You know you’re special when someone remembers you by just one name and he had four. Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker (1964-2019) was just Pete in tight boxing circles. I’m writing this now in a state of vulnerable shock, the kind of grief only assuaged by tears of what was and what will be.
Whitaker gets carved among the unique pantheon of the greats, on your rock or anyone elses, because that’s the only place where the best ever belong. Modern contemporary Guillermo Rigondeaux flirted with it, just as Vasiliy Lomachenko seriously dates it now. In terms of the greatest pure boxers, only “Pretty Boy Floyd” can be mentioned in the same breath as him. Sugar Ray Robinson is going to be the Michelangelo of any conversation involving the greatest who sculpted and painted things in the ring, but Pete was the Rembrandt to Mayweather’s Picasso, a complete fighter so gifted defensively from the southpaw stance, that Tommy Brooks once said he ‘couldn’t be hit with a grain of rice if you cut the bag open and threw the whole damn thing at him’.
This is hard. It’s the saddest, cruelest irony that arguably the greatest defensive fighter of all-time, who turned avoidance into an art for sport, wasn’t able to slip a motor vehicle before being stopped.
Just the other night while extolling the virtues of 2016 Olympic champion Shakur Stevenson, I drew a correlation of him to Pete, which I’d only do with regard for someone who has special within their grasp. Pete took Wllie Pep to places so slick the original would’ve never been capable of going. Niccholino Locche could only dream Pete’s irascible offensive variety and inside game.
He was the best fighter of the 1984 Olympics. Personally, it’s still an outrage that to have watched him win all twelve rounds against Jose Luis Ramirez, only to watch all three judges escape jail time. In what should have been the crowning achievement of his illustrious career, Whitaker showed Meldrick Taylor how to comprehensively take apart and put together the great Julio Cesar Chavez, only to be handed a Don King riddled draw for winning nine rounds on the door steps of Mexico in September 1993.
Oscar De La Hoya faced a faded, but still unofficially unbeaten Sweet Pea in most of our estimations as the 90s sped to conclusion, and by the time I got to witness a fighter I’d revered as a child against an apex variety Felix Trinidad in early 1999 at Madison Square Garden, it was very apparent that Houdini had left his body and cocaine had gotten the better of him in as much as Tito did.
I loved that man.
Never blessed with the preternatural athletic wonder of Roy Jones Jr, Pete also lacked his ostentation and never thought about rapping. He was never going to sell 7UP with his son like fellow Olympic gold medalist and all-time Sugar Ray Leonard, who completes the four man Mount Rushmore. Madison Avenue didn’t even offer an invitation, because that wasn’t the type of “It” factor he had. He was an 80s fighter in as much as Magic Johnson was as an NBA player, but was more akin to Isaiah Thomas in appreciated greatness. You didn’t see him and think of “Money” in a Big Boy mansion, he’d be a playground legend in the projects with a little change in his pocket that always reminded you of a dingy boxing gym. He left us where he came from.
Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, before Manny Pacquiao vs Keith Thurman takes place, boxing tradition will honor our fallen champion with a silent count of 10 bells.
I’ll try not to cry but I won’t make it. Maybe it’ll be that gold-toothed smile he left behind with an eternal adolescence hovering above us with wings.
So long, Pete.