The latest home for one of boxing's youngest champions is the last place anyone would look. There are reasons for that, starting with the gunshots back in Phoenix that split apart and redirected the paths of the fighting Benavidez brothers, threatening to derail their father’s dream. José Benavidez Sr. had stolen food, slept in cars, carried guns, boosted stereos, learned a sport, opened gyms, fought off rivals. And then, finally, on the verge of grasping all he desired, the plan he scratched and begged and worked tirelessly for started to fall apart.
After all of that, he says his life became “a little bit more complicated.”
Three years after the shooting upended all his sacrifice, Senior and his sons—José Jr. and David, who won his first belt at 20—can be found in the greater-Seattle area in Renton, Wash., a hotbed for elite youth basketball near the waterfront headquarters of an NFL power. Their gym is tucked into a strip mall of impossibly diverse options: fish house, halal market, teriyaki restaurant, copy spot, haircut place, climbing space for kids and the massage parlor, Blissful Knead. The windows to the gym are covered in the likenesses of the Brothers Benavidez, who have been trained, goaded, prodded, protected, angered and managed by their father their entire lives. The artwork serves dual purposes, at once announcing that boxing’s most challenged—and perhaps most challenging—family has arrived, while also blocking anyone hoping to peer inside.
In 23 years, David Benavidez and his family have lived something like 23 lifetimes. Even in boxing, a sport where complicated father-son relationships trend toward the extreme, the Benavidez boys present an outlying case study in family dynamics. They have shot guns and been shot at. Been threatened with lawsuits and sued. Moved to five different states. Confronted everything from rival promotional companies, internal discord, reports of their “toxic” relationship, the shooting, the death of a beloved uncle, a drug suspension and, now, a pandemic. All to arrive here, of all places, preparing for Aug. 15, when David is favored to batter Roamer Alexis Angulo at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut on Showtime.
The story of David’s improbable boxing climb—and Junior’s sudden fall—is a tale soaked in violence, heightened by hyperbole and grounded in unwavering confidence. And it’s almost impossible to believe. It’s the story of a father and his two sons, the boys on which he imposed his ambitions, creating champions and chaos and three perspectives on one dream. A family that stands perpetually on the precipice of greatness and remains in danger of losing everything.
Senior: Mexico, 1970s
Before Senior knew anything about boxing, he was just a boy who had been abandoned his entire childhood. His parents separated when he was two; his dad walked out on the family, and his mom left for the United States, leaving her son with her mother, who was in her 80s and too frail to care for a young child. So before he raised two boxing champions, Senior, as he likes to say, raised himself.
His stories can sound apocryphal to the point that even his sons wonder where they might be embellished or touched up. Senior says that until age 11 he worked in fields, harvesting or planting corn. He says he also stole food, and when he couldn’t find any scraps to pilfer, he ate leaves sprinkled with salt, discarded fruit he found in garbage bins, “little animals from the mountains,” plus dirt. Yes, dirt.
He says he moved to California at 11, summoned by his mother. He says his stepdad kicked him out. He says that he quit school after eighth grade, ran with gangs and even started one of his own, teaching fellow members how to steal radios from cars. He says he sold drugs, sleeping with a 9 millimeter under the pillow. He says he never considered another life, until …
Senior: Phoenix, 1992
Senior can still remember the first day he saw his namesake, that beautiful little boy he would call Junior, the first of his four children. Still a teenager, Senior moved to Arizona with his family and secured a job at the Ritz-Carlton, ascending from dishwasher to banquet captain over the next 15 years. He bought a house, settled down and was happily married for a time.
If Junior’s birth marked a revelation, David’s arrival, in 1996, only reinforced Senior’s desire to succeed regardless of what it took. Even in his relatively peaceful new existence, he still worried constantly about his children, wondering whether they would pay for his mistakes. “I always thought for some reason I was going to die,” he says. “I could see this moment, my death. So I said, God, give me another day, so that I can make them stronger.”
Senior placed his children into soccer and baseball and distance running and swimming, strengthening them in any way that he could find. But they appeared drawn to one sport above all others: boxing.
