According to my dearly departed father, the most naturally gifted Puerto Rican fighter to ever live was Wilfred Benitez. In his prime, Benitez was both one of the greatest defensive fighters and counterpunchers who ever lived. From 1977-1982, he fought a who’s who of fighters in the 140, 147 and 154 pound divisions, holding world titles in each division at a time when there weren’t a proliferation of world titles in each division. It is just plain criminal that despite his immense talent and ability that Benitez is only the 43rd best fighter of the last 45 years.
Going into 1977, the 18-year-old Benitez was the reigning WBA and Ring Magazine super lightweight champion, having defeated Columbian legend Antonio Cervantes six months earlier to become the youngest world champion in boxing history at the age of 17. 1977 was a tumultuous year for Benitez. Benitez totally disregarded defending his title despite having fought six times that year, resulting in the WBA stripping him of his 140-pound crown. Benitez struggled in his first fight in 1977, fighting to a 10-round draw with slick boxer Harold Weston. Then, Benitez signed to fight the best fighter in the world at the time, Roberto Duran, in a non-title fight to take place November 18, 1977 at Madison Square Garden. My father was so excited because at the time Benitez and Duran were his two favorite fighters actively fighting that he bought tickets to see the fight. I was only nine and wouldn’t have been able to attend the fight because New York State had a law restricting children under the age of 14 from attending fight cards. Unfortunately, this potential legendary matchup between a 26-year-old prime Duran and 19-year-old Benitez was canceled when three weeks before the fight Duran pulled out with the flu. Benitez’s performance against Duran’s replacement was disastrous.
The undefeated 21-year-old prospect Bruce Curry was Duran’s replacement that night. Back then, WNEW AM radio in New York City would air the monthly Madison Square Garden fight cards. The announcer John Condon described Benitez’s performance the first three rounds as lethargic. He was then dropped three times combined in rounds four and five. Referee Arthur Mercante showed incredible restraint in not stopping the fight. Shockingly, Benitez won via split decision. When my father came home from the fight, he admitted that Curry was robbed. Benitez bounced back by defeating Curry 10 weeks later in the rematch by a convincing 10 round decision. Benitez, now a full fledged 147-pound fighter, would win three more fights before securing a fight with the WBC welterweight champion Carlos Palomino. The fight took place on January 14, 1979 in Benitez’s hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
My father and I nervously watched this fight in our living room that Sunday afternoon. Pop felt that if Benitez fought his best, Palomino would have no shot. Benitez’s was a much quicker and skillful fighter than the hard hitting champion. Palomino was able to hurt Benitez in the fifth round with two screaming right crosses, but like the challenger did in his first fight with Curry, he showed incredible intestinal fortitude to survive against the power punching champion. After Benitez recovered, he proceeded to put on a masterful display of boxing wizardry that had the sold out Hiram Bithorn Stadium fans roaring with complete adulation of their hometown favorite. Benitez looked to have easily won a 15-round decision. He did win, even though judge Zack Clayton inexplicably scored the fight for Palomino. At the age of 20, Benitez was now a two-time world champion and in line to defend against the burgeoning Sugar Ray Leonard.
After successfully defending his title in a rematch against Weston, Benitez signed to defend against Leonard. The fight would take place on November 30, 1979 at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It would also air in prime time on ABC, with the legendary Howard Cosell announcing. Sugar Ray had become the new face of boxing, and this fight was anticipated by the boxing world as the coronation of the Sugar Ray era. My father and I couldn’t stand Leonard. While we acknowledged that he was a special fighter, we abhorred his arrogance and sense of entitlement.
Leading up to the fight, my father heard a rumor that Benitez was dating Leonard’s sister. Not only was the rumor, they would eventually become engaged. Imagine the mixed emotions she felt that night her man faced her brother in their most important fight of their respective careers up to that point. That night, much to the chagrin of Pop and I, Leonard put on one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen by an elite boxer versus another. Leonard used his superior speed and punching power to land several combinations against the Puerto Rican defensive wizard. Benitez had no answers for the Sugar man and knowing he was way behind on the scorecards going into the 15th round, tried for a knockout but instead took a ferocious beating before referee Carlos Padilla stopped the fight with seconds left in the fight. That was the night my father was convinced Leonard was the real deal. Didn’t keep us from hating his pompous ass, though.
