The year was 1996, President Bill Clinton had been re-elected to office, Pokemon and “The Macarena” crazes captivated the nations youth and the charts. The 1996 Atlanta summer Olympic games had come to a close just a month-and-a half before, with future greats Wladimir Klitchko and Floyd Mayweather Jr. claiming gold and bronze medals.
In the professional ranks, two weeks before on September 6, rapper and icon Tupac Shakur was killed in a drive by shooting after watching Mike Tyson eviscerate Bruce Seldon 1:49 into Round 1 in Las Vegas.
At this point the No. 1 pound-for-pound ranking was a tossup between a prime Roy Jones Jr. (who was on the cusp of a move up to Light Heavyweight after having dominated at Middleweight and Super Middleweight) and Pernell Whitaker, who after claiming a title in a fourth weight class (winning the WBA Super Welterweight strap from Julio Cesar Vasquez of Argentina) moved back down to Welterweight to defend his title and hopefully set up a huge fight with rising superstar Oscar De La Hoya.
Whitaker took an immediate rematch with Rivera after having defeated him in a controversial split-decision victory in April of that year.
Their original confrontation was held in a venue unfamiliar with hosting championship fights, the outdoor courtyard of the Atlantis Casino overlooking the tropical paradise of Cup coy Bay, Sint Maarten, with an exclusive invitation only crowd of just 1,000 spectators.
The fight was televised in Puerto Rico and the United States on HBO. Commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and George Foreman did not expect the challenger to find much success against a proven champion like Whitaker who had boxed more rounds in championship fights than Rivera had in his entire professional career.
Going into the bout, Whitaker struggled to make the Welterweight limit of 147 pounds, and had been battling bronchitis and the flu (Whitaker mentioned this may have been the reason for his sluggish performance).
Through the opening rounds it seemed the narrative would play itself out as expected with Whitaker regularly finding his opponent with his right jab and also catching Rivera with flush left hands over the top when Rivera would leave his chin in the air.
Whitaker sought to frustrate Rivera, force his pace and stick shots to the body to take away his young opponents strength. At the behest of his corner and sensing urgency after a cut from an accidental clash of heads in the third opened a cut on the forehead, the fourth saw Rivera switch into a southpaw stance and let his hands go. Rivera began to find success, but the rounds for the first half of the fight undoubtedly belonged to Whitaker.
But perhaps sensing the bout in the bag, the champion took his foot off the gas in the seventh and eighth, leaving a window for Rivera to press the action, impose his style and make an ugly affair out of the contest.
Rivera rallied in the second half of the fight and made the champion work hard, round after round.
After 12 rounds, Rivera had convinced the HBO team enough to have unofficial judge, Harold Letterman scoring the bout for Rivera, 115-113.
Whitaker, however, was given a very controversial 12 round split-decision win, with two judges scoring the bout 116-111 and 115-113 for the champion, while the third judge had it 115-113 for Rivera.
The decision was met with criticism from various media outlets and boxing pundits. Due to the close nature of the fight the World Boxing Council ordered an immediate rematch, this time held at James Knight Convention Center, in Miami, Florida.
With his title and a potential super fight with De La Hoya on the line, the stakes were high for the champion who intended to leave a definitive victory this time and erase any memory of his last performance against Rivera.
Whitaker came out boxing behind a quick southpaw jab and landed his first authoritative left hand seconds into the bout, followed by a second left cross flush on the chin of Rivera as if to send a message that if Rivera missed a shot, Whitaker intended to make him pay.
Rivera switched into the southpaw stance in the second trying to push Whitaker onto the ropes and let his hands go, but despite Rivera’s attempts to physically overpower the champion, it was still Whitaker who was landing the cleaner and more effective blows.
The pace intensified in the following two rounds as the face of the challenger began to bust up as Whitaker continued to land straight counter lefts after making Rivera miss in close quarters.
In the fifth, as both fighters continued to exchange punches on the inside, Rivera caught Whitaker off balance with a glancing body shot that was ruled a knockdown by referee Frank Santore Jr.Embed from Getty Images
The champion went right back to work and finished the round strong with a left hand that rattled the challenger as the bell rang.
Whitaker came back at Rivera in the sixth round setting up clean power shots and traps with his right jab, while his opponent focused on working the body.
Rivera was warned by the referee against low blows repeatedly until being docked a point. Whitaker took the count and came back to drop the challenger with a picture-perfect straight left on the chin.
The middle rounds would progress in the same pattern as the bout slowly continued to become a brawl, with both men fighting in short flurries with each fighter making statements and an official knockdown to each man’s credit.
The champion slowed his punch output briefly in the eighth and ninth but continued to get the better of most exchanges, while Rivera continued to keep himself in the fight by pressing forward and letting his hands go up close.
Whitaker slowed the pace briefly in the 10th by finding the range and positioning for his right jab.
As Rivera tried switching southpaw to close the distance, Whitaker would pepper him with single right jabs to stop his momentum and offense.
In the championship rounds, the challenger remained completely resolute and refused to wilt coming forward with his heart on his fist, but it remained apparent that he did not have the knockout power to stop the champion with one shot.
Whitaker did not oblige the challenger and continued to frustrate him in close quarters taking no chances with his still very game opponent. As the final bell rang, Whitaker raised his hands knowing he had done more than enough to win.
The judges’ scorecards read 115-111, 115-113 and 113-112 for Whitaker who took the bout by unanimous decision. The difference in the bout came down to the point lost by Rivera for the low blow, but the narrative of the fight had been won by Whitaker who negated the aggression of his opponent through hard effective punishment with Whitaker landing 266 of 616 punches (43 percent) as opposed to Rivera connecting on 201 of 897 (22 percent).
While the challenger put on an impressive showing for himself, it all came down to a case of a good, hungry young fighter colliding and being beaten by a GREAT old champion.
Whitaker would go on to fight just five more times, going 1-3-1, losing to stars of the next generation in Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad before losing his final bout against a journeyman and hanging them up for good with a record of 40-4-1, 17 KOs.
He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in December 2006, his first year of eligibility, and continued to work training young fighters until passing away earlier this summer after being struck by a car near his home in Virginia.