Boxing legend Pernell 'Sweet Pea' Whitaker dead at 55

Pernell Whitaker, who forged a reputation as arguably the greatest defensive boxer who ever lived, died late Sunday in Virginia Beach, Virginia, when he was struck by a car while crossing a bridge. He was pronounced dead on the scene.

He was 55.

A gold-medal winner on the legendary 1984 U.S. Olympic team, Whitaker was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006, his first year of eligibility. He won world championships at lightweight, super lightweight, welterweight and super welterweight. He was the lineal champion at lightweight and welterweight.

3 PHOTOS
Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman
See Gallery
Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman
TO GO WITH AFP STORIES In this photo taken on October 30, 1974 shows the fight between US boxing heavyweight champions, Muhammad Ali (L) (born Cassius Clay) and George Foreman in Kinshasa. On October 30, 1974 Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in a clash of titans known as the 'Rumble in the Jungle', watched by 60 000 people in the stadium in Kinshasa and millions elsewhere. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken on October 30, 1974 shows the fight between US boxing heavyweight champions, Muhammad Ali (L) (born Cassius Clay) and George Foreman in Kinshasa. On October 30, 1974 Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in a clash of titans known as the 'Rumble in the Jungle', watched by 60 000 people in the stadium in Kinshasa and millions elsewhere. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORIES In this photo taken on October 30, 1974 shows US boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (C) (born Cassius Clay) during a press conference after the heavyweight world championship in Kinshasa. On October 30, 1974 Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in a clash of titans known as the 'Rumble in the Jungle', watched by 60 000 people in the stadium in Kinshasa and millions elsewhere AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

At his peak, he was almost impossible to hit, fighting out of a crouch and swiveling like a corkscrew out of the way of punches.

“He was an original and will be remembered as one of the most talented boxers of all-time,” his promoter, Kathy Duva, said. “ … While he was far from a perfect human being, he was pretty close to a perfect fighter. In the ring was where he was most happy and in control. I will choose to remember him in the pocket, making his opponent miss and letting the world know that nobody could touch him.

“I love him very much, in spite of and because of his flaws. I’m going to miss him very much.”

Whitaker, who was 40-4-1 with 17 knockouts and a no contest. He was also on the wrong end of two of the worst decisions in boxing history.

Most famous of those was his Sept. 10, 1993, majority draw in San Antonio, Texas, with Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. for the WBC and lineal welterweight title. Whitaker seemed to badly outbox Chavez, who entered the fight 87-0 with 75 knockouts, but two of the three judges called it a draw.

In his account of the fight in the Sept. 20, 1993, edition of Sports Illustrated, the late William Nack wrote, “Whitaker’s boxing exhibition was a tactical and technical virtuosity that at times led Chavez on a bewildered, groping circuit of the ring, as if Chavez were chasing wisps of ringside smoke. That Whitaker, in a perverse reward for his brilliance, needed to plead for respect and recognition underscored how badly justice had been served.”

While he was too proud to admit defeat, the great Chavez admitted he’d had difficulty in the bout.

“I feel a little bit beat up," Chavez said. "It was a difficult fight. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything better. I still think that I forced the fight, I kept going forward. There was something I kept doing wrong.”

The draw with Chavez, though, was not even the worst bad decision of Whitaker’s career. His first loss came five years earlier in France, when he seemed to outbox Jose Luis Ramirez but dropped a split decision.

The New York Times, in its March 13, 1988, edition, wrote, “Whitaker … appeared to have an easy time from the start and was peppering the champion with right jabs throughout the fight.”

He came back and defeated Ramirez the next year to capture the IBF and WBC lightweight belts.

Among the elite fighters Whitaker defeated in his professional career were Hall of Famers Buddy McGirt and Azumah Nelson, Ramirez and Roger Mayweather.

In 1995, he became just the fourth boxer to win world titles in four weight classes when he moved up to super welterweight and outboxed Julio Cesar Vasquez to win the WBA title.

Whitaker never defended that belt, moving back to welterweight and defending his WBC belt five more times. That led to an April 12, 1997, showdown in Las Vegas with Oscar De La Hoya. Whitaker was 33 at the time and slowing down, while De La Hoya was 24 and on the rise.

Whitaker, though, was typically brilliant and out-landed De La Hoya 232 to 191. Whitaker denounced the decision after as similar to those disappointments he’d suffered against Ramirez and Chavez, though in a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll of journalists who’d covered the fight, 14 scored it for Whitaker, 11 for De La Hoya and one had it a draw.

Nonetheless, Whitaker believed deeply he’d won and said, “I was robbed. What happened to me tonight was what happened to me before.”

Whitaker had personal issues outside the ring and had been convicted of cocaine possession in 2002. He had five children, though he was predeceased by his son, Pernell Jr. He is survived by sons Dominique, Dantavious and Devon and daughter, Tara.

Services are pending.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.