Local boxing legend Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker dies in Virginia Beach accident

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Dontavious Whitaker calls his dad what he was, a true champ.

“The legend himself, I will say that,” Whitaker said about his father, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker. “The champion was a true fighter, a warrior going through the ups and downs of life, and he still remembered the same humble person that he was.”

It was at the intersection of Northampton Blvd. and Baker Road on Sunday night where one of the greatest boxers of our time died. His son is still stunned after finding out.

“Well we heard he walked out in the street and had dark clothes on,” Dontavious Whitaker said. “The driver apparently couldn’t really see him. I don’t know if he was paying attention. Someone hit him from the right and he died on impact.”

Police investigate a deadly auto-pedestrian accident on July 14, 2019. WAVY Photo

Police say the driver of the car stayed with police at the scene, and it does not appear that drugs alcohol or speed were factors in the accident.

Whitaker was born and raised in Norfolk and began his boxing career at the young age of 9. According to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, of which he is an inductee, Whitaker had 214 amateur fights before turning pro. He won 201 of them — scoring 90 knockouts.

He won the lightweight silver medalist at the 1982 World Championships before winning gold at the 1983 Pan American Games and 1984 Olympics. He turned pro in 1984 at Madison Square Garden.

Sweet Pea won Fighter of the Year in 1989, and then over the next 15 years won belts at light welter-weight, welter-weight, and light middleweight. He retired in 2001 with a pro record of 40-4-1, including 17 wins by knockout.

Despite the objections of his promoters, the networks and HBO, he insisted that his big fights be held at Norfolk Scope and that his Booker T. High School marching band play him into the ring. And instead of training in Las Vegas, he would stay home and work with the late great Bobby Wareing in Virginia Beach.

After his retirement, Whitaker became a trainer, and in 2007 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Few spent more time with the champ during the good years than his mentor, Developer Bart Frye, who still has a pair of Sweet Pea’s gloves from the 1993 Julio Cesar Chavez fight at San Antonio’s Alamodome. It was a draw that Sports Illustrated headlined as Whitaker “ROBBED.”  

“I call it courage where he came from,” Frye said. “What he did was unprecedented, and the discipline almost more than the courage.  I mean to get there, and to stay, and to last, and to treat people the way that he did is remarkable,” Frye said.

Frye attended most of Whitaker’s 40 professional fights. “The loss I felt was significant because by a good friend, I mean a really good friend who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He came from public housing and he actually won his first title at Scope 200 yards or so away from where he grew up in those kinds of times.”

When asked for a family story, Dontavious paused and said, “It had to be when he took us to a store in Lynnhaven Mall. The mall had closed, it was around midnight and we were invited in to after hours shop. Dad just told us ‘to go crazy, and get whatever you want, and we bought so much we couldn’t even carry it all out, and I’m still looking at the stuff from back then. I’m looking at it I can still fit in it,” he said with big laughter. 

Dontavious also shared how he was proud that his father was called, “pound for pound the best champion ever. Best ever, and the first one to put a name on it, and put a show on for the people. My father was tough …coming from low income it make him tough. He was a tough guy.  He knows coming from there you have to be tough, you got to have tough skin to come up from that area and he did it, and did it with a smile on his face.”

Sweet Pea would go through tough times with an overdose, a drug charge and the loss of a lot of money. Though people helped him along because they cared about the champ. “Everybody has their down moments regardless of what it is. Everyone has the down moments. It’s how you pick yourself up, and I think he did an excellent job picking himself up regardless if the world was going to bash him or not,” Dontavious said.

As for that Chavez fight, Dontavious said, “he used to have a billboard in front of his office, and it read “Robbed.” He would think how he got robbed, and he would smile and laugh and beat up on the sign and knock it over, and then put it back up … and knock it over again,” Dontavious said laughing. 



WAVY App Users: Click here to view a photo gallery of Whitaker during his boxing career.

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