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Pernell Whitaker, Short List All Time Great

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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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Tyson Fury Returns on Saturday with a Familiar Foe in the Opposite Corner

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“Tyson Fury made a name for himself last night, one that already has a ready-made ring about it and will be destined to become familiar in boxing.” Alan Hubbard, a ringside correspondent for The (London) Examiner wrote those words after Fury wrested the British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles from Derek Chisora with a comprehensive 12-round decision on July 23, 2011.

Those words were prescient. Tyson Fury did go on to become a familiar name in the sport. Indeed, one could argue that at this moment in history no active boxer is more famous.

More than 11 full years have elapsed since Fury toppled Chisora. In the ensuing years, the Gypsy King outpointed Wladimir Klitschko in Germany to win the world heavyweight title, battled personal demons that sidelined him for two-and-half years, returned to the ring with a flourish, ultimately regaining the world heavyweight title, or at least a version of it, in the second chapter of his memorable trilogy with Deontay Wilder, and rising so high in the opinion of boxing enthusiasts that he would be favored over any other boxer on the planet.

Oh, and lest we forget, since defeating Chisora in 2011, Fury whipped Chisora again, stopping him after 10 one-sided frames in 2014. Fury’s eight-inch height advantage enabled him to control the distance vs. “Dell Boy” who was never knocked down but who absorbed a great deal of punishment before his chief second said, “no mas.”

A third meeting between Fury (32-0-1, 23 KOs) and the soon-to-be-39-year-old Chisora (33-12) would seem to be superfluous. Del Boy, coming off a narrow win over Kubrat Pulev, has lost three of his last four. But on Saturday, Dec. 3, they will go at it again. The venue is London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, capacity 62,850, and by all indications, despite a chill in the air (the temperature is expected to hover around 40 degrees), there won’t be too many empty seats.

For promoter Frank Warren, Fury vs Chisora is Plan B – he was hoping to match Fury against Anthony Joshua – but he believes that Fury has become so popular that he can make a tidy profit no matter who is in the opposite corner. The Gypsy King, once referenced as the enfant terrible of British boxing, has toned down his rhetoric (one might say that he proactively distanced himself from Kanye West) and become almost cuddly, a source of inspiration for many Brits, the first member of the black sheep Traveler community about whom this could ever be said.

Fury, needless to say, is a heavy favorite. The odds are in the 25/1 range. The co-feature is likewise looked upon as a mismatch. Daniel Dubois, who shares the diluted WBA heavyweight title with Oleksandr Usyk, is a consensus 16/1 favorite over Kevin Lerena (28-1, 19 KOs) who rides in on a 17-fight winning streak. The six-foot-one Lerena carried a career-high 234 pounds for his last assignment against ancient Mariusz Wach, but the South African southpaw has fought most of his career as a cruiserweight.

The undercard includes featherweight Isaac Lowe, Tyson Fury’s bosom buddy, and Hosea Burton, Fury’s cousin, both of whom appear to be matched soft in scheduled six-rounders, plus 18-year-old phenom Royston Barney Smith in a 4-rounder against a transplanted Nicaraguan.

This is a pay-per-view event in the UK, but U.S. fight fans who subscribe to ESPN+ can see it for free. The ring walks for the main event are expected to go about 4 pm ET.

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What Path will Yokasta Valle Choose Next?

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After the recent controversial ruling that made her a world champion in three different divisions, the fans of the Costa Rican Yokasta Valle are wondering: What path will the successful boxer choose next?

On Saturday, November 26th, in a fight of continuous exchanges with the then undefeated Argentine Evelyn Bermúdez (17-1-1, 6 KOs), “Yoka” Valle (27-2, 9 KOs) came out with her arm raised at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, where she won the IBF and WBO belts, which Bermúdez was defending for the seventh and second time, respectively.

Although the Costa Rican fighter (pictured on the right) went on the attack for practically the entire 10 rounds, the exchanges were even, give and take, with good moments for both fighters, which made it difficult to evaluate each round. Hence the discomfort of many fans, especially in the Bermúdez camp, with the card of judge Adalaide Byrd (99-91), which apparently had Bermúdez prevailing in only one round. Neither did Judge Daniel Sandoval’s card (97-93) represent what transpired in the ring, while Zachary Young’s score of 95-95 was more accurate, distributing five rounds for each combatant.

In the case of Byrd, she also received innumerable criticism in the first fight between Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, which was held in September 2017 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and which ended with a favorable scorecard for each boxer and another of 114-114.

At that time, Byrd had judged more than 400 fights over a 20-year span, and her discordant scorecard of 118-110 reflected Canelo winning 10 rounds and GGG only two (the fourth and the seventh). Dave Moretti leaned towards Golovkin (115-113), while Don Trella (114-114) saw it even.

CHAMPION IN THREE CATEGORIES

Born in Matagalpa, Nicaragua on August 28, 1992 and living in Costa Rica since her childhood, Valle made her boxing debut at the age of 22 in the light flyweight category. In that first experience at the pro level, she defeated Mexican María Guadalupe Gómez by unanimous decision in four rounds, on July 26, 2014, in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

Two years later, in her twelfth fight, she conquered the IBF title at 102 pounds by split decision against Ana Victoria Polo in San José, Costa Rica. In December 2017, Valle suffered her first professional failure against the local Naoko Fujioka, who won by unanimous decision at Korakuén Hall in Tokyo where they fought for the vacant WBO light flyweight belt.

