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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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Wilder – Fury Predictions & Analyses from the TSS Panel of Writers

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Whenever there is a big fight with a high level of intrigue, we survey members of our writing community to get their thoughts. In terms of pre-fight intrigue, Saturday’s rematch in Las Vegas between fellow unbeatens Deontay Wilder (42-0-1, 41 KOs) and Tyson Fury (29-0-1, 20 KOs) ranks among the top heavyweight title fights of all time.

As is our usual custom, we are listing our panelists alphabetically. The graphic is by Colorado comic book cover artist ROB AYALA whose work has attracted a lot of buzz. Ayala’s specialty is combat sports. Check out more of his very cool work at his web site fight posium.

MATT ANDRZEJEWSKI — In the first fight, my prediction was that Fury would easily out-box Wilder. I am sticking to my guns with the same prediction for the second fight. I know Fury is making a lot of noise about knocking out Wilder but I think this is more psychological than anything else. Fury will box cautiously behind the jab, pick his spots to counter and focus very carefully on his defense. He is not going to go for the knockout and will turn this into an even more tactical affair than the first fight. But he will be more successful this time and coast to a wide unanimous decision victory.

BERNARD FERNANDEZ — Fury is saying he’s going to meet Wilder in the center of the ring and take him out in two rounds. I’m guessing that’s a ruse, so I don’t put much stock in it. But even if the big Brit elects to outbox Wilder over 12 rounds, which he is capable of doing, that means he has to avoid getting clocked with a huge right hand for 12 rounds. Gotta go with the home run hitter here. Wilder by KO or stoppage in eight rounds.

JEFFREY FREEMAN — Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder are equally charged with restoring much needed prestige to the heavyweight division in America. It’s a long slow slog. As a result, the powers caring about this have to be careful not to give away what they can sell. That’s why the first Wilder-Fury fight was called a draw. Neither fighter can afford a loss on their undefeated record and Bob Arum won’t be giving paying fans an actual result in exchange for their hard earned PPV dollars. Not yet anyway. So, it’s going to happen again! Wilder-Fury II ends in another draw but don’t worry, you can pay for the trilogy rubber-match “tie breaker” spectacular soon enough!

ARNE LANG – We performed this exercise before the first-Wilder Fury fight. No one was more bullish on Wilder than me. Properly chastened, I am going to pass the buck this time. Here are the observations of a long-time friend who resides on the Isle of Man and is known for having a sharp opinion: “Fury was cut badly in his last fight and will be very cautious, having tasted Wilder’s power. Training at Kronk isn’t the same without Manny Steward there. Fury has had multiple distractions and I don’t regard him as a world class puncher. DW has 36 minutes to land the one punch that will turn the tide.”

KELSEY McCARSON — Can you imagine what Deontay Wilder might feel on fight night? Across the ring from him will again be Tyson Fury, the same fighter who ate Wilder’s best punch and got back up on his feet. The only other time Wilder didn’t score a knockout was when he faced Bermane Stiverne in 2015. But Wilder broke his right hand in that fight, so he could explain that mystery away until he got the rematch with Stiverne two years later and ended up folding him in half in the first round like a lawn chair. But neither of Wilder’s hands were broken against Fury. Worse for the 34-year-old American is that Fury outboxed him for the majority of the fight. I like Fury to win the rematch by decision. Wilder will overcommit on his punches, and Fury will box his ears off for the clear victory.

MATT McGRAIN — Predicting a Tyson Fury fight is rather like predicting the weather. Even with all the pertinent information on hand it’s impossible to know exactly what will occur. Fury has been running less but reportedly sparring more; he has spoken openly of targeting 270lbs for the weigh-in; he has a new trainer who may or may not be motivating him; he has looked consistently bored and disinterested at more recent pressers; he has spoken openly of the crushing depression that envelopes him every Sunday. So, we might get an overweight, disinterested, under-motivated Fury on Saturday night. And he still might win. Put me down for Fury on points, but the right answer is, ‘nobody knows’.

