A year on from his untimely passing, Elliot Worsell talks to rivals, friends and admirers of Pernell Whitaker who explain the wizardry of ‘Sweet Pea’
WHILE both stuck in time and stuck inside, my boxing comfort watch at the peak of last year’s COVID-19 lockdown seemed to be anything that involved Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker. And there were, I think, several reasons for this.
The first reason was an obvious one: Whitaker was, having sadly passed away just six months before the world stopped, both a fighter still fresh in my mind and a fighter sorely missed. But, as well as that, more than that, I likely turned to Whitaker in solitude, when trapped inside the same four walls for days on end, because there is no one better than Pernell Whitaker to demonstrate how to remain creative and productive in the tightest and scariest of spaces. This was, after all, his forte. His gift. His magic trick.
A world-renowned disappearing act, Whitaker, in his prime, successfully made a career of sitting in the pocket with opponents, always putting himself in harm’s way, and would, time and time again, somehow not only avoid being hurt in these situations but also find openings to land punches of his own, doing so with the sneakiest of pivots or twists. Rarely would fans see Whitaker run and rarely did the claustrophobia or danger of being trapped on the inside with an opponent – sometimes bigger, sometimes stronger – ever seem to adversely affect him. Boxing’s Houdini, what to most were dead ends were to Whitaker ways out; escape routes.
Another reason why the appeal of Sweet Pea increased during the past 12 months owes to the nagging suspicion that fighters of his ilk – genuine craftsmen with nuance and layers to their game – are in danger of becoming a dying breed in a sport now geared towards fans with short memories and attention spans, as well as a thirst for one-punch knockouts. It is tough, for instance, to imagine a fighter like Whitaker flourishing in 2021 the way he did during his fighting prime, both in terms of the attention and respect given to him and the money on his table.
Never one for shortcuts or the spectacular finish, Whitaker demanded patience on the part of the spectator and, moreover, required from them a certain level of knowledge and appreciation of what it was they were looking at. He often entertained but would always, always educate. At his best, he would do both simultaneously, striking a perfect balance between clean, precise, textbook counterpunching and ego-driven showmanship – which, as a combination, made him quite the spectacle and his fights fun to watch.
So-called master boxers today, by contrast, struggle to hit that same sweet spot. They find themselves easy to ignore as a result and their fights, even ones of the supposed ‘super’ variety, tend to flatter to deceive and, for the most part, lack the razzmatazz and sense of peril Whitaker used to inject in his when staying in the firing line and refusing to budge.
Indeed, when returning to them during lockdown, Whitaker’s fights moved me in ways a lot of the big fights today don’t. Why that was, I can’t be sure, but I do know the stakes for some reason seemed higher and the skills on display seemed, at times, otherworldly. The goal, too, was often to dominate rather than simply win, an art lost on many.
Suitably enthused, after gorging on Whitaker for weeks, and with plenty to talk about but nobody to listen, I decided to consult a few men with knowledge of what made Whitaker so special.
One of these men was HBO’s Larry Merchant who, unlike me, had the privilege of watching a great deal of Whitaker’s Hall-of-Fame career from a ringside seat. Merchant, in his role as analyst, got to see Whitaker both young and old. He got to see him at his best and at his worst. He didn’t just watch him; he studied him.
“He materialised out of a place that doesn’t produce a lot of top fighters in Norfolk, a port city in Virginia,” Merchant said. “Several fighters have come out of a naval background, and the American navy always used to have a boxing mindset when they were out at sea and would have fights onboard. Roy Jones, for example, came out of Pensacola, where there was also a big naval presence.
“Whitaker, though, was a star amateur and won the [Olympic] gold in ’84, which meant he was a popular fighter long before even turning pro. He was, to me at least, a showy version of Willie Pep. He had some crash and dash to his movement and seemed to always be in control of the fight. People enjoyed watching him because of this.” Pressed to name his favourite Whitaker performance, Merchant, now 90, had to first pause to appreciate the sheer number of Whitaker fights he had watched, either from ringside or from home. He then eventually settled on Whitaker’s revenge victory over Jose Luis Ramirez in August 1989, which cleared up Whitaker’s first career loss, a controversial one, the previous year.
“Ramirez was a difficult opponent and a tough guy,” Merchant recalled. “It was a spiky fight. Both of them were like that: spiky. It was an aggressive brawler against a master boxer and the brawler did well at times but Whitaker found a way to get the better of him overall.”
It could be argued that Whitaker, around the time of the Ramirez rematch, was at his very best. He was, after all, the proud owner of the WBC and IBF lightweight titles and had, in winning the IBF version, delivered one of the finest examples of pure boxing on record against a hapless Greg Haugen in ’89. Yet, despite his brilliance as a lightweight, it was at welterweight Whitaker secured his biggest paydays and it was at welterweight Merchant feels he proved himself as more than just a master boxer.
