A look at the future—Wilfred Benitez

By Wrigley Brogan on April 13, 2018
A look at the future—Wilfred Benitez
Wilfred Benitez was considered one of the finest natural boxers in history. (Wrigley Brogan)

The idea of him being punch-drunk were simply not true. I only knew he was not the same fighter he once was, regardless of age…

Wilfred Benitez was considered one of the finest natural boxers in history. He moved like a gazelle bounding across the planes, dodging and weaving his way through the tall grass. He slipped punches like a greased pig and his punches were sharp snapping whips. Between 1976 and 1982 he made fools out of some of the best boxers in the business including Tony Petronelli (35-1-1), Randy Shields (31-3-1), Carlos Palomino (27-1-3), Pete Ranzany (50-4-2), Maurice Hope (30-2-1), Carlos Santos (23-0-0), and Roberto Duran (74-2-0). He has earned over 7 million dollars, money that went out faster than it came in. He is the youngest boxer in history to hold a title.

Things started to change after his majority decision loss to Thomas Hearns (35-1-0). The fight was close, but not close enough. Benitez never liked to train and counted on his natural ability to carry the fights, often going into big fights with only two weeks training.

Every boxer’s body falls into decay, especially if he does not train. Benitez’s started to fail. His mind seemed to follow. He often kept his hands low while avoiding punches and frustrating great boxers who threw punches where he was not. The technique no longer worked and, even with his hands up, he caught too many punches. He lost to Mustafa Hamsho (36-2-2), Davey Moore (13-1-0), Matthew Hilton (19-0-0), Carlos Herrera (54-9-0), and Pat Lawlor (13-1-0). He had trouble eking out a decision against Sam Wilson (1-5-1) in a sleeper hotel fight attended by no one. Now he was training at the Al Davies Boy’s Club in Tacoma, Washington.

The boy’s club had a reputation for turning out great boxers including Davy Armstrong, Sugar Ray Seales, Rocky Lockridge, and Leo Randolph.

The first time I saw Benitez in person he was sitting on the ring apron staring into a place I could not see. He was broke and tired. I pulled up a chair and watched him as he stared straight ahead. Trainer George Wright stood in a corner of the ring, his arms crossed, his face twisted with frustration.

George Wright, (18-3-2) was a slick puncher in his day with 15 KOs in his 18 wins. He had beaten Charley “Tombstone” Smith (45-26-0), Ramon Hernandez (26-29-2) and Hilario Morales (37-27-4). He had agreed to train Benitez for his upcoming fight in Canada. Things were not going well.

There exists in boxing managers and promoters who attempt to squeeze a few final bucks from a once great fighter. There are also managers and promoters who attempt to get a shot fighter a little spending money in the end. I did not know which type was handling Benitez. I only knew Benitez did not seem quite right.

I crawled into the ring and talked to George. George shook his head. Benitez was living with him. “He’s shot, and he’s crazy,” said George. He tapped himself on the forehead. “The best I can do is try and not get him hurt.”

He said Benitez often stayed up all night and constantly mumbled to himself. Sometimes he screamed and went running out of the house. George could not ask him about his problems. Benitez spoke very little English and George could not speak Spanish. Most communications were through pantomime. When he could get him to jog he tried to talk to him but without any success.

Earlier I had talked to Victor Machado, one of Benitez’s former trainers. He said Benitez should not be fighting. People said he had taken too many punches. Machado said that was not true. In fact, his defenses were so superior, he had taken few devastating punches. Machado said Benitez was suffering a hereditary and debilitating disease that would continue to get worse. Benitez’s father had suffered the same illness. The idea of him being punch-drunk were simply not true. I only knew he was not the same fighter he once was, regardless of age.

I sat down beside him and introduced myself. He smiled and offered his hand. Although distant, his eyes were bright and he was instantly likeable. I have seldom met a fighter who was not friendly or ingratiating. All their ferocity is saved for the ring leaving nothing but warmth for the public.

We stumbled through a halting conversation, both of us laughing at our silly attempts to communicate. He said he was happy. He admitted he did not like to train. He did not know how many fights he had left in him. Eventually he got up and shadow boxed, then worked the mitts.

I dropped by several times during the week and usually found him sitting on the ring apron or on a chair, always with that distant stare. On the last day I wished him luck in his fight in Canada. He tapped my shoulder. I turned as I exited the gym. He was back on the ring apron staring blankly straight ahead.

He lost the fight in Canada.

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  1. Shawn Du Ashby 07:49am, 10/18/2018

