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LIKE Stuart Sutcliffe, a founder member of The Beatles, Wilfred Benitez will always be the fifth member of a Fantastic Four. And like Sutcliffe, who died at just 22 years old, Benitez’s journey roared into the air only to plummet like a stalled plane. Today, the hands that made him one of the finest ring generals of all time can barely be clenched. The brain behind the magic has been ravaged by his trade.
The reason Benitez, born on September 12 1958, is generally denied entry into the Leonard-Hagler-Hearns-Duran club is because he never shared a ring with “Marvellous” Marvin, thus making his membership incomplete.
But the application, that includes beating Duran, pushing Leonard to the brink, and being outpointed by Hearns, should never be discarded. Wilfred Benitez was an elegant artist of the ring, using each inch of the canvas to create fistic masterpieces. He claimed three world titles in different divisions, winning the first aged just 17.
But Benitez can’t remember his achievements. He doesn’t know he is now 55 years old. He can’t remember being interviewed by Boxing News in 1981 five years after claiming his first world title with a stunning victory over Antonio Cervantes.
“I don’t know,” Benitez said back then when our West Coast correspondent Steve Vender asked how long he would fight for. “Maybe I’ll fight until I’m 40. But I want to make millions before I retire, hundreds of millions.”
He nearly didn’t survive to be 40, much less fight until that young age. Wilfred, damaged by the onset of pugilistic dementia, was 38 when he collapsed on his mother’s living room floor and slipped into a coma.
Lying stricken when doctors arrived, his family were told to prepare for the worst. Six years after his final bout, Benitez was in physical and mental dire straits. He survived the coma but his demise continues. He fought on for years past his peak, broke and desperate. The millions he earned had long gone; regaining them proved an enduring but impossible target.
But Vender witnessed a very different version of the Puerto Rican legend.
“One simply doesn’t watch Benitez when he moves; you study him,” wrote Vender 15 years before Wilfred collapsed. “Whether he is under pressure from one of his sparring partners in the ring, or simply sauntering sauntering down the hallway on the way back to his room. Benitez is a man whose movement is so full of subtleties that to gain any hint of his mood or feelings you must study him like you would a clever and capable animal.”
To study Benitez today would be a depressing experience. He struggles to recognise his family, his carers. He cannot control his bodily functions. The sport that made him a king has stripped him of his soul.
The passion for pugilism came from their father Gregorio Snr. “I married Clara Rosa [Wilfred’s mother] in 1947,” Gregorio explained in 1981. “We had girls first, then the boys. I told Clara Rosa when we had a son he was going to be a fighter.”
All four of Gregario’s sons fulfilled their father’s wishes. His three elder brothers – Gregorio Jnr, Frankie, and Alphonso – all grew into professionals, but it was young Wilfred, who began fighting at the age of eight, who exhibited the most promise.
He turned pro at the age of 15 and within two years he was world champion.
“I had no doubt in my mind that I would beat him,” Benitez said of his coming-of-age party when he halted Cervantes. “I was in great shape and had no problem at all. I was ready to become a champion.”
But, like any teenager, Benitez soon found the distractions outside the ring an alluring playground of money, parties and beautiful women.
“Wilfred loves the girls,” a source told Vender. “He loves to be surrounded by women and the attention they give him. When a woman comes into the gym to watch him train, he works twice as hard. If he is doing push-ups, then he does 10, 20 more if a woman is watching.”
His fondness for the opposite sex was something that Vender himself noticed during his time with Benitez.
“When it was a woman who was interested in him,” he wrote, “Benitez’s face would light up and glow, and the aristocratic aloofness about him would disappear as he spoke in soft tones and smiled warmly, all the time looking at the woman. It was obvious that this was the part of being a champion that Benitez enjoyed very much.”
Training was a part that Wilfred didn’t care for nearly as much. He was happy for his natural gifts to be unwrapped in a fight, but only sporadically would they be revealed in training.
Even against WBC welterweight champion, the legendary Carlos Palomino in 1979, Benitez went into their January 1979 ill-prepared.
“I was out of shape for Palomino,” Benitez claimed two years later. “Palomino is a great fighter, and halfway through the fight I felt my legs give out. I fought on the ropes because I was tired and my legs had gone.”
