Born: January 2, 1964;

Died: July 14, 2019

Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker who has tragically died aged 55 in a road accident in Virginia, U.S.A., was one of boxing’s all time greats, an Olympic gold medallist, holder of world titles between 1989 and ’99 in four different divisions and considered the best pound for pound fighter in the world at his peak. A master of defensive boxing he was extremely elusive and difficult to hit while being an effective counter puncher. Summarising his strategy,Whitaker was quoted,”The most beautiful thing in the world is hitting someone without getting hit in return.” In 2002 he was ranked number 10 in a list of 100 greatest fighters in the previous 80 years while in 2006 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Against that background, Glasgow’s Gary Jacobs was taking on a huge challenge when he fought Whitaker for his world welter weight title in August 1995 in Atlantic City. Unsurprisingly, despite his excellent pedigree as past holder of British, Commonwealth and European titles and being ranked number 1 contender, Jacobs was very much the underdog, at odds of 8-1. His manager Mickey Duff who told The Herald “ Jacobs was in unbelievable condition,” nevertheless thought him capable of pulling off a major surprise.

Jacobs started off well but as the fight progressed Whitaker began controlling it. Despite the Glaswegian having him down for a count in the 11th round, the champion retained his crown on points, having had Jacobs down twice in the final round. The American attracted some criticism for failing to knock out Jacobs but responded,” I’m a technique fighter, not a mass murderer.” The decision provoked no complaints from the challengers’ camp but the extent of the winning margin did, with this newspaper’s Jim Reynolds observing “the scoring was bizarre in the extreme” while Jacobs thought if he had fought at home, the result might have been different.

Such was Whitaker’s class that it can be maintained he had not legitimately lost a fight in 15 years as a professional till Felix Trinidad beat him in 1999, by when alcohol and drugs were affecting him. The adverse results prior to then were highly controversial.

In his first world title challenge in 1988 he lost against Jose Ramirez although it was widely thought he won, with British referee Harry Gibb scoring him four rounds ahead. In his famous fight in 1993 against Julio Cesar Chavez which was adjudged a draw, again it was considered he had been the victim of an extremely dubious decision. Mexican Chavez was an outstanding opponent who boasted a record of 87 wins and no losses. The fight in front of a highly partisan crowd supporting Chavez was dominated by Whitaker. The decision was condemned by Sports Illustrated magazine whose front cover screamed ‘ROBBED!” Whitaker succinctly commented,” I whipped his ass.” The third highly questionable result was a loss in 1997 against Oscar de la Hoya, despite knocking him down and in the eyes of neutrals outpointing him.

After claiming his first world lightweight title in 1989 against Greg Haugen, he added the two other versions by defeating Ramirez and Juan Nazario to unify the title by 1990, the first since Roberto Duran. Two years later he won the super lightweight title defeating Rafa Pineda while in 1993 he claimed the welter weight title against James ‘Buddy’ McGirt, claiming his final crown, at light middleweight, against Julio Cesar Vasquez in 1995.

Whitaker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, one of seven children, to parents Raymond and Novella. He started boxing early, soon showing considerable aptitude while a pupil at the local Booker T. Washington High School. His official amateur record recorded 214 fights, with 201 wins although he claimed the true total was much higher. Known as ‘Pete’ after an uncle, his family supported him at bouts shouting ‘Sweet Pete’, which was misreported as ‘Sweet Pea’ and the nickname stuck.

He built up an impressive amateur CV, in 1982 winning the U.S. Golden Gloves and silver at the world championships while a year later he won gold at the Pan American Championships. In 1984 he clinched gold at the Los Angeles Olympics, a springboard for his professional career under Lou Duva and George Benton with his successful debut coming months later at Madison Square Garden.

Later he endured problems with alcohol and drugs which cast a shadow over his career and after retiring from boxing he served a period of imprisonment related to cocaine possession. He also acted for periods as a trainer, with his most successful protégé Zab Judah, world welter weight champion.

In 2014 he attracted headlines when he won a court decision to evict his mother and two siblings from a property he had bought to enable him sell it because of financial problems.

In 1985 in Virginia Beach Centre he married Rovanda Anthony whom he had known from childhood but they later divorced. They had four children, Dominique, Dantavious, Devon and Pernell Jr., the latter predeceasing him. He also had a daughter Tiara from a previous relationship.

It is understood Whitaker was struck by a vehicle when out walking in the late evening at Virginia Beach and died at the scene. JACK DAVIDSON