Pernell Whitaker: The undefined champion

To watch Pernell Whitaker perform in the ring left everyone -- fans, press and opponents alike -- to speculate on the meaning of what they'd just seen. For his was an ambiguous style, his motions giving off ineluctable lies.

It was a style that could be described expansively but never plausibly, because nothing about it was plausible. And no single description could adequately describe it. To some, it was a form of fistic break dancing. To others, that of a three-card monte player, a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't style. And to still others, that of fun-house mirror, a style which enabled him to run and hide at one and the same time. (Or, as Whitaker himself once said, "I don't care who I'm fighting. I don't care if it's God. If I don't want God to hit me, He's not going to hit me.") In short, his Turkish bazaar of moves and motions made him one part magician, one part mechanic and one part contortionist who had just come into his own.

However, it may be described as a style that made great demands upon his opponent, leaving him to grope for the gypsy phantom in front of him, all the while expecting, like a Sunday school teacher, to be hit in the back of the head by an errant spitball the minute he turned his back.

The closest anyone came to describing Whitaker's style was Evander Holyfield who, when asked after the '84 Olympics which fighter might fare best in his pro career, said of Whitaker and his style: "I think Pernell will be the best. His finesse ... the way he thinks. He's a sneaky guy, in a nice way, and he boxes sneaky. He'll throw his arm out and if you flinch, he probably won't throw a punch. But if you don't he might pop you."

The little 5-foot-6 southpaw they called "Sweet Pea" first put his multiple talents on national display in those Los Angeles Olympics, winning four unanimous decisions over opponents who couldn't get within cab-hailing distance of him, and then stopping Puerto Rico's Luis Ortiz to win the lightweight gold. Afterward, the gold medal-winning Whitaker would gush, "They placed that medal around my neck and played the national anthem. Nothing else I do in life will top that feeling. After winning the gold medal, everything else is icing on the cake."

Without minimizing Whitaker's enthusiastic reaction to winning the gold, from that point on his career would not so much be "icing on the cake," as he called it, but a cakewalk for the little man with more looks than could be found in an Easter parade.

Four months after winning the gold, Whitaker debuted as a pro along with fellow Olympians Holyfield, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor and Tyrell Biggs on a card appropriately called "Night of Gold." But it wasn't so much that Whitaker disposed of his opponent in two rounds; it was that he outshone the other four, putting on a display of moves unseen since the heyday of Willie Pep.

That would be but the first of his many virtuoso performances, as Whitaker proceeded to run off a string of victories, leaving his opponents standing around opening and closing their mouths like fish out of water, unable to find him with a Geiger counter, his moves pure poetry in motion. Or, more correctly, pure poetry in many motions.

Not content to merely put on boxing exhibitions, Sweet Pea added another element: showboating. Explaining his reason for entertaining as much as boxing, Whitaker told one reporter: "People pay good money to come see me fight. I feel I owe it to them to put on a show. One thing they know for sure: They come to see Sweet Pea, they get their money's worth."

His showmanship-cum-showboating took many forms. In one fight he jumped up in the air, spun around and smote Alfredo Layne squarely on the chops. Another time, he pulled Roger Mayweather's trunks down around his knees. And many's the time he employed a move reminiscent of the original "Will o' the Wisp," Willie Pep, slipping a punch, dipping down low, almost in a Yogi Berra-like crouch, and stepping around to tap his opponent on the back.

But if fans appreciated Whitaker's in-the-ring antics, boxing judges were not so disposed. Take the time, for example, when Pernell packed his bag of tricks under his arm and went over to France to challenge Jose Luis Ramirez for his crown. Despite giving Ramirez a boxing lesson for 12 rounds -- one-handed at that, having broken his power hand, his left, in the third round -- the WBC judges, in their best imitation of three blind mice, gave a gift decision to the befuddled and bemused Ramirez.

One year later, Whitaker would avenge the "loss" by winning Ramirez's WBC portion of the lightweight title in front of a hometown crowd sporting "NO WAY JOSE" buttons in mock tribute to WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who couldn't protect his countryman, Ramirez, in Whitaker's backyard of Hampton, Va. Added to the IBF portion of the lightweight title, won earlier from Greg Haugen, and the WBA version, won in a stunning one-round knockout of Juan Nazario, Pernell became the first unified lightweight champion since Roberto Duran.

Having retired the lightweight division single-glovedly by running through all the top contenders, Whitaker cast his eye on new worlds to conquer. He started by moving up to win the IBF junior welterweight title from Rafael Pineda in a virtual shutout. Next, he moved up again to challenge Buddy McGirt for his portion of the 147-pound title and scored a clear-cut win despite some showboating in the last round that made the scoring closer than the fight actually was.

But perhaps the fight that most defined Pernell Whitaker was one he didn't win -- at least, not on the official scorecards. It was his classic performance against Julio Cesar Chavez.

Going in, Pernell had promised, "I won't be there for Chavez to hit. I'm not going to make it a war. I'm not gonna put on a boxing exhibition. I'm gonna use these legs and movement. I'll be in front of him, daring him to punch ... to hit me."

And he damned well did everything he promised. For on that night in the San Antonio Alamodome, Pernell Whitaker proved he was one of the greatest ring artists in history, doing for boxing what Degas had done for ballerinas and Van Gogh for sunflowers.

With Michael Jordan-esque moves he sidled from side to side, slipping everything Chavez threw, peppering the ever-advancing Chavez with two, three and four jabs every time he came into range and, going into his squat crouch to escape damage from the man who supposedly owned the inside. As the fight progressed, the 56,000-plus who had hooted and hollered and hailed Cesar at the beginning of the match became eerily silent. And the great Chavez, frustrated by his inability to get at Whitaker, became an ordinary fighter in the face of an extraordinary effort by his tormentor. Between the 10th and 11th rounds, things had become so desperate for Chavez that his cornerman lifted his 3-year-old son onto the apron in an effort to exhort him. But it was no use, as Whitaker controlled the ring. The battle in the trenches -- and everywhere else -- belonged to Whitaker.

And except for the occasional, but desperate, cheer from the Chavez faithful -- as when Whitaker put his left hand to his eye in the 12th after Chavez had accidentally thumbed him -- they were strangely quiet, a quietness that underlined their worst fears.

Even when the judges' scorecards were read -- including the two unconscious and unconscionable draw scores by two WBC judges who would have scored the Davey Crockett-Santa Anna fight over the Alamo a draw -- the pro-Chavez partisans only breathed a sign of relief knowing their hero had been saved from a fate worse than death: a defeat.

But nothing could take away the fact that the night and the fight belonged to Whitaker. He had painted a masterpiece worthy of hanging alongside those of greats like Willie Pep, Benny Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson.

And the awed silence of those who had come to worship at the shrine of "The Great Chavez" said it all. They too had appreciated Whitaker's work of art even if, as so often happened, they hadn't quite understood the full meaning of his handiwork. It would always be thus for Pernell Whitaker, a fighter too good for his own good and incapable of being understood. Or defined.

From "Boxing's Greatest Fighters"

copyright 2006 Lyons Press

Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.