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Good Night, Sweet Pea

Springs Toledo

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Good-Night-Sweet-Pea

Good Night, Sweet Pea

Bishop James E. Jones Jr.’s booming baritone was rising up through the rafters at the Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia. He was preaching about hands—your neighbor’s hands, the hand in yours now, the Father’s hands into which Jesus commended his spirit from the cross. “Sweet Pea’s HANDS,” he shouted, “took him to places HIS EYES NEVER IMAGINED!”

Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, the greatest pure boxer since Willie Pep, lay in repose at the foot of the stage, his hands crossed at his belt. His coffin was black. An Olympic flag was draped over it and boxing gloves carefully arranged on top. The few thousand who attended his Saturday morning memorial service came to mourn and to celebrate a perfect fighter, an imperfect man, and a community that has long-since learned to look up no matter what.

Mark Breland was there. He came down from New York to honor the captain of an Olympic boxing team that won nine gold medals in 1984. Long gone is the fresh-faced amateur smiling under a laurel wreath, but Breland remains reed thin. He stood at the podium in a gray suit with a powder blue shirt and was too overwhelmed with grief to say much. “We knew him differently,” he said.

Kathy Duva, now a promoter, then his publicist, was there too. “Pound-for-pound,” she said. “That’s how he signed his autographs.” And that’s exactly what he was: the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world from September 1993 through March 1996, despite performances that struck the unsophisticated as pusillanimous. “He simply chose not to engage in outright brutality,” Duva said. “It was so much more fun to tease and toy with his opponents.” Whitaker teased and toyed with everyone, including a young Floyd Mayweather Jr. who, she said, “could not lay a glove on him” even as he sparred with those hands of his behind his back in 1996. Whitaker brought laughter into the midst of danger because of his cosmic level of skill, and because it kept boredom at bay. Merely making world-class fighters miss wasn’t enough; so he’d dart behind them and as they looked around to see where he went, he’d tap them on the rear end. When Roger Mayweather was known as “Black Mamba” and feared for his right hand, Whitaker—fighting here at the Norfolk Scope—yanked his trunks down in the middle of the sixth round.

“An imp with gold teeth,” said one wit during his glory days, “floating around that blue canvas like a cloud,” added Duva.

No one could outbox him. It isn’t easy to settle firmly on a lightweight in history who could. But the product of Young Park, a housing project just east of the Scope, wasn’t raised to shrink from violence. As a child, his father wouldn’t tolerate tears when he was hurt by neighborhood bullies. He’d turn him around. “Go back,” he’d say. “Give them everything you got.” When he was eight, he and nine-year-old Mario Cuffee got into a street fight and Clyde Taylor, a mailman who moonlighted as the neighborhood’s recreation director, hustled over and grabbed both by the scruff of the neck. “Do your fighting in the gym,” he said, and with permission from the boys’ parents, restaged the fight in the ring, with boxing gloves that looked like balloons. Whitaker lost that one, but found a mentor who began the process of transforming an undersized project kid into a giant of boxing and boxing history. Whitaker credited Cuffee almost as much. “Come to think of it,” Cuffee told me Monday, “I beat him that first fight, though I gotta come clean, he got me back a few years later.” When Whitaker fought Greg Haugen at the Coliseum in 1989, Cuffee bought a ticket and made his way across the Hampton Roads Beltway through a blizzard to see Haugen lose every round. At the post-fight press conference, Cuffee was standing in the back, “in cognito.” Whitaker spotted him and told the story of their fateful childhood fight. “Thanks Mario,” he said. Haugen, his face scuffed and swollen, looked up. “Yeah,” he said. “Thanks Mario.”

In Detroit, while still an amateur, he was invited to spar with Hector Camacho just as Floyd Mayweather was later invited to spar with him. Camacho couldn’t land a glove on him either. “He got mad and started fighting dirty,” Whitaker told the Newport News. “He grabbed me behind the head, pulled it down, and hit me with an uppercut. Then I grabbed him and threw him to the canvas and we started wrestling and fell out of the ring.” Whitaker offered to take it outside. Camacho talked a lot but never went near him again.

