Classic Fight Series: Wilfred Benitez Turns Sugar Ray Leonard Into a Champion


James Foley is back at Bad Left Hook this morning for another look back in time with the Classic Fight Series, this time to the 1979 fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez.

There comes a moment in the career of every rising young boxer on the cusp of greatness when it's no longer about ability and potential, it's about results. A time to test their skills against an opponent several grades above anyone they have ever faced. Fail and it's a validation to all the doubters that the contender was nothing more than an overhyped concoction in the first place.

"Sugar" Ray Leonard seemed destined for greatness from the time he was a teenager. He won national Golden Gloves championships in 1973 and 1974 and an Olympic gold medal in 1976. He turned professional in 1977 and dispatched his first 25 opponents over the next two years, often in spectacular fashion. In 1979, at 23, he faced his "moment" in the form of welterweight champion Wilfredo Benitez. Benitez was all of 21 years old himself. Compared to Sugar Ray, he was a grizzled veteran.

Born in the Bronx, raised in Puerto Rico, Benitez competed in international amateur competitions when he was a barely a teenager. He won his first professional championship when he was 17, the WBA junior-welterweight title. At 20, Benitez became the WBC welterweight champion of the world by defeating Carlos Palomino via split-decision. He entered the contest with Leonard at 38-0-1.

Benitez was a master technician. His head and upper body movement, along with fleet feet, lightning reflexes and quick hands, made him almost impossible to hit. He would exploit his attacker's futility with fast counters on the inside. He was known as ‘the Bible of Boxing'. He was one of the sweetest scientists of the past forty years, and had never been beat going into this fight. Yet, Leonard was installed as a 3-1 favorite.

[ Related: Classic Fight Series - Sonny Liston ]

Leonard had already developed into a superb boxer-puncher, well on his way to fulfilling the optimistic expectations. Leonard hadn't fought anyone with the talent of Benitez, but the same was true the other way. Leonard was undeniably special.

He knew Benitez was his toughest foe and he wasn't taking it lightly. All-time great Angelo Dundee crafted the sublime athlete into a skilled technical boxer, a ring general in the mold of his most famous pupil, Muhammad Ali. Now Leonard was a facing a man who excelled in controlling the flow of a fight, a man with impeccable footwork and impenetrable defense. Leonard would have to adapt in ways he hadn't against less skilled, less physically gifted fighters in the past.

Leonard would often humiliate opponents with dance-moves, pantomimes, and exaggerated expressions. Going into the Benitez fight, Leonard dropped most of those antics. He was extremely focused entering the biggest fight of his life. Benitez was the one engaging in psychological warfare. As the fighters entered the ring, they met for an infamous stare-down. Benitez gazed contemptuously at his challenger. Leonard stood his ground, but later admitted being a little shaken. Dundee chuckled as he escorted his charge back to the corner. During referee instructions, Benitez wore a bemused sneer as he again tried to rattle Leonard.

The first round was a classic cat-and-mouse game. Leonard patiently stalked behind his formidable jab. Benitez ducked and dodged, looking to counter. Leonard had a moment early and aggressively followed up with a barrage of ferocious power shots, but Benitez slipped away unscathed. When the round ended, the two men again got intimate for a tense face-off, Benitez smirking, Leonard shooting him a dubious look right back. In the corner, the classic Dundee referred to Benitez as "that bum".

Leonard's skills were on full display as the fight progressed. Benitez showed his defensive savvy and found room for quick counters, but Leonard more consistently beat him to the punch, pushed him back with the jab, and cracked him with left hooks and straight right hands. In the third round, Leonard caught him from an awkward angle with a crisp jab and Benitez went down for the first time in his career. He bounced up, unhurt, nodding his head, mugging for the crowd, sporting a disbelieving smile.

A clash of heads in the sixth left Benitez with a gushing wound. He injured his thumb in the next round. He fought through it and found some of his best success during the stretch. Leonard was visibly frustrated at the elusiveness of Benitez, and the Bible of Boxing was dishing out commandments with his left hand, even staggering Leonard a bit in the seventh. This was Leonard's first fifteen round fight, five more rounds than he had ever fought before. There were questions about his stamina and Benitez was rallying going into the eleventh.

Leonard landed a showy blow that popped out the mouthpiece of Benitez in the eleventh. The next three rounds were relatively close, Benitez continued to box well while Leonard threw more punches and acted as the aggressor. It turned out Leonard was ahead on the cards going into the final round and could only lose the fight if he was knocked out. He closed the show nonetheless.

The final round was riveting. The combatants, both excellent boxers, stood toe-to-toe in the center of the ring and just brawled. Benitez clipped Leonard several times during the exchanges. Leonard was resilient. With thirty seconds left in the fight, Leonard caught Benitez with a crisp uppercut that stunned him and followed up with a flush left hook that dropped Benitez at the 25 second mark.

Benitez popped up and stumbled to the corner, flashing a grin to the crowd while the standing eight-count was administered to his back by referee Carlos Padilla. His legs were shaky. With just seconds remaining and the fight resumed, Leonard pounced on him, hitting him clean with three or four punches before Padilla jumped in to stop it, a mere six seconds on the clock. The stoppage might have been controversial if Benitez was winning. Either way, he was badly hurt.

[ Related: Classic Fight Series - Robinson vs Basilio ]

The pre-fight bluster and animosity were gone from Wilfredo Benitez as he came to terms with his fate. He gracefully approached the exultant Leonard for an embrace of congratulations and a gesture of peace. Leonard proved he was the hype, and in this case, the better man. Benitez showed his greatness too, in the ring and after the fight. The ensuing years would see Benitez rack up a signature win over Duran and take a prime, lethal Thomas Hearns the distance, suffering a majority decision loss.

Leonard, a participant of several wars and a recipient of a healthy dose of punishment, is in fine shape at 55, still entirely possessed of his wits, still charming and articulate. Benitez couldn't be touched in the early part of his career. As he moved up in weight and got older, he was getting hit more often, even suffering a couple knockouts. Nothing so dastardly that one could have predicted what would happen as he got older. Benitez now suffers from a degenerative brain disease and requires constant assistance from a nurse. His memory is all but extinct. He reportedly has the mentality of a child.

Leonard is an all-time great. Benitez will be remembered more as a great of the era. The tragedy of his post-boxing life can't be undone. I wanted to acknowledge it because to omit it would be to leave out a crucial part of his story. But it makes it hard to go back and offer some kind of closing perspective on him as a fighter. When you read about what's happened to him, you wish he had never been a fighter. But he was, and I appreciate the fighter that he was.

Leonard went on to those famous mega-fights with Duran, Hearns, and Marvin Hagler. But he'll never forget the man who gave him his first serious test. When asked to name his toughest fights, Leonard ranks his bout with Benitez right behind the war with Hearns, in second place. This fight made Sugar Ray Leonard a champion, and accomplished something extremely rare in boxing these days, pitting greatness vs. greatness.

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