Wilfred Benitez turned professional at the tender age of fifteen, knocking out Hiram Santiago in the first round in November 1973. Benitez, who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parentage, was a natural talent with wonderful skills. Coached by his ruthless father Gregorio, Benitez went on to win all twenty-five contests, with twenty stoppages, before challenging long serving WBA light-welterweight champion Antonio Cervantes on 06th March 1976.
The defending champion from Colombia first took the title from Alfonso Frazer in October 1972 and was making defence number eleven against Benitez. Both men boxed on even terms for the first four rounds, but in round five the skills of the teenager surfaced and he took the next four rounds, mainly due to his jab and the ability of making his thirty-year-old opponent miss.
Cervantes did manage to rally in round eleven, but he couldn't press the initiative as Benitez became the youngest world champion at the age of seventeen years, five months and twenty-three days.
Benitez defended the belt twice, before being stripped by the WBA for not granting Cervantes a rematch. He made his bow at welterweight in February 1977 against New Yorker Harold Weston. After six rounds it looked as if Benitez was heading for victory. The 10,930 crowd at Madison Square Garden were cheering every time the eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican landed, going crazy when he unexpectedly switched form orthodox to southpaw.
From round seven, Benitez's dazzling display turned to cockiness as he taunted and belittled Weston, with most of the crowd turning against the former world champion. Weston, ignored the taunts and went about his business, landing his soft punches to claw back the teenager's advantage. The bout went the full ten with two of the judges adjudicating that the contest was even at five rounds a piece, with the referee scoring for Benitez, meaning that the fight ended in a majority draw. Benitez's antics turned a certain victory into the first blemish of his professional career.
Benitez then won his next three bouts at welterweight, then boiled down to the light-welterweight limit for the final time. His opponent was Ray Chavez Guerrero and the bout was sanctioned by the New York State Athletic Commission as the lineal light-welterweight championship of the world.
Chavez, born in Venezuela, but fighting out of Quebec, Canada, was the reigning Canadian welterweight champion. Benitez was taken into the fifteenth and final round, winning by TKO after one-minute and 41 seconds.
Benitez then faced Bruce Curry and reportedly only trained seven days for the contest. His lack of preparation showed as he was floored twice in the fourth round and again early in the fifth. Luckily for Benitez, his head cleared and his unbeaten opponent tired as he clung on to win a split decision.
What looked like a mouth watering rematch three months later, was anything but, as Curry, who only boxed in Japan nine days earlier, tired dramatically, with the Puerto Rican winning a majority decision. There was a proposed fight for Benitez to be Roberto Duran's first welterweight opponent, but money and weight were an issue, plus the WBC president Jose Sulaiman had promised team Benitez a shot at the winner of Carlos Palomino vs Ryu Sorimachi.
With the Duran contest not materialising, Benitez kept winning and finally got his opportunity for Palomino's green welterweight belt on 14th January 1979.
In 1977, Benitez's father Gregorio, who managed and trained his son since the beginning of his career, sold his managerial contract to Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton for $75,000. A year later Jacobs hired ex welterweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith to train Benitez. Gregorio was not happy with the situation. "You may be his manager now, but I'm still his trainer."
"You can both train him," responded Jacobs.
Griffith wanted the perfect fighter and told Benitez not to go for the knockout against Palomino. He planned a defensive strategy from the centre of the ring, looking to go the distance and take the title on points. Gregorio thought the plan was nonsense.
Benitez, now twenty-years old, entered the ring as the mandatory challenger to the twenty-nine-year-old champion. With both his father and Griffith in his corner, each telling him to box 'their' way, Benitez went out and tried to box the way Griffith had instructed, the perfect fighter.
He took the ring's centre, hands held high, bobbing and weaving, throwing short crisp punches. Palomino, who won the title in London from John H Stracey in June 1976, making his eighth defence, had predicted that the challenger would charge right at him.
After four rounds the champion was still waiting for the charge to come. In round five he decided to go to work himself. He upped the pace and caught the challenger with a hard hook to the head late in the round. Palomino chased Benitez as he backed to the ropes, but the bell sounded to save the young boxer from further punishment.
The champion had broken his left hand late in 1976 and broke his right hand eight months previously in his last title defence against Armando Muniz. With his hands holding out, Palomino decided to raise the pace even further as he didn't think Benitez had the stamina to last a ferocious tempo.
Unfortunately for the champion, when he went to the well for rounds six and seven, he found it to be empty. The challenger, realising that the champion had shot his bolt, boxed less cautiously. He used stinging combinations and his jab to constantly rock the Mexican's head back.
The champion's corner were telling him he needed a knockout to keep his title, but he didn't have anything left in the tank to land a killer punch and Benitez was far too intelligent to walk on to anything desperate. Benitez took the title clearly on points, but there was controversy as one judge, Zach Clayton, voted for Palomino by 145-142 in a fight that wasn't even close, as judges Harry Gibbs and Jay Edson scored it 146-143 and 146-142 respectively.
