45 years ago (yesterday), in San Juan, Puerto Rico, two greats came together at welterweight. Wilfred Benitez, still just 20 years of age but already a former champion, with “El Radar” having been stripped of the 140-pound title he had won at age 17 due to inactivity, met defending welterweight champ Carlos Palomino.
Mexico’s Palomino, who was making his 8th defense of the WBC crown, was nine years the older man at 29. Palomino was 27-1-3 upon entering the ring, while Benitez was unbeaten at 36-0-1. What followed proved to cause controversy, one of the three official scorecards especially.
Benitez, truly one of a kind, boxed quite brilliantly in the final two-thirds of the fight, this after a close opening third of the fascinating to watch fight (check it out on YouTube). Benitez, a master counterpuncher, ended up walking away with a 15-round split decision. To this day, however, Palomino feels very strongly he was robbed of a win. But all the talk immediately after the fight centered on the card of judge Zack Clayton, who scored the fight for Palomino, this at 146-142, the other two judges going for Benitez at 148-143 and 146-143.
Clayton infamously claimed the scorching sun had affected his vision and therefore his ability to accurately score the fight. All these years later, and Benitez – who not too long after the Palomino win went on a steep decline, his erratic training methods catching up with him, his once impregnable defence no more – is in a terrible state, with him needing 24-hour care. Benitez is recognized as a true great of the sport, but Palomino, who is in fine health today, with him not appearing to have even aged, is insistent he won the fight of 45 years ago.
Speaking with Slater’s Boxing YouTube channel, Palomino said he wanted a rematch but was never afforded one.
“The Benitez fight, or the Benitez robbery, I thought I won that one,” Palomino said. “That was in Puerto Rico, and after I got back to the corner after the 15th round, my manager, who was not a bullshitter, Jackie McCoy, he always told me the truth, he said, ‘you won, but you’re not going to get the fight.’ They refused to give me a rematch, so when a fight with [Roberto] Duran was offered, I took that. The Benitez fight was my ninth straight world title fight. But I had broken my hand and I had been off for nine months before the Benitez fight. I needed to work, I needed to stay sharp, and that layoff affected me. At that time, the big money was just starting to come into boxing, with Sugar Ray Leonard, and Tommy Hearns. I couldn’t get a rematch with Benitez because he gave Sugar Ray Leonard a title fight instead. They both made over a million dollars, and that was just six months after I had retired because I always said I’d retire at age 30. At times I thought, maybe I should come back and see if I can get another title fight, maybe against Ray Leonard, and maybe I can make a million dollars.”
So, watching the fight all these years later, was Palomino unlucky not to have gotten the decision over Benitez? There are some rounds that are tough to score, and, of course, Benitez was fighting at home. But Benitez’ brilliance is evident. It’s not hard to see why Palomino feels he won, but ultimately robbery is too strong a word here. That said, a rematch between these two legends would have been very interesting.