It is often joked these days that New York City is home to more Puerto Ricans than Puerto Rico. Therefore, it is not really even ironic that Wilfred Benitez, arguably the greatest fighter of that fight-mad nation, was born on September 12, 1958 in the Big Apple. He came from a boxing family (both his older brothers were top contenders in the 1970s), and started with the gym at the tender age of 8, turning pro at 15 and managed by his Father. The early years of his career were marked by making a professional triangle between fights in New York, in his native land of Puerto Rico, and other venues in the Caribbean. In 4 1/2 years he racked up an impressive record, and earned a place among the world’s best while still only a teenager.
Benitez stood 5’10” with a 70″ reach, which made him a bit tall and with a bit of a short reach for a welterweight (147lbs). What he did have was a solid combination of speed and hitting power, backed up by a defensive skills and an innate sense of ring generalship that made him a boxing prodigy. Benitez was the sort of boxer who made befuddling a trained, fit, powerful fighter and while landing a crunching blows look easy.
In March 1976, Benitez challenged Antonio Cervantes for the 140lbs WBA world championship in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cervantes was a Colombian, and making the 11th defense of his title. His resume included wins over such notables as Roberto Duran’s fearsome lightweight arch-rival Esteban de Jesus. This guy was a veteran champion, and Benitez was a mere boy at the age of 17. Nevertheless, Benitez beat Cervantes by Split Decision and captured his first world title. To this day, Wilfred Benitez still stands as the youngest world boxing champion in history. Having won the WBA belt, he defended it twice, but soon gave it up. Benitez had his eye on the future, and knew the money was to be made seeking a bout down the road with the charismatic superstar of the 1976 Olympic Games, Ray Leonard.
The next challenge for “El Radar” came in November 1977 against Bruce Curry, a good fighter who would bounce back from many defeats against top contenders to win a 140lbs world title in the early 1980s. The irony is that while Curry was the novice in the fight at 14-0 to Benitez’s 32-0-1, although at 21 he was two years older. Curry held the prodigy to a narrow decision loss in their first encounter, knocking his teenaged adversary down three times. They had a rematch three months later, and while Benitez managed to keep himself off the canvas it was another close win for the Puerto Rican. This was followed by a big knockout win, and was enough to earn him a shot at Carlos Palomino and the WBC welterweight title.
Palomino was a tough, hard-hitting Mexican-American fighter who has won the 1972 US Amateur Championship and was making the 8th defense of his title. Benitez used his speed and slick counter-punching to neutralize Palomino’s power, spending the latter part of the fight laying on the ropes and scoring counters to Palomino’s head in a performance reminiscent of the “rope a dope.” Although the fight was scored a Split Decision, Benitez won it easily. He was coming into his own as a mature fighter, and now an undefeated two-division champ, and all at the age of 20.
Showdown with Leonard
Benitez defended his newly won crown once before getting his big money fight with “Sugar” Ray Leonard in November 1979, Las Vegas. It was a scientific boxing match in which two brilliantly talented, young stars put out their best games, but for once Benitez had met someone who was just a little bit better than him in every way. Benitez was knocked down in the 3rd, cut on the forehead in the 6th, and knocked down again by a hard left uppercut in the 15th and final round. Although he got to his feet, the referee stopped the bout. Wilfred Benitez lost his title and his undefeated standing in a 15th Round TKO.
A Third World Title
Having lost to Leonard, Benitez moved up to 154lbs and began pursuing a Super Welterweight title. He won that in May 1981 by stopping Maurice Hope for the WBC 154lbs championship. This set another record, as Benitez still stands as the youngest man to win titles in 3 divisions. He defended it twice, with a win over future champ Carlos Santos (the first world championship bout between two Puerto Ricans) and an even bigger win over Roberto Duran, before meeting the most feared puncher of the era in Tommy “Hitman” Hearns. In a brilliant bout that showed Benetiz at his best, both fighters crashed to the canvas. However, it was Hearns who scored the more telling blows, and he walked away with a Majority Decision win and the WBC 154lbs title.
By 1983 Benitez was only 25, a time when most boxers are peaking, yet he began what would be a steep decline. He moved up in weight again and came to challenge middlweight contender Mustafa Hamsho, and dropped a decision. It was his last fight as a competitive world contender. He struggled on between 1984-1986, bu retired after an infamous incident in Argentina: after being stopped by a local middlweight contender, Benitez’s payment and passport were stolen by the fight’s promoter, leaving him penniless and stranded there for a full year. He made a comeback effort in 1990, but that stalled as well. The results of his efforts after Hamsho were 5 losses in 13 fights, and he was never able to beat anyone who had a decent pulse. Benetiz was clearly washed up after his final big effort against Hearns.
Benitez currently suffers from a degenerative brain condition. It is believed the condition may be genetic, as one of his brothers is similarly afflicted, and it was probably aggrivated by his career in the ring. It would certainly go a long way to explaining his steep decline at the age of 25, when he should have expected at least another 5 years of peak performance. Benetiz also was diagnosed with diabetes in 2004. He lives on a modest pension with family in Puerto Rico.
Wilfred Benitez stands as a three division champ, and the youngest man both to become a world champion and then a three division champion. He finally retired with a record of 62-8-1 (31 KOs), and has been ranked in the top 5 of the all-time 140lbs, 147lbs, and 154lbs fighters by a variety of boxing news magazines and experts, including The Ring magazine, historian Herb Goldman, and the Associated Press. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1996.
Sources: boxrec.com; old fight footage on YouTube; cyberboxingzone.com; The Ring