Six months later, on June 16, 2018, Valle lost again by unanimous decision against German Christina Rupprecht (11-0-1, 3 KOs) in Munich, a duel that was for the WBO strawweight interim belt. Rupprecht maintains that belt and is again in Valle’s sights.

Following those two setbacks, “Yoka” Valle compiled 14 victories, including the one she obtained in Marbella against Spaniard Joana Pastrana in August 2019, which she won by split decision securing the IBF 105-pound belt.

More recently, on September 8th in Costa Rica, Valle became a two-division champion at 105 pounds, by unanimously prevailing (the three judges scored the fight 100-90) over Vietnamese Thi Thu Nhi Nguyen, who ceded the WBO title. And then with her success against Bermúdez last weekend, Valle made history in Costa Rican boxing by adding her third crown in three different divisions (102, 105 and 108 pounds).

WHERE WILL YOKASTA VALLE GO NEXT?

Valle, who now owns two light flyweight titles (IBF and WBO) could next go in search of unification with Mexican Jéssica Nery (WBA super champion) or with Canadian Kim Clavel, who holds the WBC title. (Clavel and Nery collide on Thursday in Laval, Quebec.)

However, a more viable option would be to return to 105 pounds and seek a fight with American Seniesa Estrada (23-0, 9 KOs), who maintains the WBA belt, or with Rupprecht, who remains unbeaten. That seemed to be Valle’s immediate objective, as she affirmed it in the ring after defeating Nguyen. In an indirect reference to Seniesa Estrada and Tina Rupprecht, Valle said “I want the belts. I’ve been saying it from the beginning, I want the WBC and WBA next, whoever has ’em.”

At Friday’s weigh-in for her fight with Bermúdez, Valle stated “I want to fight the best. I want to be undisputed. When Tina (Rupprecht) and Seniesa (Estrada) were not available, my team and I made the decision to move up in weight and challenge Evelyn for her world title belts. I have to fight. [MarvNation CEO] Marvin Rodriguez presented this fight to me. This is the type of fight I want. It is champion versus champion. I want to give the fans these types of fights.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kim Clavel caught the flu and pulled out on Wednesday just prior to the weigh-in. Her match with Jessica Nery was rescheduled for Jan. 13.

Photo credit: Tom Hogan / Hogan Photos

Article submitted by Jorge Juan Alvarez in Spanish

Please note any adjustments made for clarification purposes and any errors in translation were unintentional.

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Regis Prograis Knocks Out José Zepeda and Clears the Way for José Ramírez

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American Regis Prograis had to wait three years and a month for the opportunity to hold a world crown once again. On Saturday, November 26, at the Dignity Health Sports Park, in Carson, California, Prograis faced José Zepeda for the vacant WBC junior welterweight belt. Prograis was victorious by applying chloroform to Zepeda in the eleventh round.

Previously, on October 26, 2019, Prograis (28-1, 24 KOs) had lost the WBA junior welterweight belt by majority decision to Scotsman Josh Taylor at the 02 Arena in England.

Since then, the thirty-three-year-old Prograis who is based in Houston, Texas has obtained four wins (including vs Zepeda), all before the limit, as proof of the devilish power of his powerful fists, especially the left one.

Prior to the duel with Zepeda (35-2, 27 KOs), most experts favored Prograis, who after winning the intense battle, recognized that it was the most demanding fight of his career. “That dude is tough, tough, tough. He came to fight, he probably gave me one of my hardest fights, I’m not even gonna lie,” said Prograis. “This dude is tough, bro. I’ve got so much respect for you. You prepared me to get this belt and hold this belt. I congratulate you. All the best to you, bro. Don’t stop, I feel like you can still be a world champion.”

Almost from the very beginning of the fight, Prograis showed greater speed with his hands and legs, and a general sense of technical superiority over Zepeda, who in the second round opened up a wound above his left eye with a legal blow.

From then on, Prograis’s strong impacts gradually undermined Zepeda’s resistance. Zepeda arrived totally exhausted in the eleventh round, where he received a straight left to the face, putting him in poor condition. A run with both fists from Prograis knocked him down and referee Ray Corona called the match with 59 seconds remaining in the round. This is the first setback that Zepeda has suffered by knockout in professional boxing.

On several occasions, Prograis has stated that he wants revenge against the undefeated Taylor (19-0, 13 KOs), but now, by order of the WBC, he must face American José Carlos Ramírez (27-1, 17 KOs).

Ramírez, 30 years old, is currently ranked second by the WBC. In February of 2019, in his second defense of his 140-pound belt, he defeated Zepeda by majority decision.

Twenty-five months later, Ramírez succumbed by unanimous decision to Taylor at the Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, enabling the Scotsman to become the undisputed king of the category by winning the four most prestigious belts (WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF).

Recently, Ramírez expressed an interest in dueling with the main 140-pound contenders, including a second fight with Zepeda; although he did not rule out clashing with Prograis or Taylor. “Every fighter has the same amount of risk,” said Ramirez. “We’re a little under-promoted compared to other weight classes but I think that the best fights are at 140. You see guys fighting twice or three times, doing a trilogy. Honestly, I would love to face Regis, because I’ve never faced him. I would love to make the rematch with Zepeda, because he’s such a good fighter. Obviously I want Josh Taylor, man. I want Josh Taylor bad.”

Photo credit: Al Applerose

Article submitted by Jorge Juan Alvarez in Spanish.

Please note any adjustments made were for clarification purposes and any errors in translation were unintentional.

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