Whitaker, Pernell 1964—
Pernell Whitaker 1964—
Pernell Whitaker is considered, pound for pound, the best boxer in the world. A titleholder at four different weight classes, Whitaker has pursued the “pound for pound” designation with great determination and counts it as his most important achievement. Known in fight circles as a wily ring artist who often hobbles his opponents by changing styles and techniques from round to round, Whitaker has sparked new interest in the welterweight and junior middleweight classes and is among an elite few who earn million dollar paychecks for fights at those weights. Sports Illustrated correspondent Richard Hoffer noted that the man who calls himself Sweet Pea has remained “among the [boxing] game’s master craftsmen for a decade,” adding that the fighter “might now be judged impossible to beat.”
It can be argued that Whitaker has always been impossible to beat. An Olympic gold medal winner, he has lost only once as a professional, in a very controversial decision, and has earned a draw in only one fight—again amidst controversy. “I hate to brag on myself,” Whitaker stated in the New York Times late in 1994, “but I can say I’m the best, pound for pound.” Fight fans seem to agree. Executives at Home Box Office, who offered Whitaker a multimillion dollar contract for four fights, claim that Whitaker is the most popular boxer in America other than the heavyweights; some 30 million viewers paid to watch him defend his welterweight title in 1994. Some of this popularity stems from Whitaker’s attitude about the game. He calls himself an “entertainer” and says that he gets a “rush” from outsmarting the opponents who try to hit him. “Most fighters don’t even knowwhat’s happened to them,” Whitaker commented in Sports Illustrated. “I’ve taken something from them—their confidence, their fight plan. They can’t hit you, the fight is yours. They get self-conscious about punching. After a while they start reaching, just hoping they’re going to hit me. I don’t care who I’m fighting. I don’t care if it’s God. If I don’t want God to hit me, he’s not going to hit me.”
Whitaker admits that, growing up, he was a scrappy street fighter who learned young how to wear down the other guy. “Two minutes and two seconds,” he told Sports Illustrated —that is how long most street fighters
At a Glance…
Born January 2, 1964, in Norfolk, VA; son of Raymond and Novella Whitaker; married, wife’s name Rovonda; children: three sons.
Amateur boxer, 1972-84; won gold medal in light weight division at 1984 Summer Olympics, tos Angeles, CA Professional boxer, 1984—. Won International Boxing Federation (IBF) lightweight championship, 1989; became undisputed lightweight champion, 1990; won IBFjunior welterweight championship, 1992; won World Boxing Council welterweight championship, 1993; won World Boxing Association junior middle-weight championship, 1995.
Addresses: Home—Virginia Beach, VA. Office—c/? International Boxing Federation, 134 Evergreen Pl, 9th Floor, East Orange, NJ 07018,
last before they begin to tire. What he learned as a youngster, he said, was how to bide his time during those two minutes and then close in for the win. “Once you’re tired, I own you,” he concluded. “You’ve sold your soul to the devil.” Whitaker was born in January of 1964 in Norfolk, Virginia, a coastal city known for its military bases and its tough neighborhoods. He grew up in the Young Park section of Norfolk, then as now a challenging place to live. His parents, Raymond and Novella Whitaker, provided a stable home life and preached the virtues of hard work and self-discipline. They urged Pernell to do his homework and stay in school, and they encouraged him to find sports that would fill the need for exercise and competition.
At the tender age of eight—and with the unlikely nickname “Sweet Pea”—Whitaker found his way to a local gym and began boxing. He loved it from the start, and as he entered his teens he began devoting more and more time to it. His mother recalled in Sports Illustrated that he would go to the gym after school and stay there until she summoned him home for supper. She never had to wonder where he was or what he was doing—she knew just where to find him. This devotion paid off for the slender youngster. He became a nationally-ranked amateur and traveled all over the country for matches against other regional winners.
