2); Won 9 of 11 fights as a title challenger
Fitzbitz says: When announced, I was all-aboard the Thurman train. The closer it gets, the less confident I feel in that pick. Staying with the gut, though. Time for youth to prevail. Thurman by decision (60/40)
This week’s trash title-fight schedule:
Vacant WBA “world” super welterweight title – Marseille, France
Michel Soro (WBA “gold” champion/No. 10 IWBR) vs. Magomed Kurbanov (No. 7 WBA/No. 16 IWBR)
Why it’s trash: If you’re a fan and you’d recognize Soro and/or Kurbanov if he/they walked into a room, congratulations. But that doesn’t mean they’re champions. Soro holds, according to the WBA’s website, a ridiculous “gold” title that he’ll be attempting to cash in for the “world” strap. Translation: garbage.
Last week's picks: 2-1 (WIN: Shiro, Vargas; LOSS: Patel)
2019 picks record: 58-12 (82.8 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,069-355 (75.0 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.