Senior: Phoenix, 1990s, early 2000s
When Senior decided to become a trainer, manager and boxing aficionado, all he knew at that point was the greatness of Oscar De La Hoya. Still, he proved an eager student, showing up at gyms, pestering anyone who would entertain his endless questions, buying instructional videos and tapes of old fights until he wore out the family VCR.
Senior says he started to wake Junior at 5 a.m. for roadwork at “age two or three.” He made mini pads for the little boy to hit. Before Junior was in kindergarten, Senior started to place him with opponents of increasing skill level, for longer durations, wanting to drain his son’s hyperactive energy. This, he told both boys, is what sacrifice looks like.
David: Phoenix, 2000
The boy his father calls “our ugly duckling” also began training as a toddler, although with far less acclaim. If his brother was the prodigy who hardly watched fights, David was the fan, who always did. Hoping to bond with his father, he studied Marco Antonio Barrera, “Prince” Naseem Hamed and Roy Jones Jr. at the same time he watched cartoons. He also woke up at 5 a.m. to run two miles, just like his brother, who, once he started school, would jog the mile from the family home each morning, doubling the distance with a longer route.
By age eight, Junior had won dozens of amateur fights. His parents would divorce. Junior would go to live with his father, while David went to stay with his mom and younger sister. This marked the first time the brothers’ paths diverged.
David: Phoenix, 2008
At home with mom, David stopped boxing and took up a new hobby: eating away his feelings of not measuring up to his father’s expectations or his brother’s immediate success. After school, David would make two packages of ramen noodles, down both, then slam an Oreo sleeve, then scarf down dinner and dessert. He favored hot Cheetos, cake with extra frosting, nacho cheese, Taco Bell and Mountain Dew Code Red. He never ate Happy Meals, starting instead on the value combos, even supersizing them. He gained 80 pounds, ballooning to 260 or so by age 12.
At school, kids did what kids do. When David told others that he boxed, they pointed at his physique and cracked jokes. “Fat ass!” they taunted. “You don’t box!”
Senior: Los Angeles, 2009
While David stayed in Phoenix, his father and brother moved to Hollywood, like some pugilistic Clampetts, so that Junior could turn pro. By then, Junior was an 11-time national champion with more than 100 amateur victories, a prodigy in every sense who had won the National Golden Gloves title at 16. Sometimes, the Benavidez boys slept in their car, or with Freddie Roach, who welcomed them to Wild Card Boxing Club, his famous training ground at the corner of Santa Monica and Vine.
Then, David called his dad one day. At age 13 and overweight, he wanted to move back in with them and return to boxing.
“If you do,” Senior told him, “you will become champion of the world.”
David: Los Angeles, 2010
When David stepped into Wild Card for the first time, his father did a double take. “Dang,” he said. “You’re just so god--- fat.” Many at the gym laughed like David’s classmates. They knew Junior, who was ripped, handsome, charismatic and marked for stardom. David? A teenaged Butterbean, with speed despite his size and newfound power behind his punches. “In my mind, he felt depressed,” Senior says. “He didn’t talk to nobody. He would only talk to me.”
The Benavidez boys resumed their regimen. David cut out all drinks except for water. He stopped eating rice, bread and pasta, save for the occasional treat. He ate fish, chicken and salad after waddling through every morning run. The weight dripped off him, but he retained the power. Senior started to run his mouth about his youngest, saying things that seemed unbelievable at the time. “He’s better than Junior!” he would shout. “He has more heart! He’s more grounded!”
“I tried to convince people,” Senior says now. “They would laugh in my face.”
Junior: Los Angeles, Phoenix, 2011–13
One year after turning pro, Junior had already notched 14 victories with 12 KOs. His career remained the family’s shared aim. But the more he won, the more the circle expanded, and tension escalated between Senior and the crew at Wild Card. To rebuild a cocoon, Senior moved back to Arizona and opened his own gym. He fell in love again, remarried and had another daughter. With four kids now relying on one pro and his father-trainer, Senior became even more strict, assuming absolute control. His boys couldn’t go to the movies. They rarely saw their friends. “It was bad for them,” he admits. “They had no childhood.”
