In the World of Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker Ken Hissner (May 12, 2010) Doghouse Boxing
Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker is in a world of his own. I have done 18 interviews of the 23 boxers from the 1976 and 1984 Olympic teams and this will be my first without talking directly to the boxer. I contacted Whitaker about six months ago and he said “I’m studying.” I didn’t want to seem like a smart ass but almost asked him “what in the world are you studying?” I then asked for his e-mail and he said he doesn’t have a computer. That was later verified by his team mate Mark Breland. Whitaker ended the “conversation” with “I’ll call you back”. Like I said that was six months ago. After two more calls to him without a return I decided to do the story without him. I don’t want to chase him down the way Felix Trinidad did.
Whitaker coming out of Norfolk, VA, was rare enough, being as good as he was as an amateur, but held his own on an international level. At 5’6” and a southpaw he was a master of defense. He spent twelve years in the amateurs posting a 201-13 record that is official compared to the up to 500 he claims to have fought. In the finals he lost to two-time Olympic Gold medalist Angel Herrera Vera, of Cuba in 1982, in the World Championships. He would get his revenge four times after that including the Pan American Games in 1983 in Caracas. There were only two gold medalists from the USA which included Louis Howard who didn’t make the 1984 team. The Cubans took eight gold medals in 1983.
At the trials Whitaker lost to Joey Belnic, of Marysville, WA. He was preparing to go back home when Lou Duva got a hold of him showing him the replay how to beat Belnic in the box-off. Meldrick Taylor who lost to Andy Minsker in the same trials also came back to defeat Minsker. Some of his teammates were honest enough in talking about him and his attitude. Robert Shannon was one of them. “He was cocky”, said Shannon. Breland said, “a funny guy who kept you laughing back then and a slick boxer.” Jerry Page said the same thing about Whitaker. The super heavyweight Tyrell Biggs simply said “awkward southpaw”. Paul Gonzalez was most generous saying, “he was phenomenal.” Henry Tillman said, “he was too cool, with his hat tilted”.
Fred Jenkins, ABC Gym, in Philly told me a good story on Whitaker recently. “Andre Sharpe Richardson went to Virginia (1984) and all but drove Whitaker out of the ring only to lose. When Whitaker turned pro George Benton brought him in to spar with Richardson for the week. Seems after one day of sparring Whitaker never returned,” said Jenkins.
Whitaker turned professional under Duva and co-manager Shelly Finkel. They would bring Philly trainer George Benton in to help train Whitaker. “You can’t teach this guy nothing. He knows it all,” said Benton. Whitaker’s attitude ruffled many a feather. On November 15th, 1984, he would debut along with five other teammates stopping Farrain Comeaux, 9-0, in the 2nd round. He won his first six fights on the same card as his teammate Evander Holyfield, including two fights in Norfolk.
In his eighth fight he fought his first main event defeating John Montes, 29-3, who had won seven of his last eight fights. This was his third time fighting in Virginia, in Hampton. In his next fight he tasted the canvas for the first time in the 4th round against Rafael Williams, 24-2, of Panama, who was on a five fight winning streak. Whitaker would recover taking the decision in Atlantic City. He had the co-main event as Taylor fought to a draw with 1976 Olympian Howard Davis.
In March of 1987 Whitaker would have his first major test fighting for the NABF title that Roger “The Black Mamba” Mayweather, 26-4, held. Prior to the fight they got into a scuffle when Whitaker pushed Mayweather down. Fighting in Norfolk, Whitaker had Mayweather down in the 1st round. In the 8th round with Mayweather’s trunks well below his belt line Whitaker in a clinch pulled them down even further at the bell. Mayweather’s trainer Jesse Reid jumped into the ring and pulled up the trunks.
In the 9th round Mayweather came out madder than a hornet’s nest and dropped Whitaker. Upon rising he was holding on for dear life. By the end of the round his head cleared. I gave a call to my friend Reid and he said “I had just taken Mayweather back. I had him in half the condition he should have been in. If he was in shape he would have stopped Whitaker.” In the 11th round Whitaker had Mayweather up against the ropes landing so many punches that many a referee would have stopped it. He was able to last out the 12th and final round but it was Whitaker easily winning the decision
It would be the fifth straight decision win at the end for Whitaker in his twelfth fight. Three fights later Mayweather would move up to light welterweight and take the WBC title. Whitaker for some strange reason took a “stay busy” fight three months later stopping a 0-3 Jim Flores who had lost every fight by knockout. This was on the undercard of a show in Houston. Flores went down from a bombardment to the body and the referee stopped the mismatch immediately.
Next would be a much better opponent in Miguel Santana, 21-1-1, who had defeated Philly’s Anthony Fletcher, 21-1-1, in his previous fight. Though Santana was stopped in the 6th round by Whitaker he would get an IBF title fight even though he lost for the second time to Terrance Ali in his next fight. Whitaker would also get a title bout two fights after defeating Santana. First he checked going to France defeating Montana’s Davey Montana, 17-8, who was on a three fight losing streak. He would return to France three months later in March of 1989 for a fight that would haunt him probably to this day.
