Both Wilfred Benitez and Thomas Hearns fell victim to the skills, the cleverness and, to some degree, the mystique of Sugar Ray Leonard. Benitez lost his WBC welterweight title and his unbeaten record to Sugar Ray in 1979, while Hearns lost his WBA welterweight title and his unbeaten record to Leonard in 1981.
Both greats bounced back after being stopped late by Leonard (Benitez being halted in the 15th round, Hearns being stopped in the 14th) and both men made the decision to move up in weight. Now 154 pounders, this the third weight class for Benitez, the Puerto Rican and the Detroit warrior wanted a return fight with Leonard. Benitez reeled off six straight wins after losing to Leonard, winning the WBC 154 title and beating two fine fighters in Maurice Hope and Carlos Santana, and an all-time great in Roberto Duran.
Hearns picked up decent wins over Ernie Singletary, Marcos Geraldo and Jeff McCracken. And now, in December of 1982, the two would clash in a genuinely fascinating match-up. The fight was set for December the 3rd 1982 at the Super Dome in New Orleans. Going into the fight, the experts were divided as to the outcome.
Hearns opted to use his fine and often underrated boxing skills as opposed to going for a quick KO. He respected Benitez’s uncommon defensive abilities and used his height and reach to good effect. Wilfred’s nickname was “El Radar” and at times he really did seem to be able to anticipate punches before they were even thrown.
Whilst being pinned on the ropes or in a corner is normally a dangerous place to be during a fight, Benitez was often right at home there. He had frustrated many opponents who, when thinking they had him right where they wanted him, could only hit fresh air. He also possessed underrated punching power and an incredibly big heart. Some, however, accused him of having crazy and eccentric qualities and this seems accurate when one considers his training habits.
For some of his fights it was claimed that he only prepared for seven to ten days – despite the calibre of the opponent he was scheduled to face. Wilfred had childlike qualities for sure and depending on your view he was either a nutcase or a genius. There has certainly never been anyone like him, before or since.
In the fight with Hearns, Benitez’ radar must have been faulty because he took a number of hard, flush shots to the head. Again seeking refuge in his usually comfortable position of having his back to the ropes, his head movement was no way near as sharp as it had been and Hearns was tagging him frequently.
This is not to say it was all one way traffic. The bout was evenly fought in many of the rounds and both men scored knockdowns. Benitez, typically, refuted the validity of his trip to the floor. Hearns himself may have failed to do as expected – namely go for the KO win – due to injuring his wrist during this portion of the action.
The fight was close but watching it one had the opinion that Tommy was the man generally in charge, as he landed the cleaner and harder punches.
It went to the fifteenth and final round and at the end both men thought they had won. The judges scores were surprising in that two of the three favoured Hearns overwhelmingly, while the other had the fight a draw.
This card was possibly the more accurate, the victory Hearns got was not deserving to be of the huge margin two of the officials had it as. He had done enough, though, and the majority decision gave him Hearns second world title.
Sadly, the storied career of Wilfred Benitez didn’t have a happy ending. He continued fighting until as recently as 1990, losing almost as often as winning. Sometimes the losses came at the hands of good fighters, such as Mustafa Hamsho and Davey Moore, while at other times he was beaten by men who would never have troubled him at all in the days of his prime.
Wilfred’s last fight was a loss to a guy named Scott Papsadora. His final record reads 53 – 8 -1. By the time of his eventual retirement serious damage had been done to his brain and today he lives in a nursing home suffering from a condition called post traumatic encefalopatia. He needs constant care and lives a very poor life.
It is a tragic case and serves to remind us of the dangers boxing can have sometimes. However talented and unique Benitez may have been there is no denying the essential need of the basic fundamentals when it comes to preparing for, and engaging in, a boxing match.
The claims of a bizarre and one off attitude endorsed by Wilfred while in training may be true and if so then these methods, along with his sometimes unsuccessful defensive postures in the ring (particularly as he got older) have almost definitely contributed to his now sorry state.
As for the hoped for rematch with Leonard, Sugar Ray had announced his retirement in late 1982, due to retinal trouble. This did not stop Hearns, and Marvin Hagler, from believing the superstar and cash cow of the lower weight divisions would fight again (as was the case as we know), but for now Hearns and Hagler had one other super-fight option: to fight each other.
Hearns did get a second go at Leonard but he had to wait until 1989 to get it. As for Hagler, well, he perhaps wishes he never got that 1987 mega-fight with Leonard.