By Glen Mason
The New Journal and Guide
Boxing wasn’t my beat as a sports writer. But I knew Clyde Taylor who was running a good boxing program in an area known for basketball and football instead of the sweet science … boxing.
Taylor didn’t have a whole lot of talent, but there were a lot of good athletes he trained who didn’t start the journey to the ring soon enough.
Then there was Pernell Whitaker.
Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker was all of five-foot six. Wet maybe he was 140 pounds. Pound for pound Whitaker was one of the best pugilists in the world at the apex of his career.
No Marquis of Queensberry rules here.
Sweetpea of Norfolk’s Young Park was a punching, jabbing, bobbing, swirling dervish of a fighter that made legendary manager Lou Duva drool.
“I’ve never seen anything like him,” said Duva. “He’s not Sugar Ray (Leonard), he’s not just another lightweight champion. Sweetpea’s special. He’s a natural,”
“My mother was a huge Sweetpea Whitaker fan,” said Curtis Cole, an engineer and developer. “I’ll never forget my Mom (Dorothy) loved Sweetpea. She even followed him when he was training for the Olympics. When he fought Roger Mayweather at Scope I took her and she almost got into a fight with the fans of his opponent. My mom was talking smack the entire fight.
It was UNREAL, and funny at the same time. But Dorothy Cole loved her some Sweetpea. He was from Norfolk. He was from Young Park, and she liked the fact that a son of Norfolk was on the world stage.”
Whitaker was a four-weight world champion having won titles at lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight, and light middleweight; the undisputed lightweight title; and the lineal lightweight and welterweight titles. The Ring Magazine and Boxing Writers Association of America named him Fighter of the Year in 1989. From 1993 to 1997, The Ring ranked him as the best active boxer in the world, pound for pound. He currently holds the longest unified lightweight championship reign in boxing history at six title defenses. From 1993 to 1997 Ring ranked him as the best boxer in the world placing him in elite company of the sport. Whitaker was one of the greatest defensive boxers of all-time.
What a record 40-4-1. One of those he was “Robbed!”
Pernell was just 55 when a car on Northampton Blvd. hit him Sunday night, July 14. He stayed close to the sport he loved by working with a new generation of boxers as a trainer.
Norfolk boxing enthusiasts proudly considered Whitaker a “warrior.” Even now he currently holds the longest unified lightweight championship profile in boxing history with six title defenses. Whitaker was one of the greatest defensive boxers of all-time.
The brother packed a nice punch, too!
“Sweetpea was one of the greatest and most exciting and skillful boxers ever!” said Norfolk City Councilman Paul Riddick. “He put fun in the game. Gone too soon.”
“Mr. Whitaker made sure that Coach Zeke Avery and I attend his first home fight with ringside seats at Scope. That was AWESOME,” said Ashley Avery, president of Booker T. Washington Friends and Alumni Foundation, Inc., a non-profit educational support group.
A true athlete, Pea was a real “baller.”
It’s an urban pride thing.
When he was a student at Booker T. Washington High School, he thought he had game enough to join his friends Bruce Smith and Lamont Walker on the region’s popular prep team. An ankle injury obtained while playing in a pickup game to hone his on-court skills “unfortunately” resulted in Pernell becoming one of the team’s managers instead.
“Sweetpea probably would have made the team,” said Malcolm “Zeke” Avery, Whitaker’s Physical Education instructor and B.T.W.’s former basketball coach at the time. “His injury kept him front trying out but it didn’t keep him out of the ring. He’d bring his training routine to the basketball team, and would help them with conditioning before they’d hit the gym. He’d take them out and have them run the same route that (Clyde) Taylor had him running from Barraud Park to Balentine Boulevard to Booker T.”
Whitaker first served notice of his pugilistic prowess as an amateur. In spite of coming out of a fledgling boxing program, Whitaker won a silver medal in the lightweight division at 1982 World Championships. The late Ali-made famous premier ABC sports announcer Howard Cosell became his biggest fan during the World Championships in 1982. Then Pernell put Norfolk on the boxing map by winning the gold medal at the 1983 Pan American Games and the 1984 Olympics.
Whitaker’s ensuing success catapulted the Norfolk native to the international fame he deserved, wanted and the new champion with the urban Horatio Alger success story that professional boxing needed.
Pernell’s village made every attempt to prepare him for the world stage. Coastal Virginia knew how good he was. They followed him from Virginia Beach Blvd. to the Olympics. Many of his former teachers made sure he made up credit that prevented him from getting his diploma while training for Amateur Athletic Union competition, Pan American Games and the Olympics. As a corporate citizen, Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, then the president at Norfolk State University, personally helped to make sure Whitaker was prepared for the public and media, and Sweetpea responded by being supportive of the university and a surrogate Spartan.
As his career unfolded, Pernell would generously pay it forward by helping anyone who asked for his help.
“People shouldn’t pull each other down,” Sweetpea once told me during an interview at Waring’s Gym in Virginia Beach where he trained locally for his professional bouts. “If there is anything I can do to help open a door for someone I’m willing to do. A lot of people helped me. We have to get over that crab in the barrel syndrome, and everyone will be able to do better.”
And where he got to was center stage of the boxing world. Especially when he hit the cover of boxing magazines and the illustrious tome Sports Illustrated. Norfolk was no longer considered just the home of the world’s largest Naval base. Norfolk was the home of world champions of a generation, and two of them, Whitaker and Bruce Smith, who came from “historic” Booker T. Washington High, reached the top of their professions.
Whitaker, just 55 when we lost him, was a four-time world champion who grew up in Norfolk. Ring Magazine named him its 1989 boxer of the year. He was inducted into the Hampton Roads African-American Sports Hall of Fame and in 2006, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“When I was living in Chesapeake, I was blessed to meet with Sweetpea often at our favorite seafood restaurant,” said Ashley Avery, Sr., Zeke’s younger brother.
“The conversation would always be about his time spent at B.T.W. and how the family atmosphere created by the teachers and coaches helped mold him. He would tell me how they encouraged him to stay focused. How to become the man that he was,” said Avery, Sr. “He would always say that one day he would give back not only to B.T.W, but to the community. He started youth groups to help them and visited other youth programs to show his support.
“I want to offer sincere condolences to his family, and may he rest in peace,” added Avery, Sr.
In the ring Sweatpea was hard to lay a glove on, ironically, practically intangible. To his village he was always accessible, always humble.