Pernell Whitaker, an Olympic gold medalist and four-division champion who was regarded as one of the greatest defensive fighters ever, has died after being hit by a car in Virginia. He was 55.
Police in Virginia Beach said the former fighter was hit by a car Sunday night. The driver of the car remained on the scene, and police said they were investigating the circumstances of the death.
Sweet Pea was Whitaker’s nickname, and it fit perfectly. He was a master of hitting and not getting hit back, a southpaw who slipped in and out of the pocket and rarely gave an opponent an opportunity to land a clean shot.
Whitaker won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles – one of nine U.S. boxing champions that year – and made his pro debut on national television. He advanced quickly, and was fighting for a major title by his 17th fight, a loss to Jose Luis Ramirez that he would avenge the next year.
But Whitaker was also known as the victim of one of the worst decisions in boxing, a draw that allowed Julio Cesar Chavez to remain unbeaten in their welterweight showdown before a crowd of more than 60,000 at the Alamodome in San Antonio in 1993.
Four years later, Whitaker was on the losing end of another difficult decision against Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, a fight many ringsiders thought he had won.
“When you see the list of greatest boxing robberies in history they were both No. 1 and No. 2 on the list,” said Kathy Duva, his longtime promoter. “And every list of top 10 fighters of all time he was on, too.”
Whitaker was a champion in four weight classes, winning his first one with a 1989 decision over Greg Haugen at lightweight, in a professional career that spanned 17 years. He finished with a record of 40-4-1 and was a first ballot selection into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Whitaker battled alcohol problems throughout his adult life, Duva said. He also served time in prison after violating his probation in 2003 on a conviction for cocaine possession.
But in recent years Whitaker had been happy going to boxing events and meeting fans and signing autographs. He was supposed to be a part of the Manny Pacquiao-Keith Thurman fight night Saturday in Las Vegas, where he was to be honored as a boxing legend.
“For years he wouldn’t do those things,” Duva said. “He found out that it was great, everybody was telling him how much they loved him and what a great fighter he was.”
Duva said Whitaker was divorced and had four children. His family issued a statement saying the death was “one of the darkest moments in our lives.”
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