SEAN NAM — Tyson Fury’s body may be as taut as its ever been, but his mind is in free-floating mode these days. Between hinting at an early retirement and opening up about certain sexual proclivities, Fury seems to have one foot perpetually out of the ring. In fact, ever since he linked up with Top Rank, it has been one big, gaudy publicity tour after another for the Manchester man. A stint with the WWE, the publication of his autobiography (as though his legacy in the ring had already been set in stone), and repeated desires to fight in an MMA crossover bout give the impression that Fury may not be as dialed-in for the most important fight of his life. Not to mention, Fury inexplicably canned his former trainer, Ben Davison. Meanwhile, Deontay Wilder, he of the thunderous right-hand fame, has been quiet as a church mouse. Wilder TKO9.

TED SARES –  An in-shape Fury schools Wilder in the early to mid rounds with focus and discipline, but then Wilder’s right connects and a stunned Fury backs off. Wilder then presses the action and KOs the giant in the next round – maybe the 9th or 10th – with a windmill shot (left or right) or a paralyzing straight ala Breazeale. We know Fury can go down. We know he can get up. But so also do Wilder and Mark Breland.

PHIL WOOLEVER – Wilder’s KO percentage gives him the coin-flip edge (Fury better remember what happened to Stiverne) but I have no clear idea what might happen where I see another draw just as likely as a decision either way. What intrigues me most are the over/under bet propositions listed around the 11th (take the under) and the possibility of this rematch joining a list of outrageous circumstances like the long count, ear bite or paraglider.

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Hot Prospect Ruben Torres Blasts Out Gabino Cota

David A. Avila

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ONTARIO, Calif.-Those heavy hands of Ruben “Ace” Torres showed up again as he steamrolled by Gabino Cota to win their lightweight clash by knockout on Friday.

Backed by a large fan base Torres (12-0, 10 KOs) rewarded them with a one-sided shellacking of Tijuana’s Cota (19-11-2, 17 KOs) at the Doubletree Hotel. There was never any doubt who packed the heavier firepower on the Thompson Boxing Promotions main event.

Torres opened up the fight behind a solid stiff jab that must have given Cota a quick indication of the power behind it, because the Mexican veteran seldom tried to engage early in the fight. A left hook followed by five blows wobbled Cota who leaned on the ropes in a kneeling position.

It was not ruled a knockdown but easily could have been.

In the next round Torres once again connected with a sweeping left hook and it was visible the blow hurt Cota. It seemed every time the taller Torres connected with the left hook a shock of pain crossed the Tijuana fighters face, but he would not go down.

Everything changed in the fourth round. As Cota waited to avoid the left hook, Torres shot a right cross to the body that took a second for the Mexican to register the pain and down he went. He could not get up and was counted out at 52 seconds of the fourth round.

Torres was ruled the winner by knockout.

“I know I could have stopped him a little earlier but his experience,” said Torres who attended school in Santa Fe Springs. “He was tough. I was definitely waiting for him in the later rounds. I saw he was reacting to the punches that they were hurting him. I’m glad I came out victorious.”

The Santa Fe Springs lightweight has been steadily impressing everyone with his heavy-handed power.

“Line them up and I’m going to do my best to knock them down,” Torres said.

Other Bouts

George Acosta (9-1) defeated Ivan Benitez (14-4) by unanimous decision after six rounds in a fight featuring tall lanky lightweights. Acosta was the busier fighter through most of the match. Scores were 60-54, 59-55, 58-54 for Acosta whose only loss was to Ruben Torres last year.

A bantamweight clash saw Saul Sanchez (13-1, 7 KOs) out-hustle Mexico’s Victor Trejo (17-12-2, 8 KOs) to win by decision after six white-hot rounds. Fans were pleased by the nonstop action fight and it was Sanchez first return to the boxing ring after suffering his first loss last August.

Cathedral City’s Jose “Tito” Sanchez (6-0, 4 KOs) defeated the taller Luis Montellano (1-7-2) of Tijuana by unanimous decision after four rounds in a featherweight match-up. Despite the poor record Montellano proved to be a very capable fighter and used his height well until Sanchez took the fight inside and turned it into trench warfare. Sanchez was adept at smothering Montellano’s blows inside while shooting uppercuts. Scores were 40-36 for Sanchez on all three cards.