“Whitaker was that rare pure boxer who had a lot of followers,” he said. “They were entertained by his movement and his boxing ability. He was a difficult guy to fight because he was always moving even when he was standing still. But that kind of flashy style was a good style and I liked him.
“He also had a certain tough-mindedness which I liked. I remember the fight that was supposed to lead to his big match against [Oscar] De La Hoya [April 12, 1997] and he was having problems in this fight. Knowing this, he went after his opponent the way ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard would if in a spot of bother. Leonard would box you until he had to go after opponents and make an impression and Whitaker that night did the same.
“That was the only time I can remember in his later fights where I saw Whitaker know he needed to do something special – and he did it. Normally by the time he had got into the second half of the fight he had already won the fight. On this occasion there were questions about it but he stepped on the gas, put the opponent on the back foot, and put an end to things in the 11th round.”
Diosbelys Hurtado, the Cuban in question, did better than most when sharing a ring with Whitaker in ’97. He had scored flash knockdowns against Whitaker in rounds one and six and was leading on the scorecards going into the 11th, the round in which an urgent and out-of-sorts Whitaker gradually broke him down. In defeat, Hurtado not only brought out the best in Whitaker – that is, the other side of Sweet Pea’s game – but also showed Whitaker, at 33 years of age, was perhaps coming towards the end. (Hurtado would in fact be the last man Whitaker officially defeated, with subsequent fights against De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Carlos Bojorquez ending in defeat and a win against Andrey Pestryayev becoming a No Contest due to Whitaker failing a performance-enhancing drug test for cocaine.)
Another man who brought the best out of Whitaker as a welterweight was Scotland’s Gary Jacobs, the only British boxer Whitaker faced during his 46-fight professional career. Jacobs, a long-time European welterweight champion, earned his shot at Whitaker’s WBC welterweight crown in August 1995 at the Convention Hall in Atlantic City and was duly outpointed by the American over 12 rounds. The scorecards were wide, too wide for his liking, but Jacobs still recalls the Whitaker experience with fondness.
“He was obviously the most decorated fighter I fought in my career,” Jacobs said. “We went 12 rounds and I remember every single minute of it. I think I did much better than the judges gave me credit for but he was a great fighter, Whitaker. I was up against it, with the fight being in America and Whitaker being a star, but it was a great experience. I remember it so vividly.
“He was a talented, talented man, and it was not easy hitting him clean. He was a five-time champion of the world at different weights – and one of the pound-for-pound greatest fighters of all time – for a reason. He was just a brilliant all-round fighter. You can’t beat what you can’t hit and he was proof of that.”
Aware of all this going in, Jacobs trained for four weeks in the Catskill mountains and entered the fight with unwavering self-belief. This belief then grew considerably when the challenger sensed that Whitaker, a man prone to lapses in discipline, had struggled to make the 147-pound welterweight limit. “I think he was pretty tight at the weight around that time,” Jacobs said. “I remember him jumping on and off the scales very, very quickly.”
Regardless, Whitaker was the champion Jacobs had wanted for some time and was someone he had been preparing to fight, if mentally more than physically, throughout his reign as European welterweight king. If some seek the easiest possible route to a world title, Jacobs, to his credit, pursued the toughest.
“He was the champion I wanted,” he said, “and it was down to me that the fight happened. Mickey Duff was my manager at the time but I was the one who made sure it was Whitaker I fought.
“To be honest, I wanted to fight him because he was the fighter who would give me the most recognition if I came away with the win. I was right, too. Twenty-six years later, we’re still talking about it.”
It seems a redundant question to ask of anyone who has shared a ring with Pernell Whitaker but it is one you feel moved to ask anyway: “Was he the best boxer you ever faced as a pro?” In this case, the answer appears obvious enough – that welterweight title fight was Jacobs’ only shot at world honours – but Jacobs, when asked this question, was quick to remind me of a relatively nondescript 10-rounder he had in New York some six years before challenging Whitaker.
“I thought James ‘Buddy’ McGirt was a better fighter than Whitaker, if I’m honest,” said Jacobs, outpointed by McGirt in August 1989. “He was exactly the same: a counterpuncher fighting people off the back foot. But when I fought McGirt it was my first time at that level and I think he beat me fair and square. The Whitaker fight, in my opinion, wasn’t one I lost. I was up against it with the judges and I even scored a knockdown they didn’t score as a knockdown.
“I chased Whitaker for 12 rounds. I was like, ‘Hey come here,’ and was trying to just keep him in one place. I was much more well-equipped when that fight came around. I’d been in with McGirt and I’d been defending titles.
“Only the good fighters beat me and McGirt was the best opponent I faced, definitely. But, saying that, you can’t take anything away from Whitaker, either, because he did beat McGirt.”
