Remembering Whitaker – Sweet Pea a master of the sweet science

Pound-for-pound legend Pernell Whitaker, who died Sunday night at age 55 after being hit by car at a Virginia Beach, Virginia, intersection, was a dazzling fighter, perhaps the greatest defensive wizard of all time, and the pound-for-pound king for much of the 1990s.

In the amateur ranks, he won a 1984 Olympic gold medal. As a pro, he captured six world title titles in four weight classes, claiming the undisputed lightweight title as well as belts at junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight.

He had many major fights and was one of boxing’s biggest names during a pro career extending from 1984 to 2001. ESPN boxing writers Mark Kriegel, Steve Kim and Dan Rafael share their favorite Whitaker memories.

Pernell Whitaker knocked down Diosbelys Hurtado in the 11th round to defend not only his welterweight title, but also save a future fight against Oscar De La Hoya. The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Kriegel: I’m not sure it was the greatest robbery I ever saw, Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Whitaker, but I’ve never seen larceny committed in full view of 63,000, as it was that night, Sept. 10, 1993, for the WBC welterweight title at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

I remember Don King, who, with Mike Tyson in jail, had a sudden epiphany as to the brilliance of the 87-0 Chavez, introducing Shelly Finkel as “the Henry Kissinger of boxing” at the news conference.

In fact, though, neither Kissinger nor Metternich had a greater capacity for the treacheries of realpolitik than King. This was at the height of the nefariously cozy relationship between the WBC and Don King.

“His name is pain, the best kidney specialist in the world, the terminator,” King yelled. “Pernell, you got two chances: slim and none.”

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“I am warning him not to be running and clowning in the ring,” Chavez said. “I am going to hurt him.”

Whitaker said nothing. He wore a Fila suit and wraparound shades, listening to Naughty By Nature on his Walkman.

The day before, he’d answered all of our questions but one. “Not talking about Meldrick,” he said.

That would be Meldrick Taylor, Whitaker’s friend and teammate from the great 1984 Olympic team. Chavez had all but ruined Taylor three years prior. Whitaker was ringside as Taylor swallowed about two pints of his blood that night.

Whitaker had left immediately after that fight. He was weeping. The Chavez fight would provide Whitaker with, among other things, revenge.

He got it, I guess. Completely out-boxed Chavez for 12 rounds. Only the judges couldn’t see it.

When it was over, Chavez, who’d dismissed Whitaker as practitioner of “a dirty style,” shook his hand and conceded, “You have a lot of courage.”

“We make a lot of rematch,” said Chavez, proving that he’d finally become an astute student of King.

Pernell Whitaker just laughed. It was all he could do.

Chavez couldn’t hurt him.

Only boxing could.

Pernell Whitaker lands an uppercut against Julio Cesar Chavez at the Alamodome in 1993. Holly Stein/ALLSPORT

Kim: Pernell Whitaker is the reason I nearly quit watching boxing.

Well, not really him, the blame should go to judges Mickey Vann and Franz Marti, who inexplicably deemed that his fight versus Julio Cesar Chavez at the Alamodome in 1993 was somehow even.

Both men scored it 115-115 (Jack Woodruff had Whitaker up 115-113), meaning that the masterpiece painted by Whitaker would gain him only a majority draw. It was like spray paint on a Rembrandt. While Whitaker retained his WBC welterweight title on this night, he was robbed of his chance to become the first man to defeat the great “Lion of Culiacan,” who came into that bout with a record of 87-0.

Yeah, Whitaker put the first blemish on Chavez’s record, but the official records will always commemorate this bout as not a Pernell victory. It isn’t quite the same.

Chavez was considered almost unbeatable at the time, and it was thought he would bulldoze Whitaker with his relentless pressure and two-fisted attack. But instead he was riddled for much of the night by the smooth-boxing “Sweet Pea,” who was as slippery and as elusive as any boxer who ever lived. On that evening, Chavez could’ve had three hands and he wouldn’t have touched Whitaker all that much.

Whitaker put on an exhibition of “the sweet science,” something so often talked about but misunderstood. He was hitting and not getting hit, standing right near Chavez but being invisible to him.

The eerie silence of the huge crowd in the late rounds let you know how this fight was unfolding. Whitaker was masterful. Chavez was frustrated. Yet, at the end of the night, the judges wouldn’t let Whitaker have his moment.

As I digested this rotten decision on that Friday night, I said something that has been a familiar refrain to a multitude of disgruntled boxing fans for the past century: I’m never watching this sport again.

