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Pernell Whitaker: World champion boxer and Olympic gold medallist unrivalled as a defensive fighter

Harrison Smith

Virginian boxer Pernell Whitaker was known as perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of his generation, and a defensive ring artist whose genius for dodging punches helped him to win an Olympic gold medal and world championships in four weight classes.

Whitaker, who has died aged 55 after being hit by a vehicle in Virginia Beach, was an elusive left-hander who regularly slipped away from his opponents, dancing across the ring en route to a slew of world titles. Nicknamed “Sweet Pea”, he became the undisputed lightweight champion after defeating Juan Nazario in 1990 and also won titles as a light-welterweight, welterweight and light-middleweight.

Whitaker retired in 2001 with a professional record of 40-4-1, including 17 knockouts and three highly controversial decisions: a 1988 loss to Jose Luis Ramirez in France, a 1993 draw against Julio Cesar Chavez in San Antonio and a 1997 loss to Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas. In the eyes of many boxing analysts, he was robbed each time.

He later worked as a trainer in Virginia Beach, guiding boxers such as Calvin Brock and Zab Judah, amid struggles with cocaine and alcohol that sometimes landed him in prison. In 2007 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York state, which praised the “stinging right jab and straight left hand” that helped him defeat foes including Azumah Nelson, Buddy McGirt, Jorge Paez and Harold Brazier.

Raised in a Norfolk public-housing project, Whitaker parried and punched his way to stardom at 20, when he dominated the lightweight division at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, becoming one of nine American boxers to win a gold medal at the games.

Whitaker turned pro later that year with a bout at Madison Square Garden. In 1989, he was named fighter of the year by The Ring magazine and defeated Greg Haugen to win his first lightweight world title. “I couldn’t get no punches off,” Haugen said, offering a complaint that was echoed by fighters for the next decade.

In search of new competition, Whitaker ranged beyond his original weight class, taking on Chavez in 1993 when the Mexican boxer was considered one of the world’s greatest fighters, undefeated after 87 bouts. Slipping, weaving and darting before a crowd of more than 63,000 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, the fight was often cited as Whitaker’s finest night in the ring.

Whitaker knocks out Jake Rodriguez during the sixth round of their 1995 championship bout (Getty)

But while most sports writers named Whitaker the victor, the judges ruled differently, with one calling it in his favour and the other two deeming it a draw. The resulting tie, wrote Sports Illustrated, was a decision that was “violently in contempt of plausibility”. Whitaker appeared on the magazine’s cover above a one-word headline: “Robbed!”

“I put an old-fashioned project beating on him,” Whitaker said the morning after the fight, with characteristic bravado. “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. I’m not just a runner; I can fight. Give me credit. Give me the respect I deserve. Give me this one!”

Whitaker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1964, and rarely discussed his upbringing, saying that he grew up as a street fighter and began boxing at eight. Pete, as he was known, entered national tournaments and went 201-14 as an amateur, winning events including the 1983 Pan American Games. He was said to have acquired the nickname “Sweet Pea” after a reporter misheard his friends calling him “Sweet Pete” at a boxing match.

Backed by trainers George Benton and Lou Duva, Whitaker challenged Ramírez for his first world title in 1988, losing on a split decision before winning a rematch the next year. He later signed a lucrative television contract with HBO but by the late 1990s was struggling to dispatch opponents he had once dominated with ease.

A 1997 win was overturned after he tested positive for cocaine, and in two of his final bouts he suffered a fractured jaw and a broken clavicle that effectively ended his career.

In 2003 he was sentenced to 27 months in prison for repeated probation violations, including for bringing cocaine to a Virginia Beach courtroom while reportedly answering a traffic complaint. He later won a court battle to evict his mother from her Norfolk home, which he had purchased as a gift, saying he owed taxes and needed the money.

The court cases marked a steep downturn for a fighter who had long described boxing as a form of play and who seemed to delight as much in entertaining the crowd as in defeating his opponents.

Whitaker was above all a champion at what he called “the most beautiful thing in the world”: hitting someone without getting hit in return.

“Most fighters don’t even know what’s happened to them,” he said of his technique in 1993. “I’ve taken something from them – their confidence, their fight plan. They can’t hit you, the fight is yours … 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.”

In 1985 he married Rovanda Anthony at a ringside ceremony in Virginia Beach, but the marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by five children and was predeceased by a son.

Pernell Whitaker, boxer, born 2 January 1964, died 14 July 2019

© Washington Post