Wilfred Benitez: The Legend Who Lost Everything
At 17 Wilfred Benitez was a world champion, at 28 he was effectively finished as a fighter, by the time he was 38 his life was a whole lot different.
Too many fights, too many punches absorbed. The glory days long gone, his fortune also a thing of the past. There are many sad stories in boxing, the Benitez story is one of the saddest.
Boxing is a tough, brutal and unforgiving business. The fighters who make and drive the sport, have a shelf life, a limited time of use. Once their value has ceased, they are often cast aside to make way for the next boxer on the money wheel.
Benitez has been forgotten in many ways. He fought in perhaps the greatest ever era for the sport. The fabulous four was at the helm of that golden era. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns gave us plenty, Benitez gets lost somewhat amongst those legendary names.
Benitez never shared a ring with Hagler, but he beat Duran and pushed Leonard and Hearns. The Bible of Boxing was some fighter, a terrific and effective counterpuncher, a defensive maestro, Benitez at his peak was a joy to watch. If any fighter epitomised the ‘sweet science’ at that time it was Benitez.
But Benitez fell away as quickly as he came. The decline was painful for all, sad and predictable to a certain extent.
The millions earned lost in a fog of the usual. Accusations, which were denied, that those close to him gambled or drunk away his fortune. The hangers on living off the gravy train enjoyed the success of their man, a fighter is usually the last to see what’s in front of him.
Benitez was born in the Bronx in New York in 1958. The harsh upbringing of street life planted the seed for his future. Benitez was just 4 when he followed his brothers into a boxing gym.
The family uprooted and moved back to Puerto Rico. Benitez shined way above his siblings, his supreme talent rising to the surface. An amateur record of over 100 fights, only 6 defeats, a pro career was inevitable. Gregorio Benitez trained his son, and the likes of Alfredo Escalera, Esteban DeJesus, and Carlos DeLeon would soon join the stable of fighters. Sparring sessions between a young Benitez and DeJesus were reputedly exceptionally violent affairs, the damage accumulated from those gym wars is not that hard to fathom.
Turning professional at 15 came at a cost, a boy fighting in a man’s world. Gregorio, lied about his age to get his professional licence, in 1973 he made his debut in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hiram Santiago didn’t see the end of the first round.
The rise through the ranks was rapid and flawless. Antonio Cervantes the long-reigning WBA light-welterweight champion was tempted to San Juan in 1976 to face the young prodigy. Cervantes was still in his prime, 10 successful defences, there would not be an 11th. Benitez prevailed on a split-decision.
The new champion defended his title twice before the usual politics of the sport saw Benitez stripped of his title. The WBA ordered him to rematch Cervantes, the resulting arguments resulted in Benitez losing his title.
Benitez moved up to welterweight, a draw in 1977 to Harold Weston the first real visible signs of trouble. Benitez like many fighters with his kind of natural talent, had problems getting to the gym and staying there when he did. He enjoyed the rewards of his work a little too much. The gym life gave way to the party life.
Bruce Curry a late replacement for Roberto Duran was unbeaten and unknown when he faced Benitez in 1977. Barely training for the fight Benitez was dropped three times and was considered extremely fortunate to escape with a points decision. The rematch the following year was different, this time he trained and Benitez left no doubt.
Despite the kind of lifestyle that accelerates decline, Benitez kept winning and in 1979 he had earned a world title fight with the WBC welterweight champion Carlos Palomino.
On a typical hot sweltering day in Puerto Rico, Benitez became a two-weight world champion, he was only 20. A few months later the only blemish on his record was reversed. Harold Weston found a different Benitez in front of him, the decision was unanimous.
But by the end of 1979 Benitez would be an ex-champion and his undefeated record consigned to history. A previous career-high purse of $150,000 was dwarfed by a million-dollar offer to fight the 1976 Olympic champion Sugar Ray Leonard.
No fight in 8 months, a distinct lack of training, problems in his inner circle all contributed to a far from ideal preparation. Gregorio even gave an interview saying his fighter would lose to Leonard, his father was right.
Benitez gave Leonard a tough fight, so much so the pain he felt in his body left Leonard questioning if boxing was worth this kind of suffering. But Benitez was dropped in the 3rd, and again in the 15th and final round and stopped with just six seconds left in the fight. Benitez would say in later years he didn’t train for the fight.
The first professional defeat saw Benitez chase another world title. The British fighter Maurice Hope came to Las Vegas the WBC light-middleweight champion, he went back to Britain a champion no more. He was brutally knocked out in 12 rounds in 1981 and Benitez became only the fifth fighter to win a world in three different weight divisions. The fight with Hope was a tough draining fight, already Benitez had the look of a fading fighter.
An uninspiring defence against Carlos Santos left the crowd cold, his next fight would be the last great night. In 1982 Benitez finally faced Roberto Duran. He was only 23 with a record of 42-1-1 but the youth was already starting to fade. The fight with Duran was his last virtuoso performance, his last ever win in a world title fight.
Benitez had thoughts of Marvelous Marvin Hagler and a history-making 4th world title. But further contractual problems saw Benitez lose plenty, and when he did return in late 1982, Thomas Hearns took his title away.
A move to middleweight proved fruitless, a bad beating at the hands of Mustafa Hamsho showed clearly there would be no more world titles. Benitez continued to chase but the decline could not be hidden. Davey Moore stopped him in two rounds and remarked post-fight that Benitez was a young man, but an old fighter.
The Canadian Matthew Hilton stopped Benitez in 9 rounds in 1986, another defeat this time to Carlos Herrera later that year in Argentina and at 28 he retired. The Herrera fight was sad, the aftermath even more so. Benitez had his fight purse, documents and passport stolen and he was stranded in Argentina for over a year. Benitez was homeless living on the streets begging for food and money, the locals unaware of who he was, eventually he was found. His mother Clara noticed in 1986 the first signs of decay, he reportedly failed a pre-fight physical for the Herrera fight but was still allowed to fight.
The inevitable comeback in 1990 lasted just four fights, he went 2-2 in those fights, and finally, that was the end. The final resume was 53-8-1. Benitez was only 32, the words of Davey Moore would soon take on a chilling new meaning.
Retirement wasn’t kind, a harsh painful reminder of what the sport can do if you stay in it for too long. Benitez was diagnosed in 1989 with an incurable, degenerative brain condition. He was only 38 when he fell into a coma in his mother’s living room, he didn’t wake up for three days.
With his ring earnings long gone Benitez lived on a monthly pension and he needed constant care from his mother. In 1997 his condition worsened and he was moved to a nursing home. He was later diagnosed with diabetes, and when his mother died his sister took over the care responsibilities for the former champion.
Maria a deadly category 5 hurricane hit Puerto Rico in 2017, which damaged the family home and killed thousands of people. Courtesy of donations Benitez and his sister ended up in Chicago to get improved medical care. Pictures of a bedridden Benitez reportedly unable to even move his fingers are gut-wrenching, the majestic fighter of old no more.
Benitez has largely been forgotten by the sport he graced and dazzled in. Other fighters of his era get the print, the recognition, Benitez rarely gets a mention. An inconvenient truth that boxing seemingly needs no further reminder of. Benítez should never be forgotten, the ring achievements should live on and so should his story.