“You see what you’re doing?” Duva kept asking as they ran the tape twice. “You’re moving straight in and he’s unloading on you.”
“But that’s the way I fight,” said Whitaker, puzzled.
“And that’s why you lost,” said Duva.
A pep talk by Lou Duva, Whitaker’s soon-to-be professional manager, after an amateur loss to Joey Belinc, 1984.
Pernell Whitaker vs Julio Cesar Vasquez (4th March, 1995)
The most important thing in boxing is to not get hit.
Fighters like Ali and Tyson have transcended the sport, for bad and for worse. Features such as their charisma and brutal punching power gave the audience a hook that allowed them to attach themselves to a sport that potentially didn’t excite them in any way. You didn’t need to be a follower of the fistic arts to enjoy Ali’s shuffle and quickfire verbal wit, or the relentless forward aggression of Tyson in his heyday. Their work spoke to the masses; intelligence and savagery lauded in equal measure.
To the uninitiated, the defensive is always a harder sell than the offensive. The immediacy of a jab, verbal or otherwise, allows instant gratification; often, the elusivity of a fighter only bears fruit as the fight progress, each missed swing as mentally debilitating as physical. For the boxing fan, the boxer who can weave, bob and sway with the punches may not satiate a carnal urge for blood and thunder, but is the distillation of the craft into arguably its purest form.
Hit. Don’t get hit.
‘Sweet Pea’ Pernell Whitaker would be some people’s choice for the greatest defensive boxer of all time. Considering his personable nature (thus the less than threatening nickname), and an offense that often centred around a very good defense, he was always going to struggle to rack up the column inches in the tabloid media per se. However, his reactions in the ring made the boxing world stand up and take notice. Hitting Whitaker was akin to grabbing water; every time you think you got him, he would slip through your fingers.
Whitaker’s shot at Olympic Gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics would almost slip through his own grasp following a 4-1 defeat against Joey Belinc during the Olympic team box-offs. A quirk in the organisation gave him a reprieve; having won the Olympic trials the previous month, he would only need to win one fight, unlike the losers who would need to win both to qualify. Even after a tantrum threatened to derail his chances, Whitaker would get back into the ring the following day and defeat Belinc 3-2. Close, but just enough to send him to Los Angeles as the Lightweight contender.
During these trials, a host of other notable names would also aim to make their Olympic box. Both Evander Holyfield and Meldrick Taylor would qualify, but for one Michael Tyson, the opportunity had come too soon. Henry Tillman would be the obstacle in his particular path twice, both at the trials and the box-offs, and he would defeat Tyson both times.
Whitaker would make it clear that he didn’t want to be considered one of the challengers at the Games, wanting to ‘be a guy nobody notices as I work my way up’. His desire to stay as hidden as his ringwork often allowed him to be was wishful thinking. In a Games that would involve a boycott by seventeen countries (fourteen led by the Soviet Union), not only would Whitaker go on to win Olympic Gold, he would win it in style. Adolfo Mendez (Nicaragua), Geoffrey Nyeko (Uganda), Reiner Gies (West Germany) and Chun Chil-Sung would be dispatched following a first round bye, cutting Whitaker a path through to the final. Even more impressively, he wouldn’t lose a fight on any judges’ scorecard, walking into the Gold medal match with a perfect 20-0 record.
Even if people weren’t excited by him already, his performance in the final surely raised the interest of more than a few onlookers. Luis Ortiz from Puerto Rico would be his opponent, a man who himself would become a legend for achieving the highest medal by a Puerto Rican athlete in history. Unfortunately for him, it was only silver, as Whitaker put on an amauteur masterclass. From the moment the bell rang, his speed had Ortiz chasing shadows, whilst combinations were fired at lightning speed, leaving the Puerto Rican little chance to avoid the incoming barrage.
What made Whitaker stand out in this fight was his ability to dodge and avoid punches. He could block a punch when he wanted to, but would often trust his eye for an incoming punch and his speed to avoid a shot rather than take it on his arms. More often than not, he was justified in this faith. Ortiz would land a decent uppercut in the first round, but would otherwise fail to come close to troubling Whitaker. Although at times Whitaker would look sloppier on offense than he did when counter-punching, he would force Ortiz’s corner to throw the towel in after two standing eight counts in the second round. The shots that left Ortiz needing time weren’t even the best in the round; you could hear the commentator crowing as a left to the body had Ortiz gasping for breath and hoping for the end.
