A Boxing Memory: Benitez vs Leonard

A Boxing Memory: Benitez vs Leonard

“I want to be something great, something special.”

Sugar Ray Leonard said those words before his first world title fight. On the undercard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler would also have his maiden attempt on the world stage. Hagler, always resentful of Leonard for many reasons, earned $40,000 for his long-awaited, hard-earned world title opportunity. Leonard earned that on his debut.

Hagler would leave Las Vegas a frustrated fighter. A controversial draw against Vito Antuofermo would leave Hagler waiting for his moment. When it came, Hagler would have to flee a London ring to avoid flying debris courtesy of drunken racists. Not for the first time, or the last, Hagler was denied his due.

There was always a hint of the special about Leonard. The darling of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Leonard always had a touch of class. Matched sensibly as his career progressed, but with enough of a test to advance and develop, Leonard at 25-0 was ready for more.

But in 1979, Leonard would face his acid test against almost his mirror image.

Wilfred Benitez the defensive genius, was a fighter of much brilliance and equally erratic in his training habits. His father Gregorio wrote an article for The Ring prior to his fight with Leonard:

“He has not listened to anything I have told him. He would rather be out somewhere—anywhere—than in the gym.”

Benitez would later say he wrote the article “Why Benitez Will Lose His Title” to motivate his son. But it carried more than a hint of truth.

Benitez a veteran, but still only 21, was in the embryonic stages of his second run as a world champion. A world champion at 17, the former light-welterweight champion and now the WBC welterweight champion, Benitez was some fighter, cruelly overlooked as time passes. In the golden era, Benitez was reduced to a lower place on the boxing podium. As Leonard would say:

“He was just born at the wrong time.”

But Leonard still had his critics, a perceived showman with little substance. Benitez gave him the opponent he needed to silence the doubters. The Puerto Rican was hardly a faded fighter, with a 38-0-1 record, the wide odds in the challenger’s favour were not one of reality. Benitez was far more than a live underdog.

The matrix of his time was labelled The Bible of Boxing and El Radar, only the inability to live the life, held Benitez back.

A last-minute call from Muhammad Ali helped Leonard calm the nerves. Ali told him not to showboat. Leonard listened, but he knew to beat Benitez he would need more than the showbiz. Not for the last time in his career, Leonard would be forced to show his heart.

It was the night that Leonard learned about the harsh realities of his chosen trade. Benitez was down in the 3rd from a jab, and was down again in the 15th and stopped with just six seconds remaining. Leonard was well ahead at the time Carlos Padilla controversially to some waved the fight off, but the bare facts of innocence fail to tell what an extremely hard night Leonard had. It was by no means one-sided.

Leonard said Benitez was in the fight of his life. So was he. Fighting the mirror in front of him, Leonard missed with punches he would have landed with relative ease elsewhere. Leonard was winning. But only just. The type of fight where any success was hard-earned, and wasn’t without reply. Or pain. It might not have been easy on the eye for those who require blood and guts for their entertainment. But the science had never been sweeter. A thing of beauty in a sport of brutality. But for all the sweetness it was an incredibly hard fight. For both.

Even in the 14th, Benitez was still more than in the fight. Even Leonard conceded his opponent was finishing strong. Benitez hadn’t yet given up hope. Leonard believed he wasn’t without it. Leonard watched in his changing room as Hagler was robbed in the very same ring. He couldn’t be sure he was winning. It was that kind of fight. That kind of night. Angelo Dundee told him it was close. Leonard set out to close the show. He did. It was a night where Leonard silenced at least some of his doubters, and a fight that was so brutal there were even whispers of retirement from within his team.

Once the body and mind healed, Leonard would elevate his career to one of true greatness. There were frequent trips to the retirement home. Far too many comebacks dimmed the public love affair. But strip away many things, Sugar Ray Leonard will go down as one of the greatest fighters who ever lived. Leonard fought many demons in his life, but with them now defeated, he seems happy in retirement.

Benitez wasn’t so fortunate. A world champion at 17, a two-weight world champion at 20, and a three-weight world champion at 22. The achievements and talent of Benitez get lost in the superlatives said about his rivals of the time. He should always be remembered. An often forgotten genius of his craft.

But his decline was rapid and brutal. The money would dissolve into accusations from within, his health deteriorated. And quickly. A sad story in a sport that does them so well. And a sport that should do more.

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