Former World Champ Boxer Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker Struck, Killed by Vehicle in Virginia Beach

 Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker at the end of his fight against Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden in New York. Sweet Pea lost by unanimous decision. Picture was taken Saturday February 20th, 1999. (Lawrence Jackson/The Virginian-Pilot)
Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker at the end of his fight against Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden in New York. Sweet Pea lost by unanimous decision. Picture was taken Saturday February 20th, 1999. (Lawrence Jackson/The Virginian-Pilot)

Special from The Virginian-Pilot

Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker, a former professional boxer, died Sunday night after being hit by a vehicle in Virginia Beach, according to police.

Whitaker was struck while on foot near the intersection of Northampton Boulevard and Baker Road, police said in a news release.

The call came in at 10:04 p.m. He died at the scene and the driver of the vehicle remained there with police.

Whitaker, 55, was a four-time world champion who grew up in Norfolk. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1984. Ring Magazine named him its 1989 boxer of the year.

Whitaker retired in 2001 and spent six years working as a trainer. By 2006, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Reached Monday morning by phone, his youngest son, Devon Whitaker, was shocked after hearing his dad died last night.

“I guess he was wearing dark clothes, the road was dark and the driver didn’t see him,” said the 23-year-old.

He said his dad was a “cool guy.”

“That’s all I can say about him,” he said. “I can’t really say how I’m feeling because I’m feeling shocked. I’m still trying to process everything that’s going on. But he was a cool guy.”

Whitaker was a former World Boxing Council world champion.

“Sweetpea” was one of the most brilliant boxers in the past decades and he was always a great friend of the WBC,” Mauricio Sulaimán of the WBC wrote on the organization’s Facebook page. “We are deeply saddened with this news.”

The boxer was a staple at Wareing’s Gym in Virginia Beach.

“He was a legacy here,” said Jake Wareing. “I grew up watching him all the time.”

Wareing said that Whitaker would stop in the gym “from time to time” and give motivational talks to youngsters participating in some of the gym’s programs.

Wareing’s uncle, Bob Wareing, was Whitaker’s strength trainer. He died in 2001.

 Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker and trainer Tommy Brooks, pictured March 28th, 1987. (Courtesy photo)
Pernell “Sweetpea” Whitaker and trainer Tommy Brooks, pictured March 28th, 1987. (Courtesy photo)

Peter Joyner of Norfolk met Whitaker when the fighter was about 12 years old and became his confidante and right-hand man throughout his career.

“This is the worst day of my life so far,” Joyner said Monday. “He was like one of my sons. That’s what he called me: the godfather.”

Joyner said he last saw Whitaker a couple weeks ago and that he was doing well, working with local fighters several days a week at Powerhouse Gym in Virginia Beach.

As for his boxing legacy, Joyner said it speaks for itself.

“He’s done it all. He’s a legend, plain and simple as that. There’s not anything in boxing he didn’t accomplish.”

Tommy Brooks, who trained Whitaker for part of his career, said he was easy to work with.

“I didn’t have to do anything,” Brooks said. “Just give him water and wipe his face off.”

Whitaker used to be Terri Adams’ personal trainer at Powerhouse, the gym owned by his nephew. She said she’d see him four times per week, for two hours per night and he helped her lose 20 pounds. 

For two months, he worked her “hard, hard, hard” she said.

“When you felt like giving up, he wouldn’t let you,” she said.

Working out with someone so famous was very exciting, but he was just “an ordinary guy, easygoing and motivational and rough at the same time,” she said. The last time she saw him was in March. He had been training up and coming boxers.

“He was working on himself and that doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “He helped everyone else who wanted to be helped.”

Norfolk native Wizdom Powell said she remembers how shortly before one of his first title fights, Whitaker visited his alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School. Powell sang in the all-girls ensemble during the assembly, circling the seated fighter on the stage and belting out “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.”

Whitaker was so moved by the song and performance, he invited the ensemble to sing the national anthem at his fight in front of a packed Norfolk Scope crowd.

Powell, who doesn’t remember who Whitaker fought that year, was a big boxing fan growing up, watching all the big fighters on TV. Singing for her hometown hero at his hometown fight was an honor, she said.

“We knew we had to get it right,” said Powell, now a psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut.

Powell said she and Whitaker both grew up in tough Norfolk neighborhoods at the height of the crack epidemic, where kids struggled to make it out.

“He managed to get out,” Powell said. “There was so much hope around him.”

Police said Sunday night’s crash remains under investigation.

Residents in the area describe Northampton Boulevard as a highly trafficked, fast-moving road.

“It’s a major highway basically,” said Joey Hallman, who lives off Northampton about a quarter mile from the scene of the accident.

Adding to the traffic: there are several businesses nearby, including a 24-hour diner, fast food chains and truck stop.

The road, eight lanes in some places, is the main thoroughfare for tractor trailers to get to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

At Baker Road, there are no crosswalks going across Northampton. There are crosswalks running along Northampton, so pedestrians can cross Baker.

Last year, there were three pedestrian-involved accidents at Northampton Boulevard and Baker Road, according to a query of the commonwealth’s Department of Transportation crash map. There were none listed for 2019.