In 1984 Whitaker won the opportunity to represent the United States as a lightweight at the Summer Olympic Games. As he prepared for the Olympics, he forged close friendships with the other American boxers who were also in training—the likes of Tyrell Biggs, Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, and Meldrick Taylor. Whitaker was so popular amongst the other fighters that they named him captain of their boxing team. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, he easily won the gold medal. Hardly had it been placed around his neck before he announced his intention to become a professional boxer. He has been one ever since, never having held any other job.
Whitaker weighed 130 pounds when he boxed in the Olympics. He entered the professional ranks as a lightweight and proceeded to work his way toward a championship. Early in his career he engaged the services of boxing promoter-trainer Lou Duva and the creative trainer George Benton. Together Duva and Benton helped Whitaker to develop his skills; Duva’s son Dan handled the complicated business transactions that accompany professional fights.
Whitaker’s first opportunity to win a championship came in the spring of 1988, when he traveled to Paris to meet World Boxing Council lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez. Paris was Ramirez’s adopted hometown, and the highly partisan crowd booed Whitaker lustily. Relishing the chance to succeed in enemy territory, Whitaker proceeded to “run Ramirez ... into a near frenzy, and he had seemed to win the fight and the championship easily,” recalled Pat Putnam in Sports Illustrated. In fact, Ramirez won the bout on a split decision. Putnam concluded that all Whitaker earned that night “was the wrong end of the vote from two judges who seemed to have been watching another fight.”
The tenacious Sweet Pea did not have to wait long for a championship belt, however—and he won it much closer to home in Hampton, Virginia. On a snowy night in February of 1989, Whitaker became International Boxing Federation lightweight champion by beating Greg Haugen. This time the crowd, undaunted by a foot of snow that had fallen during the day, roared for Whitaker. He won every round on all three judges’ cards. Whitaker’s effectiveness was most vividly demonstrated by Haugen’s comments after the fight—comments that would be echoed in years to come by almost anyone who faced Sweet Pea. “I couldn’t get no punches off,” Haugen observed in Sports Illustrated. “I can’t win if I don’t punch. He’s a real tough kid. He deserved to win. He kept throwing me off… I knew what I had to do, I could see what I had to do; I just couldn’t do it… They told me he was good. Now I know.”
That victory led to a rematch with Ramirez, also held in Norfolk, which Whitaker won easily. By August of 1989 he held both the IBF and WBC lightweight championships. He unified the title the following year, adding the World Boxing Association crown in a first-round knockout of Juan Nazario. After that Whitaker had merely to defend his title periodically against high-ranking challengers, something he accomplished with relative ease.
In 1992 Whitaker decided to jump to the next weight class, junior welterweight. By July of that year he had won his first championship in that class from the IBF. Whitaker did not remain in the junior welterweight ranks for long, though, principally because he felt none of the competitors fighting at 140 pounds were worthy of him. Late in 1992, with a record of 31-1, he moved into the welterweight division, where the weight limit is 147 pounds. “I hate easy fights,” Whitaker told Sports Illustrated. “They give boxing a negative image. The best should fight the best.”
Only months after joining the welterweights, Whitaker met WBC champion Buddy McGirt in a title fight at Madison Square Garden. McGirt was nursing an injury to his left arm that seriously affected his strategy, and Whitaker beat him easily in a unanimous decision. By taking the welterweight championship, Whitaker joined an elite rank, becoming only the fourth man in history—along with Henry Armstrong, Barney Ross, and Roberto Duran—to win titles in the lightweight and welterweight divisions. While McGirt complained that his loss was due to the arm injury—and then hurried into surgery to have it repaired—Whitaker pronounced himself the new champion by virtue of talent and announced his intention to seek the “best fighter pound for pound” designation.
Before Whitaker could achieve that goal he had to meet Julio Cesar Chavez. Chavez, the very symbol of boxing perfection, carried an 87-0 record and the coveted “best fighter pound for pound” reputation. He was considered next to a god in his native Mexico and was likewise quite popular in America, especially in border states such as Texas. Whitaker signed to fight Chavez in September of 1993. At stake, should Whitaker win, was Chavez’s WBC super lightweight championship. If Whitaker lost, Chavez would take the WBC welterweight crown. The fight took place in San Antonio, Texas before a throng of Chavez’s fans. Its outcome remains one of the most controversial in recent boxing history.