In 1984, after the Duvas had convinced Whitaker to throw in with Main Events, they introduced him to trainer George Benton. Benton, who understood the science of belligerent invisibility like no one else, took what Taylor had begun and finished it. He taught him to stop running around the ring, to stand on a dime; to see the difference between wasting energy and ducking and slipping just enough to let punches graze your hair or flick your ear. Benton made sure he became, in his words, “harder to hit than the numbers,” and a master at punching around, between, over, and under what’s coming in. “When I talk he stands and listens like a private would a general,” he said in 1986. “Sweet Pea’s going to be one of the best fighters ever.”

Seven years later, Whitaker swaggered into the ring against Julio Cesar Chavez, then 87-0 and rated by The Ring as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Whitaker fought him on a dime—twisting, rolling, fast-stepping outside his lead foot, and punching around, between, over, and under whatever came in. He had a trick that kept working. He’d turn his right shoulder in to narrow himself and hide his left until the moment it clubbed Chavez on the side of the head. You could hear it land—“whump!”—and it landed all night. In the ninth round, he was outfighting Chavez on the inside—“whump, whump!”—which no one had ever done. Chavez was befuddled and —“whump!”—puffing up. And then, at the end, 59,000 witnessed one of boxing history’s most egregious heists. Two of the three judges called the fight a draw. That’s what we were told anyway. Josè Sulaimàn, WBC president, countryman of Chavez, and favorite stooge of Don King, was seen collecting the scorecards after every round that night.

It is a grandiose irony. Whitaker put an exclamation point on Benton’s prediction in two fights he didn’t win. The second one was nearly as bad as the first.

At 33, he faced a 24-year-old Oscar De La Hoya, then 23-0 and rated by The Ring as the second best pound-for-pound fighter behind Roy Jones Jr. Whitaker made him look like a golem and won that fight too despite an official loss that stinks to this day. “The world saw it,” he said afterward, and smiled anyway, gold teeth gleaming. “The people saw it.”

Bishop Jones saw it. He remembered him standing triumphantly on the ropes before the decision against him was announced. He remembered it well.

“What I loved most about Sweet Pea Whitaker,” he told the mourners at the Norfolk Scope,

“.…was when he KNEW he had won the fight he DIDN’T WAIT on the referee to hold up his hands. He didn’t WAIT on the THE JUDGES to tell him whether or not he had won the fight, but if you look on the back of your programs, there’s a SIGNATURE MOVE that the champ would always do when he knew he had WON THE FIGHT. Family! HE WOULD THROW UP BOTH HIS HANDS!”

With that, Jones stepped back from the podium and thrust both hands in the air. When the people saw that, they roared as one. But Jones was just getting started, the crescendo wasn’t reached, not yet. He stopped them short. “EXODUS CHAPTER SEVENTEEN, VERSE ELEVEN! Whenever Moses held up…” and stepping back again, struck the same pose, “…HIS HANDS the people always had the victory…if the champ could hold up his hands in the middle of his fight, then SURELY you and I ought to HOLD UP OUR HANDS!”

Mario Cuffee jumped to his feet and thrust both hands in the air. Thousands, dressed in their best on the hottest day yet this year, rose as one and thrust both hands in the air. Whitaker’s signature move, multiplied. It was a transcendent moment; the spirit of a man—a father, a brother, a friend, a neighbor—merging with the spirit of the city he loved.

Bishop Jones lowered his gaze to the black coffin at the center of it all. “SWEET PEA!” he thundered as if to wake him up, “That one is for you! You got the victory! CHAMP!”

I closed my eyes and somewhere, I know, Whitaker opened his.

“—YOU GOT THE VICTORY!”

 

 

___________________

Special thanks to Dr. James E. Jones Jr. senior pastor and founder of Greater Grace Church in Portsmouth, VA.