To watch the contest, Benitez looked at his elusive, brilliant, best as he masterfully counter-punched his way to a 15-round decision. His dominance over such a formidable foe is one of several marks of his greatness. But, lessons were not learned for the challenge from a young and unbeaten Ray Leonard later that year.
“It was hell to get him to train,” said a trainer of Wilfred’s from that time.” He thought because he is Wilfred Benitez he doesn’t have to train. I remember his father saying to him, ‘Who do you think you are fighting? A nobody? Leonard is a monster created by American TV and you have to beat him convincingly.”
Despite his negligence, Benitez gave Leonard hell before being stopped with just six seconds remaining in the 15th and final round. Wilfred conducted himself during and after the contest like a champion, even if he had not beforehand.
“Sometimes I train good, sometimes I don’t train at all,” Benitez admitted when communication was as effortless as throwing and dodging punches. “My father would say, ‘Train.’ I would say, ‘No.’ But if I train, then I am the best boxer in the world.”
Benitez spoke to Vender five months before he won his third world title. In May 1981, Wilfred knocked out WBC light-middleweight champion Maurice Hope with one of the most stunning finishes of all time. Expertly positioning his prey on the ropes, Benitez devoured his third world belt with a stunning overhand right. As the Brit slumped to the deck, Benitez, his place in history assured, looked out to the crowd and smiled.
“This was Wilfred’s finest hour,” his father observed afterwards. “Now there are so many things we can aim for and achieve.”
Boxing News shared the opinion that the then-22-year-old’s future would be paved with gold.
“With Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran all being discussed as future opponents, a financially secure future is guaranteed for Benitez,” we wrote.
But there would only be one more highlight before the darkness started to set on Wilfred Benitez. And he would navigate only two more contests before his invitation to join the Fantastic Four was revoked.
In 1982 he impressively outscored Duran over 15 rounds to set up a fight with Thomas Hearns. And although it wasn’t obvious at the time, in convincingly outpointing Benitez, Hearns indelibly loosened the wheels on Wilfred’s gravy train.
His fluid movements started to stutter. Ringsiders were puzzled as Benitez, still just 24, subsequently allowed crude underdog Mustafa Hamsho to bully him around the ring for 12 bruising sessions.
“His [Benitez] legs were out of control and he staggered drunkenly around the ring,” is how we described his defeat. “At one stage Benitez was bent double and grabbing Hamsho around the waist to prevent himself from going down.”
Always a defensive master, Wilfred was developing a habit of retreating to the ropes and getting beaten up.
“He’s still a young man but he’s an old fighter,” Davey Moore opined after blasting the Puerto Rican out of action in two rounds. “He didn’t show much opposition tonight.”
Suddenly, the world, and Boxing News, knew the game was up. “This looks like the end for Benitez at only 25,” we reported in the summer of 1984. But Benitez, cheered on by echoes of the past, continued. In 1986 he travelled to hard-hitting prospect Matthew Hilton’s Montreal backyard and, before being knocked out in the ninth, he was handed another horrible shellacking.
“Benitez stood up to some tremendous punches to body and head,” we described. “He was staggering several times but he shook his head defiantly and managed to jab and counter from time to time.”
Like many greats who had gone before, Benitez had been reduced to fighting on instinct. Still two years shy of his 30th birthday, he was completely washed-up. Shortly afterwards, Puerto Rican commissions agreed that their hero should not fight again.
But at the end of the year, he was taken to Argentina, by two promoters and knocked silly by a man, Carlos Maria del Valle Herrera, who would not have been fit to lace Benitez’s boots only a few years before. The promoters returned without him and Benitez, confused ashamed and alone, stayed in Argentina for almost two years.
By 1988, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition of the brain caused by cerebral trauma. Or more simply, he had brain damage caused by being repeatedly punched in the head.
Incredibly, Benitez took part in four more fights in poorly-administrated states of America. Each new punch that crashed off his head slammed his eroding brain into his skull.
Benitez today is a distressing vision. He struggles to recognise his sister that cares for him. He has been told the same information several times about deaths in his family, and he cries for 20 seconds, before forgetting the news.
Benitez deserves better than this. We should remember him how Steve Vender remembered him, in 1981, when he was the rightful king of his castle.
“Whenever I see him I can’t help thinking of him as The King, because when Wilfred Benitez steps into the ring and starts to work those beautiful fakes and counters the thing you’re seeing can only be described as royal.”
Fantastic Four? There’s only one Wilfred Benitez.