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Saluting An All-Time Great Ring General, RIP “Sweet Pea” Pernell Whitaker

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He saw it and he did it as a “sweet science, really and truly, he used the angles and made a newbie to the sport understand the term “ring generalship.”

Hit and not be hit, was and is the adage, but Pernell Whitaker started with the B and then moved to the A; “Sweet Pea” made you work to hit him, and you only did so if you were real good, when he was in his prime, which was the earlier 90s.

The best, he was, pound for pound, and that was in an era before social media, so, arguably, he got a bit lost in the shuffle of time, to a slight degree. Because of his style, no, he wasn’t going to extract a pound of flesh, he wasn’t going to be a tasmanian devil of power and ferocity, a la Mike Tyson.

“Pete” as those closest to him called him, will stand through all the ages as an all-time great, though, revered as a defensive master, and his passing, at age 55 on Sunday, after being hit by a car in Virginia, will sting fight fans who appreciated especially the “skills pay the bills types.”

“I guess he was wearing dark clothes, the road was dark and the driver didn’t see him,” son Devon Whitaker told the The Virginian-Pilot. “That’s all I can say about him. I can’t really say how I’m feeling because I’m feeling shocked. I’m still trying to process everything that’s going on. But he was a cool guy.”

Pete used his feet, they were more important, arguably, than the fists, to dazzling effect. Born in Virginia, he climbed the amateur ranks, to the top-most heights, snagging Olympic gold in 1984. He acclimated smartly to the pro ranks, where he campaigned from 1984 until 2001, and collected belts and accolades along the route. His first title came in 1989, when he snagged a lightweight belt off Greg Haugen…

…gaining a measure of relief after losing a controversial one to Jose Luis Ramirez a year before.

Purists appreciated his ways, the spins, the attention to detail in defending, even if a certain portion of boxing fanatics were inclined to ignore lighter weight boxers and ones who used mobility to such an extent. No matter—those in the know got it. In 1993, ’94, ’95, ’96 and ’97, RING called him the best of the best among active hitters. Watchers saw him better aces like Azumah Nelson (in 1990), Buddy McGirt (1993) and even snobs to the lighter weights got amped as the Whitaker versus Julio Cesar Chavez match, in Texas, loomed. Chavez, 87-0, surely his aggression and strength and inclination to inflict trauma even against a masterful defender would win out, right?

JCC fans didn’t believe that SI writer who noted in the leadup that he “punches as much to unsettle as he does to hurt.” The Mexican would make him pay for his hubristic manner, the flourishes, the ducking and dodging and showy defensiveness, they crowed. Yes, OK, Pernell was not universally beloved. A certain segment of fandom is always going to laud the quieter talents, ones who don’t showboat, who call attention to themselves with a lower-key manner of operating. He gave a strong hint as to why he fought in such a manner, telling SI, “After a while they start reaching, just hoping they’re going to hit me. 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.”

So…he had a portion of those who followed his arc wanting him to lose. Whitaker was part of a formidable team, part of the Main Events squad, with their Jersey swagger. Swagger…but in Pernell, not a desire to give the people what they wanted. Not if they wanted trading. Not if they wanted to watch a guy take two to give one. He’d prefer to make em miss…again and again, until their confidence drained.

He did it, he declared, to Chavez. But the judges saw otherwise…Or, said they saw otherwise.

Whitaker disputed the “draw” call. “I’m not a tormentor; I’m not a tormentor,” he said to SI. “But I whipped his ass last night. And easily. I mentally and physically beat him. I put an old-fashioned project beating on him. A housing authority beating. A ghetto beating. Everyone tried to build him up, but I condemned the building. Pound for pound, Pernell Whitaker is the best fighter in the world. I’m not just a runner; I can fight. Give me credit. Give me the respect I deserve. Give me this one!”