Two months later Benitez made the first defence of the crown against Harold Weston, who put the one blemish on the champion's record with a draw back in February 1977. After fifteen rounds the twenty-year-old champion retained his belt with a unanimous decision, setting up the defence against 'Sugar' Ray Leonard.
30th November 1979, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
WBC Welterweight Title
Wilfred Benitez Vs Ray Leonard
The challenger could have challenged for the title twelve months before, but Leonard didn't judge himself to be ready, plus he wanted to be the first non heavyweight contender to receive $1,000,000 for a title shot. With the champion getting $1,200,000, it was the richest purse outside of the heavyweight division at the time.
After a tense thirty-second stare down in the centre of the ring between the two gladiators, ring announcer Chuck Hull began to announce the start of the main event. It was reported by Gregorio Benitez that his own son wouldn't win the fight as he hadn't been training properly, stating that even $200,000 wouldn't get him to work the corner.
Benitez, however, looked anything but out of shape and of course Gregorio was with him when the bell rang. Both men started cagey, circling each other, waiting for an opening. Leonard poked out some jabs, whilst the champion was waiting to counter. The challenger landed a good right hand at the 90 second point. The shot brought out some more effective work as Leonard looked to land some more rights and lefts at the round's close.
Both men traded jabs in a quiet and tentative second round. With 10 seconds remaining Benitez slipped, without losing his footing, as a left hook landed from Leonard, which made the punch look more damaging than it actually was.
The champion looked to raise the pace slightly as he got his jab going in the third. Leonard remained cool and composed as he countered with his own left. It seemed like it was going to be a difficult round to score, as the challenger was hooking with some incredible speed, then from nowhere a left jab put Benitez down. The champion was more embarrassed than hurt as he returned to his corner with a sheepish smile on his face.
The fourth round was another battle of the jabs, with the champion waiting to counter the challenger's lead. Leonard was quick, but Benitez was more elusive this round and managed to tag Leonard with a strong right to the head. The cat and mouse game continued in the next round, but the champion was much more busier than the previous four as he looked to eat into the quick challenger's lead.
Benitez continued to work well behind his left in round six, with Leonard unable to get past it nor fire his blistering quick combinations. A clash of heads caused a severe cut on the champion's forehead, who was also bleeding inside his mouth. With the seconds ticking away and the champion sensing he could be in trouble, he looked to unload some bombs and draw the challenger into a dogfight.
Benitez, blood pouring down his face from the cut forehead, went back to boxing as both fighters displayed excellent elusiveness and counter punching in a very difficult to score seventh round. The bout continued for the boxing purists as both men displayed their repertoire of skills, with some observers surprised by Leonard's cautious approach, considering his opponent had a near fight ending cut.
The chess match went on between these two masterful boxers in round nine, with neither man managing to dominate or win a round clearly. The round suddenly jumped to life with a Leonard flurry, then with less than thirty seconds to go a right from the challenger backed Benitez to the ropes. He shook his head and smiled in a 'you haven't hurt me' gesture, which usually indicates that a fighter has been hurt.
The champion was scoring well with his lefts and rights, but Leonard was also having success with his body punches in the tenth round. Leonard entered round eleven for the first time in his professional career, but quickly took the initiative as a right hand stunned Benitez, who just smiled defiantly through his mouthpiece. Later in the round the challenger hurt him again, this time by a left hook, that nearly knocked out the Puerto Rican's gum-shield. He had to cover up on the ropes as he slipped most of Leonard's leather, only to counter back superbly as the bell sounded.
After Leonard's dominating eleventh round, the boxing cat and mouse routine continued in the twelfth. The challenger looked for the body shots, with Benitez working well behind his left. In the closing seconds the American had to ship a lead right from the defending champion.
With some excellent skills on display in rounds thirteen and fourteen, the final round was a stark contrast. Both men came out fighting as if the result of the fifteenth would win them the contest. They stood mid ring swapping blows and flurries, then with 30 seconds remaining a left put the champion down.
He got up and walked to the corner, looking into the crowd, as blood flowed down his forehead. Carlos Padilla waved the fighters on, but Leonard wasn't to be denied as he sprang into action with the referee stopping the contest with only 06 seconds to go.
It was the first defeat in Benitez's thirty-eight professional career, as Leonard, who was ahead on all three judges cards at the time of the stoppage, became the new WBC welterweight champion of the world. "No one, I mean no one, can make me miss punches like that," Leonard said. "I kept thinking, 'Man, this guy's really good.'" Leonard went on. "He's a great champion. He fought with a lot of spirit."
Benitez was full of praise for the new champion. "Sugar Ray is the best in the world right now. I was happy to get a fight with him. He was a great challenger and will have to prove to be a good champion."
There were no hard feelings about the stoppage from Benitez's manager Jim Jacobs. "I'm glad he (referee Carlos Padilla) stopped the fight. I didn't want the fighter to get hurt."
Whilst Leonard's trainer, Angelo Dundee remarked on the skills from both boxers. "From a technical standpoint, there was more done in this fight than I've seen done in a long time. You saw two smart, scientific fighters; two champions in the ring at the same time. They brought he best out of each other."
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