Remembering Pernell Whitaker.
The appeal of pure boxers in minority communities is that they are physical manifestations of intellect. To stand in front of a fighter, hit, and not get hit is to show an improvisational mastery of skills, skills that aren’t just obvious but ones that no white person can deny. You could say many things about boisterous, cocky, charismatic charmers like Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Sugar Ray Leonard, but when they got in that ring, you had to deal with their minds if you wanted to talk about them honestly.
To short, unruly, and bright hoodlum street kids of the hip-hop era (a tribe of which I was a member), Pernell Whitaker was their boxer-as-intellectual-hero. He had a fade with a line in the front and a gold tooth. He came into the ring blasting Craig mack. And when he got in that ring, he showed a skill set for the ages. Even more than Leonard, Whitaker was a phenomenally formed fighter at an early age, a stylist whose gifts in 15 fights rivaled old-time fighters who had 115,
How to describe Whitaker’s style? Begin with the Jab. Like Ali, Whitaker had balance brilliant enough to jab from his pivot foot in a way that was orthodox from unorthodox angles. After that? The core of what made him brilliant and separated him from his imitators (Floyd Mayweather) was what happened when the fighter cornered him. More than any fighter since a prime Roberto Duran, Whitaker would use the defensive shell to find an angle to nullify an opponent. The crab defensive shell moves were exciting to watch. Still, they were horizontal table settings in which he found an opponent’s weak shoulder peppered opponents with short textbook hooks, lightning-quick combinations to the body, unorthodox lead lefts, and uppercuts, then darted away before they could fight back.
The result was over a decade in Whitaker conducting masterclasses in the sweet science. Never mind the straight-up champions he beat. (Juan Nazario, Freddie Pendleton, Jose Luis Ramirez, Greg Haugen, Jorge Paez, Raphael Pineda, Julio Cesar Vasquez). If you took a list of the 20 greatest fighters in the last 40 years, Azumah Nelson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Buddy McGirt, and Oscar De la Hoya would appear on that list. They had something in common: Whitaker looked brilliant in beating them…