Following an amateur record of 201-14, Whitaker would step into the ring for the first time as a professional later that Olympic year, taking only two of the six rounds advertised to defeat Farrain Comeaux. Whilst much has been made of his elusiveness, Whitaker would win nine of his first fifteen fights via knockout or TKO. The biggest victories to that date would be a unanimous decision over Roger Mayweather and a TKO win over Miguel Santana. They would give Whitaker his first titles as a pro; the NABF Lightweight Title, followed by the USBA Lightweight Title. In the grander scheme of things, titles that didn’t amount to much outside of minor recognition and a heavier bag to get through customs. Whitaker was ready to go for a World Title, and would get that opportunity in his sixteenth fight – an impressive feat by any conventional standards.
Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly go to plan.
His opponent: Jose Luis Ramirez. A man who, whilst only five years older than Pernell, had fought over ninety more fights than the Olympic champion in his career thus far. Admittedly, many of these were in a spell fighting in Mexico where Ramirez would often fight twice a month from the year of his debut (1973). This wasn’t to suggest that he didn’t have any pedigree. He had been in the ring with fighters such as Edwin Rosario, Alexis Arguello, Ray Mancini and Hector Camacho. His one hundred wins to this date wasn’t anything to mess around with, and it was a marked step up in class for Whitaker.
Oddly enough for a match between an American and a Mexican, the match would take place in France due to the management of the champion residing there.
The first four rounds couldn’t have gone more perfectly for the challenger. Ramirez was known for his punching power and durability, yet Whitaker didn’t let him get anywhere near him in the opening twelve minutes. Whitaker would circle around, feint, bob and weave, always working behind the repetitive percussion of his right jab. It didn’t matter too much that these shots often didn’t faze his opponent; if you are hitting and not getting hit, the rounds are yours.
Ramirez, as would be expected of a man with over one hundred fights under his belt, continued to march forward, and would even catch Whitaker with the odd straight left. The problem for the champion was that every shot was hitting a man moving backwards, nullifying the power of the blow. Still, it could be argued that the fifth round was the first which he may have wrestled away from the challenger.
Unfortunately, it would be Whitaker’s movement that would cost him in the long run. He would continue to tag Ramirez with jab after jab after jab, but as early as round six, the commentary team were beginning to question how the judges might view this continuous backwards movement. Added to this, it was often Whitaker who would clinch first, a move that didn’t endear him to the fans in attendance whatsoever. However, by the time the bell rang for the end of the twelfth round, everyone felt that Whitaker had done more than enough to win his first World title.
Everyone that is, except for two of the judges.
In a decision that would end up on multiple ‘Worst Boxing Decision’ lists in years to come, Ramirez would retain his title on a split decision. The Ring would even dub it the ‘Worst Decision of the Decade’ in a Lightweight fight in their March 1990 issue. A 117-114 scorecard in Whitaker’s favour sounded too close; a 115-116 and a 113-118 card a complete aberration of judgement. Rumours swirled around that a Ramirez versus Julio Cesar Chavez contest had already been committed to, one that would lose its lustre if Ramirez lost his title. Whatever the conspiracy theorists believed, Whitaker had lost his first contest as a professional boxer.
As Ramirez went on to lose the following contest against Chavez by technical decision (a cut opened by a clash of heads sending the match to the scorecards in the eleventh round), the Olympian had to rebuild his career. A defeat of a 3-8-1 Antonio Carter was to be expected. His next fight would see him win his first world title, the IBF World Lightweight championship, beating Greg Haugen by unanimous decision. Haugen had only been defeated once before in his career, and Whitaker would follow up with his first defense ending in a technical knockout of Louie Lomeli, undefeated up until this point.
Considering the contentious nature of the first fight, a rematch against Ramirez was always a possibility in the near future, and they would meet once more in 1989. This time the fight would be in the US, and Whitaker would not be stopped. Outside of one judge, Whitaker would whitewash Ramirez, winning every round and picking up the vacant WBC Lightweight Title in the process. When asked what would have happened had history repeated itself, Whitaker replied, “They never would have got out of the building.”
Winning the World Title wasn’t enough for Whitaker. He would go on a tear over the next four years, winning thirteen bouts, many by unanimous decision after outboxing his competitors. This wasn’t the only weapon he had in his arsenal though, as he proved when taking out Juan Nazario (a match that won him the WBA Lightweight Title), Jerry Smith and Ben Baez in the first round. Whitaker knew how to punch just as much as he knew how to defend. The undefeated streak would coincide with Whitaker being named The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year and the Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year for his exploits in 1989, as well as him being the first Unified Lightweight champion since Roberto Duran.
