Paul Spadafora recalls training with world champion boxer Pernell Whitaker
Paul Spadafora couldn’t stop crying when he heard the news that Pernell Whitaker had died, a loss of not only one of his boxing idols but his former trainer.
The Hall of Fame fighter known as Sweet Pea won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games and who was a world champion in four weight classes was killed late Sunday night when he was hit by a vehicle while walking at an intersection in Virginia Beach, Va.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Spadafora said by phone Monday afternoon during a break from training fighters at Ted Mrkonja’s Gold Medal Gym in Overbrook. “My whole day was messed up. It’s hard to even talk about it. He’s one of the best ever, definitely the best southpaw I’ve ever seen.”
Whitaker, 55, worked Spadafora’s corner for three fights late in his career, after the former IBF lightweight champion from McKees Rocks had served prison time and was making a comeback after a 14-month layoff.
Spadafora won all three bouts: a sixth-round TKO of Ivan Bustos in June 2009, an eight-round decision over Jermaine White in September 2009 and an eight-round TKO of Ivan Fiorletta in March 2010.
“It was a dream come true,” Spadafora said. “If I would’ve gone into a fight with any of the big-time champions at the time, I would’ve had a good showing with him in my corner.”
Spadafora also couldn’t believe his eyes or ears when Whitaker walked through the door at Malcolm Garrett’s gym in Indiana, Pa., back in 2009. Spadafora had just finished a five-mile training run, but Whitaker wanted to see him spar.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Where’s your help? We don’t run marathons around here. We’re fighters,’” Spadafora recalled. “Immediately, he looked at my cut man and said, ‘If this kid can’t fight, I’m going home.’”
That got Spadafora’s attention, given that he had eight successful title defenses as lightweight world champion and an undefeated record in 41 professional bouts.
“I was a former world champ, and he didn’t know who I was,” Spadafora said. “He didn’t know nothing about me. As soon as he saw me work, he knew all about me.”
In a 2009 interview, Whitaker told the Tribune-Review he saw similarities in Spadafora’s style: “It’s a beautiful thing, when you can hit a man, and he can’t hit you back. I’m not trying to teach him to be like me. You can’t duplicate it. I can’t teach him to be like me, but I can teach him to be damn near close. It’s not like I had to reinvent him.”
Spadafora had long admired Whitaker, who had a 40-4-1 record with 17 knockouts, studying his slick defensive style and attempting to emulate it in the ring.
Where Spadafora was more of a counterpuncher, Whitaker was a better pure boxer who ordered him to rely on his sharp jab and move to the right. Although the 5-foot-9 Spadafora had three inches on Whitaker, both were hard-to-hit southpaws who often made their opponents miss and look silly in the process.
“What I liked the first day was his tenacity,” Whitaker said. “Paul brought something to the table that’s original. I didn’t have hooks and uppercuts. I’m 5-foot-6, and dominated the welterweight division. Five-foot-nine with a jab that can snap? That’s the only punch he needs. He can win a 12-round fight with that punch. We’re going to put it out there and paint a portrait.”
Spadafora said Whitaker was a major influence in his fighting style, admiring not only his defensive style but his ability to throw “vicious” body blows.
“On a scale of 1-10, I would say it was a nine,” Spadafora said of Whitaker’s influence. “I loved what he did but I knew I couldn’t do that. I liked to stand there in front of you more than he did. I ordered every one of his fights — ever — from his first until he was done. I studied him my whole life. You know I’m addicted to boxing.”
Where their styles were a match made in heaven inside the ring, Whitaker had long battled drug addiction outside of it and his influence made their relationship a dangerous one. Promoter Michael Acri admits it was a mistake to pair Whitaker with Spadafora for that reason.
“He was a tremendous fighter, but he has the same problem Paul had,” Acri said. “Both were southpaws and neither guy was a puncher, but they were pure boxers. He did a good job training Paul, but it doesn’t help when the guy has the same problem.”
Spadafora admits as much, even though he relishes the memories of working with Whitaker and cracking jokes with one of his idols and mentors over dinner while training.
“We had similar demons, and that’s what made us bond on another level,” Spadafora said. “I knew him. He loved me. That was my man.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .