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There’s only one Sweet Pea

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Thomas Gerbasi caught up with Pernell Whitaker last year. The great man discussed his unique style and legacy in the sport with Boxing News

PERNELL WHITAKER, the trainer, doesn’t have any big names under his wing these days. There’s no Zab Judah, no Calvin Brock, or any of the other contenders and prospects that he once worked with for varying lengths of time.

“Not right now,” said Whitaker to Boxing News. “I’m just waiting to see what’s going on. If somebody needs my help, I’m available. But I’m more interested in watching the young kids fight, getting ready for the Olympics coming up.”

It’s no surprise, really, because Pernell Whitaker, the boxer, had gifts and a work ethic that are hard, if not impossible, to impart to others unless the recipient wants it as bad as he does.

“That’s the most important part,” he said. “I tell them that they’ve got to put the work in. You can’t just show up in the gym and just go through the basics of getting in shape. You have to be able to go a little further every time, and do something different and work on it.”

At 54, Whitaker has reached a place in his life where he’s at peace with what he achieved during a Hall of Fame career and also at peace with the reality that maybe his greatest gift back to the sport is to be an elder statesman, a reminder of a time when craft was more important than flash.

That didn’t mean “Sweet Pea” wasn’t flashy. He was. Just check out the highlight reels on YouTube for proof. And it’s those clips of him dipping, dodging, bobbing, weaving and pulling off moves straight out of The Matrix that have the Twitter generation singing his praises. Whitaker admits to staying away from social media, but he has noticed that his popularity is only growing in recent years.

“I’ve been getting more appreciated since retirement,” said Whitaker, who fought his last bout against Carlos Bojorquez in April 2001. “I get more acknowledgement now than I did when I was fighting. That’s great and I appreciate it because I see it every day. Every place I go, restaurants and everything, they recognise and acknowledge that nobody did it better than Pernell Whitaker – nobody.”

Pernell Whitaker
Whitaker fights Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden Action Images/Reuters

The swagger is still there, albeit a bit more subdued than in his prime, when he ruled the lightweight and welterweight divisions, picking up world titles in both, along with belts at 140 and 154 pounds. And why wouldn’t he have that cockiness, knowing that not only did he win, but he did so while barely being touched by elite foes. Best defensive fighter ever? Whitaker has a good case for that title.

“If there’s somebody out there, past or present, let me know who it is,” he laughs. “Some guys got good defence but not great defence.”

I bring up the “Will o’ the Wisp,” Willie Pep, and ask Whitaker if the former featherweight great can be mentioned among the legendary defensive boxers.

“Of course. I’ve seen his videos and I agree with that. Back in his time, that was his era. I watched quite a few of his fights on tape, but it’s two different eras. There was a totally different style of boxing from his era to my era. Guys are a lot quicker now than then, but I agree, Willie Pep was one of the greats. I won’t take anything away from him, I just added my own little flavour to my defensive style.”

‘They recognise and acknowledge that nobody did it better than Pernell Whitaker – nobody’

That flavour led Whitaker through a stellar amateur career capped off by a gold medal for Team USA in the 1984 Olympics. But it was a pro that he took things to another level under the tutelage of George Benton. And while most fight fans wonder about the result of dream matchups, what was the typical gym session like between two boxing geniuses like Whitaker and Benton?

Pernell Whitaker (right) fights Joey Belinc (left) during the US Olympic boxing trials at Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games USA Today Sports

“It was always a teachable moment with George Benton,” Whitaker recalled. “There was always something in the ring that he saw that he was able to talk to me about. He gave me everything from the old school style of boxing that worked for me. And it worked. Whether it was aiming for the chest, aiming for the shoulders, just the way he would have fought in the 50s and the 60s, and I fell in love with that style of boxing. And I was able to put it out there along with the skills that I already had and the speed that I had. It was a gift given to me, and it was a gift that nobody else had.”

That gift saw him race out to a 15-0 pro record and a 1988 lightweight title shot against Jose Luis Ramirez. What resulted was one of the worst decisions in boxing history, as Whitaker lost a 12-round split decision that nearly everyone other than judges Newton Campos and Louis Michel thought the American won. It wouldn’t be the last time the judges had it in for the Virginia native, who got his title a year later by defeating Greg Haugen. He also got even with Ramirez, nearly shutting him out in 1989 before going on to six more successful defences.

In 1992, he picked up a super-lightweight title, and then it was off to welterweight, where he defeated Buddy McGirt for the WBC version of the crown. That victory set up a superfight with the 87-0 Julio Cesar Chavez in September 1993, yet with the world watching, Whitaker got robbed again, this time having to settle for a draw. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but today, he says it didn’t sour him on the sport.

