Pernell Whitaker: The Finest Ever At 135?

Fight fans the world over are still trying to deal with the awful news that broke yesterday, news that informed us how the great, the once untouchable Pernell Whitaker had died at the young age of just 55. Tributes have been pouring in ever since this terrible news came, and rightly so.

Obviously at such a time it’s all but impossible to utter anything negative about a fighter who has left us, and “Sweet Pea” has been receiving some glowing plaudits in posthumous form. Some historians, fans and fellow fighters have stated how Whitaker was in fact THE finest lightweight in boxing history. Whitaker conquered no less than four weight classes: 135, 140, 147 and 154, but he was at his peak, at his sizzling, perhaps incomparable best as a 135 pound boxing master.

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Incomparable? Maybe. Many point to Roberto Duran as the best-ever at lightweight, others to Benny Leonard, others still suggest, quite forcefully, that Julio Cesar Chavez was the best-ever at the weight. Or what about Floyd Mayweather Junior? Ike Williams? Henry Armstrong? It’s a weight division that has seen more than its share of greats, no doubt about it. But let’s consider Whitaker’s accomplishments at 135 pounds.

Whitaker never really lost at 135 (forget that disgraceful decision defeat at the hands of the unimaginably fortunate Jose Luis Ramirez, who somehow went home with a points win in 1988) – and he beat a whole lot of good men at lightweight, including: Ramirez (in a revenge return), Roger Mayweather, Greg Haugen, Louie Lomeli, Freddie Pendleton, Azumah Nelson and Jorge Paez.

Whitaker unified the belts at 135, the only man since Duran to have ever done so, and it’s possible he could have stayed at the weight and continued to dominate after his eight year duration at the poundage. Instead, looking for further greatness, Whitaker moved up no less than three weight classes.

So is Whitaker the finest lightweight ever? If he’s not he’s certainly top-three

Here are some tributes paid to the great man who left us way too soon:

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Ronnie Shields, who trained Whitaker for a good amount of time:

“Pernell was born with the reflexes he had. You cannot teach reflexes. He had so much natural ability,” Shields told this writer a while back when discussing the finest fighters he has ever worked with.

“The way he would move his body and his feet; he would turn one way and practice throwing a counter punch from that stance, and then he would turn another way. He would never watch films of an opponent. I would study the films and then he’d ask me what the guy’s best punch was; what the guy did best in general. Then he’d go away and work on what I’d told him – he’d figure out which moves, which turns, would work best against the guy‘s best punch. He’d practice over and over, on which punch would work best as a counter against what the guy was going to do. Pernell is arguably the best defensive fighter in history.

“And Pernell loved to spar He loved it. He’d spar hard and heavy, too. Pernell liked to spar with bigger guys than himself, because it was too easy for him with guys his own size. He’d send a guy home if he was unable to push him, to make him work. He sparred with fellow champions, such as Meldrick Taylor and Livingstone Bramble. Mostly, he would work on his defence; he would practice his best moves whilst sparring.

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“The thing was, he wanted to be the best Pound-for-Pound fighter in the world and stay at the top. And he said to do that he would have to make sure he worked harder than anyone else. He always told me to push him; he never wanted me to go at all easy on him. For all the natural talent and skill he had, he never relied on just that. Whitaker was one of the hardest working fighters I’ve ever known.”

George Foreman, who called a number of Whitaker fights as a commentator for HBO:

“I found Sweet Pea to be both humble and polite,” Foreman said yesterday.
“He was a real champ inside and out.”

That pretty much sums Pernell up.