Back in Phoenix, Senior says his sons rebelled. Junior says the brothers had grown weary of all the rules, all the I-ate-dirt stories. They didn’t have to struggle the way Senior had, but he never ceased to remind them of his sacrifice. Senior says that sometimes he believed that Junior “hated” him, a notion that Junior denies, saying he understood his father’s methods, the cost of training and national tournaments and his dad’s desire to maximize his immense talent. He knows his father often pulled up at McDonald’s with $2 and change, bought a pair of double cheeseburgers off the value menu and gave one apiece to each son while his stomach rumbled. “I did have a rough childhood,” Junior says. “But that’s how my dad was: rough. The thing about him is he’s always going to find a way.”
David: California, 2012
With Junior firmly established as a contender, Senior spent more time trying to elevate David to the same place. That meant David would spar grown men at age 15. He dropped a 200-pounder with a chiseled frame. One suffered a broken nose; others crumpled to the canvas. At that point, Senior suggested that David try his skills against professionals and world champions, and David learned one of the great lessons of boxing—that every fighter feels fear every time they fight and that anyone who says otherwise is lying. He felt scared when he stepped into the ring for sparring sessions with Kelly Pavlik, Peter Quillin and Gennady Golovkin, all champs who hit so hard he’d lose his breath.
GGG came to advise David like an older brother, offering strategy tips and even suggesting the services of his trainer, the highly regarded Abel Sanchez. Father and son shot GGG a quizzical look. This was prime GGG, set to make his U.S. debut and become a pay-per-view star. Surely, he was simply being kind. No, he told them, I’m for real.
David: Mexico, 2013
As the young boxer’s confidence rose, Senior decided that David, at 16, should also turn pro. By then, David had dropped to almost 100 pounds to 170. But he would have to fight in Mexico, with only 15 amateur bouts on his résumé, because no sanctioning body in the U.S. would ever approve an opponent of that age.
The bout took place in Rocky Point, the fishing and resort town southwest of Phoenix, over the border. “I was,” he admits, “super scared.” Senior heard all the complaints. “A lot of people told me I was crazy,” he says. “That I’m stupid. That I want to get rich off of my kids. It got in my mind, you know. Like, maybe I am. Maybe I’m making a mistake.”
David had never fought without headgear, in front of a real crowd. But his family packed into the stands, including his favorite uncle, his mother’s brother, U.S. Army veteran Moises Balladares. David won by knockout, in the first round, against an opponent who would never fight again. The danger was real but not as heavy as he’d imagined, the result of another Senior calculation, all part of the plan.
The family dream shifted in that moment. Now, Senior and his boys all wanted the same thing: for both David and Junior to hold belts at the same time.
Still, the Benavidez boys were broke. What they made went back into their operation, or to the whims of the boys who took the risk inside the ring. Senior continued to crisscross the country, bolstering his training methods, visiting respected camps like those run by the Diaz brothers, Sanchez and Robert Garcia. The plan had fallen perfectly into place. Now, he planned to build on it.
His oldest won a world title first, just as Senior had designed. In Las Vegas, against Mauricio Herrera, Junior nabbed the WBA super lightweight belt by unanimous decision in 2014. He had no idea that night when he celebrated that he would fight only three more times before The Incident—and only six more times in the next six years.
No one could have anticipated the wild, dubious, impossible sequence yet to come.
Junior: Phoenix, 2015
Senior saw his namesake’s behavior change. Every dime that Junior made from fighting he seemed to spend on fast sports cars or put toward fancy guns. He bought a Colt .38 with an image of the grim reaper carved onto the handle. Senior would hear his boy speeding away from the gym, in one souped-up ride or another, the engines revving like on the infield at Daytona. Every time he heard a helicopter overhead he thought the police were giving chase. When someone torched one of Junior’s rides, a Mercedes, many around the family speculated that someone had tried to collect on one of Senior’s unpaid debts. False, he says.
After months of sleepless nights, Senior decided to confront his oldest. “Guess what?” he thundered, taking aim at his son’s reckless lifestyle. “You’re going to get in trouble. You think you’re a superstar, you’re a champion, you get free s---, you can do whatever you want? You could end up dead.”
He always yelled the same thing at Junior. You’ll understand when you’re a parent!
