Wilfred Benitez wore a smirk of confidence that was completely justified. Bronx-born, but of Puerto Rican parentage, this highly-skilled box-fighter became the youngest man ever to win a world title when – as a 17-year-old – he outscored strong Colombian champion Antonio Cervantes in San Juan in March 1976. Cervantes had reigned since 1972 and was no easy proposition, but Benitez was talented beyond his years.
The young prodigy (born on September 12, 1958) retained his title twice before the WBA stripped him for refusing to grant Cervantes a rematch. Instead, he moved up in weight and scored an excellent points victory over the well-schooled Carlos Palomino in January 1979 to win the WBC welterweight crown. But Benitez’ reign was to be brief and, after defending successfully against Harold Weston, he was stopped in the 15th round by emerging superstar Sugar Ray Leonard in November 1979.
But Benitez bounced back from this disappointment and won a third world title when he knocked out Britain’s Maurice Hope with a brutal right hand in the 12th of their WBC light-middleweight showdown in Las Vegas in May 1981. Two successful defences followed, most notably a points success over the “Hands of Stone” Roberto Duran, who Benitez outfoxed in Las Vegas in January 1982.
Yet that December, Benitez lost his title on points to Thomas Hearns in New Orleans and, at just 24, the Puerto Rican was effectively finished as a force in world boxing. Benitez continued fighting until 1990, losing latterly to fighters who would not have been sufficient as sparring partners in his prime. A fondness for the good life, coupled with management problems eroded his personal fortune though he has recently made a brave comeback from personal illness.
Wilfred Benitez: Fights 62, Wins 53 Losses 8, Draws 1 (Knockouts 31).
By Mark G. Butcher