During these four years, Whitaker would begin to make his move up the weight ranks. In 1992, he would win the IBF Light-Welterweight Title by defeating Rafael Pineda, before defeating James McGirt to win the WBC Welterweight Title. This would make him a five time world champion, going some way to fulfilling the promise evident since his time at the 1984 Olympics. Whitaker was not content; there were bigger paydays and challenges out there which he sought.
Sitting with a record of 33-1, Whitaker would go up against his toughest opponent to date in 1993. Following his defeat of Ramirez, Julio Cesar Chavez had added twenty-five victories to his undefeated record, leaving him on an envious 87-0. Unlike Whitaker, many of Chavez’s victories would come by way of knockout or technical knockout.
An offense that relied on relentless pressure coupled with hooks to the body had chopped many an opponent down to size. Whether Whitaker would be able to stay out of range of the hard hitting Mexican was the big question heading into the contest. Chavez was also a master of defense himself, often making shots miss or taking the bulk on his gloves and forearms, whilst ducking under many punches to allow him to attack from different angles. It was never going to be an easy night for the American in a contest considered to crown the best pound for pound boxer on the planet, as well as for Whitaker’s WBC Welterweight Title. The New York Times dubbed it ‘Fight versus Flight’.
Looking back, there is a sense of irony that a lot of the build up was overshadowed by squabbles between the camps about who would be the judges for the contest. Chavez wanted no-one American; Whitaker’s camp wanted none of the chosen judges changed. In the end, there would be one American on the list – Jack Woodruff from Texas.
Chavez was the overwhelming fan favourite that night in San Antonio, and he took the first couple of rounds with relative ease. Round Three was when Whitaker began to pick up the pace, throwing combos with delicious speed and accuracy, whilst also finding the opportunity to slip and dodge the majority of Chavez’s attack. Even when he was caught, Whitaker showed more chin than he had perhaps been given credit for, often firing back with several punches as a swift retort to any stiff blows.
By round eight, the crowd was silent.
At range, Whitaker was jabbing Chavez to a standstill, snapping his head back with every ramrod right. In Chavez’s world, close and in the trenches, Whitaker was dishing out more punishment then he was taking. By every conceivable measure, Whitaker was winning the fight.In some people’s eyes, the only real negative for Whitaker was several low blows, though the same could be levelled at Chavez.As the rounds slipped by, Whitaker looked calm and collected; Chavez looked a broken man.
The delivery of majority draw decision was greeted with some boos even by fans loyal to Chavez. Sports Illustrated would chose to emblazon the word ‘Robbed’ on their September cover. They had scored the fight 117-111 in favour of Whitaker, and would not be the only press agency who felt that the American had been cheated out of a just victory. Attention turned to Duva, and the power to choose the judges that was conceded to Don King. Whatever the shadier business behind the scenes, Whitaker had the moral victory, if not the one in the record books.
In March 1995, it would be about continued development of the Whitaker legacy. The next two fights after Chavez were victories (Santos Cardana and James McGirt), and though concepts such as an undefeated record and the recognition as the pound for pound best boxer in the world had been stolen from him, he stood on the verge of making history. Only Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran had ever won legitimate world titles at four different weights. Whitaker had the chance to join greatness when he took on another Julio Cesar, though this time it was Vasquez rather than Chavez, for the WBA Light-Middleweight Title.
Vasquez embodied the old credo ‘have gumshield, will travel’ as he traversed his way around the world defending his title. Not content to just box in Argentina, he had taken in France, Spain, Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom in a ten fight win streak with the belt on the line. A crass fighter in some ways, he did little that was flashy in any conceivable way, with his head often caught due his lack of movement. What he did offer was power and the ability to endure punishment; this had been enough to get him to a World title.
That is not to suggest he wasn’t going to be a challenge for Whitaker. Though boxing titles can sometimes feel like the detritus of a decaying sport, there is usually some semblance of quality in a boxer who has ascended the ranks to the top. Vasquez would show what he was capable of in the ring in 1994, when he would defeat a young Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright by unanimous decision. Though Wright was the better technician, Vasquez walked through his offense, knocking him down in the second, seventh, ninth and twice in the twelfth. It was a victory for doggedness above all else, and showed that Vasquez had the force in his punches, both singularly and cumulatively, to put Whitaker in danger.
