The 1976 split decision bout between Wilfred Benitez and Antonio Cervantes is as unsung a fight as they come, where Benitez forever etched his name into the history books as the youngest champion in boxing history at 17 years old, and lineal champion Cervantes was fresh off of retaining his titles an astounding 10 times, in a 15-0 stretch of dominance.
According to The Ring Magazine, Cervantes entered the fight as a 4-to-1 favorite. As gifted and talented as Wilfred was, respect was given unto the champion, and respect is what he earned, irregardless of the outcome.
Notwithstanding the prodigious circumstances surrounding the fight, the showdown is rarely talked about in the mainstream media, yet alone barbershops and sports-filled localities. It is not a fight we as sports consumers are indoctrinated with from our youth like, say, Ali vs Frazier or Tyson vs Douglas. But should it be?
Benitez had schoolmates in the stands supporting him. Teenagers in the professional ranks of athletics are not out of the norm — we’ve seen Serena Williams win the U.S. Open as a teenager, LeBron James win Rookie of the Year in the NBA, and Erriyon Knighton dominate the 200-meter dash in track and field, setting record-breaking times. But in such a physically dangerous sport as boxing, it goes without saying how impressive even being in a ring was as a teenage boy, not to mention in a world title fight.
On March 6, 1976, the two gentlemen gave it their all inside of the ropes, and put on a show for a crowd at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, cheering rampantly for their hometown teenage hero.
The fight commenced with true feel-out rounds if you’d ever seen some. Rounds one and two mainly saw both fighters using the jab. In the first, neither fighter threw more than one punch at a time for the entire three minutes. In the second, Benitez won the battle of the jab, tagging Cervantes upstairs and evening out the fight. His speed with the left hand was remarkable.
In rounds three and four, Cervantes was able to score points in near-clinch situations, pounding the body of Benitez. While Wilfred was more active with his hands, and threw more, Cervantes never stayed stationary to allow Benitez to get off more than a couple of strikes before using ring space to his advantage.
Both fighters exhibited solid footwork, but it was the Puerto Rican who came out in the sixth round with style and grace, dancing like one Sugar Ray Leonard. By round seven, the fight picked up real, get-your-popcorn-ready steam.
Benitez hit Cervantes with such a hard jab that it popped his head back and woke him up. Benitez got cocky and started showboating with his footwork, backing up and quasi-dancing — not boxing dancing, salsa dancing — getting into his groove. He hit Antonio later with two more jabs and a left hand that made the crowd go wild.
No need for conditionals here. A punch can certainly wake up anybody, and boy did it wake up Cervantes. The Colombian reacted to the eighth round bell like a bull ready to wreak havoc. But this bull was well-trained, and disciplined; not succumbing to an erratic nature, but composed.
Cervantes explored a wider variety of the punches in his repertoire, utilizing his uppercut and overhand punches. He scored on two uppercuts, but missed the latter variation. Throughout the round, he set up his power strikes well and brought out more combinations than at any other time in the contest.
Benitez retaliated with a right hand and a mean left hook that saw Cervantes (and probably his family in the audience) flail backwards, stunned. Benitez scored points of his own in a 10-second stretch, but it was mainly Cervantes clawing his way back into the fight.
As round nine arrived, so did Cervantes’ proverbial guns, and blazing they were. He appeared to be upset about a cut over his right eye. Channeling the anger worked to his advantage, as he missed a few uppercuts but scored with a short hand to the body. He scored again to the body moments later, visibly shaking Benitez and strongarming him to clinch.
This was the most clinching we’d seen in the fight from either fighter. Midway through the round, in retaliatory fashion, Wilfred threw successive jabs in attempts to keep “Kid Pambele” at bay. He missed every one, as well as a combination that followed after like a shadow. Cervantes continued to score with many strategic hits to the body, and just like that, a fight that Benitez seemed to be winning clearly had become much closer.
As the 10th round drew on, Cervantes hit Wilfred with an uppercut so hard it made the water on his head spring up like an early morning autumn mist. Puerto Rico’s finest reverted back to his jab while Cervantes found success with his combinations. In the closest round of the fight, it was almost too close to call. That would not be the case for round 11, as it was all Benitez.
You know how sometimes fighters will fight a clinch in attempts to break free and continue beating up on their foe? This materialized before every spectator’s face as Benitez went to town on Cervantes.
When the championship rounds came knocking, so did Wilfred Benitez to the door of God, performing the sign of the cross on his upper body. His prayer and sanctification unto the Heavenly Father must’ve been met with approval, as the 13th and 14th rounds saw Benitez put on a master class of jabbing and defending. Both fighters looked like they did in round two, yet this time, Benitez was the only one scoring.
The 14th round was the first time Wilfred was pushed against the ropes, but it didn’t last very long, as his impeccable footwork allowed him to work his way out of being cornered. Both fighters threw everything they had in the 15th, and the fat lady sung a song that left Puerto Rico in a state of mirth, and Colombia in a state of lament.
The fight lived up to the hype. Dare it be said Cervantes might’ve won the match. There were a couple of rounds that were too close to call — common in boxing — yet both fighters brought the goods.
Wilfred Benitez could cause any spectator to be enraptured by his style in the ring. He showed his youth, as he had great pep in his step, energy, footwork, confidence, and talent. His skill left a bit to be desired as he had weak moments here and there, but it was indicative of his age.
Cervantes on the other hand showed his experience, remaining poised throughout the contest, sticking to the game plan he and his corner worked on leading up to the fight. He went through the fight in the typical stages, and never let up his attack.
March 6th of 1976 provided boxing aficionados with a bout that hit multiple crescendos, and threw a coming out party for a future Hall-of-Famer, triumphing against Colombia’s Boxer of the Century.