It was 10 a.m. the morning after, in an apartment close by Madison Square Garden, and the young man was already up and finished with breakfast when he would have had every right to be sleeping it off. You would think that he might have spent the night celebrating his 30th victory and the 23rd KO of his undefeated pro fighting career—particularly when you consider that his 19th birthday is next month.
But Wilfredo Benitez is a serious type and not the celebrating kind. "After the fight I come home," he said. "I look in the refrigerator. I eat some fruits. Then I go to bed." His years are belied by a neat black mustache, a week's beard and a nearly somber expression. Wouldn't it have been natural for an 18-year-old to go out dancing after a fight that had left him unmarked and comparatively unextended and had enriched him by $45,000? "I never go dance," said Wilfredo. "If I start to do that, I lose."
Fair enough. Not losing, as opposed to not clearly winning, was exactly what the young Puerto Rican had been doing for most of the previous evening's junior welterweight fight at the Garden. However, precisely what Wilfredo had not lost was open to question. Last November the World Boxing Association had taken away his world junior welterweight championship when he failed to defend it against the ex-champ, Antonio Cervantes of Venezuela. Benitez claimed that he was unable to fight because of the aftereffects of an auto accident. The New York State Athletic Commission in effect sided with Wilfredo, allowing the Garden to match him for the New York version of the world title against Jose Chavez, a Venezuelan now living in Montreal and said to be the welterweight champion of Canada.
Chavez made his main impact when he appeared in the ring, his pearly white tailcoat clearly outpointing Wilfredo's conventional pink and white striped robe. It wasn't until Round 7, when Chavez landed a hard left, that he did any further scoring.
August 14, 1977
Long before that, however, the 11,236 customers at the Garden had lost all patience as Chavez, ducking low and bouncing out of range, introduced about as much body contact into the fight as you'd expect in a moderately passionate Ping-Pong match. By Round 2 the whistling had started; a heel-drumming theme was introduced in the third, followed by major-chord booing in the fourth. Between rounds Benitez sat listening to his father-manager Gregorio, his face as impassive as the funeral mask of King Tutankhamen. Whatever Gregorio said, it had little effect. Benitez pursued Chavez, sometimes hurting him with jabs but never really catching him, always having the edge but never coming close to being the world-class puncher that experts had labeled him after he demolished Mel Dennis of Houston last March.
The pace was slow, but the crowd's derision stemmed from more than the stately tempo. In a preliminary bout, they had witnessed a thunder-and-lightning performance which whetted their appetites for another serving of slam-bang action. Now they felt doubly let down, for the true glory of the evening seemed already spent. That was when Junior Lightweight Alexis Arguello of Nicaragua—with no more than five punches—a left-right double, a left hook, a right to the body and a final right to the jaw—destroyed Jose Fernandez in a little over two minutes of the first round of their bout. The redoubtable Arguello, now 25 and having outgrown his world featherweight title, seems to be in a direct line for a WBA lightweight championship fight with Roberto Duran, by way, possibly, of a contest with Junior Lightweight Alfredo Escalera. That encounter might share the bill with the Ali-Shavers bout in September at the Garden.
Not until the 12th round of the Benitez fight was there any action to compare with the explosion that Arguello had set off. Then, with the largely Puerto Rican crowd baying for Chavez' blood, came a sudden solid right that put Chavez halfway through the ropes. Strangely, Benitez failed to follow it up. In the 13th much of the crowd's attention was diverted to a rival fight that had broken out at the back of the arena; those not watching that more exciting battle were whistling their disgust at the inactivity in the ring. Even in the 14th round, when Chavez came close to going through the ropes again, hundreds of fans were leaving the Garden.
But then, a minute and a half into the last round, it all happened at once. Benitez rocked Chavez with a left uppercut, zinged in a body shot and a left to the jaw. What followed set the world land speed record: Benitez threw no less than 22 punches in a blur, most of them to the head, climaxing the flurry with a final and positive right that knocked Chavez through the ropes and left him draped there like a rag doll. The fight was over. When Benitez finally lived up to his advance notices, he was magnificent.
In the dressing room, Wilfredo found it hard to get the noise of the boos out of his head. "They shout 'woo, woo' all the time at me," he said. "But in the 15th, they all shout 'oooooh.' "
That was a fair enough summary. He had held back, Benitez said, on the advice of his father, who had seen him starve for three days to get half a pound under the 140 limit. "Eighteen pounds was too much to lose. Maybe I trained too hard. I was short of breath. That crowd, they want action all the time, and I can't do it. I have to wait. I am fighting for my title. And that Chavez. He is a veteran. He's a good boxer. He don't have to say, 'I'm bad.' "
Clearly Chavez was not feeling bad, although he was plainly hurt around the eyes and forehead. Had he also been bothered by having to lose weight? No, he said, losing the fight was what bothered him. "My problem is my right hand," he said, claiming that a doctor had already diagnosed a break, or at least a crack, in one of the small bones. Because he was preoccupied at the time with jamming ice cubes into the neck of a water bottle with that same hand, the alibi seemed curious. "I punched him in the 15th," Chavez said, warming to his theme, "and I felt the pain in my hand—oof! Then he unloaded on me. Twenty-two punches? Is that what it was?"
The truth is that both men were fighting under the handicap of having to make the weight, and Benitez is determined not to box at 140 pounds again. "I'm growing too much," he said. "I think I'm going to middleweight, even to light heavyweight. Soon I do 160, 164 pounds. Someday I got to fight with a good guy in the middleweights because if I go on like I'm doing now, winning, winning, then I don't have a contender at welterweight. I got to fight at middleweight because nobody can beat me down here." However, there might be at least one bit of unfinished business down there before Wilfredo moves up. One likely match would be with Harold Weston of New York, against whom Benitez fought a draw in February, thereby sullying his perfect record.
In that fight Benitez was the target of criticism for his apparently flippant attitude in the ring, for his Ali-style clowning that cost him the decision. He doesn't plan to clown any more. The only reason he had done it once was to catch a quick rest in the middle of a round, as Ali does. Certainly there was no indication that Benitez was anxious to play the ham against Chavez. And next morning he gave plenty of evidence that he is a very serious character, above all in the respect he feels for his father, who took him back to Puerto Rico, away from the South Bronx and P.S. 124 when Wilfredo was seven. "My father played championship softball." Benitez says proudly, "and my brothers were good baseball players, but the neighborhood was deteriorating. He wanted to get us away from bad friendship."
At home in Puerto Rico, one good resolution seems to have gone by the board—to finish his senior year at high school. "The first people to dissuade me would be the students," he says with every appearance of sincerity. "They would say, 'Look, you'll get a diploma for this or that. But that is all they give you. You have the chance to know life because you have the right work.' Sure, you need a diploma so that you can say, look, I went to high school, I finished. But there are a few I know got As and Bs, and I see them hanging around the streets. Drug addicts...."
Maybe that is just a rationalization. Wilfredo's teachers tell him that he has missed too many classes. They watch him fall asleep in class because he's been out early in the morning, running. In any event, it seems highly unlikely that school will see him again. "What I am doing now," he says, "I have to enjoy it. Because of my youth. There are very few who have it so good."
Even if that means fruit from the refrigerator and early to bed. For the moment, it seems to satisfy Wilfredo.