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.