    To Say That This Is Sad Is An Understatement . Known As Super Radar ,The Bible Of Boxing & The King Of Styles, Wilfred Was A Care Free Person Who’s Greatness Will Only Be Truly Appreciated By Boxing Purist .Imagine Turning Pro As A 15 Years Old Boy& Becoming The Sports Youngest World Champion At Only 17 Years Old . Unheard Of !  Literally A” KID ” Beating Up Full Grown Men For The First 39 Fights Of His Career Until He Finally Lost His 1st Fight Against The Legendary Sugar Ray Leonard In His First Fight As A ” Full Grown Man ” As He Was 21 At That Time .I Was Longing To See A Rematch Between The Two At 154 Pounds But That Fight Never Materialized Gregorio ,Wilfred’s Dad Had Him Fighting Against Teenagers When Wilfred Was Only 8 Years Old. One Could Call That “ABUSE “Due To Boxing’s Brutal Nature & I Believe That This EARLY START Was Partly The Cause Of Wilfred’s Early Cognitive Demise . I Truly Miss The Days When The Happy Go Lucky Wilfred Benitez Would Display Pugilistic Wizardry Via His Defensive Genius ,Counter Punching , And Superior Ring Generalship . Wilfred Benitez Against The Ropes ( Where No Boxer Wants To Be ) Was A Beautiful Thing To Watch As That Was A Strategic Snare That He Set For All Opponents & They All Bit The Bait .May God Have Mercy On You Wilfred Benitez & Thanks For The Unique Sweet Science Memories That You Left Us With . Yeah Wilfed , When You Fought It Was Like Watching Chess Being Played On Bodies !

  2. Lucas McCain 02:58pm, 04/15/2018

    I’ve heard the same rumor about Wilfred for many years, but just because a rumor makes the rounds, it doesn’t mean it’s true.  Or false.

  3. don from prov 11:14am, 04/15/2018

    Damn, this is a good article—

    I don’t know about the central premise, but it is not impossible.
    Good stuff.

  4. Bruce Kielty 10:09am, 04/15/2018

    You may be right, Leroy.  I remember one time when Ferdie Pacheco became frustrated with Benitez in the post-fight interview, when Benitez kept repeating and repeating “I am the Dragon…I am the Dragon…I am the Dragon.”  Another interesting sidelight is that Benitez at one time reportedly had a romantic interest in Ray Leonard’s sister.

  5. Leroy 08:48pm, 04/14/2018

    Can’t discount the heredity theory for Benitez’s present situation. Yes, he took punches, but this is more than CTE. The disability came so quickly and severely. Highly unusual. There was something else going on. I remember him in his early fights. There was always something not quite right with his personality and strange behavior. I think he indeed may have been borderline retarded. Very unusual for a fighter just in his mid 40s to become so disabled that he is unable to care for himself.

  6. Bruce Kielty 11:50am, 04/14/2018

    I also have never heard any story about any hereditary disease.  I had read that his father Gregorio mishandled his son’s career and that Gregorio lived in the fast lane (ie. booze).  It was also reported that Wilfred had learning disabilities and was borderline retarded.

  7. Ollie Downtown Brown 07:44pm, 04/13/2018

    Benitez, like his contemporary, Pipino Cuevas, started so damn young, Benitez won his first world title while still in high school. Imagine being in high school and being a world champion back when being a world champion was pretty legit. And he took the title from a helluva of a fighter in Antonio Cervantes. Like Cuevas, Benitez burned out way too soon. Both guys were washed up by the time they hit 25-26 years old, a time when fighters should be entering their prime. I think his record as the youngest world champion in boxing, even in today’s world of countless “world champions” might be a record that will never be equaled. Certainly a very impressive accomplishment.

  8. David 03:15pm, 04/13/2018

    Benitez had one of the best defenses I ever saw.” He’s a stylist” as the late great trainer Ray Arcel once said. Unfortunately, his career went south after the lopsided win over Roberto Duran and losing to Davey Moore who Duran massacred.

  9. Pete The Sneak 11:39am, 04/13/2018

    Nicely written article on Benitez Mr. Brogan. Thoroughly enjoyed it. I also am in 100% agreement with the following quote:

    “I have seldom met a fighter who was not friendly or ingratiating. All their ferocity is saved for the ring leaving nothing but warmth for the public.”

    I always asked myself why fighters, regardless of their stature in the sport were always the most approachable and easy to talk to athletes in all of professional sports despite their brutal craft. All the one’s I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in my life were just like that. But I think your analogy captured it…Peace.

  10. Ollie Downtown Brown 09:14am, 04/13/2018

    Benitez fell fast and hard after the Hamsho fight. I still can remember that destructive one hitter quitter of a punch against Maurice Hope. Benitez, never really known as a huge puncher, but man, Hope was out for the count in that one. Benitez was brilliant against Duran in early ‘82 and took Hearns the distance to close out that year. He was being mentioned as a possible opponent with Hagler and had he beaten Hamsho, I’m sure he would have secured that match. Hamsho just bulled the guy all over the ring. And don’t forget the strange knockout loss to Davey Moore where Moore floored Benitez, breaking Wilffred’s ankle in the process, stopping the bout in the second round. I don’t think I have ever seen a fighter fall as fast as Benitez in just the space of a couple of years.

  11. nev 07:32am, 04/13/2018

    Sad story, beautifully written. Brogan writes about boxing like he writes about history in his novels ... with confidence born from experience, clarity born out of compassion.  Of course he doesn’t say he believed the story about Benitez’s inherited disease ... he simply includes it to show how boxers can be exploited by people claiming to be helping them.  With Wrigley Brogan you always get the truth ...... sometimes written in a way not everyone can see it ....... but always the truth.

  12. Balaamsass 06:51am, 04/13/2018

    Don’t buy that hereditary excuse….this is the brain bashing “sport” of boxing. Brett Farve says he was concussed thousands of times in his career…good defense early on and little to none late Benitez was probably concussed tens of thousands of times in his career! Fifteen rounds with Tommy Hearns would be enough right there!

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