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Pernell Whitaker, Short List All Time Great

Bernard Fernandez

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Pernell Whitaker was, by most accounts, the best defensive fighter since Willie Pep, maybe even better. His ability to stay in the pocket and make frustrated opponents hit nothing but air, answering their misfires with stinging counterpunches, was a form of pugilistic genius beyond replication until Floyd Mayweather Jr. came along. But even Mayweather might not have matched Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker’s uncanny gift for ducking and dodging incoming shots, Matrix-style. It was almost as if he were in a rainstorm without an umbrella, yet somehow able to avoid getting wet.

All right, so even a legendary fighter’s quick-twitch reflexes figure to slow nearly two decades after his retirement from the ring. Whitaker was 55 and well removed from his remarkable prime when he was struck by a car while crossing a Virginia Beach, Va., street Sunday night, sustaining fatal injuries.  But here’s the thing: the driver whose vehicle slammed into the four-division former world champion didn’t swerve out of control, and he apparently wasn’t exceeding the posted speed limit. There is no fleeing villain for Whitaker’s many admirers to castigate (the driver, who stayed with Whitaker, has not been charged with a crime), and emergency medical personnel were quickly on the scene to render whatever assistance they could, to no avail.

Pernell Whitaker, who was to hit-and-not-be-hit boxing what baseball’s Ozzie Smith was to art of playing shortstop, was pronounced dead at the scene. His official time of passing was listed as 10:04 p.m. EDT.

The only possible explanation is familiar to all boxers who were surprised to find themselves on the canvas, woozy, and being counted out. The blow that is most apt to result in a knockout is the stealthy one you don’t see coming. It’s just that this knockout, steel against flesh and bone, was forever.

Kathy Duva, the Main Events CEO who has known Whitaker even before the clever southpaw, a gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, signed with her now-deceased husband Dan’s promotional company as part of arguably the greatest crop of U.S. boxers ever to come out of the same Olympiad, finds it as ironic as it is tragic that someone known for being nearly untouchable inside the ropes could have forgotten the first safety rule for all pedestrians: Look both ways before stepping onto any roadway, especially if it’s late at night and that roadway is not particularly well-illuminated.

“For a guy who almost never got hit to die that way … It’s insane. Ironic. I guess that’s the only word for it,” said Duva, still nearly overwrought with emotion 12 hours after a fighter she so liked and respected, and with whom she had remained in fairly regular contact, perished so unexpectedly.

Asked if she thought Whitaker’s face belonged on a figurative Mount Rushmore of the greatest defensive fighters ever, Duva said, “Oh, absolutely. And, really, he’s on a lot of people’s lists of the greatest fighters of all time, and not just for his defense. He belongs there, too.”

Over the course of his 17-year pro career, Whitaker won world titles as a lightweight, junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight. Considering the high level of competition he routinely faced, his 40-4-1 record, with 17 KOs and one no-decision, would be impressive, but it is even more so upon closer examination. His first “loss,” by split decision to WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez in Paris on March 12, 1988, was a heist by pencil so blatant wanted posters should have been distributed seeking the arrests of judges Newton Campos and Louis Michel for crimes against sensibility.

After winning a one-sided unanimous decision over IBF lightweight titlist Greg Haugen (Whitaker won 35 of the 36 rounds on the three judges’ combined scorecards), he exacted his revenge upon Ramirez on Aug. 20, 1989, in Whitaker’s hometown of Norfolk, Va., retaining his IBF strap while adding the vacant WBC belt on a UD so obviously in his favor that it could have been scored by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Ronnie Milsap. This time Whitaker was only marginally less dominant than he had been against Haugen, winning 33 of 36 rounds on the cards.

“Sweet Pea’s” emergence as boxing’s top pound-for-pound performer earned him recognition as 1989’s Fighter of the Year from both the Boxing Writers Association of America and The Ring magazine, but his skyrocketing confidence in his own ability, almost bordering on arrogance, was tempered by his lingering belief that powerful, behind-the-scenes players not only were hesitant to give him his due, but were actively plotting to stick it to him again as had been the case in the first Ramirez bout.

