Pernell Whitaker: Just how good was the former pound-for-pound king?
The late, great Pernell Whitaker was naturally gifted and very special. The southpaw genius captured world titles in four weight classes – from lightweight to junior middleweight – and he was one of the best defensive fighters in boxing history.
Whitaker was a highly decorated amateur, winning silver at the 1982 World Championships and gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He turned professional later that year with Main Events.
“Sweet Pea” won his first 15 bouts before facing grizzled veteran Jose Luis Ramirez for the WBC lightweight title in France. Almost everyone who watched the fight believed Whitaker won, however, two of the three judges disagreed and the Mexican retained his title in spurious circumstances.
Unperturbed, Whitaker went on to claim the IBF title by outboxing Greg Haugen, then whitewashed Ramirez in a rematch to add the WBC belt. He later knocked out WBA titleholder Juan Nazario in one round to become the undisputed champion, establishing himself as one of the finest lightweights of all time.
Now a pound-for-pound entrant, Whitaker made a brief pitstop at junior welterweight, besting Rafael Pineda for another IBF title, before moving on to full welterweight. The Norfolk resident claimed the WBC 147-pound title by defeating James “Buddy” McGirt by unanimous decision and made eight defenses, notably outboxing fellow legend Julio Cesar Chavez (D 12) and McGirt (UD 12) in a rematch.
In the middle of his welterweight reign, he also dared to be great by stepping up to 154 pounds and proved too slick for the much larger WBA titleholder Julio Cesar Vazquez (UD 12).
Father time began to catch up with Whitaker in 1996 when he struggled to get past Wilfredo Rivera and Diobelys Hurtado the following year. With that said, he was still good enough to give Oscar De La Hoya fits in a close tactical battle, but that decision went against him.
He displayed his toughness when he fought seven of 12 rounds against Felix Trinidad with a broken jaw in February 1999, but this time the points loss was legitimate. Whitaker (40-4-1, 17 knockouts) retired for good in 2001 after suffering a shoulder injury against Carlos Bojorquez.
The great champion was inducted into the IBHOF in his first year of eligibility in 2007.
Last June I spoke to Pernell and set up a “Greatest Hits” feature. I’d called him when he was out with friends who knew Pernell the person, not the boxer. Acutely aware of his place in fistic history, he asked me to tell them just how good he was in his prime. I was happy to acquiesce and bigged him up via speakerphone. Pernell got a real kick out of that.
We spoke for the final time 10 days prior to his tragic, untimely passing at the age of 55. It may very well have been his final interview.
Here we speak to former coaches, promoters and former opponents who assess just how good Pernell Whitaker was:
COACHES AND PROMOTERS
Assistant coach of the 1984 U.S Olympic team
“He was good, he was always good. He was a sharp boxer all the time. He was good at slipping and sliding, good jab, all of his punches were good, he wasn’t an overly powerful puncher, but he had good snap and flexibility. He was a guy that could make you miss him quite a bit, he had great defense. I thought he would do well [as a professional]. I think he was great; he was one of the greatest defensive fighters ever. He’d block, parry and catch, then he’d come back with good punches. He could have fought in any era. I think he would be [among the] top 10 best fighters ever.”
“I used to lead him back to meet the media after each fight. We always compared notes on his performance. I remember one particular day – no idea which fight – when I said, ‘So I only saw him hit you one time,’ and he answered, ‘No. Twice.’ He was amazing in that ring, the place in the world where he was completely in control and comfortable.
“I ended up being closer to him, personally, than most of the other fighters that we have worked with over the years. Even in his later years, he kept close to everyone at Main Events. And I was honored to be asked to give a speech at his funeral, when he packed Scope Arena in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia one last time. Pete had a lot of flaws. And I got a laugh at the funeral when I mentioned that everyone who knew him would admit that he could be a ‘total pain in the ass sometimes.’ But he was an extremely special person and he knew it. And, as is often the case with exceptional individuals, he was also an extremely troubled person.
“I will give you the same anecdote that I related during his eulogy. When my daughters were about 10 and 11 years old, we had a birthday party for [Kathy’s husband] Dan at our home. All of our friends and many people from boxing were there. At some point I walked into the family room and found Pernell on his hands and knees on the floor with my daughters and their cousins. He was teaching them to shoot craps (laughs).
