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Wilfred Benitez: The Fifth Member Part Two

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

30th January 1982, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

WBC Light-Middleweight Title

Wilfred Benitez Vs Roberto Duran

Wilfred Benitez returned to the ring in March 1980 after suffering his first defeat to 'Sugar' Ray Leonard. His opponent was Brooklyn light-middleweight Johnny Turner, who boasted a solid record of 34-3-1 and twenty-six knockouts, one more than Benitez.

Remarkably the former two-weight world champion was still only twenty-one-years-old and he went on to score a ninth round technical knockout over the New Yorker, who played French boxer Laurent Dauthuille opposite Robert DeNiro in 1980's Raging Bull.

He continued 1980 with an eighth round TKO over Tony Chiaverini in the August and finished the year by clearly outscoring Pete Ranzany over ten rounds. "Ranzany made me change my mind about a second round knockout. They told me he would be easy, but he gave me a hard fight," said Benitez.

"He's a very difficult man to hit. He kept me off balance, and I couldn't put anything together," Ranzany responded.

Benitez didn't enter the ring again until 23rd May 1981 when he faced WBC light-middleweight king Maurice Hope at Caesars Palace. The champion, born in Antigua and Barbuda, fought out of Hackney in London and represented Great Britain as a welterweight in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. He turned professional in June 1973 and by November 1974 he knocked out Larry Paul in the eighth round to claim the British light-middleweight championship.

In October 1976 he travelled to Italy and claimed the European light-middleweight title with a fifteenth round stoppage over Vito Antuofermo. The fight was pretty much level and Hope capitalised on the exhausted champion. "Antuofermo was undoubtedly the most dangerous opponent I've met so far. I must admit that toward the seventh round I seriously feared I could lose. Then I saw Antuofermo wear himself out in the thirteenth and fourteenth. Therefore I expected an opening in the fifteenth, during which I won the title."

The European belt got Hope a shot at WBC light-middleweight champion Eckhard Dagge in March 1977. The bout took place in the champion's home country of Germany and after fifteen rounds the bout was scored even. The Londoner continued to win and finally got a second crack at the WBC belt 04th March 1979 against the Italian, who emigrated to Australia as a youngster, Rocky Mattioli. The champion knocked out Dagge in the fifth round in August 1977 to win the title.

Mattioli was making the third defence of his title in the country of his birth, meaning Hope was fighting for a world title on foreign soil for the second time. Hope made the use of the judges redundant and claimed the crown via a ninth round TKO.

The new champion defended his belt three times in London against Mike Baker, a rematch with Mattioli and Argentina's Carlos Herrera, who managed to the last the distance, before travelling to Vegas to face his most talented opponent yet, Wilfred Benitez on 23rd May 1981.

The challenger scored heavily off the ropes with his superb counter punching abilities. He was scoring at will, but judge Joe Swessel of the Nevada State Athletic Commission gave the first three rounds to Hope.

Benitez inflicted heavy damage from round six onwards and the champion fell even further behind when Benitez floored him late in the tenth. Hope was up by eight and fortunately for him the bell sounded. A clean overhand right from the challenger ended Hope's reign in the twelfth. Hope slumped to the canvas and referee Richard Greene didn't bother to count.

Putting Maurice Hope under pressure

It took Dr Donald Romeo and Hope's handlers about three minutes to revive him and a further five minutes to get him to his feet. The now former champion was in a bad way; he was cut inside his mouth, lost a tooth and had blood in bis urine. Hope was taken to Las Vegas' Valley Hopsital where he stayed overnight. "He's the greatest southpaw I ever saw and he gave me a great fight," Benitez said of Hope. "When I hit him, I took out my mouthpiece and I knew he wouldn't get up."

A jubilant Benitez became the fifth boxer to win three weight division world titles, joining Bob Fitzsimmons, Henry Armstrong, Tony Canzoneri and Barney Ross. What made the feat even more special for the Puerto Rican was that he was still only twenty-two-years-old, the youngest man to achieve this landmark.

"I was in great shape this time," Benitez said referring to his sole loss to Ray Leonard when he lost the WBC welterweight crown in November 1979. "I'll give Duran a shot if he wants to be the best Latin boxer in he world, but he has to come to me. "(As for Leonard) He's afraid of me. He's afraid to give me a rematch because he knows how good I am. He knows I'll come to fight in the best shape."