That sense of foreboding appeared at least somewhat justified the night of Sept. 10, 1993, in San Antonio’s Alamodome, when he defended his WBC welterweight championship against Mexican superstar Julio Cesar Chavez, who came in 87-0 and had the crowd of nearly 60,000 squarely behind him. But Whitaker did to Chavez that night what he had done to so many other opponents, which was to confuse and frustrate El Gran Campeon with an unorthodox fight plan that had him frequently going down onto his haunches, the most successful bit of duckwalking since Chuck Berry was strutting along 1950s stages, playing his guitar just like ringing a bell and belting out Johnny B. Goode.

Although almost everyone in the press section had Whitaker winning eight to 10 of the 12 rounds, judges Mickey Vann and Franz Marti each saw the fight as a 115-115 standoff (the third judge, Jack Woodruff, had Whitaker ahead by 115-113), making for a hugely controversial majority draw that again left the American feeling as if he’d been gut-shot.

“I knew this might happen, but still it was like a bad dream,” a disbelieving Whitaker said. “It was like someone put a knife in me and twisted it.

“I whipped his ass, and easily. I mentally and physically beat him. I put an old-fashioned project beating on him. A housing authority beating. A ghetto beating.”

There were those who predicted the draw was designed to set the stage for an even bigger rematch, but neither Kathy Duva nor I believed it. Chavez, also a great fighter, might have wanted a do-over as much as Whitaker, but his promoter Don King would decide who he would fight going forward, and His Hairness understood that Whitaker’s unorthodox and impenetrable style was always going to be problematic for JCC.

Did his disappointment over the disputed outcome of the fight with Chavez weigh so heavily on Whitaker that it affected him throughout the remainder of his career? Maybe, maybe not. He strung together an eight-fight winning streak after Chavez, but lost a relatively wide unanimous decision to Oscar De La Hoya in a fight that seemed much closer, and to some people’s way of thinking could have gone the other way.

Convinced he had been shafted again, Whitaker followed the De La Hoya fight with a close, 12-round points nod over Andrey Pestryaev in a WBA welterweight elimination bout, which was later changed to a no-decision when Whitaker tested positive for cocaine. He did not fight again for 16 months, and when he returned it was for a beatdown at the hands of IBF welterweight champ Felix Trinidad, in which Whitaker suffered a broken jaw. Disregarding the pain, Whitaker went the distance, whereupon he again put himself on a shelf for 26 months, coming back for a scheduled 10-rounder against journeyman Carlos Bojorquez on April 27, 2001, in which Whitaker was stopped in the fourth round on the advice of ring physician Dr. Margaret Goodman when it became clear that Whitaker was a one-armed fighter unable to deal with the effects of a broken clavicle.

Finally, it was over. Whitaker went back home to Norfolk, where he occasionally trained fighters, but largely stayed under the radar, his once-gleaming reputation tarnished by occasional reports of his ongoing brushes with the law over his cocaine habit. In June 2002, he was convicted of cocaine possession after a judge found he had violated terms of a previous sentence by overdosing on cocaine in March of that year.

“He had demons, but when he was in the ring that was when he was in control and when he was happy and when he was the very best at what he did, and he wanted to show that to everybody,” Duva said in another interview, with ESPN.

By all accounts, however, Whitaker had exorcised many of the demons that had made him an unhappy semi-recluse. A first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007, he returned to Canastota, N.Y., in June to participate in the festivities for the 2019 induction ceremonies and took delight in being greeted warmly by fight fans. He also had accepted an invitation to leave for Las Vegas on Thursday to do a similar meet-and-greet with the public at the MGM Grand in advance of Saturday’s big PBC on Fox Sports PPPV fight between Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman.

All of which makes his sudden death so much more shocking to those who were encouraged that he was finding his way back to a better life in and out of boxing, a life that always should have been afforded him by virtue of his rare and special gift.

Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson, a big boxing buff and as much an artist in his own sphere as Whitaker had been in his, tweeted, “Pernell `Sweet Pea’ Whitaker was in the class of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard as one of the most entertaining fighters of my lifetime.”