Whitaker and McGirt did in fact box twice as professionals and both times ‘Sweet Pea’ came away with his hand raised. They fought for the first time in March 1993, with McGirt’s WBC welterweight belt on the line, before doing it all over again in October 1994, the rematch deemed necessary due to the close nature of the pair’s original encounter.
“The first fight I thought I should have got a draw,” said McGirt, “and even George Foreman thought the same. But in the second fight I employed a stupid strategy because I really didn’t give a s**t, to tell you the truth. The fire was gone; the fire in my gut just wasn’t there. But the thing is, a man I came to know as Uncle Sam was writing and sending me these letters, so I had no choice but to go through with the fight.
“It was rough for a few years. Uncle Sam wouldn’t let up. He wouldn’t take his foot off my neck. He was putting a lot of heat on a brother and for years was not letting me breathe. At that time in my life everybody disappeared.”
McGirt’s memories of his two fights against Whitaker are clouded by personal problems, frustrations, an injury, and the prolonged sinking feeling he experienced when knowing his best days were behind him. Something he does remember, though, is how mentally taxing the two Whitaker fights ended up being and how Whitaker managed to form with his esteemed coach, George Benton, perhaps the most intelligent one-two combination in boxing. “He was the best,” McGirt said of Whitaker. “The best. “He also had one of the best trainers in his corner, George Benton. There are interviews with Georgie, which you can find on YouTube, where he says Pernell Whitaker was his masterpiece. He said to me after the first fight, ‘Buddy, you almost f**ked up my masterpiece.’
“He was right. Pernell was his masterpiece. He was slick, he was smart, and he was a good listener. Whatever Georgie told him to do, Pernell executed.
“I have six losses on my pro record and four of those losses were to George Benton-trained fighters. Georgie trained Frankie Warren both times we fought and was the best trainer out there. In fact, during the press conference for our first fight, I remember turning to Pernell and saying, ‘Pernell, I’m not worried about you. I’m worried about that man sitting right there.’ That man was George Benton. He was a master.”
Thankfully, rather than keep Benton’s wisdom all to himself, Whitaker, in retirement, generously passed on a lot of what he had been taught to other fighters. These lessons were appreciated by all the boxers with whom Whitaker worked, including Dorin Spivey, Calvin Brock, and Joel Julio, while sticking around the sport in a coaching capacity gave Whitaker some renewed sense of purpose as well as some much-needed routine in retirement. Trouble still found him, of course, for his elusiveness sadly never stretched beyond the ring, but Whitaker nevertheless left his mark and created countless fighters in his own image, often without even knowing it.
“I learned defence first,” said Zab Judah, the former world welterweight champion and belt-holder at super-lightweight. “That was the first thing my father (Yoel) taught me. He said the art of fighting is this, and had a slogan: ‘If a man can’t hit you, a man can’t beat you.’ Basically, the more you hit him and he doesn’t hit you, the better it is for you.
“My dad then allowed me to go ahead and train with Pernell Whitaker when I was 16, so I went to camp with Pernell to spar and learn.”
Before sparring, and before even learning, Judah would just watch. He would watch the way Whitaker, notoriously truculent, interacted with people outside the ring and he would then watch the way Whitaker, just as awkward when in gloves, disciplined people in sparring.
“Oh my God, it was amazing,” Judah recalled. “He was a different kind of guy. He was different. Pernell was to the point. If he rocked with you, he rocked with you. If he didn’t, you knew he didn’t. There was no fake s**t with him. He didn’t say, ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’ He just wouldn’t say s**t to you. He’d say to your face, ‘Hey, man, you know I don’t like you, so I’d advise you to stay over there.’ He was a blunt guy like that.
“He was amazing in the ring, though. It was like being in the ring with somebody you can’t hit. You don’t know the frustration you go through until you try it. It’s super, super, super overwhelming.”
In September 1996, Judah, then 18, defeated Michael Johnson via second-round stoppage to mark the start of what would become a glittering professional career. That fight took place at Miami’s James L. Knight Center on a card headlined by Pernell Whitaker (who successfully defended his WBC welterweight title against Wilfredo Rivera), and this proved to be just one of many stages and connections the two American southpaws would share as their careers overlapped. A year later, Judah would appear in Whitaker’s corner during Whitaker’s superfight against Oscar De La Hoya at the Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, while in 2011 Whitaker was working Judah’s corner the night he stopped Kaizer Mabuza to win the IBF super-lightweight title (the same belt Whitaker held in ’92).
Eight years after that, Whitaker was dead at 55, killed when crossing a road, and Judah, four weeks after being treated in hospital for a brain bleed, was left to mourn the loss of a great champion and friend, comforted only by the belief that Whitaker’s legacy lives on. It lives on, Judah believes, in the moves of other fighters; it lives on in the fights these fighters now watch on YouTube in the name of either research or inspiration; and it lives on because no matter who tries, or how many try, the things Pernell Whitaker was able to do in a boxing ring cannot be replicated and must be seen to be believed.