David: U.S. Virgin Islands, 2015
Even though David won his first 10 fights, with nine KOs, any interest in signing him remained scarce. Top Rank Boxing passed. So did Golden Boy Promotions. Senior started to lie to his son, telling David there was interest, while all but begging for deals in the background. He worried his mere presence helped more than it hurt, and he felt like he couldn't help either boy achieve their dream.
The trajectory changed that summer, when undefeated boxer Julius Jackson, who had won the WBA super middleweight title the year before, invited David down to picturesque St. Thomas for sparring. David could hardly believe his luck—a free, all-expenses paid trip to a tropical island where he’d stay at the oceanside mansion of a prominent politician and bank $1,200 per week for a month.
A woman picked up Senior and David at the airport on a cloudless afternoon. “I hope your son doesn’t get hurt,” the woman said, highlighting the perceived danger in the matchup.
On the first day, the first time they engaged, in the first round, David battered Jackson into an early submission. That’s super rare in sparring and almost unheard of for the champion/host. “I’m not even playing, I landed like an 18-punch combination,” David says.
Jackson’s trainer called Sampson Lewkowicz, the boxing manager and promoter, and told him: You’re dumb if you don’t sign this guy.
“After that, his life changed,” Senior says of David. “I didn’t know he was that good. He was the ugly duckling. Nobody had believed in him but us.”
Junior: Phoenix, 2016
On the night that three lives changed, Junior went outside the home that he shared with his girlfriend to walk his Schnauzer and what he claims was a $10,000 cat, the exotic pet indicative of his warped perspective. Outside, he started down the street, his head buried in his phone, immersed in Snapchat updates. After the dog started barking, Junior noticed a man standing nearby, wearing, oddly, a dark hoodie in the triple-digit summer heat.
As the man slowly approached, Junior noticed his mustache, sideburns and a familiar expression he often saw from opponents—fear. The man asked whether his dog bit. No, he responded, as he bent down toward the dog and heard the first shot from the gun that pierced the femoral artery in his right knee. Junior raised his right hand in front of him, and the bullet meant for his head instead glanced the edge of his pinkie finger.
“Dude,” Junior told his assailant, “you a b----.”
Junior called his father first, then David. He worried more for his career than for his life. He screamed into the night, until an ambulance’s siren drowned out his wails. He told his father that he failed him, ruining the dream they shared. He told his brother not to worry, that he would be all right. As the news spread, extended family and friends expressed shock, outrage. But not Senior. “When I heard he got shot, I knew it was coming,” he says.
The Benavidez boys believe that someone close to Junior ordered the shooting, after a dispute over a woman that Junior had “stolen” from one of his gangster friends. His father had warned Junior, both of what might happen and what he stood to lose if anything went wrong. But despite all the sacrifice, all he’d done and all he’d left behind, he couldn’t save Junior on that night.
Senior started to sink into a depression. His oldest had turned into his old self. He pointed the blame inward and thought: I created a monster.
That was only half of it.
David: Las Vegas, 2017
One brother’s rise continued while the other brother’s halted on that street, their paths diverging once again. Junior was shot where the knee bends, just under the kneecap, and, as the ligaments and cartilage healed, everything twisted into knots. Doctors wondered whether he would walk again, let alone fight, ever. The shooting had forced the family to again opt for relocation, at first back to Los Angeles. “It just made me paranoid,” David says. “Just being there in Phoenix. I still really don’t go back much. It’s something you never forget.”
David won on ShoBox, the prospect showcase for Showtime. He fought at bigger venues, like the Barclays Center, the MGM Grand and AT&T Stadium. More knockouts. More buzz. And, finally, a title fight, scheduled for Sept. 8, 2017, against Ronald Gavril at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas. The whole brood planned to be there, again, just as they had for his first pro bout in Mexico.
With three weeks left in camp, David received a frantic phone call from his mother: Her brother and David’s beloved uncle, Balladares, had been fatally shot in Arizona in a standoff with the police, the circumstances murky. The cops said he was threatening to kill himself. David worried about his brother, that he might lapse and seek vengeance for his uncle’s death. He took three days off from training to consider canceling the title shot. Ultimately, he believed his uncle would have wanted him to fight—not just for himself, but for his brother, whose dream and knee had both been shattered.
