Last month fight fans remembered the birthday of the late, great Pernell Whitaker with fitting tributes and salutes as we marked a third such occasion since the all-time great southpaw was taken from us, far too soon. Boxing will never forget the talent and skill of the ring genius they called “Sweet Pea,” who would have turned 58 this past January 2nd, nor all the superlative performances he gave us in his remarkable Hall of Fame career.
The pain of his having died so young inspires those who keenly appreciate Pernell’s gifts and accomplishments to search for ways to ensure his legacy lives on. And one way is to put his ring achievements into proper context by comparing them to his fellow top champions from the 1990’s. To be blunt, too many sports fans are keenly aware of the great wins on the records of say Oscar De La Hoya or Evander Holyfield, while in turn failing to give the same kind of credit to Whitaker. Allow us to try and correct that.
The key thing to remember is that in Whitaker’s case the official ledger of his pro career doesn’t tell the whole story. If you go by his record, he suffered defeats to Jose Luis Ramirez and Oscar De La Hoya, and was held to a draw by Julio Cesar Chavez. But the truth is that both the first Ramirez fight and the duel with the great Chavez were clear, one-sided victories for “Sweet Pea,” blatant robberies that merited nothing less than official investigations. And the De La Hoya match — a battle between a fading version of Pernell Whitaker and a peak “Golden Boy” — was razor close, with in fact more ringside scribes scoring Pernell the victor than Oscar.
This means that over the course of almost fifteen years and 44 fights, Whitaker was, for all intents and purposes, undefeated when he stepped into the ring against Felix Trinidad in 1999. By that point, the edge of Whitaker’s game had been forever dulled by time and a less-than-perfect dedication to athletic conditioning. An aging “Sweet Pea” suffered both a broken jaw and his first comprehensive defeat as a professional prizefighter at the fists of a peak Trinidad, all but closing the book on an otherwise brilliant career.
In the years since, Whitaker’s star has faded more than it should have. The misleading official ledger has something to do with this, as well as the fact that Whitaker was never much of a self-promoter. Cocky and confident was Pernell, but not loud and lustful of the limelight. He was never very interested in being a celebrity, only in being what he was: one of the finest and most gifted athletes to ever step through the ropes, the conqueror of Ramirez, Greg Haugen, Azumah Nelson, Freddie Pendleton, Roger Mayweather, Julio Cesar Vasquez, Buddy McGirt and, yes, Chavez.
Sure, you can make a case for Roy Jones Jr. or Lennox Lewis, but the fact remains that Whitaker faced tougher opposition than either and subdued it with both relative ease and aplomb. During his peak — roughly ’89 to ’94 — he was something close to perfection, unbeatable, rarely losing a round, let alone a contest. In short, he was the best boxer, pound-for-pound, of the 1990’s and one of our latter-day greats. So rest easy, “Sweet Pea.” You will never be forgotten. At least, not if we have anything to say about it.
The Top 12 Greatest Boxers of the 1990’s
11. Felix Trinidad: One of Puerto Rico’s greatest champions, Tito conquered Maurice Blocker, Oba Carr, Hector Camacho, William Joppy and Fernando Vargas, along with a controversial points win over Oscar De La Hoya.
10. Bernard Hopkins: Some might expect to see “The Executioner” ranked higher here, but in fact most of his great victories took place in the 21st century. That said, during the 90’s, Hopkins was a dominant middleweight, his skills too much for Simon Brown, Glen Johnson, John David Jackson, and Robert Allen.
9. Michael Carbajal: The first junior flyweight to command a million dollar payday, “Manitas De Piedra” was truly a “big little man” of the 90’s with wins over Muangchai Kittikasem, Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez, Scotty Olson, Melchor Cob Castro, Macario Santos, and a young Jorge Arce.
8. James Toney: The roller-coaster career of the fighter they called “Lights Out” saw him notch huge wins in the 90’s over Michael Nunn, Reggie Johnson, Iran Barkley, Anthony Hembrick and Mike McCallum.
7. Julio Cesar Chavez: The gritty battler from Mexico had already established himself as a great champion by the time the 1980’s ended, but it was in the decade following that he scored big wins over Meldrick Taylor, Lonnie Smith, Hector Camacho, Greg Haugen, Terrence Alli and Tony Lopez.
6. Evander Holyfield: A cruiserweight champion in the 80’s, “The Real Deal” invaded the heavyweight division to secure fistic immortality with impressive victories over Michael Dokes, Pinklon Thomas, Bert Cooper, Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, Ray Mercer and Riddick Bowe.
5. Lennox Lewis: The decade’s most dominant heavyweight, Lewis was ducked by many but that didn’t stop him from scoring wins over Holyfield, Tyson, Tommy Morrison, Oliver McCall, Frank Bruno, Ray Mercer and “Razor” Ruddock.
4. Oscar De La Hoya: Oba Carr, Hector Camacho, Arturo Gatti, Julio Cesar Chavez, Wilfredo Rivera, Jesse James Leija and Miguel Angel Gonzalez all fell to the fists of “The Golden Boy.” Was awarded a controversial points win over Whitaker in 1997.
3. Ricardo Lopez: The numbers say it all: 21 successful title defences, 51 wins, 38 knockouts, zero defeats. Almost all of “El Finito’s” championship victories took place in the 1990’s.
2. Roy Jones Jr.: Bernard Hopkins, Mike McCallum, Montell Griffin, Otis Grant, James Toney, Virgil Hill and Reggie Johnson were among those who could not solve the puzzle that was Jones’ unique blend of speed, talent, elusiveness and power.
1. Pernell Whitaker: The greatest champion of the 1990’s, “Sweet Pea” may have suffered defeats and draws in the record books, but serious fight fans know this defensive wizard was undefeated, not to mention well nigh untouchable, for almost the entire decade. Make no mistake, Pernell Whitaker is, pound-for-pound, the finest fighter of the 1990’s.