True fans did that; Kathy Duva of Main Events smiled repeatedly as she shared Whitaker stories. Sure, like many top-ledge talents, he had demons. It’s rare that the creator gives everything to anyone. But, she said, she won’t ever forget the time Pete was on the floor at her and Dan’s house, down with their girls, 12 and 10. “He was teaching them to shoot craps,” Kathy said, giggling.

The Chavez fight, it should have been the one, the single fight to sum up a virtuosic career, but again, judges, and boxing, blah blah blah. Theater of the unexpected, but not in the judging realm, bad decisions are not rare enough.

“We all loved him, all of us at Main Events,” then and now. They’d been helping him get some work, do autograph signings, and had been seeing him a lot, Duva said.

Whitaker in his heyday did well, was properly appreciated and paid well, she said, and his talents were lauded more so maybe than they would be now. KOs are craved these days, and he’d be slammed as a runner, probably. Heck, he was then, too. But the networks and then HBO knew he was a master of that domain.

He got more than his share of UD12s, so you often knew what you were in for when settling in for a Pea fight. “He saw everything coming, he knew before they did what they would throw,” Duva continued.

And she grinned again, and recalled when Pete got married in a boxing ring. Yeah, I’ll do that, he said when the idea was pitched.

“Sweet Pea,” they called him that, it was alleged that came about because someone mis-heard people yelling “Sweet Pete.”

By 1992, he jumped to 140 and then to welter. In 1995, he gloved up at 154. Even with wins and crowns, yes, the salt in the wound of that “draw” to Chavez would get referenced. Chavez had an aura of supremacy, and Whitaker defused him and deserved those homages. But of course, he fought on, and wouldn’t surrender to rear-view mirror obsessing. He’d have to be comforted by the fact that those present, many saw him winning 9-3, maybe 8-4…not matter what BoxRec says today.

BoxRec says that in 1997, Whitaker fought Oscar De La Hoya in Vegas.

And lost. UD12, his third “loss.” He was now 33, and other products to push, and “progress” to be made. Oscar was the future and the present, in the minds of marketers, and so he got the win, and Whitaker wouldn’t get a rematch. His skills set was something of a curse, too.

Duva referenced demons; it wouldn’t be an honest exercise or something resembling “journalism” if we only spoke of highs, and lows that weren’t of the more self inflicted variety. Whitaker fought three more times after the Oscar outing, and had to combat a desire to “party.” Boxrec shows a loss, a NC due to the presence of an stimulant in his system. He fought Felix Trinided and hung up the mitts after an April 2001 but against Carlos Bojorquez.

As with many entertainers who aren’t the humble type, Whitaker was often more appreciated in that rear view. Max Kellerman made certain to talk up his legend, he made the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006.

Kathy Duva recalls that he was undisputed lightweight champ, how he won titles in all those classes, back when the game hadn’t fallen to the same level of dilution. Rocky Lockridge, Johnny Bumphus, Tony Ayala, Leo Randolph, and Livingstone Bramble, they enjoyed ups. Lou Duva, Dan Duva, Georgie Benton, Shelly Finkel helping steer the ships…And yes, like many upmost echelon fighters, Pete didn’t find it easy to replace the rush of combat and constant adulation. He trained fighters, but didn’t always find it fit his POV. He appreciated other in ring scientists, and if you weren’t that, well, maybe his attention wandered….

On July 14, in Virginia Beach, the Hall of Famer was crossing the street, was hit by a car, and died from the trauma. His singular talents, his being the craftiest of lefties, of coming up from the projects in Virginia, in Norfolk’s Young Park, will be recalled by people living on the street he grew up on, Cumberland, then re-named Whitaker Lane. And fight fans, ones who appreciate ring generalship, will always have him top of the list, in combining head and torso movement, intuition, marrying of mind and feet…He’d make ’em miss, and then, yes, make ’em pay. Boxing served him well, offered him a path to prosperity, and moving forward, his name will continue to be mentioned, when we see a slick sort who has a handle on the angles.

RIP, Sweet Pete.

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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