WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — To people outside the fight game, “beautiful boxer” sounds like an oxymoron. But when it came to Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, it fit. He had such elan and grace in the ring, flitting and feinting punches, gliding across the canvas like an artist more than a fighter. He made all those malicious, gloved men, who were paid hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions to hurt him, miss so badly and so much that you almost felt sorry for them – the way so many of us feel sorry for Sweet Pea’s family today.
Pernell Whitaker died Sunday night at 55. His son told police he was wearing dark clothes at 10 p.m. in Virginia Beach when a driver that probably didn’t see him hit and killed him when Whitaker tried to cross the road. The driver stayed at the scene until police arrived and Whitaker was pronounced dead.
Father of four, a boxing trainer of champions after beating his cocaine-addiction demons, what a terrible, terrible loss -- a loss that reminds us of what a tremendous boxer and showman Sweet Pea was back in the day, when boxing mattered much more than it does today.
Oh, if you didn’t follow the fight game or weren’t from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, you might not haven’t heard his name until today. But this is who he was and why he deserves to be remembered:
Before Allen Iverson became Hampton Roads' gritty, cult hero, there was Pernell Whitaker.
Think of a more aesthetically-appealing, but less-popular Floyd Mayweather; Sweet Pea danced and danced and then employed this lethal stick-and-move strategy. If only he could sell his fights as well as Floyd – if only he had more charisma – who knows what Whitaker may have made.
Even so, he did incredibly well, earning millions and never ducking anyone.
Other than having the same exact birthday, Jan. 2, 1964 (and if that doesn't put you in touch with your own mortality, nothing will), we didn’t have any real connection. I only covered one of his fights for The New York Times, in the summer of 1994. He made James “Buddy” McGirt look slow and old, almost shutting him out over 12 rounds in his hometown of Norfolk, Va., at the old arena they simply called “The Scope.” I remember meeting Michael Buffer shortly before HBO's then-ring announcer bellowed his patented, "Let's Get Ready to Rumble...."
But I watched at least 15 other of Whitaker’s fights over the years – from the night he was robbed of boxing’s coveted pound-for-pound title award when he outboxed and outshone Julio Cesar Chavez (only to get a bum majority-draw decision), to all the way back to 1984, when the speed of his hummingbird-fast hands looked as if they were working the speed bag en route to the gold medal on perhaps the greatest Olympic boxing team in history.
Featuring Mark Breland and Meldrick Taylor, that U.S. team won nine of 12 divisions at the 1984 Games, which were marred by the Soviet-bloc countries boycott – including the old U.S.S.R.
Whitaker was the best known, winning the lightweight gold medal. He boxed between about 135 pounds and 160 pounds during his career, winning world titles in four separate weight divisions.
Between 1984 and 2001, he fought most every big name of his era. Chavez. Oscar de la Hoya. Felix Trinidad. Azumah Nelson. McGirt. Rafael Pineda. Freddie Pendleton. Jorge Paez. He won his first title in 1987, beating Roger Mayweather, Floyd’s uncle, before 10,000 of his fans in Norfolk.
Few knew his real nickname was “Sweet Pete.” When a local sports reporter thought he heard the crowd chanting “Sweet Pea,” he printed that instead. And it stuck. His greatest gift in the ring was his mind; he genuinely outsmarted stronger, bigger men who hit harder. Making them miss became Whitaker’s patented style. His counter-punching was phenomenal, the way he would retaliate with three blinding punches – left jab, left jab, straight right – after every hay maker that missed his own head by about a quarter of an inch. The only time he was ever stopped was in his very last fight at 39 years old.
During the height of his career, from about 1987 to 1995, Whitaker became boxing's hardest puzzle to solve in the ring, a southpaw moving laterally, snapping crisp jabs and hooks with precision and always avoiding trouble in the late rounds.
The day before the fight I covered, he sat in his Norfolk hotel room talking to a bunch of boxing writers, lamenting that he didn’t have a genuine rival in time. "I did have a rival, Chavez,” he said, whom he later decisioned over 12 rounds, after their draw. “But it's hard to make it interesting without one. Maybe I should get cut. Maybe I should fake like I'm hurt. Maybe I should get rocked."
His old-head trainer George Benton said it best: "You can't say he's short-changed because there's nobody around that can give him a rivalry. He's just too good for his era."
Sugar Ray Leonard had Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. “Sweet Pea” had, well, Sweet Pea.
He had an off-again, on-again relationship with cocaine that nearly detonated his career and personal life at different times. In June 2002, a year after his retirement, Whitaker was convicted of cocaine possession after a judge found he violated the terms of a previous sentence by overdosing on cocaine that March.
Sobriety gave him a second life as a trainer, where he mentored a young Zab Judah and was with him the night in 2011 when Judah became the undisputed world welterweight champion.
Boxing was Whitaker’s life. He married his former wife, Rovanda Anthony, on December 21, 1985, at the Virginia Beach Pavilion Convention Center. In the middle of the boxing ring.
He is survived by four children, numerous family members and friends in the Hampton Roads area. And his many fans.
Mostly, Pernell Whitaker is survived by boxing. More than anyone after him, he made that sport the Sweet Science.
Godspeed, Sweet Pea.