Whitaker would finally get his title fight with the WBC champion Jose Luis Ramirez, 102-7 (82), a Mexican southpaw who had won his last ten fights all in France. So it would not be just an American against a Mexican but someone the French people had “adopted” in Ramirez. Most people including this writer saw it the way judge Harry Gibbs of the UK did with Whitaker winning 117-113. He would be outvoted by Spanish judge Newton Campos 118-113 and Frances Louis Michel 116-115. Talk about home cooking for Ramirez. In his next fight Ramirez would lose both titles to Julio Cesar Chavez by technical decision in Las Vegas. Chavez would move up to light welter in his next fight defeating the then champion Mayweather for his WBC title leaving the WBC and WBA lightweight titles vacant.
In February of 1989 Whitaker would get another shot at the title, the IBF, held by Greg Haugen, 23-1, in Hampton, VA. Haugen found himself on the canvas in the 6th round and losing a lopsided decision to the new champion, Whitaker. Whitaker had Ramirez on his mind but defended against Louie Lomeli, 24-0, in VA, stopping him in the 3rd round. In August the rematch with Ramirez was set which would include the vacant WBC title. The bout would take place in Norfolk marking Whitaker’s fourth straight fight in his home state. Though it went the distance Whitaker left no doubt who the winner was in this one winning almost every round on two of the judge’s scorecards. Ramirez was one fight and one loss away from retiring.
Again Whitaker was put in with a losing record fighter in a non-title bout in France, at the year’s end, stopping Martin Galvan, 7-16-2, in the 4th round with three knockdowns. Galvan had lost four in a row. In 1990 Whitaker would take on Freddie Pendleton, 24-16-3, who had been stopped two fights previously by John Montes, one of Whitaker’s past victims. Pendleton posed a problem for Whitaker. Having managed Pendleton for one fight I knew “Fearless Freddie” did not have the biggest heart in the world. His corner would pump him up and he would come out taking the first minute and falling behind on eight of the twelve rounds on my card as he did on all three judges cards. In 1993 Pendleton would take the vacant IBF lightweight title.
Next up would be WBC Super featherweight champion Azumah Nelson, 32-1, who hadn’t lost a fight in eight years. He was on a 19 fight winning streak with the biggest name being Wilfredo Gomez whom he beat in 1984. As close as the judges had this fight I felt Whitaker did a masterful job in back pedaling and landing punch after punch. When he stood in front of Nelson he made Nelson eat jab after jab. In the last couple of rounds out of desperation Nelson was trying to land the knockout punch. After the loss Nelson would fight for another four years before losing his title.
In a unification bout Whitaker would meet the new WBA champion Juan Nazario, 22-2, of Puerto Rico, who had just got revenge on Edwin Rosario by stopping him in 8 rounds for the title. This one didn’t last a round as Whitaker gained his third organizational title in 2:59 of the 1st. Whitaker would go on to defend his title with decision wins over Anthony Jones, 26-2-1, European champ Policarpo Diaz, 32-0, of Spain and former WBO/IBF super featherweight champion Jorge Paez, 38-3-4, of Mexico.
In 1992 Whitaker would move up to light welterweight and defeat Rafael Pineda, 28-1, of Colombia, for the IBF title. Pineda’s only previous loss was in 1989 to Mark Breland. Whitaker never made a defense of his new title. Instead he moved up to welterweight in 1993 and defeated WBC champion Buddy McGirt, 59-2-1, over 12 rounds in Madison Square Garden.
Six months later Whitaker took on the WBC light welterweight Julio Cesar Chavez, 87-0, in San Antonio. Chavez had defeated Meldrick Taylor in one of the best title bouts you would want to see. Ahead of Chavez going into the last round Taylor got dropped. Standing in the corner taking the count he was looking toward his corner and missed the count suffering his first defeat. Now his 1984 teammate was in with the Mexican legend. This was almost a repeat of the Nelson fight except Chavez had more skills. In the end it was reminiscent of the Ramirez decision as the first judge gave it to Whitaker 115-113 but the other two had it 115-115, a draw. These two would not meet again. Chavez would lose and regain his title the following year to Frankie Randall.
Two defenses later Whitaker would again defeat McGirt by a much wider margin. Next would be Julio Cesar Vasquez, 53-1, with 36 knockouts, the WBA light middleweight champion. He had won his last 23 fights including dealing “Winky” Wright his first defeat. Vasquez, a southpaw from Argentina, had never seen anyone like Whitaker before and was outclassed over 12 rounds. Unlike Taylor who moved up to lose to Terry Norris at 154, Whitaker was successful but knew it was not his division. He would not defend this title but return to the welterweight division.
