Looking back it’s difficult not to feel some measure of regret for Pernell Whitaker, which is absurd given that the man won six world titles in four divisions and made a boatload of money. But the fact is, one of the greatest boxers who ever lived never received the credit and popularity he truly deserved. It was uphill all the way, and for one reason: his ring brilliance just didn’t provide the kind of excitement most fight fans craved. It’s impossible to compete with a boxer you can’t hit and so many of Whitaker’s matches were one-sided and something less than scintillating in terms of action. Constantly shifting and sliding, bobbing and weaving, “Sweet Pea” was as elusive as a wisp of smoke in his prime. As the great southpaw himself put it, “If I don’t want God to hit me, He’s not going to hit me.”
Too cute for some, too cocky for others, Whitaker’s name rarely comes up when it should. The best boxer of the 1990s? Pose the question and you’ll hear boxing fans orate passionately about Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones Jr., and Evander Holyfield, ignoring the fact that Whitaker bested stiffer opposition than all three and didn’t suffer a legitimate defeat until the decade was almost over. That was when Felix Trinidad outpointed him, but by then Whitaker was 35 years old and his best days and moves were long behind him. His last great performance was a highly competitive tilt against Oscar De La Hoya, but the judges took the win from him, just as they had when he clearly outboxed Mexican champions Julio César Chávez and Jose Luis Ramirez.
Whitaker’s first fight with Ramirez remains one of the most blatant robberies in boxing history and the circumstances surrounding it should have merited a full-blown investigation. Incredibly, despite the howls of outrage from every quarter, Whitaker did not receive an immediate rematch. Instead, a year later he got a second chance at a world crown, this time against Greg Haugen, for the IBF version of the lightweight title.
If one were to make a list of the most anti-climactic fights in boxing history, Whitaker vs Haugen would have to rank fairly high. Pernell had already established himself as the top talent in the division, if not the best pound-for-pound in the entire sport. Haugen, while as tough and game as they come, simply was not in the same league as “Sweet Pea” in terms of talent, skill and versatility.
But that’s not to say he didn’t belong in the ring that day. Haugen had earned his opportunities the hard way, competing in well over 300 amateur fights and winning a bunch of “Tough Man” competitions in his native Alaska before turning pro and pulling off a major upset in beating Jimmy Paul for a world title. His title defense against Whitaker was his third after splitting two tough 15 round battles with Vinny Pazienza. An effective counterpuncher with a good jab, Haugen had experience and skill, but his power was middling at best and he was going up against a truly gifted boxer, a pugilistic artist in the vein of Willie Pep, not to mention a man on a mission. Having been robbed against Ramirez, Whitaker was determined to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who was the true champion of the lightweights.
Performing in front of his hometown fans in Hampton, Virginia, Whitaker started fast and as early as the second round he was dominating the champion, backing Haugen up, scoring repeatedly with right jabs and beautiful combinations to both head and body. The challenger’s clear advantage in speed was already glaringly apparent and Haugen was reduced to smiling and mugging after getting tagged with jarring punches. At the end of round three the crowd came to its feet as Haugen was hurt by two hard shots to the body followed by a powerful uppercut.
By the fifth, Haugen was taking a beating. Having prepared for a boxer who would be moving and circling, the champion had no answer for an aggressive Whitaker who came forward behind a withering jab and refused to give ground on the inside. Overwhelmed, Haugen often backed to the ropes where Whitaker would take target practice, snapping sharp shots to Haugen’s face before digging both hands to the body.
In the sixth, a precise counter left put Haugen down, the first knockdown of his entire career, amateur or pro. Near the end of the seventh Whitaker forced Haugen to the ropes with four hard right jabs, feinted a fifth and immediately tagged the champion with a vicious straight left and an uppercut. He then got home seven thudding body shots, while mixing in some more jabs and uppercuts. It was like watching Picasso or Pollack attack a blank canvas as the match became a rout, as well as a pugilistic masterpiece.
Whitaker slowed his attack somewhat in the eighth and ninth, dancing and using the ring more, though he clearly won both rounds. A desperate champion came out hard in round ten and Whitaker, like a stern schoolmaster correcting an errant pupil, immediately put Haugen in his place, backing him to the ropes and battering him with both hands. The ever game champion never stopped trying, but he was tiring and Whitaker was toying with him now, snapping his head back with almost every jab and strafing him with extended flurries of sharp shots to which Haugen had no reply.
The first two minutes of the final round saw Whitaker content to circle and showboat, but in the waning seconds he closed with a flourish, scoring with one vicious salvo after another. After each battering, the tough-as-iron Haugen would smile, drop his hands and shake his head, as if to say, “That all you got?” And Whitaker would then mete out another sustained volley, as if to say, “Okay, here’s some more,” bringing the crowd to its feet as he ended the bout and his masterful performance with an exclamation mark. At the final bell Haugen, showing class, applauded Whitaker before the official scorecards were even tabulated.
Later that same year Whitaker would avenge his “loss” to Ramirez with a shut-out points win before going on to steam-roll the super-lightweight and welterweight divisions. Julio Cesar Chavez finally agreed to meet Whitaker in 1993 and “Sweet Pea” gave a virtuoso performance against a legend and a Hall of Famer, only to have the judges once again deny him his glory when they absurdly deemed the bout a draw.
Haugen fought for another decade, winning against Héctor Camacho and Ray Mancini, but losing to Pazienza and Chavez. He willingly took on all comers, amassing a record of more than 50 pro fights. And years later, when asked who was the best boxer he ever faced, he didn’t hesitate for a second. “Hands down,” he said, “Pernell Whitaker.”
— Michael Carbert