03rd December 1982, Superdome, New Orleans
WBC Light-middleweight Title
Wilfred Benitez Vs Thomas Hearns
Thomas Hearns and Wilfred Benitez were due to face each other at New York's Madison Square Garden for the formers WBA welterweight title on 23rd February 1981. The card was billed as 'This is it' and would feature Gerry Cooney against Ken Norton, WBC light-heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad taking on WBA counterpart Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and WBC super-bantamweight champion facing Mike Ayala.
However, the show never happened when promoter Harold Smith, who was the chairman of Muhammad Ali Professional Sports (MAPS), disappeared amid allegations that he was involved in a $21.3 million fraud against Wells Fargo National Bank.
Before Benitez outpointed Roberto Duran last time out he claimed he would move up to middleweight. However, the $1.5 million dollars promised by promoter Don King was too much to resist.
The promoters had hoped to attract forty-thousand fans to the New Orleans Superdrome. Unfortunately there was an estimated crowd of twelve-thousand and a week before the contest King had persuaded both boxers to take a pay cut of $250,000 (Hearns was also guaranteed $1.5 million).
The co-main event of Wilfred Gomez defending his WBC super-bantamweight belt against WBC bantamweight champion Lupe Pintor, also agreed to take $125,000 less from their guaranteed $750,000 purses. In an exciting contest, Gomez, who was making the seventeenth title defence, knocked out Pintor in the fourteenth round.
Home Box Office showed the fight on pay-per-view and at one-hundred-and-fifty closed-circuit locations. Both Hearns and Benitez were twenty-four-years old as the challenger towered over his opponent by three inches (7 cm) and scaled in at 153¾ (69.74 KG), compared to the champion's 152 pound (68.95 KG).
Hearns used his height and reach advantages to good effect as he boxed behind the left jab and fired his right to the champion's body. Benitez, who was a master at counter punching off the ropes found Hearns' long frame difficult to do such a thing. He was effective at making the 'Hit Man' miss as the challenger built up quite a points lead, even with a point deducted towards the end of round four for holding the Puerto Rican's head down, Benitez still had it all to do to keep a hold of his title.
The jab was a dominating factor in the fifth as Hearns continued his hit and move tactics. As the round was coming to a close a jab followed by a right to Benitez' jaw put the champion on the canvas. The glancing right hand caused the Puerto Rican's legs to betray him as he staggered back and saved himself from falling flat on the mat with his gloves. As he remained upright Hearns tried to follow up with another right, as referee Octavio Meyran intervened and administered a count to the dismay of the champion.
Benitez wasn't badly hurt as he entered round six, a mile behind on the judges cards. The boxer was getting out boxed and had to turn things into a war if he had any chance of winning. The champion was much more aggressive in this round and actually had his man on the ropes for the first time in the contest. Benitez had to gamble as he left his chin exposed as Hearns was able to land his danger punch and had the Puerto Rican in all kinds of trouble at the bell.
Hearns continued to box in rounds seven and eight, with the champion getting closer with his right hand, but failing to make a dent on the 'Motor City Cobra'. The challenger caught the champion high on the head in the eighth and felt something give in his hand, failing to mention the pain to his corner on his return to Emanuel Steward.
A phantom knockdown was accredited to the champion late in the ninth. As he pulled back from a Benitez right hand counter, his legs tangled with his opponent's and he slipped to the canvas, as Meyran dished out an eight count.
Round ten was the most action-packed so far as both men traded. The better work was coming from Hearns' left hook, as his right, though he was still throwing it, was pretty much ineffective. They each called on each other to come to them and the referee had to tell them to fight as not much happened for the final 30 seconds of the round.
The challenger dominated rounds eleven to fourteen with his left lead. Benitez was forced to lunge in as he failed to get inside the long arms of his foe and land the combinations he needed to turn the fight in his favour. All the Detroit man needed to to do was stay on his feet and not get caught with anything stupid.
"Take it easy," Gregorio Benitez told his son just before the final round was to commence. "You got the fight."
Team Hearns were in a different frame of mind, urging their man to 'let it all hang out.' "You feel tired?" Steward asked.