“And so that is how my daughters and nephews remember him. And that is how I will remember him too. There are so many stories, like the time he pulled down Roger Mayweather’s trunks in the middle of their fight. Or the time that I was given the task of planning Pernell’s wedding, which we hastily arranged to take place in the ring in Hampton, Virginia, when he was injured and could not perform in the main event as planned. But I prefer to remember the legendary superstar who chose to get down on the ground and play with a bunch of children – albeit in the most inappropriate way – when all of the grownups were occupied with their grown-up concerns.”
“He set everything up with his jab, then he played everything off his defense. I’d say he landed about 85-percent of his jabs, he didn’t waste anything. With Pernell, if you’re watching him, he might give you a feint, he might give you this and that, but he’s always going to jab to make sure he’s at the right distance when he’s throwing combinations. He was a very hard guy to hit and used every aspect of his game for defense. Everything he did, he made a defensive move first to make you do something so he can create his offense and that’s why Pernell Whitaker was the best defensive guy I ever worked with. Pernell was a guy who was very smart. He had a great jab, his defense was probably the best you’re going to see in a very long time, and he had all the technical skills in the world. Talent-wise you just can’t beat Pernell Whitaker.”
Main Events Matchmaker and long-time friend
“One of the funniest stories happened at the Dmitry Bivol vs. Joe Smith fight at Turning Stone. We brought him to meet Dmitry since he was one of Dmitry’s favorite fighters, and Pernell also did a meet and greet.
“On the Friday night before the fight it was Pernell, Joe Rotonda (works for Main Events), Danny Milano (cutman), Ed Keenan and myself. We were hanging out at a bar in the casino, just laughing and talking about old stories. People would come up to Pernell to get a picture or an autograph and Pernell really was on cloud nine, we were having such a good time. We made our way to the sports bar on the second floor of Turning Stone. As we walked in, coincidentally, all the TVs were playing the Whitaker vs. McGirt fight. Now keep in mind, the bar was packed when we walked in and he lit up. He proceeded to commentate on the whole fight and everyone’s eyes were on him and the fight. It was a great thing to see.
“At the end of the fight he asked the whole bar, ‘Who was the best to ever do it?’ Well the whole bar replied, “Pernell Whitaker!” Keep in mind, there were people in there that didn’t know who he was but by the end of the night they all knew who he was. That was his thing, when a fan would come up for a picture or autograph, he would ask, ‘Who was the best to ever do it?’
“When the weekend was over and he was on his way back to Virginia, he called both myself and Joe separately to say that it was one of the best weekends he has ever had and that he loved us. That is the last time I saw him.”
FORMER PRO OPPONENTS
March 28, 1987, Scope Arena, Norfolk, Virginia • Titles: NABF lightweight
“I would say that Pernell Whitaker had the best jab and the best defense. He just had more skills than all the others during that time. Pernell Whitaker was well-schooled, footwork-wise, and in boxing ability too. Whitaker knew things about boxing and had more experience [than me]. Whitaker beat Chavez, so I think he was the best [that I fought].”
JOSE LUIS RAMIREZ
March 12, 1988, Stade de Levallois, Levallois-Perret, France • Titles: WBC lightweight
August 20, 1989, Scope Arena, Norfolk, Virginia • Titles: IBF and vacant WBC lightweight
“[The first fight] was a tough fight because of his style, but I remember the victory against Whitaker. It was one of the biggest wins of my career. People always say that [Whitaker won], but it was a very close fight. For me, I won, but I respect what people say. He won the second fight, he improved in the rematch. He is a very fast fighter and a very good one. He had a very fast jab and he is a southpaw too. He is very hard to hit; he uses his body to avoid punches. I fought two times with him and he had very quick hands. He was very intelligent and he could resolve any problem in the ring. Whitaker had very good skills.”
