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November 2002
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Sweet Like Sugar, Slippery Like a Pea
- The Definitive Pernell Whitaker Story

By Sam Dymond

"He was very hard to hit, and he was a southpaw too, but I still beat him", said Oscar de la Hoya, after winning an amazingly lopsided decision over Pernell Whitaker to take his WBC welterweight championship in 1997. The majority of pundits and viewers that through years of viewing boxing had developed a degree of impartiality, thought the fight was much closer, or in the case of many, the prevailing opinion was that Whitaker had done enough to win the fight. In the usual Whitaker style, he clamoured for a rematch, Oscar agreed. And in the typical De La Hoya style, when it came to the crunch, he refused. He knew better. His promoter Bob Arum knew better. They saw a shot and faded looking Whitaker get decked twice and rally to luckily kayo upstart Diobelys Hurtado earlier in the year. They saw a big name ready to be taken. Whitaker proved in his last ever title defense that he wasn't ready to be taken. Troubling Oscar with slippery movement and a serpentine jab, even scoring a controversial knockdown in the 9th, most thought despite the clowning, Whitaker had won. Arum and Oscar intelligently knew, while if they accepted a rematch, there was a chance Whitaker would have slipped even further than he had in the first fight, yet there was the chance he hadn't. So was the career of Pernell Whitaker.

In a career that spanned from 1984 to 2001, Pernell Whitaker beat most of the best that the divisions from 135-154 pounds had to offer. Whitaker's career nevertheless didn't begin with the limelight and glory his Olympic team-mates Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor, and Mark Breland received. Injuries to his leg and oft hurt left hand hampered his development in the pro ranks. A somewhat diminutive 5-6 lightweight, Whitaker's key to success was going to be his mesmerizing defense. By December 1986, Pernell Whitaker had amounted a record of 11-0, with 6 knockouts to his credit. His final victory had been a comic 10 round decision over Alfredo Layne, in which Whitaker won every round, yet raised the ire of boxing purists with a right hook fired from a 360 degree jump. In his next bout, Pernell, in a masterclass, outboxed highly rated Roger Mayweather over 12 rounds to win the NABF lightweight title- in only his twelfth pro fight. Mayweather put him down in the first round, yet Whitaker won every round subsequently, even pulling Mayweather's trunks down at one stage- again showing a flamboyant showboating style that made many judges look for reasons to award rounds against him.

Whitaker however wouldn't let them. His mesmerising defence saw no fighter able to land two clean punches in a row on him, and they would eat spitfire shots all night. He scored three rare stoppages in his next three fights, even winning the USBA lightweight belt to add to his NABF bauble, off Miguel Santana by way of 6th round TKO. His next fight however, is one that will be remembered as one of the worst decisions is boxing history. Whitaker ventured to Paris, to take on WBC lightweight champion, Jose Luis Ramirez. Ramirez was highly regarded champion, with a record of 100-6. Whitaker bamboozled the muscular brawler from the start. He invented punching angles, and peppered him with spit- fire combinations. In the middle rounds, Whitaker broke his left hand. It prevented him from landing as often as he was down the stretch, and he clinched often. Nevertheless, his amazing reflexes saw him still limit Ramirez in the punches he could land, and most thought that the American Whitaker had won the fight. "I pitched a shutout!" Whitaker claimed. His trainer Lou Duva thought the same. The cards were read, a split decision in favour of Mexican Ramirez. Crumpling to the canvas in despair, Whitaker knew he had won, but the judges, possibly because of his grating antics robbed him.

Whitaker went back to America, and instead of giving in, continued on his lightweight journey. He took aim at IBF champ Greg Haugen. This fight is remembered as one of Whitaker's finest performances. He countered Haugen at will, and put the champ down for the first time in his career in the 6th round. Haugen stopped punching, for fear of being dropped, let alone hit by Whitaker's lightning punches. In the end, the decision was nothing but a formality- Whitaker by UD. Back on track, Whitaker lured Jose Luis Ramirez to America to settle the score. This time, Pernell finished the job. He easily defended against his opponent's blows and hit Ramirez all night with ease. Once again, the judges could do little, but award the lopsided to Whitaker, which then crowned him as WBC and IBF lightweight champion of the world. A non- title victory over Martin Galvan in 1989 by TKO3, was followed by two stirring title defenses in 1990. A masterful domination of well- regarded Fred Pendleton, and then another amazing display of boxing against featherweight legend Azumah Nelson. "Box him like you got bad breath" George Benton told Whitaker before the fight. He followed those instructions to perfection. Nelson landed less and less as the fight went on, and like in most Whitaker fights, the decision was obvious: 116-114, 115-113, 116-111, UD for Pernell Whitaker. His next fight, Whitaker made history, by being the first fighter since Roberto Duran to unify the lightweight crown, and he did it in emphatic fashion, blasting out WBA champion Juan Nazario in the opening round to become recognised as one of the best fighters in the world. At this point, the only fighter to rival that claim, was 140lb champion Julio Cesar Chavez, who had just scored a scintillating kayo over Whitaker's friend Meldrick Taylor to become WBC/IBF 140lb champion. Whitaker continued to defend his WBC/WBA/IBF championship, against Kronk Gym hot- shot Anthony Jones by wide UD, then another two defences followed- a lopsided one over Poli Diaz, in which Whitaker won every round, and a good fight against former IBF junior lightweight champ Jorge Paez. "I can't believe how hard that guy is to hit, full credit to him", said Paez after the fight. A non- title victory over journeyman Harold Brazier followed in 1992, and shortly after, Whitaker relinquished his lightweight championship. A non title first round kayo over Jerry Smith was followed by a drab, yet predictably one- sided Whitaker victory over Rafael Pineda to win the IBF junior welterweight (140lb) championship, previously worn by friend Meldrick Taylor, and Julio Cesar Chavez.