Pernell Whitaker stands in disbelief as he listens to the judges’ decision following his title fight with Julio Cesar Chavez. BOB DAEMMRICH/AFP/Getty Images

I know, if you had a nickel for every time you heard that … but the truth of the matter is, it’s the one and only time I’ve ever uttered it. Because Whitaker was part of a special group of boxers who had helped foster my love for the sport of boxing as a child of the ’80s. Given that the 1984 Olympics were the first Summer Games that I got to see (Jimmy Carter had pulled America out of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow) and they were in Los Angeles, I certainly had a special interest in these events, and specifically the boxing portion, which took place at the LA Sports Arena.

With Cuba and Russia boycotting the ’84 Olympics, the U.S. boxing team dominated the tournament, and young men like Whitaker, Mark Breland, Evander Holyfield and Meldrick Taylor quickly became household names. So much so that a few months later, their professional debuts were broadcast in prime time by ABC.

Being a part of the last generation that actually saw significant fights live on over-the-air networks meant that the likes of Whitaker and his Olympic cohorts were a big part of my life as a young sports fan growing up in Montebello, California. There was a certain attachment I had with that squad. And like Whitaker, I felt like something was taken from me on that 1993 night in San Antonio.

For Whitaker, it was a well-deserved win. For me, my faith in the sport.

But several days later I received the latest edition of Sports Illustrated and saw that Whitaker had made the cover with the headline in big letters: “Robbed!” I was back on board. As long as the world understood and recognized that Whitaker had boxed circles around Chavez, I would begrudgingly give this game another shot.

Kathy Duva, the head of Main Events, which promoted Whitaker for most of his career, has a big poster-sized copy of that SI cover in her game room. She says that every time she walks past it, she still feels emotions over that dubious decision.

While many of us got over the draw and moved on, Whitaker was never quite the same. Sure, he still had some big fights left in him. But that night was probably the last time we saw a truly focused version of him.

“I think that fight really hurt him — that they called it a draw,” said trainer Ronnie Shields, who was in Whitaker’s corner for over a decade. “He really worked hard for that fight — he worked hard for every fight — but he really, really, really trained hard for Chavez, because what he didn’t want was for them to steal it. And that’s just what happened.

“He was devastated by that draw because he felt that his legacy should’ve been that he beat Chavez, who everybody considers one of the best fighters ever. He wanted that win because that would’ve really taken his career further. It really hurt him that they gave him a draw.”

Pernell Whitaker shadow boxes in a mirror at the US training camp in 1984. The Denver Post/Getty Images

Rafael: By the time I began covering boxing in 2000, Whitaker was basically finished as a fighter. I wrote about only one of his fights — which turned out to be his final bout — a stoppage loss to Carlos Bojorquez on ESPN2 in 2001.

But I was a longtime Whitaker fan because, even though I am more partial to action fighters than technicians, I loved that Whitaker didn’t run. He’d stand in front of his opponent, make him miss, frustrate him endlessly with flair and typically embarrass him en route to a decision win.

My favorite Whitaker memory isn’t one of those virtuoso distance performances against a top opponent. Rather, it was a shocking and savage late knockout to rescue a victory in a fight he was losing.

I tuned in to HBO on Jan. 24, 1997, to watch Whitaker defend his welterweight world title in Atlantic City, New Jersey, against the then-unknown Diosbelys Hurtado, a Cuban defector, who was 20-0 at the time but taking a massive step up in competition.

Shockingly, Hurtado floored Whitaker with a clean right hand — the first punch of the fight — seconds into the bout. Whitaker was down again on a left hand in the sixth round and rocked by a left hand in the seventh. It was that kind of night for Whitaker, who had all sorts of problems with Hurtado.

As they went into the 11th round, Whitaker was trailing on all three scorecards — 96-91, 94-92 and 93-92, weird-looking scores due to point deductions — and in dire need of something dramatic. He had come into the bout with a big-money HBO PPV fight with Oscar De La Hoya already in place for that April. He needed to defeat Hurtado, or that would go down the drain.

I really wanted to see Whitaker-De La Hoya and was rooting hard for Whitaker, but his chances of scoring a knockout, much less one so late in a fight, appeared miniscule. He was no puncher and had never scored a stoppage after the sixth round.

De La Hoya, who was sitting in with the HBO announcers, was watching his big fight and welterweight title shot evaporate when Whitaker saved it in intensely brutal fashion.

Whitaker landed a heavy left hand that rocked Hurtado to his boots. Whitaker followed with nine more clean left hands to the head that left Hurtado draped in between the ropes and unconscious before referee Arthur Mercante Jr. finally waved off the fight.

Whitaker — and De La Hoya — celebrated the most unusual and exhilarating turn of events one could imagine.

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