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Paying tribute to the brilliant Pernell Whitaker

Pernell Whitaker
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The genius of his art is undeniable. Nigel Collins on Pernell Whitaker, who has died aged just 55

CHARLES DICKENS’ Artful Dodger had nothing on Pernell Whitaker, the four-division former champion, whose defensive wizardly made him nearly impossible to hit during his prime.  

The Artful Dodger picked pockets for a living. “Sweet Pea” picked apart the best fighters of his generation, winning world titles in four divisions—lightweight, super-lightweight, welterweight and super-welterweight.

Sadly, Whitaker, 55, was hit and killed by a car last Sunday as he walked across an intersection in Virginia Beach, a paradoxical ending for a man who had eluded the dangers of the ring so successfully for so long.

Whitaker, born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia, was one of nine US gold medallists on the 1984 Olympics boxing team. Unfortunately, a boycott by the Soviet Block kept such amateur powerhouses as the USSR, Cuba and Poland out of the Los Angeles Games. While this partly explained the USA’s unprecedented haul of medals, our lads provided a wealth of marketable talent that soon became TV favourites.

Most of them signed on with Main Events, where Whitaker stayed throughout his career. He turned pro at Madison Square Garden with much fanfare on November 15, 1984, along with five of his Olympic teammates. As you would expect, they all won, including Whitaker, who stopped Ferrain Comeaux in the second round.

After that Whitaker went from success to success, from division to division, overcoming two of the most despicable robberies of the century, to emerge arguably as the greatest pure boxer of his time.

While Whitaker’s official pro record stands at 40 wins, 4 losses, 1 draw, with 17 inside the distance, it really should be 42 wins, 2 losses and no draws.

He was the victim of two shameful decisions, a 12-round split decision loss to Jose Luis Ramirez in a March 1988 bid to win the WBC lightweight title, and an infamous draw with Julio Cesar Chavez on September 10, 1993. That was the real crusher.

According to Sports Illustrated’s William Nack, the Chavez-Whitaker decision was “so violently in contempt of plausibility that even a number of Chavez’s partisans in the largely Mexican-American crowd of 65,000 [at San Antonio’s Alamodome] appeared embarrassed as they quietly left the arena.”

Whitaker avenged the Ramirez robbery with a unanimous decision in August 1989, but a mooted rematch with Chavez never materialised.

It’s a pity, but in spite of notable victories over Azumah Nelson, Buddy McGirt (twice), Rafael Pineda, Roger Mayweather, Greg Haugen, Diosbelys Hurtado, Juan Nazario (to unify the lightweight title) and Julio Cesar Vasquez (to win the WBA super-welterweight title), the Chavez travesty is probably the fight most closely associated with Whitaker.

Not that Sweet Pea didn’t get his props: He was The Ring magazine and Boxing Writers Association’s Fighter of the Year in 1989, and in 2007 was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He even overcame, to an extent, the fact many of his bouts were not all that exciting.

Whitaker was a prickly guy, not always easy to get along with. I once discarded a Q & A interview I’d recorded because his answers were painfully brief, mostly yes, no or I don’t know. He could also be be uncooperative at photo shoots, the sort of guy who would complain he wasn’t getting the attention he deserved and then gives you a hard time when you tried to give it to him.

Whitaker’s drug use had been an open secret for years, but when he tested positive for cocaine after winning a close comeback bout against Andrey Pestryaev, his denials were no longer even semi-credible. The decision was changed to a no-decision and Whitaker entered rehab.

He fought twice more, suffering a broken jaw in a punishing decision loss to Felix “Tito” Trinidad and a broken-clavicle TKO defeat to journeyman Carlos Bojorquez Carlos on April 27, 2001, in his final fight.

A few months after his retirement, the depth of Whitaker’s addiction became painfully obvious. He was on his way to jail after two traffic convictions when officers searching his belongings found cocaine. How much substance abuse hampered his career is difficult to quantify, but what does it matter at this point? Pernell Whitaker’s boxing legacy is assured, the genius of his art undeniable.

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