The nostalgia and mystic of the 1980s for boxing fans has two headlines; The Fab Four and Mike Tyson. The Fab Four has always included Roberto Duran, Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, but it can be argued that it should have always been the Fab Five of the 1980s. Wilfred Benitez faced three of the Fab Four and was only successful against Duran. He did give both Leonard and Hearns difficult fights in which he was able to display his amazing defense.
Wilfred Benitez was nicknamed “El Radar” and the “Bible of Boxing”; he had very few peers when it came to pure boxing skill. Benitez turned professional at 15 years of age in 1973 and made his debut in San Juan, Puerto Rico scoring a first round knockout over Hiram Santiago. Benitez climbed through the ranks quickly and got his first title shot at just 17 years of age. The fight took place at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 6th, 1976. He faced WBA 140 pound champion, Antonio “Kid Pambele” Cervantes, a veteran of the sport. By the time Benitez fought him, Cervantes had a record of 74 wins, 9 losses and 3 draws. Benitez, who was just 25-0 at the time, was up against the experience of a veteran still in his prime and a grown man who wasn’t about to lose his title to a teenager.
On that night Benitez made boxing history and became the youngest champion in boxing at 17 years old. Benitez won a 15 round split decision over Cervantes, in front of his High School graduating class. There are many records in sports that will be broken or close to being broken. Boxing is one of those sports where men have over 100 fights, 100 knockouts and over 20 fights in a years span. We won’t see anyone do anything close to that again and this accomplishment by Benitez falls into that category. Benitez at 17 beat a veteran, who became a Hall of Famer, in a 15 round matchup. This will not be broken any time soon and if it is it certainly will not be against a fighter of the caliber of Kid Pambele.
While Benitez’s talent knew no boundaries, his weakness laid in his preparation. Benitez was known for not fully committing to his training for match ups even to the point of training for only up to 2 weeks for some matches. This almost blew up in his face twice as he got a draw against Harold Weston in 1977 at Madison Square Garden in New York and got a close decision again there that same year against Bruce Curry where he was knocked down twice in the 4th round and once in the 5th round. Benitez removed any doubt in rematches against Curry and Weston, however this habit of not fully committing became a trend in his career.
Benitez may have been mentioned as part of The Fab group of the 1980s, but in relation to being part of the Mexico – Puerto Rico rivalry, he isn’t alone. Mexico’s Carlos Palomino is one of boxing’s greatest forgotten world champions. Palomino made his name at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles throughout the 1970s and even traveled to London, England to win the WBC welterweight championship in 1976 via 12th round TKO against John H. Stracey.
This forgotten chapter of the Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry took place at the same building Benitez won his first world title 1976 at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Palomino didn’t want to make the same mistake that Cervantes made 3 years earlier by underestimating the young Benitez and was not afraid to defend his title in Puerto Rico. The fight itself was very close and had many close rounds. Anytime Benitez landed a clean punch or even evaded a punch the crowd would cheer in his favor. Palomino made the fight close, but it was clear at the end of 15 rounds that Benitez had once again defeated a veteran titleholder in his second weight class. The fight itself wasn’t the most exciting, but is still an important chapter in the Mexico – Puerto Rico rivalry as it highlights one of the most talented boxers in the history of the sport as well as one of the foundations of one of boxing’s greatest monuments & stadiums in the Olympic Auditorium where so many memorable match ups took place.
Carlos Palomino went on to fight once more in 1979 against Roberto Duran, where he lost a lopsided decision and was knocked down in the 6th round. This was one of Duran’s best performances in his entire career and Palomino didn’t fight again until 1997.
Benitez went on to bigger fights after the Palomino match. He fought Sugar Ray Leonard that year and suffered his first defeat against him via 15th round stoppage. It was rumored that Benitez didn’t take the fight seriously and trained only two weeks for the match up and paid for it on fight night. The fight itself had very close rounds with Benitez displaying great defense, but not able to put enough offense together against Leonard. The stoppage may have been a bit premature, however if the fight were not stopped Leonard would still have won a unanimous decision.
Benitez would rise again. In 1981 and 1982 he would have the two best performances of his career. In 1981 he dominated WBC 154 pound champion Maurice Hope and scored multiple knockdowns. In the 12th round Benitez scored one of the most beautiful knockouts you could ever see in boxing as he got Hope against the ropes and scored with overhand right that dropped him lifeless. Then in 1982 Benitez dominated, out-boxed and even played mind games with Roberto Duran. Duran was so frustrated after the fight that he wanted nothing to do with Benitez and refused to shake his hand. Benitez beat him in the middle of the ring and even out fought on the inside with one of the best inside fighters in the history of the sport.
This however would be Benitez’s swan song as afterwards he lost to Thomas Hearns in 1982 at the Superdome in New Orleans. A card that featured one of the greatest, if not the greatest, fight in the Mexico – Puerto Rico rivalry in Wilfredo Gomez – Lupe Pintor (a match up that will be written about later in the series). Benitez and Hearns had one of the most epic stare-downs in boxing history (the Leonard – Benitez stare down was also epic). The fight was close and Benitez showed his incredible defense as he moved out of the way of Hearns’ combinations even against the ropes. After this Benitez never looked the same and was never put on the big stage as he lost bouts to fighters like Mustafa Hamsho where he was dominated. He even lost by second round TKO to Davey Moore in Monaco as he broke his ankle in the second round and was unable to recover.
The ending for Benitez is a sad tale of how cruel boxing can be to even its most talented fighters. Benitez, the youngest champion in boxing history, a three-division world champion was done in boxing just after his 30th birthday and taken away from the main stage years before in his mid-twenties.
In 1988 Benitez was diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalopathy. This condition is a form of brain damage due to cerebral trauma. In 1996 Benitez fell into a coma and was never the same afterwards. To this day Benitez struggles to recognize his own family and even has no control over some of his own bodily functions*. (Chistie, 1997) Benitez is a reminder that while boxing may be mired with politics and fighters who seem to lack the ambition to be great, it is still a dangerous sport and in the words of James Toney, “You don’t play boxing”. Benitez may not be mentioned with the Fab Four, but in the annals of boxing history and in the championship catalog of Puerto Rican champions he will never be forgotten. Benitez was good enough to be fabulous all on his own.
In another side note there was a website dedicated to Wilfred Benitez at one time where donations were taken to help assist the boxer as well as merchandise such as posters and t-shirts for sale. It seems that the website was either shut down or the foundation that ran it may have shut down. If anybody has any information on how to donate to Wilfred Benitez please contact the writer or post on social media for all boxing fans to view.
*Christie, M. (2014, September 12). On This Day: The great wonder kid Wilfred Benitez was born in 1958. Retrieved September 30, 2015.