Rancho Cucamonga’s Richard Brewart (7-0, 3 KOs) won by knockout over Mexico’s Erick Martinez (14-16-1, 8 KOs) in a battle fought at super middleweight. Brewart, who scored a sensational one-punch knockout here in February of last year, weighed only 157 pounds but fought Martinez who weighed 164 pounds and whittled him down to size with a blistering body attack from the opening bell. Finally, at 1:36 of the third round, Brewart sneaked a right uppercut to Martinez’s chin and down he went for good. Referee Rudy Barragan counted out Martinez.

Ivan Zarate (2-0) proved too strong for Mexico’s southpaw Ulises Gabriel (0-2) to win by unanimous decision after four rounds in a super bantamweight fight.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Wilder – Fury 2: Points to Ponder (Plus Official Weights)

Arne K. Lang

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This afternoon’s weigh-in, scheduled for 6 PM ET, will be closely monitored by gamblers who want to inspect the merchandise before making a wager. Tyson Fury has indicated that he will likely tip the scales at about 270 pounds, which would be 13 ½-pounds more than he carried in their first meeting and 15 ½-pounds more than what he carried in his last engagement vs Otto Wallin this past September. Deontay Wilder has also indicated that he plans to carry more weight for the rematch.

Andre Ward, for one, thinks that the added weight will be a detriment to Fury. “250 pounds is plenty big enough to push Wilder around,” said Ward at a media confab yesterday where the former two-division world champion shared the dais with the other talking heads from the networks that will be showing the fight. The implication is that any gains that Fury achieves in strength would be offset by less mobility.

For the record, back in 2009, in his first scheduled 10-rounder, Tyson Fury carried 247 pounds for his match with British countryman John McDermott. That was a difficult fight for the Gypsy King with many in attendance believing he earned no better than a draw. Nine months later he met McDermott again, this time carrying 270 pounds, and Fury dominated en route to a ninth-round stoppage. So, putting on more weight for a rematch worked to his advantage.

Interestingly, Andre Ward doesn’t believe that Deontay Wilder has reached his peak in terms of his ring IQ. Wilder, 34, is a former Olympic bronze medalist but had a very brief amateur career, a “small sample size,” as Ward put it. The Bronze Bomber, he said, “is still learning on the job.”

But he’s still one-dimensional, noted former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. Asked which fighter he would prefer to fight if he were still in his prime, Lewis opted for Deontay Wilder, saying that Wilder would cause him fewer problems than Fury because Fury “gives you more looks.”

Not once during yesterday’s media confab did anyone address the cut that Fury suffered against Wallin. It was a wicked gash that required 47 stitches. The view from here, and it’s a widely shared opinion, is that the fight would have been stopped if the stakes hadn’t been so high.

cut

Wilder has 36 minutes to land the punch that would turn the tide in his favor and thus far only two of his 43 opponents has lasted until the final bell. But the possibly of the cut re-opening, say several reporters with whom I brain-stormed, is just as likely as the fight ending via one of Wilder’s patented one-punch knockouts.

A shade over five months has elapsed since Fury suffered that bad cut. Was that a sufficient length of time for the cut to heal properly? And with this fight packaged as Chapter Two of a trilogy, a loss on cuts by Fury wouldn’t necessarily damage his pocketbook which may factor into the ring doctor’s decision of whether or not to stop it if this issue rears its head again.

If there is a third fight – and it’s supposedly a done deal – there’s virtually no chance that it will be staged in England. So says co-promoter Bob Arum. That’s because the PPV receipts for a mega-fight are far and away the biggest piece of the revenue pie.

If Wilder-Fury III were to be held in the UK, the fight would start in the late afternoon throughout most of North America. “The pay-per-view disappears when you hold a fight in England,” says Arum. “It’s true that you would pick up more subscribers in Europe, but that’s a little number compared to the big number you would lose.”

“What the heavyweight division has lacked in recent years,” said Mark Kriegel at yesterday’s confab, “has been a great rivalry.” Kriegel alluded to the three-fight series between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield.

Will the Wilder-Fury rivalry become as celebrated as that intense rivalry or, more ambitiously, become as celebrated as the hallowed rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier? That’s asking an awful lot but stay tuned.

UPDATE: Tyson Fury tipped the scales at 273 (he weighed in with his shirt and shoes on)

Deontay Wilder came in at 231.

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