INJUSTICE was a theme of Pernell Whitaker’s career. No one should have beaten him until he met a rising star Oscar De La Hoya in 1997 at welterweight. On paper though his first defeat was recorded in 1988, at lightweight, against Jose Luis Ramirez in Paris. Whitaker may have baffled the Mexican in the ring but he in turn was left flummoxed at the judges’ decision after the contest.
Unfairly denied a world title at the first attempt he picked up the IBF’s portion of the lightweight crown from Greg Haugen. Justice was served when he brought Ramirez to his home turf in Virginia a year later and added the WBC belt to his waist, widely outpointing Ramirez and rewriting that blip on his record.
It wouldn’t be the only time Whitaker had trouble getting the right decision against a Mexican in a WBC title fight. He fought the great Julio Cesar Chavez in Texas but left disappointed with only a draw, a result widely disputed at the time.
The raw stats of his career are impressive. A recognised world titlist at four weights, he beat Roger Mayweather in his first 12-rounder, with the two trading knockdowns. He scalped Azumah Nelson at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. To unify the WBC, IBF and WBA lightweight titles, he knocked out Juan Nazario in a round.
Offensive power of course was not his trademark. Whitaker was the consummate stylist. His defensive skills were uncanny. “Sweet Pea” could duck, bob and weave his way through shots coming at all angles, showboating as he foiled his exasperated opposition. It is rare indeed to find a boxer who made such an art of not throwing punches.
The virtuoso southpaw developed his abilities with an impressive amateur apprenticeship that culminated in a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games and he was one of the leading lights of an all-star American team.
At the time that podium finish might have felt like the top of the world but Whitaker went on to achieve professional greatness, marked not just by unifying belts in one division but winning titles at multiple weights too. After defending his lightweight triple crown three times, Whitaker moved up to light-welter outpointing Rafael Pineda to take the IBF strap.
He didn’t stay there long. By 1993 he was a welterweight and relieved Buddy McGirt of the WBC crown. With even Julio Cesar Chavez unable to take that title from him, he squeezed in a couple of defences, against Santos Cardona and a repeat win over McGirt, before nipping up to light-middle.
Julio Cesar Vasquez had held the belt for years, with one loss in 54 fights, when Whitaker met him. Another points win and “Sweet Pea” was a champion in four divisions.
He didn’t dally there and focused his efforts at 10st 7lbs. A series of successful defences brought him to a 1997 confrontation with Oscar De La Hoya. Something of a stalemate, surely closer than the judges had it but not a controversy in the manner of Pernell’s results against Ramirez and Chavez.
It marked the winding-down of a great career. His contest with Andrey Petryaev later that year was ruled a No Decision when Whitaker tested positive for cocaine afterwards.
You could make a case that Pernell had not been beaten, certainly not decisively, until his 1999 meeting with Felix Trinidad. The Puerto Rican was too big, too much for him by this stage, with a protracted absence from the ring not helping Whitaker in this IBF welterweight title fight.
All his career the defensive maestro had avoided punishment with gleeful swagger; against Trinidad he showed he also had the pride and the resilience to withstand blows if he had to. The only stoppage loss on his record was in his last fight, in 2001, against Carlos Bojorquez and that was due to Whitaker breaking his collarbone.
That highlights the philosophy behind Whitaker’s career. “Sweet Pea” showed the art of boxing wasn’t about slugging it out, but about hitting without being hit.