 Springs Toledo is the author of Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919, now available in paperback.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

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Editor’s Note: SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING: HARRY GREB, 1919, originally released as an eBook, is now available in PAPERBACK at AMAZON for $13.99. Check out the trailer on youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6kbVGVHGUs

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HITS and MISSES: Post-Thanksgiving Weekend Edition

Kelsey McCarson

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HITS-and-MISSES-Post-Thanksgiving-Weekend-Edition

It was another massive weekend in boxing. There were big fights on pay-per-view that maybe shouldn’t have been so big, and fights surrounded by lesser fanfare that will probably be looked back at as the more meaningful action by future historians.

Here are the biggest HITS and MISSES from another week on the boxing beat.

HIT: Mike Tyson, Roy Jones and the Unifying Power of Boxing

Whatever you think about the boxing exhibition bout between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones, Jr. on Saturday night, the most important aspect of the whole night (to this writer at least) was seeing how easily a big fight in boxing could still unify our culture.

No, it wasn’t a legitimate prizefight, but people still wanted to see the 54-year-old Tyson go a few rounds with the 51-year-old Jones, and that’s exactly what they got. It was a ride built mostly around the power of nostalgia, and it featured all sorts of present-day celebrities, too.

By the end of things, it seemed the general reaction to the event on social media was positive.

Tyson vs. Jones showed how big a reach boxing still has. Tyson retired over 15 years ago, but people from all over the planet were still willing to pay $50 to watch him climb inside the ropes for a sparring session.

Seeing that left me with two exciting questions.

What awesome power will boxing’s next superstar have?

More importantly, where is he (or she) anyway?

MISS: Ring Announcer’s Steve Harvey Moment 

In 2015, comedian Steve Harvey accidentally announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe pageant. As humiliating as that event was for Harvey, just imagine how the two women felt after having their hearts filled and slashed by his error.

That same thing sort of happened on Friday night when Danny Jacobs beat Gabriel Rosado via split decision in a 168-pound stay-busy fight streamed by DAZN.

Ring announcer Jeremiah Gallegos accidentally said the winner hailed from Philadelphia (where Rosado is from) before quickly changing it back to Brooklyn (where Jacobs is from).

So momentarily, the hard-luck Rosado, who never has been the beneficiary of a close decision in any important fight, thought he had just pulled off the upset of the year.

Instead, Jacobs was corrected as the winner and that had to be an awful experience for both fighters, one that was completely avoidable.

HIT: Joe Joyce: An Actual Juggernaut?

Heavyweight prospect Joe Joyce is a popular fighter on the other side of the ocean because of his long and successful campaign as an amateur boxing star which culminated with Joyce winning the silver medal for Great Britain in the super heavyweight division at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Still, as a professional prospect, there are lots of things not to like about Joyce. First, Joyce didn’t start boxing until he was 22. Late bloomers come around now and then, but they’re still a rarity in the sport. Second, Joyce is already 35, which means he’s already just outside the confines of his theoretical physical prime, something that ends around 33 years old and only gets worse. Finally, Joyce is just plain slow as molasses.

Regardless, Joyce stopped fellow Brit Daniel Dubois on Saturday in London.

Unlike Joyce, Dubois, 23, possesses plenty of attributes one looks for in a future world champion. But none of those things helped Dubois win the fight.

All this to say Joyce just keeps winning fights. Sure, he might appear to be a boulder tumbling slowly down a hill when he fights, but that rock is starting to gain some real momentum.

HIT: 54-1

Thailand’s Wanheng Menayothin finally lost a fight over the weekend, but it should be noted that at least the fighter finally knows his limits.

Menayothin (aka Chayaphon Moonsri) entered his fight against Petchmanee CP Freshmart (aka Panya Pradabsri) with a sterling record of 54-0. He left the contest 54-1 after judges rendered their verdict for the challenger.

Much was made of Menayothin’s glossy win streak last year when he surpassed retired boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather’s 50-0 mark. But a combat sports culture obsessed with suffering no blemishes on a record is only a relatively new phenomenon. Moreover, the very nature of that path through the sport never reveals the true limits of a fighter.

All this to say that Menayothin now gets a better sense of his limits, and the boxing world as a whole gets to know that same thing about him, too. That’s wildly better than the alternative.

