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‘Sweet Pea’ at his sweetest: The 30-year anniversary of Pernell Whitaker-Jose Luis Ramirez 2

Whitaker (left) lands a punch against Jose Luis Ramirez during their rematch at The Scope, on August 20,1989 in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo from The Ring archive
Fighters Network

“He’s robbed us! He’s robbed us!”

The date was March 12, 1988. The venue was the Stade de Levallois in Paris, France. Former Olympic champion Pernell Whitaker had just given WBC lightweight titleholder Jose Luis Ramirez a boxing lesson over 12 rounds, but his trainer-manager, Lou Duva, could be heard protesting the verdict before it was even announced. Someone had tipped him off.

His worst fears were soon realized.

Judge Harry Gibbs had it 117-113 for Whitaker, Louis Michel scored 116-115 for Ramirez and Newton Campos – in what must be a top-three contender for worst scorecard in history – gave the fight to the Mexican titleholder by a tally of 118-113. That’s seven rounds to Ramirez, two for Whitaker and three rounds even. Campos should never have worked again, but he would judge six more world title bouts before handing in his blindfold in 1996.

When the decision was announced, Whitaker dropped to his knees in despair.

“(WBC president Jose) Sulaiman is nothing but a goddarn thief,” yelled an incredulous Duva during a post-fight interview. “He gave these guys (the judges) orders. I appeared at the rules meeting and I predicted what was gonna happen; I said we were gonna get robbed.”

Duva’s allegations stemmed from the fact that Ramirez had already signed on to face countryman and WBA counterpart Julio Cesar Chavez in a unification bout. All he had to do was retain his WBC title and the all-Mexico superfight was on. Whitaker, on the other hand, had refused to commit to a Chavez bout despite the carrot being dangled in front of him. This wouldn’t be the last time that Duva stepped up to bat for Whitaker against the WBC.

Upon rewatching the fight, I gave Ramirez three rounds, and in every one of those sessions, he received the benefit of the doubt. Whitaker, in what became a habitual tactic during his peak years, would dominate the early going of a 12-rounder, slow the pace in the middle and go through the gears later on. It makes sense that the only rounds I managed to give Ramirez were in the middle of the fight.

In this all-southpaw encounter, Whitaker would frequently step off to one side or the other in the blink of an eye and Ramirez would require two or three steps just to close the gap. The Mexican veteran was persistent in doing this, but for the most part he just impaled his face on his opponent’s fists. The fight soon morphed into a beautiful exhibition of Whitaker’s right jab and defensive wizardry. His timing and ring generalship were a joy to behold.

What made the 24-year-old Whitaker’s performance even more incredible was that this was his 16th professional fight. In sharp contrast, Ramirez, who turned professional at the age of 14, had a record of 100 wins against six losses. Yes, as ironic as it may be, Whitaker’s first professional setback was the first true indication that we were looking at a potential all-time great.

Whitaker’s educated right jab gave Ramirez fits. Photo from The Ring Archive

And he was just getting started.

Following a period of convalescing, Whitaker claimed his first world title in February 1989, dropping rugged IBF titleholder Greg Haugen en route to an impressive 12-round unanimous decision. He defended once, knocking out the unbeaten but untested Louie Lomeli in three rounds. But there was one man that Whitaker was determined to silence.

The Ramirez rematch was scheduled for August 20, 1989, at the Scope in Norfolk, Virginia. It was Whitaker’s hometown and he would be headlining at his favorite venue against the only man to put a blemish on his record. His motivation sky-high, Whitaker whipped himself into excellent fighting shape.

Ramirez had been relieved of his WBC title by Chavez, who defeated his friend by 11th-round technical decision. The former titleholder had been inactive and was grieving the loss of his longtime trainer-manager Ramon Felix, who tragically drowned near the fighter’s training camp in Casablanca, Morocco, just two weeks out from the Whitaker rematch. Ramirez’s preparation had been the stuff of nightmares, and he was going in against a man on a mission.

Whitaker-Ramirez 2 would not only have the IBF title at stake. Additionally, The Ring Magazine championship and the WBC title would be on the line because Chavez had recently moved north to dethrone WBC 140-pound titleholder Roger Mayweather.

In his biggest moment to date, Whitaker would turn in one of the most sublime boxing performances of the decade. The movement from fight one was significantly reduced, but Whitaker’s defensive prowess was no less brilliant. He stood in the pocket, moving his head and bending at the waist to avoid punches. He popped Ramirez with a thumping right jab and, when the time was right, released swift combinations that snapped his opponent’s head back.

“Ray Robinson couldn’t do it better,” bellowed trainer George Benton between rounds.

And a super-wired Whitaker couldn’t resist some “pizzazz” – as he would call it – in the championship rounds. In the 11th, the Norfolk star deliberately drifted into a neutral corner and allowed his opponent room to punch. Ramirez released over a dozen shots and missed all but one of them before being clipped by a brace of counters. Whitaker walked away gently pumping his fist to the delight of his home support. In the 12th, Whitaker ventured into Ramirez’s corner and twice used his opponent’s body weight to bounce his behind off the middle rope and spring back with rapid combinations.

It was a masterclass by the ultimate escape artist.

One judge, Sid Nathan, managed to give Ramirez three rounds, but order was restored when Larry O’Connell and Miguel Donate scored 120-109 and 120-108 respectively. Whitaker had made his point; he was unequivocally the better fighter, and the Parisian heist was now well and truly behind him. So many more great nights would follow: the undisputed championship at 135, world titles in four weight classes, pound-for-pound supremacy and the Hall of Fame.

We lost an all-time great last month when Pernell Whitaker was struck by a vehicle and killed in Virginia Beach. It was a tragic ending, but he’ll never be forgotten. If you’ve never seen Whitaker-Ramirez 2, then today would be the perfect time to make up for that. At his best, “Sweet Pea” was the definition of a champion and the Ramirez rematch showcases all of his brilliance.

Tom Gray is Associate Editor for The Ring. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing



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