Before the new champion could dream of super fights with Leonard and Duran, he first had to negotiate a mandatory title defence against Puerto Rico's Carlos Santos. The undefeated challenger was 22-0 (16 KO's) and three years older than the twenty-three-year-old champion.

The three-thousand people attending at Las Vegas' Showboat Hotel and Casino watched Benitez knock down Santos in the sixth round. The challenger fought until the final bell, dropping a wide unanimous decision 147-138, 145-140 and 145-139, clearing the way for Roberto Duran to get his shot.

Duran, who returned to Panama in disgrace after losing the rematch with Ray Leonard, begged his manager, Carlos Eleta, for a second chance. "No," came the reply, but he soon changed his mind. "In New Orleans, Duran had surrounded himself with bad people. I told him that if he wanted to fight again, first he must get rid of that entourage. It took nine months before the last one was gone. Then he came to me, and I said I would help him."

The week before the contest Duran said if he lost to Benitez there would be no more. "I am fighting Benitez to get one more chance at Ray Leonard. Leonard is my ultimate goal. But if I lose to Benitez..."

Both men were notorious at lacking dedication and discipline when it came to training. "When Benitez lost the the welterweight title to Leonard in 1979 he trained three days, and I'm not sure about two of those," said his co-manager Jim Jacobs at the time.

Benitez used his silky skills

The champion claimed to have put in two months of training, but his father and trainer Gregorio disagreed and stated it was just a month. Before Benitez entered his training camp he initially weighed 172 pounds (78.02 KG). Three weeks before the bout the champion was 165 pounds (74.84 KG) and during fight week he was well on course to making the division limit 154 pounds (69.85 KG). "I have trained right. I lost the weight by training instead of not eating, but this weight is too hard to make anymore. But I feel strong because I have worked very hard. At this weight I, and not Duran, will have hands of stone," claimed Benitez. "This is my last fight as a junior middleweight and it is very important," he added. "After this fight I want to become a middleweight and beat Marvin Hagler for my fourth title. For this I must be disciplined."

Duran, who reportedly ballooned up to over 180 pounds (81.65 KG) before his August bout with Nino Gonzalez, had expected to start his training camp in Los Angeles, a city that offered many delights and distractions. His home country of Panama, who considered him their greatest asset after the Canal, treated his fitness to fight Benitez as a national concern.

In secret, Carlos Eleta and Panama's ruler, General Omar Torrijós Herrera, who since died in a plane crash at the end of July 1981, set up Duran's training quarters in the penal Island of Coiba. The Island was fifteen miles off the Panamanian coast and had three-hundred-and-fifty inhabitants, most of them were Panama's most dangerous convicts.

"Duran is a dirty fighter," claimed Gregorio Benitez the day before the press conference. "Everybody knows he is a street fighter. He is a guy who comes in angry. All of Wilfred's fights have been clean. If you are going to fight with fouls, then let's call this kick boxing. That's the Japanese style; you hit with fist and with feet. Duran should be a kick boxer."

Gregorio glared at Duran during the press conference. "We have trained to fight fifteen rounds just in case you decide not to quit in the eighth round."

Duran just laughed at him. "After I beat Wilfred I am going to get Don King to sign my father to fight his father."

Wilfred Benitez, taking exception to the comment, jumped up out of his seat and tried to get at his adversary. Duran simply laughed and ducked out of the way. "All of Benitez' clowning just proves he is afraid of me. I sleep nights. I am sure he doesn't," said Duran later in his dressing room.

Duran had his moments

The eighty-two-year-old trainer Ray Arcel, who was starting his sixty-fifth year in boxing, was coaxed out of retirement by Carlos Eleta. The veteran had packed it in after Duran's bizarre defeat at the hands of 'Sugar' Ray Leonard."It made me sick," Arcel said. "Physically sick. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I was jittery. But I guess it's true that time heals all wounds. Who knows what happened that night? Not even Duran can explain it. Can you condemn a man for one mistake? When Eleta called me I told him if Duran was ever in a big fight, I would be there."

Arcel ordered his man to get on top of the champion and stay there. "I don't want a fencing match," he said. "That's his game. We got to fight him for fifteen rounds. He's a stylist, but we are stronger. It's brain against brawn."