MISS: Nate Robinson Challenge

If you missed the Tyson vs. Jones pay-per-view event on Triller over the weekend, you didn’t see social media star Jake Paul’s viral knockout of ex-NBA star Nate Robinson.

It was clear from the start of the fight that Paul and Robinson weren’t evenly matched. That kind of thing happens all the time in boxing, of course, but here was a case of a person (Robinson) who maybe had been so mismatched against Paul that it was too dangerous to have happened at all.

Regardless, Robinson did have the courage to train for the fight and step inside the ropes on fight night.

After he was knocked out, something called the “Nate Robinson Challenge” started trending on Twitter, and it was basically people from all over the world trolling the 3-time NBA dunking champ for getting knocked out in the fight.

Look, Robinson made his own bed by calling for the fight in the first place. But the Internet trolls that rag people for stepping outside their comfort zones probably would never dare to attempt that accomplishment themselves.

Robinson tried and failed. That’s the real challenge.

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Tyson and Jones Box to an Unofficial Draw in a Predictable Stinker

Arne K. Lang

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The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, an American institution, went belly-up in 2017, but a different kind of circus played to an empty house at the Staples Center in Los Angeles tonight. The main attraction wasn’t Jumbo the elephant but Iron Mike Tyson in his first ring appearance in 15 years. In the opposite corner was Roy Jones Jr, who at age 51 was the younger man by three years.

Tyson vs. Jones was the main piece of a 4-hour boxing and music festival live-streamed in the U.S. on the TysononTriller.com app at a list price of $49.95. This was the first live event on “Triller” which allows people to create their own music videos and was designed as a rival to China-owned TikTok, one of the biggest recent success stories in the internet world.

The California State Athletic Commission, which sanctioned the match, insisted that Tyson vs. Jones would be an exhibition. They would fight 8 two-minute rounds with 12-ounce gloves and if there were a knockdown, the referee would not give a count and the bout would or would not continue at his discretion. The rounds would not be scored and no winner would be named.

Of course, the promoter chafed at these restraints and did his best to create the impression that this was a legitimate prizefight. Retired boxers Vinny Pazienza, Chad Dawson, and Christy Martin were lassoed to serve as judges, scoring the fight from a remote location, and the WBC commissioned an honorary belt to present to the winner.

The advance hype was enormous. A clickbait-obsessed media lapped it up including photoshop-enhanced images of Mike Tyson’s physique.

In the second round, Tyson landed a double left hook and that was the only indelible moment in the match. By the third round, both looked and sounded tired and by the sixth round Jones was thoroughly gassed out and took to clinching to make it to the final bell.

For the record, the scores were 79-73 for Tyson (Martin), 80-76 for Jones (Pazienza), and 76-76 (Dawson). On the internet, the clear consensus was that Tyson had the best of it.

Mike Tyson, 50-6, 2 NC (44 KOs) last fought in June of 2005 when he was stopped by third-rater Kevin McBride. Roy Jones (66-9, 47 KOs) was active as recently as 2018 and won his last four, but against hand-picked opponents including a boxer making his pro debut. His last fight of significance came in 2011 when he was brutally KOed by Dennis Lebedev in Moscow.

Jones, who weighed 210 ½ tonight, weighed 157 when he made his pro debut in 1989. In his prime, he was pound-for-pound the best fighter in the world, but that was back in the previous century.

Both fighters were reportedly guaranteed $1 million with Tyson’s take potentially reaching $10 million if certain financial targets were met.

Other Bouts

YouTube sensation Jake Paul, who we reluctantly concede has more than a modicum of talent in the fisticuffing department, knocked out Nate Robinson in the second round and it was a clean knockout with Robinson knocked out cold. The 36-year-old Robinson, the former NBA point guard who was a three-time slam dunk champion during his 11-year NBA career, is a well-rounded athlete, good enough to start as a cornerback in football during his freshman year at the University of Washington, but his athleticism didn’t translate to the squared circle as he looked like a common bar brawler.

Former two-division belt-holder Badou Jack (22-3-4), who said he appeared on the card as a favor to his friend Mike Tyson, was a clear-cut winner over hard-trying but out-classed Blake McKernan in an 8-round cruiserweight match.

