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Pernell Whitaker: The defensive genius who couldn’t avoid a robbery (or two)

Thirty years ago today in France one of the very worst boxing robberies was witnessed

Right up there with, even surpassing, fight results such as Lennox Lewis D12 Evander Holyfield, Felix Trinidad W12 Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather W12 Jose Luis Castillo, the 12-round split decision Jose Luis Ramirez was awarded in his WBC lightweight title fight defence against Pernell Whitaker was universally lambasted.

Some experts have even called the decision, one that saw the classy and masterful defensive wizard lose his unbeaten record, THE worst robbery of the last half century. But Whitaker, as great as he was, and as brilliantly effective as he was at avoiding punches, would get hit with another, far more famous robbery, some 15 years later.


Winning a silver medal at the 1982 World Amateur Championships, Whitaker, who was soon given the nickname of “Sweet Pea” due to his slick skills, went one better and captured gold at The Pan American games the following year. Then, capping off a superb amateur career, Whitaker, as part of the celebrated U.S team of 1984, won gold at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Naturally a pro career followed and, working with George Benton and Lou Duva, Whitaker, aged 19, had his debut, at Madison Square Garden, in November of ’84.
After sweeping to a 15-0 record – beating during this time former world champion Roger Mayweather – Whitaker challenged for his first world title. The shameless robbery of a “loss” to Ramirez followed, even if the classy contender won over the hearts and minds of the public who knew he had been badly treated by the judges.

The rematch came just over a year later, by which time Whitaker had beaten Greg Haugen to capture the IBF crown. Beating Ramirez with some ease in August of 1989 (with one judge awarding “Sweet Pea” every single round), Whitaker added the WBC belt to his IBF and he was soon recognised as the pound-for-pound best in the sport. Fine fighters such as Azumah Nelson, Freddie Pendleton and Louie Lomeli were bested, while Whitaker also defeated Juan Nazario – in a rare first-round KO – to add the WBA belt to his lightweight collection.

Then came a move up to light-welterweight, then to welterweight and even as far up as light-middleweight; Whiatker winning world titles in each additional weight-class. Along the way, Whitaker met such big names as James “Buddy” McGirt (twice, both points wins), Julio Cesar Chavez (in a “draw” of a fight that was condemned even more widely than the first Ramirez result had been), Julio Cesar Vazquez (a points win up at light-middle, for the WBA belt) and Oscar De La Hoya (yet another controversial moment from Whitaker’s career, this points defeat also being questioned by many).

Long before the loss to the new “Golden Boy,” Whitaker had more than earned his place amongst the greats yet, like so many other special fighters, Whitaker carried on too long. A brave points defeat to the hard-hitting Felix Trinidad in early 1999 was Whitaker’s last title fight; while his fourth-round TKO defeat at the hands of Carlos Bojorquez two years later was his final ring appearance – this sole stoppage loss on Whitaker’s record coming due to a broken clavicle.

Retiring with a fine 40-4-1(17) record, Whitaker became a trainer himself. Today, most fans and plenty of experts point to the 50-0 Floyd Mayweather Junior when asked who they think is the finest defensive fighter of all-time. But Whitaker cannot be too far behind, surely. Indeed, just which fighter would get the vote as the defensive best in history? The masterful Willie Pep, with his Will o’ the Wisp moves, is one of the old-timer’s favourites when it comes to being able to hit and not get hit (even today, the myth that he once won a round without throwing a single punch lives on). Argentine master Nicolino Locche is revered as a boxer opponents could scarcely land a glove on.

But Whitaker, who was stopped just once, due to a freaky injury, may have been the best of the lot as far as defensive prowess goes. Today, Whitaker is remembered for so much more than being robbed twice, maybe three times.