The contest was televised live by HBO and Ray Leonard was at ringside doing colour commentary for the network. He had predicted a Benitez win, but only if he didn't get drawn into the kind of fight he had with Duran in their first encounter.

Both boxers weighed 152½ pounds (69.17 KG) as they circled around each other in a cagey feeling out process. Duran was the more aggressive fighter as Benitez found his accuracy late in the opening round with his jarring right hand.

Duran was the aggressor again in the second round and the champion was happy to stay on the ropes, landing his counter punches. Where Duran was busy, he wasn't landing with anything clean as Benitez was the more clinical fighter, despite the fact that he ended the round with a bloody nose.

The speed of the champion was on display in the next round. He fired in some quick, sharp lead right hands and dominated Duran with his jab. When the Panamanian had Benitez where he wanted him on the ropes, the Puerto Rican got the better of him. Duran's punches lacked snap as the champion looked in complete control.

Benitez continued with his good work in the fourth, especially with his left hand, landing to body and head with scoring punches. Duran was busier but ineffective which was due to the elusiveness of the champion. Benitez had a straight up style and offered little movement, but he gave subtle manoeuvres. The champion would just need to move a fraction and the punch would miss, making his opponent, no matter who good they were, look bad. Duran did manage to nail his man with an overhand right and Benitez' legs momentarily buckled, but it wasn't a powerful enough shot to take the round or change the direction of the fight.

The accuracy of Benitez

The challenger didn't gain any psychological advantage from landing the punch of the contest so far in the last round as he started the fifth much slower. The champion used his speed and left lead to good effect as the Panamanian looked to be struggling to get any momentum going, with the points tally going against him.

"Don't let this bum lick you," Ray Arcel warned his man as he sent him out for round six. Duran came forward, but the crispness of the champion was all too apparent. He could't miss Duran with his lead right and scored well to the body with the left. With 30 seconds left the thirty-year-old challenger hard right. Benitez took it and fired back with his own punches as Duran looked to unleash some more big shots.

Spurred on by the success of the big punch of the last round, Duran, who had been frustrated up until now, started the seventh positively. The champion was more than happy to go the ropes and let the challenger try and hit him. Again Duran looked the busier man, but Benitez was having the better of the exchanges.

As the round was coming to a close, Duran's head was jarred by a spiteful right uppercut. Instinctively he fired back with a left hook. He was hurt and his left eyelid was also cut as he returned to his corner to get his instructions from Arcel.

The Panamanian's corner did a good job stemming the bleeding of the cut as he negotiated the eighth round. It was a quieter round with Benitez scoring well with his jabs and lead right hands. The champion got onto the balls of his feet to start round nine working well behind his jab. He was still comfortable to fight off the ropes, Duran did land a solid right, but he was unable to follow it up with anything significant as the champion scored another round in his favour.

Benitez continued with his boxing in the tenth, landing some solid rights and left hooks. Duran would try his best to fire in a fight ending right, but as through most of the contest they would end up just short of the target. Not only was the challenger frustrated he was beginning to look weary too.

The younger man was still dominating the eleventh, working the Panamanian's body. Duran looked fatigued and the occasional success he had with his own right had little effect on the defending champion. The body attack continued in the twelfth round as Benitez picked his shots at will. Suddenly there was a glimmer of hope for Duran, as Benitez was cut by the side of his left eye. It wasn't in a place for the blood to get into the eye and impede the champion's vision, but it was something to aim his attacks on. A big right from the Puerto Rican made the challenger take a step back. Just before the bell Duran landed a flush right to the jaw and Benitez didn't even flinch.

Still champion

Time was running out for Duran who was now a mile behind on the scorecards. He tried to force the action as Benitez slipped or blocked his efforts and countered with his own punches. With the thirteenth round going to Benitez, the Panamanian had six minutes of action to find a knockout punch.

Duran came forward again in the fourteenth as Benitez picked him off. It seemed that the challenger's body wasn't obeying what his mind was ordering it to do. For the first half of the final round the pattern was continuing until the champion went to the corner post and was happy to allow Duran to come at him. Benitez even had the better of the exchanges with his back to the ropes, waving his man in at one point.

At the bell the champion tried to touch gloves with Duran, but the Panamanian didn't want to know and waved Benitez away. The three judges scored the bout 143-142, 144-141 and 145-141 in favour of the champion who inflicted the third defeat of Duran's career.

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