After losing his title to Leonard, Benitez immediately moved up to 154 pounds, winning three straight fights before accepting a February 23, 1981 fight against the WBA 147-pound champion Thomas Hearns at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, just like his November 1977 fight with Duran, the fight with Hearns was canceled due to circumstances beyond his control. The promoter of the fight, Harold Smith, had been accused of embezzling 21 million from Wells Fargo Bank and in turn, the entire show was canceled. Instead, on May 23, 1981, Benitez faced WBC 154-pound champion Maurice Hope in an attempt to win his third world title by the insane age of only 22. Benitez put on a virtuoso performance. After his spectacular knockout culminating in his third world title, Benitez sought out a fight that was denied to him four years earlier versus Duran.
Benitez defended his 154-pound crown against Duran on January 30, 1982 at Caesar’s Palace. My father placed a $250 wager with one of his coworkers on Benitez. Pop felt Benitez was too slick for Duran to fight his usual aggressive style. Duran’s aggressive style was tailor made for Benitez’s mastery in counterpunching. As we sat at my grandfather’s house to watch this fight, Pop kept smacking me on the back of my head after every round. That was his way of saying that he was right. That night, Benitez was radar-like in his avoidance of Duran’s offense, as he gracefully moved his body and head out of harms way while landing beautiful counters with both hands. Benitez won a 15-round decision in what would be the greatest night of his career. Ten months later, he traveled to New Orleans to make his next defense against Hearns.
My father was Puerto Rican and very proud of his heritage. His idol was Roberto Clemente, the single, greatest baseball player and athlete ever to hail from Puerto Rico. My father loved Benitez, both because of his wizardry inside the ring and his Puerto Rican heritage. He also loved Hearns, as Hearns had an offensive weaponry, in his opinion, only rivaled by the great Sugar Ray Robinson. My father rooted for Benitez, but he knew deep down inside that despite Benitez’s gifts, Hearns’ jab and length were insurmountable to overcome.
My father was correct. Hearns kept Benitez at bay throughout the entire 15 rounds with his jab and length. Although Hearns severely hurt his signature right cross hand in the eighth round, Benitez had no answer for Hearns machine gun left jab and was soundly defeated by 15-round decision. That December 1982 evening, Hearns once again proved that there wasn’t a man alive who could outbox him. Benitez did not have the aggressive style to try and out-slug him similar to what Leonard did versus The Hitman.
Although only 24 at the time of his defeat to Hearns, Benitez’s skills quickly declined due to personal bad habits. His relationship with Leonard’s sister ended because of Wilfred’s proclivity for women, cocaine, and alcohol. On July 16, 1983, Benitez fought 160-pound top challenger Mustafa Hamsho. This was Benitez’s attempt at fast tracking to a title shot against the undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler. A win over Hamsho would all but guarantee a chance for Benitez to become the first four-division world champion ever. My father and I sat in shock as we watched Benitez lay up against the ropes for the entire 12 rounds doing absolutely nothing while the Syrian brawler Hamsho bombarded him with body and head shots. Benitez was completely listless in losing that day. We were in denial about just how far Benitez had regressed. We thought it was just a minor blip in his career. In reality, it was the beginning of the end.
Exactly a year later, Davey Moore would knock out Benitez in the second round; a fight that also saw Benitez break his ankle when he was knocked down. He should’ve retired right then and there, but his drug abuse had gotten to the point where he needed to continue fighting in order to support his habit. Benitez continued to fight until finally retiring in 1990 at the age of 32 after being diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition. Today, at 62 years old, it is a miracle that Benitez is still alive due to the punishment he accumulated both in the ring and from his abuse of narcotics. That being said, his six year run from 1977-1982 saw him as one of the greatest ring technicians who ever lived. That six year period alone is enough to be the 43rd greatest fighter of the last 45 years.