- - Sunday, July 21, 2019


They laid out Sweet Pea’s body Saturday morning at The Scope arena in Norfolk, Virginia, the building where Pernell Whitaker had some of his finest moments as one of the greatest fighters of his time.

It was a broken body, the life taken from it after 55 years when he was struck by a car the night of July 14 in Virginia Beach. It was a damaged body, done in by years of battling drug and alcohol addiction.

But there was a time when it was a beautiful body, full of angles and bends and twists and turns in the ring, like a lethal dancer, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in boxing since the days of the great Willie Pep.

The great George Foreman once said boxing is like jazz — the better it is, the less people understand it. If that is the case, Pernell Whitaker was Miles Davis. He practiced the science in the sweet science, the part that is most misunderstood and unappreciated, the lost art of defense — not getting hit while delivering punches.

Born in Norfolk, Whitaker was one of the gold medal winners on that 1984 Olympic boxing team. He turned pro and won his first 15 fights and then faced the first of three thefts in his career. This one was against World Boxing Council lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez in Paris — Ramirez’s adopted new home — in 1988, a 12-round split decision favoring Ramirez that appeared visible only to the two judges that gave him the win.

It was easy to rob Sweet Pea. He wasn’t like most fighters. It wasn’t basic math. It was advanced Algebra.

Whitaker would get his revenge in the rematch with Ramirez at The Scope in Norfolk a year later, after winning the International Boxing Federation lightweight crown in a decision victory over Greg Haugen. This time, Whitaker got the decision over Ramirez and the vacant WBC lightweight title in the process.

There would be the most famous theft, the draw against Julio Cesar Chavez in 1993 at The Alamodome in San Antonio. Whitaker dominated Chavez with his jab, while Chavez was unable to mount his trademark body attack. Yet two of the three judges in this Don King promotion scored the fight even, while a third scored it for Whitaker — a majority draw.

The cover of Sports Illustrated that week was a photo of Whitaker attacking Chavez, with the headline “Robbed!”

I was ringside for the third theft — when Whitaker moved up to the welterweight division, capturing the WBC 147-pound title and then faced Oscar De La Hoya in a Bob Arum promotion in Las Vegas in 1997. This may have been the worst and clearest example of how Whitaker’s brilliance could be used against him. His movement confused De La Hoya, and Whitaker beat him to the punch continuously, using a sharp right hand and hard left inside when they clinched. In the ninth round, De La Hoya went down from one of those hard lefts. It was the only knockdown of the fight.

Yet three experienced Las Vegas judges scored it for De La Hoya, and it wasn’t close — Chuck Giampa, 115-111; Jerry Roth, 116-110 and Dalby Shirley 115-110.

“There are fighters that take everything away from you,” De La Hoya said after the fight. “They don’t make you look strong and fast. They make you miss punches.”

At least De La Hoya saw what happened at the Thomas & Mack Center that night. Too bad the judges didn’t.

Still, Whitaker managed to win 40 of his 46 professional fights, and I was ringside for one of his most rewarding — his second win over Buddy McGirt in 1994 in the very arena where people filed in Saturday to say goodbye to their fighting native son.

Whitaker defeated McGirt a year earlier, but McGirt said a shoulder injury made him a one-armed fighter and said Whitaker didn’t get his best. This time, with a sold-out crowd at The Scope cheering him on, Whitaker dominated McGirt, leaving no doubt who the better fighter was. “He was the better man,” McGirt told reporters after the fight. “He did what he had to do.”

It was perhaps Whitaker’s most satisfying victory, taking place in front of the hometown fans, his last fight at The Scope.

“Young fighters should look at a tape of that jab and bring it to the gym with them to study it,” Whitaker said.

That would be like a young trumpet player listening to Miles Davis. You can study them all you want, but some artists are originals, never to be duplicated.

Sweet Pea was an American original.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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