Exclusive: Pernell Whitaker Is THE Greatest Defensive Fighter In History, And Ronnie Shields Tells You Why!
By James Slater: Texan Ronnie Shields has worked with many world champion boxers, including Mike Tyson, Juan Lazcano, Vernon Forrest and Evander Holyfield. However, when it comes to sheer skill, particularly defensive skill, one fighter stands out above all others: former lightweight, light-welterweight, welterweight and light-middleweight champ Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker.
Article posted on 03.06.2011
Shields worked with Whitaker for ten years, and he was with him right until has final fight in 2001. Whitaker, a lightning-fast southpaw, was seemingly impossible to hit cleanly in his prime years - to the extent that many good judges, Shields included, refer to him today as THE best defensive fighter in boxing’s long history.
During his 17-year career, “Sweet Pea” met the best; with fighters such as Julio Cesar Chavez, James “Buddy” McGirt, Oscar De La Hoya and others finding him a frustratingly hard target. As naturally gifted as he was, though, Pernell, with Shields guiding him, always put in the hard slog in the gym.
Here, Shields talks about a Whitaker training camp:
James Slater: For a typical camp with Whitaker, when you were with him, how long did he train for?
Ronnie Shields: Eight weeks. Camp would be eight weeks. I was with Pernell for ten years. For the first five years I was not the main trainer, I was working under George Benton. For the last five years, which was the final five years of Whitaker’s career, I was the head trainer.
J.S: “Sweet Pea” is known for his amazing defensive abilities more than anything else. How much work did you do with regards to defence in camp, and what drills did you do?
R.S: The first thing we always did in camp, before we did anything else, was I got in the ring with him and I’d throw punches at him. First of all I’d throw jabs at him, then right hands, then body shots, and so on. He would work on avoiding the punches, catching them and then countering them. We would do this at the very start of every camp, and then every day both before and after sparring. We would also do this routine before and after we did pad and bag work. This got Pernell in the right frame of mind - with someone trying to hit him - and he would get his reflexes, which were always great, up to speed.
J.S: The reflexes and the counter-punching skills Whitaker had, were they just God-given talents? How much did you work on his counter-punching technique?
R.S: He was born with the reflexes he had. You cannot teach reflexes. He had so much natural ability. The way he would move his body and his feet; he would turn one way and practice throwing a counter punch from that stance, and then he would turn another way. He would never watch films of an opponent. I would study the films and then he’d ask me what the guy’s best punch was; what the guy did best in general. Then he’d go away and work on what I’d told him - he’d figure out which moves, which turns, would work best against the guy‘s best punch. He’d practice over and over, on which punch would work best as a counter against what the guy was going to do. Pernell is arguably the best defensive fighter in history.
J.S: How much strength and conditioning work did he do?
R.S: He had one of the best strength and conditioning guys ever in my opinion. He worked with a guy called Bob Wareing, who’s dead now unfortunately. Pernell did a lot of work with him. First of all we’d do the boxing workout, and then, in the evening, Whitaker would do two hours of work with Wareing. Bob would have him do running exercises, he’d have him lift weights and he’d have him go on the Stair Master. All this was for his stamina. Regarding roadwork, Pernell would never run more than 3 miles, and he’d do that maybe twice a week. I think fighters want to run too much these days. It’s not all about the running. Pernell never got tired in any fight, and that’s why. Too much running can kill a guy. But he’d do sprint runs. The way he did the sprints was unlike any other fighters. He would run for around 15 to 20 yards, then he’d stop and throw a 15 to 20-punch combination. Then he’d sprint again and the stop and throw punches again.
J.S: How much sparring would Whitaker do, and was it hard sparring - against fellow world champions?
R.S: Oh, Pernell loved to spar! He loved it. He’d spar hard and heavy, too. Pernell liked to spar with bigger guys than himself, because it was too easy for him with guys his own size. He’d send a guy home if he was unable to push him, to make him work. He sparred with fellow champions, such as Meldrick Taylor and Livingstone Bramble. Mostly, he would work on his defence; he would practice his best moves whilst sparring. Sometimes, the sparring was too competitive, in that two guys from the same team were kind of in a competition to be the best. I didn’t like that and if it got like that I’d stop the sparring. I never wanted guys on the same team to become rivals.
J.S: How much work did Pernell do on punching power - developing what power he had?
R.S: Well, you can’t build power. You have to have it already. Whitaker was never a power puncher, but he could KO a guy if he hit them right. So accuracy was what he worked on. He worked on his accuracy every day. He worked on always being in position to be able to throw and land a punch. But the most important thing to him bar none, was his defence. Pernell knew that a guy cannot beat what he cannot hit.
J.S: Was there any aspect of training Pernell didn’t like?
R.S: He loved every aspect of it. The thing was, he wanted to be the best Pound-for-Pound fighter in the world and stay at the top. And he said to do that he would have to make sure he worked harder than anyone else. He always told me to push him; he never wanted me to go at all easy on him. For all the natural talent and skill he had, he never relied on just that. Whitaker was one of the hardest working fighters I’ve ever known.
J.S: And Pernell is a trainer himself now, isn’t he? Will he make a good trainer in your opinion?
R.S: I think he will become a very good trainer, because he knows it all. He knows all aspects of the game. Fighters will listen to him because he’s been there and he’s done it. Pernell is patient, he’ll take his time and he’ll listen. Not every fighter can become a trainer, but he will do fine. It will be easy for him to be a good trainer.
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