Former ESPN boxing analyst Max Kellerman, now with ESPN, also ladled out the praise, tweeting, “The best lightweight I ever saw passed away (Sunday night). Yes, that includes Roberto Duran, Floyd Mayweather, Ike Williams and anyone else you want to mention … He was one of the three greatest pure boxers who ever lived.”

For those who always want to remember the best of Pernell Whitaker, there is consolation knowing that his passing appears to be nothing more than a terrible accident, the kind that can happen on any street, at any time, and to anyone.

“I guess he was wearing dark clothes, the road was dark and the driver didn’t see him,” Devon Whitaker, 27, the youngest of Pernell’s four surviving children, said of what he thought might have happened. Virginia Beach Police spokesperson Linda Kuehn noted that the investigation is still ongoing, “However, it does not appear that drugs, alcohol or speed were factors in the crash.”

Rest in peace, Sweet Pea. It was my pleasure watching you work.

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The Fight of the Century: A Golden Anniversary Celebration

Arne K. Lang

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In professional boxing, fights can be rank-ordered as generic fights, big fights, bigger fights, mega-fights, and spectacles. The first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier wasn’t merely a spectacle, but the grandest spectacle of them all. This coming Monday, March 8, is the 50th anniversary of that iconic event.

Ali-Frazier I was staged at three-year-old Madison Square Garden, the fourth arena in New York to take that name. It drew a capacity crowd: 20,455 (19,500 paid). An estimated 60 percent of all the tickets sold fell into the hands of scalpers.

The fight was closed-circuited to more than 350 locations in the United States and Canada. At some of the larger venues, it established a new record for gate receipts, and this for an attraction that wasn’t produced in-house. In Los Angeles, 15,333 saw the fight at the Forum and 11,575 at the nearby Sports Arena.

Bill Ballenger, the sports editor of the Charlotte (NC) News, saw the fight at the Charlotte Coliseum. He reported that the audio – Don Dunphy did the blow-by-blow with Burt Lancaster and Archie Moore serving as color commentators – was loud enough to be heard outside the arena and that many folks, either unable or unwilling to purchase a ticket, loitered outside and followed the action in 30 degrees weather.

An estimated three hundred million people saw the fight worldwide. In England, by some estimates, half the population tuned in, watching either at home on BBC1 or at a theater where one could watch the fight unfold on a movie screen. Now keep in mind that in England the fight didn’t commence until 6:40 in the morning on a Tuesday!

Inside Madison Square Garden, the large flock of celebrities included many folks one wouldn’t expect to find at a prizefight. Marcello Mastroianni, Italy’s most famous movie star, made a special trip from Rome. Salvador Dali was there and Barbra Streisand and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy, seated next to her escort, crooner Andy Williams. Frank Sinatra was there working as a photographer for Life magazine. Lore has it that Sinatra wangled the assignment after failing to boat one of the coveted ringside seats.

The scene was made brighter by human “peacocks,” the label applied to Harlemites with an outrageous sense of fashion, and the electricity was palpable. When Ali appeared at the back of the arena, making his way from his dressing room to the ring, everyone had goosebumps.

The late, great New York sportswriter Dick Young once wrote that there is no greater drama than in the moments preceding a big heavyweight title fight and that was never more true than on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.

Ali (31-0, 25 KOs) and Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) were both undefeated. Both had a claim to the heavyweight title, Ali because the belt had been controversially stripped away from him for his political beliefs. Opinions as to who would win were pretty evenly divided. In Las Vegas, Joe Frazier was the favorite at odds of 6 to 5. Across the pond in England, bookies were quoting odds of 11 to 8 on Ali.

Those that favored Ali were of the opinion that ‘Smokin’ Joe was too one-dimensional. That much was true. Joe was as subtle as a steam locomotive on a downhill grade. He ate Ali’s hardest punches, said Boston Globe reporter Bud Collins, as if they were movie house popcorn and he eventually wore Ali down. There was little doubt as to how the judges would see it after Joe knocked Ali down in the 15th round with a frightful left hook. When Ali arose, it appeared that he had been afflicted with a sudden case of the mumps. The decision was unanimous: 11-4, 9-6, 8-6-1.