"Well, throw the right. I don't know how they got it scored, but the only official I can see is the referee, and that makes me awfully worried."
Both fighters went on the attack in the final three minutes. Benitez was pressing but wasn't successful enough to get inside and force the stoppage as Hearns continued to box an intelligent fight. They both embraced at the final bell and it was the first time Hearns had gone the full fifteen round distance. The 12,000 in attendance awaited the judges scores.
Judge Lou Filippo couldn't separate them as he scored it 142 apiece. Dick Young had it 146-137 and Tony Castellano's card of 144-139 in Hearns' favour gave it to the 'Hit Man' with a majority decision.
Benitez returned to the ring in May 1983 as a middleweight and without his father as a trainer, winning a ten round unanimous decision against the American Tony Creda. He was then pitted against the WBC's top middleweight contender Mustafa Hamsho in the July. Hamsho dominated his man for the entire twelve rounds to take a points verdict 117-111, 118-111 and 118-109.
Benitez returned to boxing in February 1984, beating Stacy McSwain over ten rounds. In the July he was in a crossroads battle with ex-WBA light-middleweight king Davey Moore. With a minute left of the opening round Moore countered Benitez' jab with a right, putting the three-weight champion to the canvas. He broke his right ankle in the fall.
Remarkably Benitez was able to continue and he had the skill to slip most of the onslaught Moore had to offer to survive to hear the bell. Benitez came for the round two and stayed in his corner, making Moore miss until he was caught by a left hook and staggered by a right. The referee stepped in and saved the stricken Puerto Rican from further punishment. "I didn't get hurt. I'm clean. I should have won. I know I could beat him. I know I can fight as a middleweight and become champ. I will have to continue training,” said a defiant Benitez.
Once he got over his broken ankle, Benitez resumed his career in March 1985, winning three contests in a row, which included ending the unbeaten run of Kevin Moley. Early in round one the Puerto Rican suffered a flash knockdown. A right to the head caused his knee and glove to touch the canvas, but after that he gave his opponent a lesson in the noble art, running out a unanimous points winner.
At the start of 1986 the Puerto Rican travelled to Canada to face another undefeated boxer, Matthew Hilton. Once more he tasted the canvas in the maiden round, but he was unable to dish out another boxing lesson.
Hilton, at twenty-years-old is seven years Benitez' junior and hurt the Puerto Rican in round six, putting him under immense pressure. The onslaught continued in the ninth round as a left hook to the body, followed by a left hook to the head, put the older man down, face first. Instinct got him to his feet weakly as he stared vacantly as referee Guy Jutras counted him out.
In July 1986 he faced his third unbeaten man in a row, outpointing Paul Whitaker over ten rounds. Harry Daniels was also outpointed in the September and two months later he was in Argentina, facing Carlos Herrera.
The Argentinian inflicted the sixth defeat of his career with a seventh round TKO. More misery was piled on to the Puerto Rican as the fight's promoter stole his money and passport, keeping him stuck in the country for a year.
It looked as if that was the end of 'El Radar' but he returned to the ring in March 1990, knocking out the winless Ariel Conde in the seventh round. Pat Lawlor then improved his record to 14-1 as he outscored Benitez over ten rounds in the May. Three months later Benitez chalked up his final victory of his career by outscoring Sam Wilson.
On 18th September 1990, in Canada, Wilfred Benitez, now thirty-two-years-old, lost his final fight to Scott Papasodora by a ten round decision. The Puerto Rican retired with a record of 53-8-1 (31 KO's). His years out of the ring weren't kind to the once great boxer.
By the time he hit his early forties he was a shell of his former self. His career earnings were squandered on high living and he had to depend on the Puerto Rican state support, where he was officially recognised as having serious debilitating brain damage.
His condition is known as post-traumatic encephalitis and his elderly mother cared for him until her death in 2008. He is now cared for by his sister Yvonne and his brother, Gregorio Junior also suffered brain damage from his boxing career.
His father and trainer, who also trained Alfredo Escalera and Esteban De Jesus, died from a brain haemorrhage on 05th March 1996, aged sixty-seven.
All the best fight fans