As the fight drew near, David came down with the worst flu of his life. He could hardly get out of bed and he still had to drop eight pounds in the final 24 hours before the weigh-in. Boosted by intestinal fortitude—and guilt over his family’s saga—David made weight, dragged his weary body into the ring and scratched out a split-decision victory, good for the family’s second world title.
At age 20, David was officially boxing’s youngest champion, but he hardly felt like celebrating. He went to the hospital afterward, to receive treatment for a broken hand, and he could hear the nurses, incredulous, talking to the man in the next bed over. A drawn curtain separated them. As the doctor ticked off the man’s injuries, listing a concussion, a broken nose and a broken jaw, David realized that it was his opponent sitting next to him. He felt bad in that moment and wondered: What was the purpose of all this? Why him? His father? His family?
All their futures now hinged on him.
“I do this to make you happy,” he told his older brother after he won the title.
“Don’t,” Junior responded. “You’re going to have problems if you’re not happy with yourself.”
David: Las Vegas, 2018
The higher David climbed, the heavier it became to carry his family history and burdens. For a while, that worked in his favor, serving as the best kind of motivation, intrinsic and essential. In February 2018, he dominated the rematch with Gavril to retain his title. But he also started down the familiar path of self-destruction, of women and parties and drugs.
David wanted to move back to Phoenix, his father says, to party with his friends, the exact path that Junior had taken to nearly fatal results. His father wanted to scream. Instead, he tried to calmly lay it out for David. He had left everything—his house, his gym, his second family—to help David secure the belt that hung around his waist. And David wanted to throw all that away? For drugs? If that was his choice, Senior dared, then take it. David stayed.
They moved to Oregon, then Las Vegas, where the Benavidez boys found trouble yet again. David signed with Top Rank behind his father’s back, then changed his mind, then decided to go with Lewkowicz, who paid back David’s $250,000 signing bonus and assumed control of his career.
Months later, still in Vegas that September, David tested positive for cocaine. His third title defense was canceled. He lost his belt without losing a fight and was suspended for four months. His family lost something worse. Their dream. His father’s dream. Again.
Senior: Las Vegas, 2018
The father says he struggled more than his sons ever knew. Late at night, unable to sleep, Senior wondered if his methods had caused their collective downfall. “I felt terrible,” Senior says. “I really wanted to kill myself. I just wanted to give up. I’m sacrificing my wife, my little girl. I’m f------ broke. And I’m supposed to be protecting them.”
Story of my life, he says. Push, prod, inch higher. Ignore those who question motives. Make something from literally nothing. “And, then, boom,” Senior says. “Something happens.”
Senior, Junior and David: Renton, Wash., 2019
Through all the mishaps and bad decisions and the shooting, Senior continued to move camp. Both he and his youngest son desired the same aim. Something closer to normalcy. A place to begin to reclaim all that they had lost.
Eventually, they all settled outside Seattle, near the airport. One of David’s friends grew up near there, and he swayed David with his descriptions of the summers, plus the chance to build a boxing haven in one place nobody would ever expect. David bought a house near the water. Junior got a spot nearby. Senior opened one gym, grew it and then opened another, in that strip mall, with images of his homegrown champions covering the windows, preparing for business to boom in the spring of 2020—until the coronavirus pandemic hit.
After topping J'Leon Love in his postsuspension comeback fight, David won back his belt in September 2019, knocking out another world champion in Anthony Dirrell at the Staples Center in L.A. Three fights he expected to be made never materialized. But despite his own career stall, the positive test, the death of his uncle, the injury to his brother and COVID-freaking-19, he had found something near Seattle that he had never had as an adult. Stability felt good. His girlfriend became pregnant with his first child, a boy he plans to mold into a fighter, another link in the family business. She’s due in September. “It seems like home now,” David says. “Like how it felt back at the beginning.”
David: Renton, Wash., 2020
David knows what’s possible, starting with his next fight. Should he continue to win, the options at super middleweight appear endless, from Canelo Alvarez to Caleb Plant and Callum Smith and Billy Joe Saunders and Gilberto Ramirez. He wants all of them, he says, especially Plant. Should David make a run through that gantlet, he’d be staring at pay-per-view millions, a Hall of Fame career and a lucrative move up to the 175-pound division. Big if, of course, but hardly more far-fetched than what has taken place to now. David also knows he’s not even 24 years old, still a year or three from really entering his prime.
