Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, who has tragically died aged 55 in a road accident in Virginia, USA, was one of the all-time boxing greats, holder of world titles between 1989 and ’97 in four different divisions – lightweight, super lightweight, welterweight and light middleweight.
He was only the fourth ever to achieve a quartet of legitimate world titles after Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran and was the first undisputed world lightweight champion since Duran.
Rated by the venerable Ring magazine as the finest pound for pound boxer in the world between 1993 and ‘97, Whitaker had previously been voted Fighter of the Year by the magazine and the Boxing Writers’ Association of America, while in 2002 he was ranked number 10 in a list of the 100 greatest boxers of the previous 80 years. In 2006 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the first year in which he was eligible.
He also enjoyed a star studded amateur career, the high point being his gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, when he captained the hugely successful American team to nine golds.
His major strength was as a defensive fighter who was extremely elusive and difficult to hit while at the same time a highly effective counter puncher.
He was considered the best exponent of defensive boxing in the world since Willie Pep and Wilfred Benitez. Whitaker was quoted, “The most beautiful thing in the world... was hitting someone without getting hit in return.”
Mark Breland, fellow American Olympic gold medallist and later world welter weight champion, was reported as commenting,” He wasn’t a big puncher, his whole thing was making you miss, you couldn’t hit him.”
One boxer who could vouch personally for that was Glasgow’s Gary Jacobs, who fought him for his world welter weight title [W.B.C.] in 1995 in Atlantic City as the number 1 ranked contender.
Although Jacobs had an excellent pedigree with British, Commonwealth and European titles to his credit, he found it extremely difficult to land meaningful blows on the champion and suffered a decisive points loss.
He did well to last the 12 rounds and did have Whitaker down in the 11th round, but the outcome was never in doubt. Answering press criticism over his failure to knock out the Glaswegian, the champion responded,” I’m a technique fighter, not a mass murderer.”
Alongside great success, he did suffer several poor decisions. In Paris in 1988 in his first world title bout, the Mexican lightweight Jose Ramirez was awarded the fight, much to the astonishment of British referee Harry Gibb, who scored Whitaker 4 rounds ahead.
Justice was done a year later when he beat Ramirez to clinch the W.B.C. title. The worst example of a dodgy decision was the “draw” in 1993 against the outstanding Julio Cesar Chavez, whose record was 87 wins and no defeats.
In front of 60,000 noisy partisan fans mostly supporting his opponent, Whitaker dominated the fight after a slow start and seemed well on top.The decision was condemned in a Sports Illustrated article which stated it was “violently in contempt of plausibility” and whose front cover screamed –“ROBBED.” Whitaker later succinctly commented,”I whipped his ass.”And in 1997 he was considered unfortunate to lose the decision in his world welter weight bout against Oscar de la Hoya.
After claiming his first world lightweight title in 1989 against Greg Haugen, he added the two other versions by defeating Ramirez and Juan Nazario to unify the title by 1990. Two years later he won the super lightweight title, defeating Rafa Pineda, while in 1993 he claimed the welter weight title against James “Buddy” McGirt, claiming his final crown, at light middleweight, against Julio Cesar Vasquez in 1995.
Whitaker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, one of seven children, to parents Raymond and Novella. He started boxing early, soon showing considerable aptitude, while a pupil at the local Booker T Washington High School. His official amateur record recorded 214 fights, with 201 wins, although he claimed the true total was much higher.
Known as “Pete” after an uncle, his family supported him at bouts shouting “Sweet Pete”, which was misreported as “Sweet Pea” and the nickname stuck.
He built up an impressive amateur CV, in 1982 winning the US Golden Gloves and silver at the world championships, while a year later he won gold at the Pan American Championships. In 1984 he clinched gold at the Los Angeles Olympics, a springboard for his professional career under Lou Duva and George Benton, with his successful debut coming months later at Madison Square Garden.
Later he endured problems with alcohol and drugs which cast a shadow over the end of his career and after retiring from boxing he served a period of imprisonment related to cocaine possession.
Whitaker acted for periods as a trainer, with his most successful protege Zab Judah, world welterweight champion.
In 2014 he attracted headlines when he won a court decision to evict his mother and two siblings from a property he had bought to enable him sell it because of financial problems.
In 1985 in a boxing ring in Virginia Beach Centre he married Rovanda Anthony, whom he had known from childhood, but they later divorced. They had four children, Dominique, Dantavious, Devon and Pernell Jr, the latter predeceasing him. He also had a daughter, Tiara, from a previous relationship.
It is understood Whitaker was struck by a vehicle when out walking in the late evening at Virginia Beach and died at the scene.