This wasn’t the greatest fight of all time, but it was a fight that more than lived up to the hype. And, as several people have noted, the event took on a life of its own without the benefit of modern technology to push it along. The buzz was fueled in a large part by newspapers, the “antiquated” sort of newspapers that a fellow fished from his driveway or purchased at a newsstand on the way to or from work. If twitter and facebook had been around during Muhammad Ali’s prime, Ali would have blown the doors off the internet.

A cultural touchstone is an event that remains sealed in our memory. As we slide into old age, if we are lucky enough to live that long, we may not remember what we had for breakfast in the morning, but some long-ago events are as vivid as if they had happened just yesterday.

Boxing historian Frank Lotierzo has written poignantly about how overjoyed he was when he was surprised with the news that his father would be taking him to the fight. “To this day it remains the biggest thrill of my life!” wrote Lotierzo, who was then in the seventh grade. “And it’s not even close!”

I didn’t see the fight, but I can recall the faces of people that I overheard talking about it, people whose interest in the fight struck me as odd as I knew they had little interest in the world of sports. So, when the fight is replayed in its entirety on Sunday – it airs on ABC at 2 p.m ET and again at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN – I will be watching it for the first time. And it will be bittersweet as I will be reminded that I am in the twilight of my life and my thoughts will inevitably drift to my friends and loved ones that have left this mortal world in the years since that grand night in 1971 when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier locked horns in the Fight of the Century.

I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

Arne K. Lang

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Yoka TKO 12 Djeko in France: Claressa Pitches a Shutout on Ladies Day in Flint

March 8 is International Women’s Day which is actually a formal holiday in many parts of the globe. It was somehow fitting that female boxers were on display on the Friday feeding into it, a weekend without a must-see attraction on the men’s side.

Today’s activity began in the French port city of Nantes where 2016 Olympic gold medal winners Tony Yoka and Estelle Mossely, husband and wife, kept their undefeated records intact, both advancing to 10-0, against European opponents. Yoka (10-0, 8 KOs) was matched against Joel “Big Joe” Djeko (17-3-1), a 31-year-old Brussels native of Congolese and Cuban extraction who had fought most of his career as a cruiserweight. Mossely, a lightweight who now goes by Yoka-Mossely, drew Germany’s Verena Kaiser (14-2).

At the Rio Olympiad, Yoka got by Filip Hrgovic in the semis and Joe Joyce in the finals to win the gold, winning both bouts by split decision. Both would be favored over the Frenchman in a rematch fought under professional rules.

Against the six-foot-six Djeko, Yoka controlled the fight with his jab, repeatedly backing his foe against the ropes. Very few of Djeko’s punches got through Yoka’s high guard. Had the fight gone to the scorecards, it would have been a rout for Yoka, but it didn’t quite get there as Djeko turned his back on the proceedings midway through the 12th round after absorbing a sharp jab and it went into the books as a TKO for Yoka. At stake was some kind of European title or a derivation thereof.

Mossely’s fight with Kaiser, slated for 10 two-minute rounds, followed a somewhat similar tack, save that it went the full distance. With only one knockout to her credit at the pro level, Mosseley, typical of female boxers, lacks a knockout punch. But she’s a good technician and had too much class for the German.

Flint

A Covid-19 limited crowd of perhaps 300 was on hand to watch hometown heroine Claressa Shields oppose IBF 154-pound title-holder Marie Eve Dicaire at a 4,400-seat arena in Flint. There were five bouts on the undercard, three of which were women’s bouts.

Claressa

Claressa Shields

Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was seeking to become a four-belt title-holder in a second weight class, having previously turned the trick at 160. Dicaire, a 34-year-old southpaw, brought a 17-0 record but she had never won a fight inside the distance and all of her previous bouts took place in French-speaking Canada.

