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."