In 1996 Whitaker would travel to the Netherlands and meet Puerto Rico’s Wilfredo Rivera, 23-0-1, which turned out to be closer than expected. Whitaker was given the split decision win but many people felt it could have gone either way. Five months later in Miami, Whitaker would win on all the judge’s cards in a close fight. Whether the first fight was a sign of Whitaker slowing down or not but when he would next fight unknown Cuban Diosbelys Hurtado 20-0, the hand writing was on the wall. Hurtado had only a couple of 10 round bouts but was giving Whitaker fits. With his title in slipping away from him after 10 rounds Whitaker feared it would take a knockout to win. He was behind 93-92, 94-92 and 96-91 on the scorecards. Winning the final two rounds would give him nothing more than a draw. Whitaker would come out gunning for a knockout and at 1:52 of the 11th round the referee, Arthur Mercante, Jr., would stop it saving Whitaker’s title. It would take Hurtado five years but he would eventually win the vacant WBA light welterweight title.
Whitaker was unbeaten in his last 26 fights with only the draw to Chavez marring a perfect streak. Now it was the young 1992 Olympic Gold medal winner, the Golden Boy, Oscar DeLaHoya, 23-0, he would deal with. DeLaHoya had won titles at three different weight classes. In his last two fights he stopped Chavez, 96-1-1, for the WBC light welter title and defended it against Miguel Angel Gonzalez, 41-0. At 33 to his challengers 24, Whitaker would be in hostile country in Las Vegas. This seemed to me like a close fight after 10 rounds with Whitaker dancing around the last two like he had the fight won. The judges had it 115-111, 116-110 and 116-110. This writer had DeLaHoya ahead by two rounds. Whitaker looked his age and youth overcame him that night.
Whitaker would be off for six months before fighting again. In the mean time he was losing to another opponent that would not be in the ring. He defeated Andrei Pestriaev, 20-1, a future European champion from Russia with a built up record. Whitaker barely defeated his opponent by 115-113, 114-113 and 115-112, in a WBA eliminator to meet the champion Felix Trinidad. The decision was changed to a No Decision as a result that Whitaker tested positive for cocaine.
After sixteen months with no warm-up fights Whitaker challenged Trinidad who himself only had one fight during that period of time with the last being ten months previously. To me this fight was no contest. There should have been no excuses except of course Whitaker made them. Trinidad beat him down to easily take a decision by scores of 118-109 (twice) and 117-111. At 35 it seemed like the end of the line for Whitaker.
Whitaker would have one more fight some two years later against Carlos Bojorquez, 14-2-5, at light middleweight in Nevada. After losing two of the three rounds Whitaker suffered a broken clavicle forcing the ring physician to stop the fight at 0:27 of the 4th round. It would be the end for Whitaker never to fight again. His final record would be 40-4-1, with 17 knockouts, and a total of 16 title defenses.
In doing an interview with 1996 Olympic team captain Lawrence Clay-Bey he told of the story when he was approaching his good friend Zab Judah at a gathering. Judah had his back toward Bey and suddenly Whitaker appeared out of the crowd and told him to back up thinking he was an autograph seeker. When Judah turned around and started laughing and said “that’s Clay-Bey, you were at his fight last night”. Think before you act! Whitaker’s drug abuse is well known. It drove Lou Duva crazy and of course family members. Whitaker tested positive in 1997 and 1998 during his career for cocaine. He checked into a drug rehabilitation clinic in 1998. In 1998 he had been charged with five traffic infractions, including drunken driving before finally having his license suspended for a year. In 2001 he was convicted of two traffic convictions when officers found cocaine in his automobile in Virginia Beach.
Whitaker once made the statement referring to his defense, “I don’t care who I’m fighting. I don’t care if it’s God. If I don’t want God to hit me, he’s not going to hit me.” God didn’t turn away from Pernell Whitaker. Whitaker turned away from God! He makes the devil’s work easy! In 2006 Whitaker worked with Dorin Spivey and Calvin Brock. Recently he worked with Joel Julio. It’s not easy teaching things that come natural.
In 2009 Whitaker attended what was to be the 25th anniversary of the 1984 Olympic team in Georgia arranged by Xavier Biggs, Tyrell’s brother. Seems due to a lack of sponsors at the time some team members like Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor and Tyrell Biggs got together. He entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame on December 07, 2006.
Too many times in all sports and maybe particularly in boxing since it’s an individual sport, a boxer with worlds of talent doesn’t know how to humble himself. We’ve seen Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Prince Naseem Hamed, Larry Holmes, James Toney, Roy Jones, Jr., Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather, Jr., all with talent and except for Ali for the most part, couldn’t back up their predictions. They always are putting the “blame” on someone else. Singer Kenny Rodgers once said “I tried to be nice to everyone on my way up the ladder. I knew that I would have to face the same people on the way down.” Many of these superstars who love the limelight find it most difficult when they are no longer the main attraction. Seems “Sweet Pea” is no exception!
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