13 steps. That’s the distance the 5’6” prized boxer Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker walked to cross the street from the Young Park housing projects where he grew up in Norfolk, Virginia to Scope Arena–the publicly funded complex that anchored the city’s urban renewal. It was only 13 steps for “Sweet Pea,” but the distance between the two publicly funded places could also be measured in dollars. The city spent a quarter of a billion dollars in the 1960s to fight blight by building a civic center, a luxury hotel, and Scope Arena. But across the street, where Whitaker grew up, people living in “the Park” remained in poverty.
In 1985, the year after Pernell won Olympic Gold, yet still living in “the Park,” the average family only earned $5,344 a year. By that time, however, Whitaker could have moved his family out to a big house in the suburbs with his new professional signing bonus. That was his dream. But he remained. “The Park” was his hood. Whenever he held a fight at the Scope, his community turned out. And when the fight ended, and Whitaker won, everyone returned to Young Park to party with Pernell.
No matter how big he got, he never forgot where he came from because he never left.
For Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, who died on July 14 at the age of 55, those 13 steps bridged the world between his community and his championship. And that made him a legend.
Every kid from “the Park” got into fights, but only one made it out to fight for a living. As Whitaker used to explain it, he was just luckier than the rest. That’s how the kid they called Pete found his calling. At age 8, when he was squaring off with another kid in “the Park” to prove the point that he was small yet formidable, the projects’ sports and recreation leader saw the two kids, took them to the gym, and asked if they wanted to learn how to box instead.
The southpaw was hooked. It was during those early amateur days that he developed one of the sweetest nicknames in sports. A local sportswriter misheard his family chanting “Sweet Pete,” for “Sweet Pea,” and the name stuck. It was also in his youth, at the age of fourteen while watching the 1976 Olympics on TV, that he told his mom that he too, like Sugar Ray Leonard, would win a gold medal. He did just that.
In 1984, the kid from Young Park earned a spot on the greatest Olympic boxing team ever. Boxing is one of few sports in the Olympics where kids come straight from our communities to represent their country that so often has given them nothing but hard times. Drugs and violence had trapped too many in Young Park. “Sweat Pea” was determined to make a difference. “For my family, my city and my country,” he explained. In that order. That’s why he fought.
Olympic boxers go for the gold, hoping that will be their golden ticket. Whitaker won the gold, turned pro, and bought his parents a house. A decade later, he was the best boxer in the business.
“Sweet Pea’s” 1993 fight against Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez, 87-0 at the time, is a fight etched in the memories of my formative years. It was classic boxing promotion: the United States vs. Mexico, Black vs. Brown, in San Antonio in front of a pro-Chavez crowd, with “Sweet Pea” even calling himself the “Mexican Assassin” for the evening. You had to see it. It is the first fight I can remember where the squad all wanted to watch together. Like the resourceful broke high school students we were, we found a way. We watched at a pro-Chavez house. The fight that got everyone hyped up ended in a controversial draw. That’s boxing. My squad is still together, but time and distance have kept us from watching fights together.
In a generation of giants—Tyson, Holyfield, and Bowe—you wanted to be “Sweet Pea.” When it was time to put on the gloves with your boys, or slap box in the street, you had better be elusive. “Sweet Pea” didn’t get touched. He was a master of the sweet science. Hit and don’t get hit–a lesson he learned from his young days scrapping in the projects. He was there in front of his opponent only to fire off a few punches, then he was ghost.
His rapid counter punches and precise digs to the body zapped the energy and the will to fight out of most opponents, and when they tired, as “Sweet Pea” liked to say, it was time to meet the Devil. If his blazing speed wasn’t enough, his signature crouch where he lowered himself completely out of harm’s way, made opponents look foolish.
“When I’m gone,” he once said, “no one will ever be able to fight that style again.” He’s gone now. And that statement still stands. Whitaker had a magnificent career, but unfortunately toward the end, the discipline that made him a champion dissipated. Drugs and drinking derailed him, but everybody remembers him the same. Pernell Whitaker was an artist. He was the kid who made it out of Young Park and never forgot his roots.
“My roots are in Young Park,” he told a reporter at the height of his career, “I came from the projects, where people ought to be able to feel that if I can succeed, they can too.” The feeling was mutual. In boxing, Pernell Whitaker is a Hall of Famer. And in Norfolk, “Sweet Pea,” is a hero–the guy who bridged the 13 steps between championship and community.
About the Author
Louis Moore is an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University. He teaches African American history, Civil Rights, sports history, and US history. He is the author of I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915 and We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality. He has also written for a number of online outlets, including The Shadow League, New York Daily News, Vox, and Vocativ, and has appeared on news outlets, including NPR, MSNBC, and BBC Sports talking sports and race.