“Nah, there’s one thing about controversy: controversy always sells. The world watched it and I can live with going into a supermarket and they still talk about it. It’s still a big thing to a lot of people, and that was a highway robbery. It was worth being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”

Pernell Whitaker

Whitaker ran into Chavez before the first fight between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev in Las Vegas. So did Chavez admit Whitaker won, like Sugar Ray Leonard admitted Thomas Hearns deserved a win and not a draw in their rematch?

“Nobody’s gonna admit anything,” laughed Whitaker, content with the knowledge that the world knows what happened that night in San Antonio.

There would be other nights of glory, though, eight more welterweight title defences capped off by an 11th round stoppage of Diosbelys Hurtado.

“I had to catch up to that guy,” said Whitaker, who was dropped twice by the unbeaten Cuban before roaring back to win. “I had to be very patient with him because he was traveling so fast around that ring. I figured I’d be patient, and I caught him. And when I caught him, I jumped him and stayed on top of him.”

The 33-year-old Whitaker began to show his age that night, as he trailed on all three scorecards heading into the 11th round, but he showed the heart of a champion and his offensive attack in dispatching the talented challenger. It’s an aspect of his game few give him credit for.

“That was my main strength,” he said. “I let them know that now. I know they love the defence, but the attack I had was beautiful. I got to a point where I’d rather go 12 rounds and win 10 out of 12. But once I get you past six rounds, I know I’m gonna be ahead and I know you’re not gonna get the last six. Some of the guys, I knew I could have probably got them out of there, but they just get on your nerves, so I just like to drag ‘em all 12 rounds and just punish ‘em along the way.”

Pernell the Punisher? He laughs. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Whitaker would fight four more times after the Hurtado bout, going 0-3 with 1 NC, a win over Andrey Pestryaev being overturned when he tested positive for cocaine. But those numbers don’t reflect a gallant 12-round stand against Felix Trinidad in 1999 and a stellar 1997 effort against Oscar De La Hoya that many thought he won. His final fight against Bojorquez ended due to a broken clavicle.

Whitaker and Oscar De La Hoya Action Images/Reuters

It was the typical end to a great boxing career, but nothing Whitaker did before that was typical. He made a mark in a sport that celebrates attack, not defence, and he did so with his own unique style.

“It was hard work, but it’s something where I was able to add to the basic skills that I had, especially defensively,” he said. “I was able to anticipate something coming at me and what angle it was coming in at and get past that point before my opponent would throw it out there. I was always anticipating that coming, and I worked on that a lot. Along with having George Benton teaching me the type of punches that really affect another fighter, like hitting him on the arm, hitting him in the chest, all around the side. I liked to have a good jab and work around the body and work my way up. Instead of top-down, I worked from the waist up.”

Oscar De La Hoya (L) and Pernell Whitaker battle for the WBC welterweight title in Las Vegas, April 1997

‘That’s the one great thing about technology. You can go back and rewind and look at it all yourself’

In other words, he was a craftsman, a John Coltrane in a Vanilla Ice world. And he doesn’t expect to see anyone like him anytime soon.

“It’s rough right now,” Whitaker said. “It ain’t the sport itself, but everybody wants that get rich quick thing instead of putting the work in and trying to stay in the ring and stay active. Most of these guys are just running around with these iPhones and cameras and iPads and all these people filming them at fights, and they’re not even fighters, really. It’s more like a show. These guys want to promote themselves, and I don’t know what kind of training they’re doing. I don’t even know a trainer who would want to put up with that. You want to get your fighter in the gym, have him work hard every day, and not get to the gym two hours late. That’s the frustration with me. Let’s not waste each other’s time. You’re the one fighting, not me. I’m here to help. I’m not here to fight the fight for you, so you’ve got to get in the gym. The trainer shouldn’t have to beat you to the gym.”

He laughs. He knows he sounds like that guy saying, “Well, back in my day…” but he doesn’t care. He’s Pernell Whitaker, and he’s not going to change for anyone.

“It’s not that I have to tell the story,” he said. “You can look it up and see it for yourself. That’s the one great thing about technology. You can go back and rewind and look at it all yourself.”

When asked when he was at his best, Pernell has no doubts

Fans will debate what fight represented Whitaker at his best. He doesn’t have such debates with himself.

“I would say I was at my best every time,” he said. “I never went out there half-assed. I never went out there when I wasn’t in the best shape. Every time that I competed, whether it was in the amateurs or as a professional, I always walked in there at my best, and I always walked in there with the confidence that I’m gonna get it done.

“I just had fun,” Whitaker continues. “I fought for the love of the game. I loved boxing and now that I can look back at it, I know that whatever fight anybody wants to watch of Pernell Whitaker, they’re gonna enjoy it because every time I stepped out there, I did something for the fans so they would never want to go to the concession stand and get soda, popcorn, hot dogs or anything. Because you might miss something. As long as I left that impression on a whole lot of fans, I’m appreciative of that.”

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