February 18, 1989, The Coliseum, Hampton, Virginia • Titles: IBF lightweight
“His defense was good, he didn’t like to get hit, he wasn’t one of those guys who’d trade punch for punch with you. He was too smart to do that. His thing was get in, get out and not get hit. When you’re fighting a good southpaw, it’s a nightmare. The jab doesn’t usually work, it’s more right hands and left hooks. And if you miss one of those right hands, you’re wide open for a counter. Whitaker was the fastest [opponent] by far, he had good handspeed, he had supreme footwork. He didn’t hit very hard, but he was a pinpoint puncher. When you fight a good, smart southpaw it’s a nightmare ’cause everything you’ve been taught as an amateur pretty much goes out the window. If you do hit him, you only usually do it once and he’s moving. He was the type of guy who never really got hurt. He’d get real low in front of you and he shrank the target. He was the better man. I’m not afraid to say that. He was a great fighter and he beat a lot better guys than me. He was just so hard to hit. He was such a good technician. I fought a lot of good fighters but, hands down, Pernell was the best by far. He was fast, he was hard to hit, he had great defense, he didn’t square himself up, he was the smartest guy, he had fast hands and fast feet. He won the gold medal (at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984). He was a very polished southpaw.”
February 3, 1990, Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey • Titles: IBF and WBC lightweight
“He had a great defense, it was perfect. I never faced anyone as fast as Pernell. Nobody even came close, he was the only one who was able to deal with me. That’s what kept him alive (laughs). Pernell Whitaker backed up into the corner, and that’s one of the most dangerous places to be when you’re fighting me. I opened up with a three, four-punch combination and never hit him with a shot. He was completely on balance, I never seen a guy do that. Pernell was definitely the smartest. I put some serious pressure on him and he was able to maneuver his way around and keep himself from getting hit by a big shot. He could do everything; he did some shit I’ve never seen before. Pernell was by far the most skilled boxer I’ve been in the ring with and I went in with some of the best. Pernell was the best fighter I faced in my division and a couple of divisions higher. I felt I showed up pretty well in that fight. A lot of people told me that I won. I said, ‘No, I didn’t win. I did very well, but I didn’t win. After the fight, I was walking on the Boardwalk and I saw (Whitaker) and his mother. She came over to me, hugged me and said, ‘I never saw anyone in his whole career handle my son like you did. I was scared from Round 1 to Round 12 that you were going to hurt my baby.”
May 19, 1990, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada • Titles: IBF and WBC lightweight
“Pernell Whitaker was a very good boxer. At the time I just wanted to finish the fight and leave [because] my wife was in hospital at the time. I was not focused. That is why I do not talk much about the Whitaker fight.”
July 27, 1991, Scope Arena, Norfolk • Titles: IBF, WBA and WBC lightweight
“In my opinion he was calm and very rational. Excellent skills and very, very fast. He had excellent footwork, especially the side steps. He was a strategist, a tactician. A lot of people said that he did not punch [hard], but that’s true. He could hurt you with speed and accuracy, he had excellent accuracy.”
October 5, 1991, Reno-Sparks Convention Center, Reno, Nevada • Titles: IBF, WBA and WBC lightweight
“He had a very fast jab. He kept you in the middle of the ring, where he could circle around and pop you with that jab all night. Obviously, I would try and lure him into the corners to throw my punches, but he was elusive and got out right away. He was a master of lateral movement; he moved everywhere. He knew how to move well in the ring plus he was a southpaw, so it was very hard to find him. He didn’t hit very hard, but he knew how to score and move and be defensive. Masterful in defensive skills, probably the best until (Floyd) Mayweather (Jr.). Very intelligent with everything he does and he’s not a big guy. He knows how to move around the ring. He’s only 5-foot-5 and can take on any guy and still make them look ridiculous. From what I recall, nobody ever knocked him out. They knocked him down but not out. Very intelligent fighter, that’s why he was champion in four weight divisions.”
January 18, 1992, Pennsylvania Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania • Titles: None
“He had the best defense and was the quickest as far as moving his body and moving his head. It was difficult to land anything clean on him. Pernell Whitaker had great timing. Overall Pernell Whitaker was pound-for-pound one of the best fighters in the world. Being a southpaw, everything came the opposite way. He could step in and step out really well, keeping you off balance in the process. The smartest and slickest was Pernell Whitaker. He watched the punches coming and reacted to everything you did. He knew your fight plan even before you started. He’d make you miss and make you fall over yourself. He couldn’t make you pay because he didn’t hit that hard, but he can outscore you. He fought one of the greatest fighters of this era, Julio Cesar Chavez, and drew in a fight he dominated, that’s how good he was. [Whitaker] just didn’t have the punch, other guys could hit harder. He made up for it with skills and handspeed. He was the best. I felt awkward, off-balance the whole fight. I didn’t even watch the fight for 10 years. I felt so terrible during the fight because I couldn’t score, then I watched the fight 10 years later and saw that I did really well. He outscored me but it wasn’t a whitewash.”
