40 Years Ago: Sugar Ray Leonard Wins His First World Title, But Wilfred Benitez Pushes Him All The Way (almost)

If such a fight took place today, between two superb fighters, each with a genuine claim to being the pound-for-pound best in the world, we sure would be paying through the nose to see it. It was 40 years ago (November 30, 1979) when two all-time greats collided in Las Vegas to contest the world welterweight crown: Wilfred Benitez, defending against Sugar Ray Leonard.

This was two sublimely gifted boxers who could also punch testing each other to the absolute limit. Both men were unbeaten: Benitez was making the second defence of his welterweight title (this being the second world title he had won; the Puerto Rican having captured the WBA 140 pound championship in March of 1976; at the young age of just 17!) and Leonard, who had dazzled the world at the 1976 Olympics, was going for professional gold.

Benitez was still only 21 years of age and he was sporting a 38-0-1 record (the draw coming against Harold Weston in 1977, Benitez later winning a decision over Weston in a return). Leonard was also 23 years old and he was 25-0 as a pro. The two met at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and a classic chess-match ensued.

About the fight and the two boxers:

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Benitez, a defensive genius, or wizard, who was known as “El Radar,” made the peaking Leonard miss more punches than the superstar was accustomed to. After the fight, and years later, Leonard stated that “no-one, and I mean no-one, made me miss that many punches.”

The two clashed heads in the sixth-round, with Benitez coming off worst, suffering a gash on his forehead that bled profusely, the blood affecting the defending champion’s vision.

The action, though engrossing, was far from electrifying. And the fight was very close. Going into the fifteenth and final round, Leonard was ahead on all three cards but only by a two-point margin on one card. Indeed, both champion and challenger fought the last round of the fight as though they needed it bad in order to get the win. This resulted in the best action of the fight.

Leonard cracked Benitez with a left uppercut to the chin, sensationally dropping Benitez, the man who had made him hit so much fresh air in the earlier rounds. Benitez got back up but he was dazed. Two follow-up shots came from Sugar Ray and referee Carlos Padilla stopped the fight. There were just six-seconds left on the clock.

Later, conspiracy theories abounded as to why the third man had stopped the fight with just seconds left, with some fans saying Benitez could have made it to the final bell. Chief among these stories was one which claimed a lot of money had been wagered on Leonard winning by decision – the bookmakers in Vegas being “saved” by the fight going into the books as a TKO thanks to Padilla’s call. More likely, Padilla stopped the fight as he felt Benitez was going to get badly hurt. Just days before, Wilford Scypion had beaten Willie Classen in an ill-fated bout, Classen sadly dying from his injuries.

At the time of the fight, the Leonard-Benitez bout was the highest-paying non-heavyweight fight, with Leonard getting $1 million and Benitez earning $1.2 million.

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On the under-card (and earning far less money) Marvin Hagler boxed to a controversial draw with defending world middleweight champ Vito Antuofermo.

Leonard went on to win further super-fights (including one against Hagler) and he is today a celebrated all-time legend. Sugar Ray is also healthy, having got out of the sport undamaged (his well-documented retinal surgery, a success, being his sole career injury.) Sadly, the same cannot be said of Benitez. A shocking sight today, Benitez, who carried on far too long, eventually engaging in 62 pro fights, losing 8, suffers from an incurable, degenerative brain condition and he needs 24-hour care.

Leonard is one of the four ring legends who make up “The Four Kings,” Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns being the other three. Many fans feel it should be “The Five Kings,” with Benitez suitably immortalized.