At age 37, Jack’s career is winding down. He tipped the scales at 188 ¾, 14 pounds more than in his previous engagement vs. Jean Pascal. McKernan, a natural cruiserweight from Sacramento, was undefeated coming in (13-0), but was in over his head against Jack, a former Olympian and veteran of seven world title fights.

In a good action fight, Worcester, Massachusetts lightweight Jamaine Ortiz, a carpenter by trade, improved to 14-0 (8) with a seventh-round stoppage of Sulaiman Segawa (13-3-1), a Maryland-based Ugandan.

In the first bout on the program, Fort Worth featherweight Edward Vazquez improved to 9-0 (1) with an 8-round split decision over Jamaine Ortiz stablemate Irvin Gonzalez (14-3).

Heavyweight Juiseppe “Joe” Cusumano improved to 19-3 (17) with a sixth-round stoppage of late sub Gregory Corbin (15-4). It was the fourth straight loss for the 40-year-old Corbin who came in at a beefy 291 ¾ pounds.

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Fast Results from London: Joe Joyce Stops Daniel Dubois in the 10th

Arne K. Lang

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The historic Church House which sits in the shadow of Westminster Abbey was the site of tonight’s clash in London between unbeaten heavyweights Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce. The bout lacked the gloss of a world title fight, but didn’t need it. The oft-postponed match, originally slated for the 02 Arena in London on April 11 with promoter Frank Warren anticipating a sellout, was fairly hyped as the most anticipated fight since Fury-Wilder II which was the last big fight before the coronavirus clampdown.

Dubois, 15-0 with 14 KOs heading in, was a consensus 7/2 favorite in man-to-man betting, He was younger, faster and punched harder, but ultimately it would be his “O” that had to go. Joe Joyce, an inch taller at six-foot-six and 15 pounds heavier at 259, emerged victorious with a 10th-round stoppage in what was a good back-and-forth fight with a divided opinion as to who had the edge through the completed rounds.

Joyce really didn’t do much but throw a jab, but he landed that jab consistently and it was a hard, thudding jab that caused Dubois’s left eye to start swelling during the mid-rounds of the fight. The damaged eye eventually shut and when Joyce reached it with another hard jab in the 10th, Dubois surrendered by taking a knee. The presumption was that he had suffered a broken orbital bone.

The 35-year-old Joyce, nicknamed Juggernaut, is of Scotch-Irish and Nigerian descent. He lost by split decision to Tony Yoka in the semifinals of the 2016 Olympics and had to settle for a silver medal. Prior to turning pro, he was 12-1 in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing with his lone defeat coming at the hands of Oleksandr Usyk. With today’s career-defining win, he upped his pro ledger to 12-0 (11).

Other Bouts

Top-rated WBC super lightweight contender Jack Catterall (26-0) won a predictably one-sided 10-round triumph over 33-year-old Tunisian Abderrazak Houya (14-3). Catterall scored two knockdowns en route to winning by a 99-90 score. This was a stay-busy fight for the Lancashire man who was the mandatory challenger for title-holder Jose Carlos Ramirez and accepted step-aside money with the promise that he would meet the winner of the unification fight between Ramirez and Josh Taylor which is expected to come off in February.

The lead-in fight was a 10-round contest in the super welterweight division between 21-year-old Hamzah Sheeraz and 33-year-old Guido Nicolas Pitto. The fight was monotonous until Sheeraz (12-0, 8 KOs) kicked it into a higher career in the final stanza and brought about the stoppage. Pitto, from Spain by way of Argentina, declined to 26-8-2. The official time was 1:11 of round 10.

In an 8-round cruiserweight bout, Jack Massey improved to 17-1 (8) with a 79-74 referee’s decision over Mohammad Ali Farid (16-2-1). Massey was making his first start since losing a close 12-round decision to Richard Raikporhe in December of 2019 for the vacant BBBofC title. The well-traveled, one-dimensional Farid had scored 16 knockouts in his previous 18 fights while answering the bell for only 33 rounds.

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