July 18, 1992, The Mirage, Las Vegas • Titles: IBF junior welterweight
“I wasn’t 100-percent prepared. Me and my trainer didn’t see eye-to-eye, it wasn’t my best training camp. Even given that, I’m not saying I would have been able to beat Whitaker because he was one of the best boxers of all time. Defensively he was a wizard, he was a master, not just blocking punches but completely avoiding them. Whitaker was on another level when it came to defense. When I won the title from [Roger] Mayweather, he was also a good defensive fighter, but I won that decision. Against Whitaker it was another level, the intelligence he had in the ring was unbelievable. I had never faced anyone like that. Definitely one of the best, if not the best I ever faced. He was a southpaw and that made it even more difficult to find him. Nothing but great things to say about him.”
March 6, 1993, Madison Square Garden, New York • Titles: WBC welterweight
October 1, 1994, Scope Arena, Norfolk • Titles: WBC welterweight
“Pernell had natural ability and his natural ability along with Georgie Benton’s teachings made him better and harder for everybody else to hit. It’s very deceiving because he’d be right there one minute, and when you punched, he didn’t go anywhere, he stays there. He just had this natural instinct of going with the punches and catching them. Pernell didn’t move much; he’d stand in front of you and turn you around. From that southpaw stance he was phenomenal, he could turn you and slip, he could get under the shots and still be in the same place, his balance was great. He had it down to a tee. Pernell could box, but he was hard to hit. Pernell, believe it or not, was also a helluva body puncher. I give credit where credit is due, and he was the best.”
JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ
September 10, 1993, Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas • Titles: WBC welterweight
“He was very elusive, hard to find, and especially hard to hit. He was very intelligent.”
JULIO CESAR VAZQUEZ
March 4, 1995, Convention Center, Atlantic City, New Jersey • Titles: WBA junior middleweight
“I remember when I was just beginning my career, I would watch him fight on TV and I admired him. He faced the best in different weight divisions. When I was told I was going to face such a star, a major star of boxing, I just couldn’t believe it. I was really confident in my skills and my training, although I knew who I was up against. Pernell Whitaker, by far, had the best defense I’ve ever faced. He was extremely smart. He knew what had to be done and when to do it. I have faced lots of very good boxers, I’ve had very hard fights, but there was nobody like him. Whitaker was a fabulous boxer, the best I faced, he was incredible. It was an honour to share a ring with someone like him and I treasure that. I have no doubt Whitaker was one of the greatest fighters of the last decades.”
August 26, 1995, Convention Center, Atlantic City • Titles: WBC welterweight
“My whole thing about fighting for the world title was to fight the best guy out there. You always want to test yourself and the test was Whitaker. The preparation for that fight was immense. He kind of dismissed me; they took the fight and thought it was going to be easy. Whitaker was good, tiny wee guy. In my head, the thing was they’re going to have to be good enough to beat me and I’m going to do what I do. He was a tactician, he was a counterpuncher, he was good off the backfoot. He was a special man. I went 12 rounds with Whitaker, losing to one of the greatest fighters that has ever lived.”
OSCAR DE LA HOYA
April 12, 1997, Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas • Titles: WBC welterweight
“It would have to be a coin flip between Pernell Whitaker and Mayweather [as to who had the best defense]. Both had different styles. Whitaker used his waist more and stood in front of you and was very slippery. Mayweather was more of a boxer that moved just a little bit more. The most difficult to hit was probably Whitaker. Whitaker had to be one of the most skillful fighters in any generation – the fact he could stay right in front of you and could still slip the punches. Whitaker wasn’t a runner, he was just someone who stood right in front of you and knew how to slip. Whitaker knew how to knock you out, too. Punching power, skill, I.Q. – Whitaker had it all. He’s probably one of the all-around best boxers I faced.”
February 20, 1999, Madison Square Garden, New York • Titles: IBF welterweight
“When boxing experts discuss who the best defensive fighters are, the name of Pernell Whitaker is always in the conversation. We knew that he was very good defensively, so we came prepared for the fight. I am the only one that beat Whitaker convincingly. Whitaker was the smartest. To go the distance with me he had to be intelligent. He used his small height as an advantage, bending down almost to the floor, and he knew when to grab on.”