Vasquez would eschew his most common hunting ground of France to travel to take on the American in New Jersey. This would be his fourteenth fight since he won the title a little over two years previously, an insane fighting schedule but one that had reaped dividends with thirteen wins. In fact, he had only lost one fight in his career up until this point, and that was by DQ against Verno Phillips. There was no doubt that a Vasquez win would have been considered an upset, but there was also no doubt that he was in the ring with a fighter that would keep him honest throughout.
If the number of people who entered the ring with you before the introductions was indicative of the likelihood of you picking up the victory, Vasquez would have won handily. As Michael Buffer allowed his trademark voice to sell the importance of this contest, the champion was surrounded by men holding flags and belts, almost symbolic of the battles and stories he had collected along the way during his tenure as champion.
The commentary narrative that was still being spun was whether Whitaker would be able to take a punch from Vasquez, if the Argentinian was able to find him. Unlike the Whitaker of several years ago, the older fighter now tended to trust his instincts and stand ‘in the pocket’ rather than circle around the ring. Feints and bobs became his defensive weapon of choice, rather than the occasionally negatively perceived backwards movement. With the move up in weight and the punching prowess of the Argentinean, this could have proved to be a dangerous tactic.
In the early rounds, Whitaker showed why he was still considered one of the best pound for pound boxers walking the face of the Earth. Early ducking allowed him to avoid several big Vasquez punches, whilst the first left of an significance seemed to stun the champion, as if he hadn’t expected Sweet Pea to punch that aggressively. Like the Chavez fight, Whitaker was not afraid to trade with his opponent, considering his unshaken belief in his ability to avoid his opponents’ offense. As if to highlight his easygoing attitude towards the contest, we even get a little bit of showboating in Round 1, whilst Vasquez himself gets a pat on the backside for good measure in Round 2.
With the first two round under Whitaker’s belt, the tone is set for the rest of the fight. For the majority of the contest, Whitaker and Vasquez would land a similar amount of punches; Whitaker relying on his jab, Vazquez looking for knockouts with power punches. Yet, the percentages of actual punches thrown would work vastly in the American’s favour – he just didn’t have to swing as often as Vasquez did to connect.
Vasquez would seemingly win his first round of the fight in Round Three, though it only took a couple of showy combinations to take what was a fairly slow three minutes work from both men. However, in Round Four we began to see the capabilities of the champion, and the potential for a really tough night for the Whitaker camp. A ducking and feinting Whitaker would get dropped by a punch combined with almost a shoulder tackle, leaving the referee little option but to start to the count. A rueful laugh would escape Whitaker’s lips as he got to his feet, but in a close fight like this was shaping up to be, 8-10 rounds were not what the challenger wanted.
As both fighters came out for Round Five, the pundits on the commentary team had Vasquez in the lead, either by way of the additional point loss for the knockdown, or by winning three of the first four rounds. Several combinations by Vasquez had seemed to rock Whitaker near the end of the previous round, and if ever there was an opportunity for the upset to be caused, it felt like it was now. The corner suggested to their man that they thought Whitaker was out on his feet and there for the taking, yet the Argentinean would spend the majority of the fifth round flicking his jab at his opponent, rather than really pushing the tempo. Whether Whitaker was there to be taken out in this round or not, a brief flurry near the end probably did enough to steal the round for the challenger without really having to do much.
At the halfway point of the fight, the sweat had almost turned Vasquez’s shorts translucent, threatening the crowd in Atlantic City with an X-rated title defense. Without using lateral movement as much as in previous fights, Whitaker was often able to slip by the powerful punches of the champion, using the jab to keep the fighting mostly on the outside. As the bell would sound for the end of the round, the connection percentage would be 67% for Whitaker, even though not one of those punches had been truly memorable.
In a close fight, the outcome often hinges on the decisions made, whether by the contestants themselves or the people who have the ability to impact upon the action in the ring. Although he had had success throughout the early going by attacking Whitaker’s body, Vasquez seemed to make an unconcious decision to target the head for long stretches of the fight. As was noted on commentary: heads move, bodies don’t. Rather than make the choice to focus on a tactic that had worked up until this point of the fight, Vasquez seemed to play into the hands of his more elusive opponent.