Calls for a bout between Chavez and Whitaker became louder, yet nothing eventuated, and Whitaker in 1992 kayoed Benny Baez in one round, en route to a title fight in his third weight class. It was to be against Buddy McGirt, the always tough and dangerous WBC and linear welterweight champion of the world. Whitaker, despite being the shorter man, still had all the speed and skill he did as a lightweight, and McGirt struggled to cope, as most do when a punch is almost impossible to land. McGirt never stopped trying, but it was Whitaker who left the ring, amazingly with a fifth world title, in his third weight class around his waist. Finally, the calls became louder. The victory over McGirt, and Chavez' victories over Taylor, Haugen, and more recently Hector Camacho has catapulted both of them to the top of boxing, where in such a ruthless sport, there is only room for one…

And so it became, a fight between Julio Cesar Chavez, "J.C. Superstar", and Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker was made. Chavez said: "I don't like his style. He is a runner. I beat him bad". The ever-cocky Whitaker retorted, "I like to put-em (punches) together, I don't go for the knockout, I like to showboat, I like to entertain". They had a contrast in articulation, as well as in their ring styles. Chavez was 87-0, and was gunning for 100 straight wins without defeat. Whitaker was 32-1, nowhere near as imposing, but had beaten the cream of the lightweight division, and the best welterweight in Buddy McGirt. The fight was contracted to 147 pounds, and Chavez weighed in at 145, Whitaker at 147.

On the 10th of September, Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez stepped in the ring at the Alamodome, to decide who was the best fighter, pound for pound in the world. Chavez stole some of the early rounds, but when Benton urged Whitaker to "step on it" a bit, Whitaker did, and for the early part of the fight, Chavez found the fight becoming increasingly difficult. He took to hitting Whitaker in the thighs, and took a round with strong body punches, but couldn't find the crouching Whitaker for most of the time. Whitaker fouled Chavez back in turn, the referee refused to penalise Whitaker, as he gave as good as he got. It became even more amazing, when the boisterous pro-Chavez crowd was silenced when their man was, backed up by the light- punching Whitaker, who swept the last few stanzas on most peoples' cards. The final bell rang, and the decision for Chavez and his fans looked as though it would be a mere formality. It wasn't. It was disgraceful. Of course, the fight wasn't one sided as the most of Whitaker's victories had been, Chavez was as competitive as anyone ever was against Whitaker until this point, but Whitaker's victory here was plainly decisive. One judge saw the bout 115-113 for Whitaker, the other two a 115-115 draw. How that conclusion was drawn blighted boxing again, and magazines blasted the decision. The biggest fight in boxing marred by controversy and poor judging, and increased the fear that the judges were paid bribes.

Whitaker this time, was nonchalant about it, "I know, and the people know who won" he said with a wry grin. Chavez hardly looked as composed. He left the ring; he knew, his fans knew that his 87-0 in reality should be no more. Sadly, for Whitaker the ultimate victory was snatched from him, and given to another fighter- Frankie Randall, who dropped Chavez, en route to UD'ing him the following year. For Whitaker, his career was still on the up.In 1994, he bamboozled Santos Cardona in his next title fight, almost winning every round, and limiting Cardona to only 30 punches landed throughout the fight, such was his defence. This was followed by a rematch with Buddy McGirt. Whitaker showboated early, and paid for it with McGirt decking him in the second round. However, he was not to be denied, and ran away with the fight in the middle rounds, scoring a solid unanimous decision. Whitaker looked up again, this time at the 154lb junior middleweight division. Many critics thought he was too small, and that a guy, like champion Terry Norris would beat Whitaker easily. Whitaker chose WBA champion, well drilled Argentine southpaw, Julio Cesar Vasquez. Vasquez was 53-1, and on a roll. Whitaker halted that roll. He was dropped in the 5th round, yet slugged with Vasquez, stunningly still outfoxing him on the inside, and winning a lopsided decision, to win his 6th world championship.