“I really want to see the Canelo fight,” Junior says of boxing’s top draw, a candidate for defining fighter of the post-Mayweather-Pacquiao era. “I guarantee he’ll beat the f--- out of him.”
David says, “I want them to mention me and Canelo, like they mention Manny and Floyd.”
As for Junior, David says, “I want to take care of him, too. I told him, if you ever need anything, just let me know.”
In a bizarre twist to an already bizarre story, David did not make weight Friday before his COVID-comeback fight tomorrow. He came in 2.8 pounds over the super middleweight limit of 168, thus becoming the rarest kind of boxer, one who lost his belt twice without losing a fight. He will still compete on Saturday, but he can no longer defend his title. It's like Senior said. Something goes well for the fighting Benavidez brothers. And then, boom. Something happens.
Junior: Renton, Wash., 2020
The first champion in the Benavidez family isn’t sleeping much these days. That’s due mostly to his daughter, born four months ago, the impetus behind extending his break from boxing. Junior had never really taken time off before, except after the shooting, when he came back in less than two years and even fought Terence Crawford, perhaps the top boxer alive, for the WBO welterweight belt. Senior advised against that matchup, saying Junior wasn’t fully recovered, and yet Junior acquitted himself well, going deep with the formidable champion, who scored a final-round KO.
Through all that, Junior understands, finally, what Senior told him. He is, after all, a parent.
Now, he says, “I’m going to be back. I will be world champion again.”
David simultaneously worries about Junior and believes in his comeback chances. Sometimes, he feels guilty. For two healthy legs. For two world titles. For all that’s still in front of him. He still wants both brothers to hold belts at the same time, making all three dreams reality. “The thing that sucks is he’ll never be the same,” David says. “I try and motivate him, but [the shooting] stuck with him. It was probably the people around him who did that. I don’t know. It just sucks. He has—what is it?—PTSD.”
Senior: Renton, Wash., July 2020
Despite the unfathomable adventure that led here, Senior would seem to have everything he ever wanted. At last. His oldest boy is a former world champion who survived two bullets and turned his life around. His youngest boy, also a world champion, still has countless opportunities in boxing, despite the drug suspension. By September, God willing, both boys will be parents, and Senior will be a grandfather twice over. His gym is open now, with plenty of customers and space carved out for his boys to train in pristine cleanliness so as to avoid COVID-19. Senior says that David’s fight against Angulo on Saturday isn’t the culmination of their life’s work, it’s closer to the beginning of what’s possible. Nobody is eating dirt.
But everything, as usual with the Benavidez boys, is not exactly as it seems. Unprompted, Senior begins detailing another fight outside the ring. Their fortunes have changed again, but he still seems to see disaster looming, always and forever. He worries that he and his sons are no longer aligned, that he's losing his influence as they grow older. “People are going through their heads, you know,” he says. “They want more. They gotta think about their own families. Sometimes, I wonder: do they care about me?”
The tenor of the conversation changes. It’s darker from then on. Would he do everything again? “Well, I’m broke,” he says. He pauses for so long it seems like he has stopped answering. But he eventually continues. “I don’t know, man. It’s so much sacrifice. At the end of the day, people say I’m a thief. Me!”
He cites the promotional companies that turned him down, the nights spent in those cars, the double cheeseburgers he watched his sons eat. He mentions the long list of boxers who lost millions in divorce courts, even their own belts. It’s like there’s what he knows he should say and what he wants to say and those notions are warring in his head. “Sometimes, it just hurts so much,” he says. “When you work so hard, and you don’t get a little bit of credit. Or they would prefer listening to other people.”
His eyes well with tears. “I just want a big f------ hug, you know,” he says. “I don’t need money. I’m here, with my little girl, training the boys, doing what I love doing. I want that hug. It’s more important than anything.”
Senior pulls back the curtain on the private training space. He points to a framed picture hanging from the wall. It’s him and his two boys, just children, and they’re posed inside the ring, smiles stretched wide across their faces. That picture means everything to him, perhaps even more than the belts. “See,” he says, “when they were little, before …” He trails off, the implication clear.
Editor's Note: This story was updated with the news Benavidez did not make weight for Saturday's fight.