Most observers agreed that Whitaker dominated Chavez through most of the contest. An informal poll of a dozen ringside reporters by the New York Times showed Whitaker winning on ten cards and tying on the other two. The official judges saw it differently. Two of three of the judges called the fight a draw, the third judge voted Whitaker the winner. The match went into the record books as a draw, with each fighter retaining their prior championships. An uproar ensued in the press. Many reporters challenged the decision, contending that the judges were biased toward Chavez. To quote Sports Illustrated contributor William Nack, “Whitaker put on one of the most dazzling ring performances in recent years. Yet, within minutes, two of the three judges reduced this magnificent show to a mockery.” Nack called the scoring “a judgment ... violently in contempt of plausibility.”
So strong were the opinions in the press that Whitaker emerged from the bout with exactly the goal he had set for himself: the press began calling him “best fighter pound for pound.” A designation that is not recognized by any of boxing’s confusing governing bodies, this distinction rests entirely upon a fighter’s reputation and ability. For Whitaker, the time had come to assert himself. “I want to tell the world that I beat the unbeatable,” He stated in Sports Illustrated. “From now on they’re all going to look at me and say,‘ There’s the guy who beat Julio Cesar Chavez. He has been beaten. Pernell Whitaker beat him up. ’ I’m not a taunter; I’m not a tormentor. But I whipped his ass… And easily. I mentally and physically beat him. I put an old-fashioned project beating on him. A housing authority beating. A ghetto beating. Everyone tried to build him up, but I condemned the building. Pound for pound, Pernell Whitaker is the best fighter in the world… Give me credit. Give me the respect I deserve.”
Whitaker has had no trouble earning that respect since the Chavez fight. In October of 1994 he easily beat McGirt in a title rematch, and in March of 1995 he briefly went up in weight to win the WBA junior middleweight belt. That victory propelled Whitaker into a very elite rank of boxers who have won world titles in four different weight classes. He has become such a cable television lure that Seth Abraham, the head of HBO, told the New York Times that only George Foreman outdraws Whitaker in audience ratings.
The secret to Whitaker’s success lies in his defensive capabilities. He is known as a fighter who can ruin his opponents’ game plans, confound their sense of timing, alter his style and reactions from one round to the next, and elude even the most relentless pursuit. He rarely, if ever, loses his cool, but he enjoys taunting his opponents and will—if he is winning by a large enough margin—showboat vigorously for the crowd. “We’ve got to put our tap shoes on,” he explained in Sports Illustrated. “I’m an entertainer.” Entertainer or athlete, Whitaker has proven nearly impossible to beat in the ring and has established himself decisively as a master of technique over violence who makes his fights look more like ballet than brawl.
The father of three, Whitaker lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a wealthy sister city to neighboring Norfolk. His fight deal with HBO, inked in 1994, has made him a multimillionaire, but the money is a secondary consideration for him at this point. Late in 1993 he told the Los Angeles Times: “I can enjoy the pound-for-pound title pretty much for the rest of this decade, the next 10 years. After we live this down, somebody else will move on to it.” Competition, he said, was his only goal—and he would continue to fight only the best opponents. “The guy that beats me, I want him to go on and beat everybody else,” he concluded in the New York Times. “I don’t want to lose to a guy that’s going to turn around and lose the next fight. The guy that beats me will go on to greatness and everything else.”
Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1993, p. 4C.
New York Times, September 12, 1993, p. 11; September 30, 1994, p. 9B; October 1, 1994, p. 36; October 3, 1994, p. 9C; March 6, 1995, p. 5C.
Sports Illustrated, February 27, 1989, p. 44; August 28, 1989, p. 66; March 15, 1993, p. 48; August 9, 1993, p. 34; September 20, 1993, p. 14; October 10, 1994, p. 18.
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