He relinquished his 154lb belt, and dropped down to his natural weight of 147lbs, to concentrate on that title there. Talk of him facing 168lb superstar Roy Jones Jr. was dispelled immediately, on simple grounds- "That talks preposterous!" Whitaker said, "He's 168 pounds man!" Still 1995, Whitaker defended his title twice more that year; wide decisions over both Gary Jacobs, and former 140lb'er Jake Rodriguez. 1996 came, and some will remember this year, as somewhat the beginning of the end of the Whitaker legend. In his first defence of the year, Whitaker took on good contender Wilfredo Rivera. Rivera was 23-0-1, and 6ft tall- surely Whitaker will be too slick. For the first time in his career, Whitaker was made to look bad. Whitaker started off ok, but the fact that he hadn't totally prepared for this bout began to show. He looked slow, aged, his timing was off, and he was taking more punches than he had in his whole career prior. The rangy Puerto Rican bounced sharp punches off him often, and Whitaker struggled to land enough to stay in the fight. It looked like a stunning upset had just occurred, and that Whitaker's amazing run was no more. Amazingly, Whitaker was lucky. The receiver of a highly controversial split decision victory, he now knew how Chavez and Ramirez felt when they got gifts after fighting him. Was it redemption? Maybe.

Five months later, Whitaker climbed through the ropes to erase doubt of him fading, and losing his touch. Whitaker this time looked better, yet not back at his best. Rivera dumped him to the canvas with a round 5 body shot, and it looked as though Rivera would get him this time, yet Whitaker's resolve kicked in, and with a lightning counter left of his prime, sent Rivera crumbling. Wilfredo got up, but Whitaker fought strongly and defended well, and in the end won another split decision. This time however, he looked much better.

Yet Whitaker wasn't the focus of boxing anymore. The new boy was Oscar De La Hoya. The "Golden Boy" was on a winning run of 21-0, and looked a lock to beat anyone. He had crushed Chavez in four rounds in a WBC 140lb title fight, and was now gunning for Whitaker's crown. Pernell, in his nonchalant style, agreed to the challenge, but had to get past young Cuban defector Diobelys Hurtado. On the 24th January 1997, Whitaker, defending his WBC welterweight championship for the 8th time, stepped into the ring with Hurtado. This time, Whitaker looked poor. Looking bloated and slow, a faded and jaded Whitaker was dropped in the opening round by a sharp right hand. He and Hurtado battled on fairly even terms for the next 5 rounds, until Hurtado put Whitaker down again with another hard left hook. Whitaker's skills had slipped, and badly. He was, being beaten up by a man that would hardly match him in his prime. Hurtado continued to have the edge, and by the 11th round, looked to most like he had finally done the impossible: taken Whitaker's belt in the ring. Then suddenly, a hard Whitaker left found the mark! And Hurtado was hurt. Whitaker blasted him with left after left, until Hurtado slumped unconscious through the ropes. His title and a lucrative bout with Oscar De La Hoya saved at the death hardly did enough to dispel the foreboding opinion that many watched the fight had developed: if Hurtado could do that, what will the lightning fast, hard punching Oscar De La Hoya do to him? The fight was on, and it looked a foregone conclusion that Oscar had another old champion under his belt before the fight had even been fought.

Yet Whitaker had one last surprise for the boxing world. Already mentioned in the beginning of this article, Whitaker showed De La Hoya the true meaning of the words, "Sweet Science". Left, right, up and down, Whitaker hit De La Hoya, drawing blood from his nose, and raising some swelling. That not withstanding, Oscar did better than anyone had done against Whitaker, landing his fair share of power punches. The 116-110 twice, and 115-111 for De La Hoya was outrageous, yet predictable. Oscar said he would, but refused a rematch, and Whitaker was left wallowing title-less in one of boxing's deepest weight divisions. Aiming for a fight with Ike Quartey did not eventuate, Whitaker was forced to take on Russian boxer, Andre Pestriaev. He outboxed Pestriaev, and won a decision, which was changed to an embarrassing no decision. A drug test failed, and Whitaker was a proven cocaine user. Thus he disappeared from boxing.

After time off, Whitaker decided to have another run at a championship. This time, he singled out long time IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad. A powerful puncher, Trinidad was on the brink of a huge welterweight shootout with De La Hoya, and fighting Whitaker was a high risk to take. The fight took place in early 1999, and in hindsight, it was obvious that the old veteran Whitaker, no longer had the speed and reflexes to compete with the bigger, stronger, faster, and harder punching "Tito" Trinidad. Trinidad decked Whitaker in the 3rd round, and proceeded to punish him, the stoic Whitaker determined to win by kayo. The wide decision in favour of Trinidad at the end of the twelve rounds was a formality. Sadly, Whitaker in what looked to be his final chance at glory, was the victim of the sort of defeat that he himself built his illustrious career upon. "Everyone knows I won" Whitaker claimed, but it was plain that it was over. He showed flashes of prime in the Trinidad fight, yet most of the time was reduced to a bloated punching bag. After further time off, Whitaker, in 2001, took on Carlos Bojorquez in a forgettable encounter at 154lbs. Like many greats before him, he struggled to a 4th round TKO defeat, due to a dislocated shoulder. "I'm done" he said after the fight. Finally, Pernell Whitaker, the impossible to hit phantom, that ravaged the boxing world from the lightweight to junior middleweight divisions was no more. A faded shadow of his former self, he retired, and where he goes from now is uncertain. Sadly, a life in drugs, alcohol and domestic problems look likely, hardly a fitting sequel for a man who gave so much, in a career that will ensure he is remembered as one of the greatest of all time.


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