Whitaker, a left-handed boxer known for his slick defensive tactics and a stinging right jab, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006.
He was the undisputed lightweight world champion and also held titles in the junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight divisions, ESPN reported.
As an amateur, he had a 201-14 record with 91 knockouts, according to the IBHOF website. He won the Pan American Games title in 1983 before winning gold the following year at the Los Angeles Olympics.
He turned pro later in 1984 and compiled a career record of 40-4-1 with 17 knockouts.
Whitaker was known as one of boxing's best pound-for-pound fighters before he retired in 2001. In 2002, The Ring magazine ranked Whitaker as the 10th greatest boxer of the last 80 years.
Whitaker's 23-year-old son, Devon Whitaker, said his father was a "cool guy" and was shocked to hear of his death.
"I guess he was wearing dark clothes, the road was dark and the driver didn't see him," Devon Whitaker told the The Virginian-Pilot. "That's all I can say about him. 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."
Pernell Whitaker was born Jan. 2, 1964, in Norfolk. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School
Police said the investigation into Whitaker's death is ongoing, WTKR reported.