14 July 2019 marks the passing of Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, and the pugilistic community owes it to Sweet Pea, who displayed the sweet science in its purest form to pick apart the most talented of fighters, to forever remember his legacy.
Although the greatness of Whitaker is largely appreciated, the extent of his greatness is arguably under-appreciated.
He is one of the finest, purest boxers to ever lace a pair of gloves. One of the greatest, if not the greatest defensive fighter of all time.
Jim Lampley told The New York Times: “He could stand in front of you and you couldn’t find him. He would smile at you and demonstrate to you, while smiling, how remarkably easy this was for him.
It is imperative to take into consideration when outlining his phenomenal defensive abilities, the opponents that Whitaker was floating past were world class fighters, fellow Hall of Famers, and they just couldn’t hit him cleanly.
As the “world coloured heavyweight champion” from 1898 to 1901, George Byers, once told a young Sam Langford: “Always remember, the best thing in this fight game is to not get hit. It doesn’t matter if you hit hard enough to knock down a building if you can’t avoid getting hit.”
This basic premise has existed throughout the existence of the sport as a guaranteed recipe for success for one who can master it, and Whitaker certainly did that.
Crazy to say, but Whitaker is one of the unluckiest fighters ever. The only thing seemingly able to beat a prime Whitaker was not another boxer, but boxing politics. They took what would have been great wins away from him when he clearly outboxed Jose Luis Ramirez and an undefeated Julio Cesar Chavez, and arguably Oscar De La Hoya too.
Nevertheless, the hardcore fans and true supporters of the sweet science have respect and admiration for Whitaker, and have not allowed what Lennox Lewis referred to as ‘politricks’ to diminish Whitaker’s legacy.
When boxing historians are mentioning modern greats such as Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard alongside the great boxers of old such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong, Whitaker should be mentioned alongside them. Sweet Pea is one of the most skilful fighters ever. He had an otherworldly boxing IQ to match his genius defensive prowess. Throughout the history of a sport which has been blessed with southpaws such as Tiger Flowers, Vicente Saldivar, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Manny Pacquiao, Sweet Pea is arguably the greatest southpaw of them all.
Whitaker had a decorated amateur career, winning a silver medal at the 1982 World Boxing Championships, gold at the Pan-American Games in 1983 and Olympic gold as Captain of the legendary US team at the Los Angeles 1984 Games, and subsequently became a four-weight division champion.
After 11 consecutive victories to kick-start his professional career, Whitaker had his first big step up against former and future world champion, Roger Mayweather, in March 1987, in what would be his toughest fight as a lightweight. After knocking down and hurting Mayweather in the opening round, Whitaker had to survive a knockdown later in the fight, managing to survive after being virtually out on his feet. In just his 12th fight, Whitaker defeated Mayweather via unanimous decision, fighting like a veteran and notching an extremely impressive victory so early in his career.
After three more fights, Whitaker lost a very controversial points decision in one of the worst decisions in history against Jose Luis Ramirez in a world lightweight title challenge for the WBC belt.
In his 16th fight, against a fighter in Ramirez with a record of 100-6 who had turned professional at 14 years of age, Whitaker dominated and was blatantly robbed. His ring generalship, so early in his career, along with his timing, against a veteran, was just phenomenal and a beautiful sight to behold. His first setback, ironically, was an indicator of special things to come.
A year later in 1989, Whitaker won his first lightweight world title, the IBF strap, with a flawless performance to beat Greg Haugen in a convincing points victory, flooring Haugen for the first time in his career. The following series of events in Whitaker’s Hall of Fame career resulted in one of the most dominant lightweight reigns in history.
After one defence of his title against the unbeaten Louie Lomeli, Sweet Pea got an early chance for redemption in a rematch against Ramirez, and got his revenge with a perfect performance which left the result beyond dispute this time, adding the vacant WBC title to his IBF belt.
Deservedly, Sweet Pea was named Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1989.
In 1990, Whitaker inflicted a first defeat in 8 years on Azumah Nelson.
There had not been an undisputed lightweight champion since Roberto Duran’s destructive reign of terror in the 1970’s. This changed once Sweet Pea knocked out WBA lightweight champion Juan Nazario in the first round in August 1990.
Whitaker proceeded and embarked on an era of glory, beginning his domination of the sport over the next few years, which stretched until 1997.
In 1992, he defeated Rafael Pineda to become IBF super-lightweight champion.
Then in March 1993, Whitaker became the lineal and WBC welterweight champion after outpointing James “Buddy” McGirt.
This set up “The Fight” against the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
By the time he was in the ring set to face Chavez at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, in front of a 60,000 crowd, Whitaker was on a 17-fight winning streak and was a three-weight division champion at lightweight, super lightweight and welterweight.
Whitaker was defending his WBC welterweight title against an undefeated Chavez, who had a mind-boggling record of 87-0 with 75 KO’s, and instead of running away, Whitaker did everything he could to accommodate the fight happening, and once it did, he showed everybody just how special he really was.
He out-boxed Chavez and should have become the first man to defeat the legendary Mexican, but got awarded a draw after a shocking judges decision. Nevertheless, that night, Whitaker established his pound-for-pound supremacy.
In 1995, Whitaker moved up to beat the considerably bigger Julio Cesar Vasquez, who had a record of 53-1, to become WBA super-welterweight champion, becoming only the fourth fighter in history after Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard to become a four-weight division champion.
In the latter stages of Whitaker’s career, drugs and alcohol began to take effect, but this wasn’t before cementing a lasting legacy.
Arguably years after his prime, Sweet Pea came up against a prime Oscar De La Hoya in 1997. De La Hoya was the 1992 Olympic gold medallist with a record of 23-0 with 20 KO’s, and was a three-weight division champion, having won titles at super-featherweight, lightweight and super-lightweight. On his 147 lbs debut, De La Hoya courageously faced Whitaker, who was making the 9th defence of his WBC welterweight title. Though not as controversial as the Ramirez and Chavez fights, Whitaker harshly lost on points yet again. This was the most controversial fight of De La Hoya’s career. As De La Hoya would later acknowledge, Sweet Pea was the best he ever fought with regards to defence and ring generalship.
Whitaker was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007.
The main objective of boxing is simple, ‘hit and don’t get hit’, and with that in mind, if ever one wants to see what perfection inside a boxing ring looks like, just watch Sweet Pea in full flow.
By Sina Latif of SimBoxx
Twitter - @_sina93
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