The self-proclaimed GWOAT, Shields has no peer between 154 and 168 pounds. Heading into this contest, she had hardly lost a round since meeting Hanna Gabriels and tonight was another total whitewash, her fourth overall in 10-round fights.

Claressa Shields, now 11-0 (2) may be too good for her own good. Her fights are so one-sided that they are monotonous. Her TV ratings have actually been falling. Today’s show was a $29.99 pay-per-view on FITE when the established networks refused to meet her purse demands. It will be interesting to see how many tuned in.

In another fight of note, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza, in her first fight as a bantamweight, dominated Toronto’s Shelly Barnett en route to winning a 6-round unanimous decision. There were no knockdowns, but the scorecards (60-54, 60-53 twice) were indicative of Esparza’s dominance.

Esparza, who pushed her record to 9-1 (1), came in ranked #1 by the WBC in the flyweight class. Her lone defeat came at the hands of rugged Seniesa Estrada. Barnett declined to 4-4-3.

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Brandon Adams Bursts Bohachuk’s Bubble in Puerto Rico

Arne K. Lang

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Brandon Adams Bursts Bohachuk’s Bubble in Puerto Rico

Ring City USA, a new promotional entity, debuted on Nov. 19, 2020 with a show staged in the parking lot of Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA. Ring City stayed outdoors for their first offering of 2021, but the company was a long ways from California. Tonight’s card was staged on a roundabout near a municipal gym in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

The headline attraction was an attractive match between junior middleweights Serhii Bohachuk and Brandon Adams. The bout was originally set for Dec. 3, but had to be pushed back when Bohachuk tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bohachuk, a 25-year-old California-based Ukrainian, had stopped all 18 of his previous opponents. He had never gone past six rounds. Brandon Adams, a former world title challenger, represented a step up in class.

Bohachuk was well on his way to winning a unanimous decision when the tide turned dramatically in round eight. Fighting on a slick canvas, Adams suddenly found a new gear, unloading a series of punches climaxed by a thunderous left hook as Bohachuk retreated. The Ukrainian beat the count, but was teetering on unsteady legs and the referee properly called a halt.

Adams was without his regular trainer, 80-year-old Dub Huntley, who remained back in LA as a health precaution. In winning, he elevated his records to 23-3 (15). It was his best performance since defeating Shane Mosley Jr in the finals of Season 5 of the “Contender” series.

In the co-feature, an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rico’s Bryan Chevalier improved to 15-1-1 (12) with a third-round stoppage of Peru’s Carlos Zambrano (26-2). Chevalier scored two knockdowns, the first a sweeping left hook that appeared to land behind Zambrano’s head, and the second a punch to the liver that left Zambrano in severe distress. The referee waived the fight off in mid-count.

The official time was 2:21. Chevalier, a tall featherweight (5’11”) made a very impressive showing; he bears watching. This was Zambrano’s first fight since April of 2017 when he was knocked out in the opening round by Claudio Marrero in a bout for the WBA interim featherweight title.

The TV opener was an entertaining fight between contrasting styles that produced a weird conclusion when Danielito Zorrilla was awarded a technical decision over Ruslan Madiyev. The bout was stopped at the 1:16 mark of round eight after Zorrilla sank to his knees after absorbing a punch to the back of the head. The ringside physician examined him for evidence of a concussion, but ultimately it was Zorrilla’s choice as to whether the bout would continue. He declined and was reportedly taken to a hospital for observation.

Madiyev, a California-based Kazahk, was the aggressor. He fought the fight in Zorilla’s grill, often bullying him against the ropes. In round five, he had a point deducted for hitting behind the head, squandering what was arguably his best round.

The fight went to the scorecards with Zorrilla winning a split decision (77-74, 77-75, 73-76), thereby remaining undefeated: 15-0 (12). Ironically, Madiyev (13-2, 5 KOs), suffered his previous loss in a similar fashion.

Madiyev’s new trainer Joel Diaz reportedly discouraged his charge from taking this fight for fear that he wouldn’t get a fair shake in Puerto Rico. Diaz’s apprehensions were well-founded.

Photo credit: Tom Hogan / Ring City USA

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