Then, some separation for the challenger. Following several altercations throughout the fight, Vasquez would be deducted a point in Round Nine for what originally seemed to be holding behind the head, but would later be discussed as rabbit punches. At the end of Round Eight, the pundits had the fight even; a 10-8 round at this time could be the difference between immortality and a mere footnote in boxing history.
It felt like the tiredness of Vasquez was evident in the final few rounds. Perhaps that globetrotting, take on all comers nature had finally got to his legs, as he seemed unable to maintain the pressure, landing only the occasional punch rather than the combinations that rained freely earlier in the bout. He would end up on the canvas himself, though it would be adjudged a slip, and would see charges avoided with relative ease, like a bull unsuccessfully attacking the matador.
With the fight slowing down and sliding towards a judge’s decision, the commentary team mused about the stories and rumours that had circulated in the previous weeks. At the age of 31, the word was out that Whitaker perhaps didn’t train as vigorously or in as focused a manner as he used to; a story used to explain Whitaker’s lack of movement throughout the fight. The judges themselves were discussed, with the Vasquez team apparently unhappy about the make-up of the judges (one from Canada, Thailand and New Jersey respectively). It almost felt like it wouldn’t quite be a Pernell Whitaker contest without undue focus on the judges at ringside.
Any potential for controversy seemed to ease when, in the eleventh round, Vasquez was deducted another point due to his propensity for rabbit punching Whitaker. By the time the bell sounded for the end of Round Twelve, it seemed like Whitaker had done enough to win. In the final round, Whitaker would be booed by a small minority of the crowd for his exaggerated bobbing and weaving, a trait that the audience in attendance didn’t seem to admire and perceived as offensive towards a champion who had shown he deserved more respect. The unofficial scorecard was given as 114-111, with those two deductions turning a potentially close decision into one that looked a little more comfortable on paper.
For once, a Whitaker match would end with weird looking scorecards, but in his favour. Throughout the contest, it had seemed like Vasquez more than held up his end of the bargain, and won his fair share of rounds in the process. How exactly two of the judges managed to score the fight 118-110 and a quite staggering 118-107 was beyond the commentary team; a solitary score of 116-110 at least feeling somewhat representative of the action in the ring. Irrelevant of the scorecards that seemed more than a little on the generous side, the more important thing was that Whitaker was the new WBA Light Middleweight Champion. He would enter the pantheon of greats, alongside Duran, Hearns and Leonard, and leave the sport safe in the knowledge that he was one of its greatest ever.
If we wanted a signal that this was as much about legacy as anything else, Whitaker would vacate the title without making even one title defense. The step up in weight seemed to negate some of Whitaker’s most important defensive traits, whilst the inability to move as freely as he had in the past potentially left him prey to more powerful punchers at this level. It would be the WBC World Welterweight Title that would consume Whitaker’s interests for the next couple of years.
From a career standpoint, 1995 and this fourth World title at a fourth different weight would have been a poetic ending for a fighter who turned defense into an art form. Even with a loss and a draw on his record, the disputed nature of both of them left him little to feel ashamed about. However, Whitaker was only 31, and was still a name guy. There was no way that he was over the hill, and there was big money potentially still out there against some of the best up and coming boxers who would prove themselves by picking up the scalp of someone of Whitaker’s calibre. In some ways, Whitaker had become like Chavez before him; a guy to be targeted for the incomprehensible glory of victory.
Five more defenses of the WBC World Welterweight Title would see him end up in the ring opposite Oscar De La Hoya. Another controversial decision would go against Whitaker, and he would end his career with three losses and one No Contest following a failed drug test. The most notable of the matches that saw out his career was one against Felix Trinidad, one of the best Puerto Rican boxers of all time. Trinidad would win via a lopsided decision, effectively ending Whitaker’s run at the top. A broken clavicle would force him to retire from his last fight against Carlos Bojorquez. As is often the case, even the best of boxers go out on the end of several damp squib defeats – to go out on top would be too much like a happy ending.
To suggest that his defeat of Vasquez was somehow the pinnacle of Whitaker’s career would be crass and self serving – as if to fit a narrative that I have tried to force upon every fight I come across. However, in some ways it symbolised the rubber stamping of Whitaker’s legendary status. To be up with luminaries such as Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard speaks volumes of what Whitaker was capable of. With some of the higher profile losses, fair or otherwise, he suffered, there might not be that one big victory that he truly deserved, but no-one can take that title record away from him.
Also, sometimes it is just nice to think that occasionally it is more about your ability not to get hit as it is about your ability to hit someone else. Small pleasures.