In view of the first Benitez-Curry fight last November, the rematch was supposed to be all-out war. But what the fans at Madison Square Garden witnessed last Friday night was a dance and a shuffle through the fifth round, and by then Bruce Curry, who had fought only eight days before in Japan, was too exhausted to care. "I just wanted to get it done and go to bed," he said later. "I should have sent out for coffee."
As Curry pooped out, Wilfredo Benitez, the junior welterweight champion of New York, surged. Curry had dropped him three times last year, but by the sixth round last Friday Benitez decided his chin was safe. Benitez began piling up points, more than enough, as it turned out, to win the 10-round decision. Which earned him the dubious pleasure of meeting lightweight champion Roberto Duran in New York on April 27.
"But hold it a minute," said Gregorio Benitez, the 19-year-old Puerto Rican's father and manager. "We haven't signed any contract to fight Duran. There are still a few things to discuss."
One is money, the other is weight. For the non-title bout, Duran would get $100,000. The Garden has offered Benitez $60,000 and wants him to come in at 143 pounds (for Curry he weighed 145½). Papa Benitez wants another $40,000 and two more pounds—unless he sells his son's contract first.
February 13, 1978
"I want to sell my kid," said Gregorio. "All I'm asking is $150,000, 10% of all his future purses and two tickets to all his fights. I say to all of them, you put the money in my hand and I put my kid in your hand. After that I don't care what you do with my kid. If the new owner wants him to fight Duran at 143 pounds, that is his worry. I want to be like Pontius Pilate: wash my hands of the whole thing."
Gregorio first offered to sell his son's contract to promoter Don King, who said no thank you, but offered to pay him $150,000 for two fights.
"I wanted to sell him; all Don wanted to do was promote him," said Gregorio. "And Don is always in a hurry. I don't like to do business with people in a hurry. So I tell him to forget it."
Then he asked Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker, to help him find a buyer.
"Are you kidding?" Brenner said. "I find a buyer, the buyer wants him to fight a certain guy, and then you tell him not to take the fight. Who is your son going to listen to: you or his new manager?"
Benitez has a third argument against fighting Duran, at least in April. Last June, Josè Sulaimàn, the World Boxing Council president, told Gregorio that he was next in line for a shot at WBC welterweight champion Carlos Palomino.
"Either him or the Chinese guy he's fighting," Gregorio said, apparently referring to Ryu Sorimachi of Japan. "Brenner and me will be out in Las Vegas next week to talk to Palomino. Sulaimàn will be there too. So why fight Duran, like they are talking? Palomino is for a title and Duran is for 10 rounds. If we beat Palomino then we got the title and then we give a chance to Duran, only we're fighting at 147 pounds then. With all that, right now a Duran match is too dangerous. Unless Teddy gives us the $100,000 and two more pounds. Then we fight."
For the moment, numbers like $100,000 are beyond Curry's reach. That's $96,000 more than he got for the first Benitez fight, when he was a 3-to-1 underdog despite his 13-0 record. He all but destroyed the overconfident Puerto Rican, knocking him down three times. And then stood there and listened while two of the three New York judges gave Benitez the decision.
Disgusted, the 21-year-old ex-Texan went home to Los Angeles, where he signed to fight Minoru Fugiya for $10,000 in Japan on Jan. 24. Fugiya was Japan's No. 3 junior welterweight. Curry already had knocked out Japan's No. 1 and 2. It was easy money. Then the Garden called and offered him the rematch with Benitez. For $12,500.
"We were really in a bind," says Jesse Reid, Curry's manager. "We were committed to the fight in Japan, where Bruce is something of a hero. And we wanted the rematch with Benitez after the robbery they gave us. We figured we'd just go ahead with both fights."
The first one wasn't much of a problem. Overriding protests from the Garden, Curry flew to Japan, floored Fugiya five times and knocked him out in the third round. It was his eighth knockout in 15 fights.
The next day Curry flew for 10 hours back to Los Angeles, rested there for a day, then flew for five hours to New York City, and rested for a week. Since Jan. 22 he had had but one hard workout, plus three rounds of sparring against the inept Fugiya.
"I know why they fought that bum in Japan," said Gregorio Benitez. "To build Curry's confidence. After we beat him, he had to be down. It was a smart move on their part. But it won't help him. We are going to put him in a hospital this time."
In a smart move of his own, Gregorio had shipped his playboy son to Mexico City for a month's hard work in rarefied air. There Wilfredo sparred more than 100 rounds, which is about 90 more than he sparred before the first Curry fight. "My kid was in terrible shape the first fight," Gregorio said.
Sitting in a chair next to his father, Wilfredo grinned. He had been switching the dial on a TV set, trying to find a monster movie. Now he said, "The first fight was supposed to be with Duran. I was starting to work hard. Then Duran got sick, and they said I was fighting Curry instead. I said, 'Curry who?' And I stopped working. He knocked me down three times. Then I knew who Curry was. This time I have worked very hard. I no play."
For the first four rounds of the fight, Benitez remembered too well who Curry was. Mostly he stayed outside. Far outside.
"Go get him, Bruce!" Tom Logan, Curry's trainer, screamed from the corner. "He's the guy sitting in the second row. Press him. You've got to go get him."
Slowly, Curry pursued Benitez, occasionally banging to the body, pressing the fight, but not much. By the fifth round, Benitez began to realize he was in against a different Curry this time. The Puerto Rican became bolder, became once more the clever boxer who had taken the junior welterweight title from Antonio Cervantes of Colombia. Sliding swiftly in and out, Benitez hammered at Curry in short, sharp bursts: jabs, hooks, straight right hands. They came in a blur. He has astonishing hand speed.
Unhurt, but his strength fading rapidly, Curry husbanded his punches, saving what he had left for the one big punch that could end it. He almost found it—four seconds after the bell ended the seventh round.
With eight seconds to go in the round, which he had dominated, Benitez scored with a hard right to the head. Stung, Curry went at him with both hands, and Benitez met him with both hands. Toe-to-toe they pounded each other. The bell rang. Still they fought. Referee Tony Perez tried to move in between the fighters, and Benitez hooked him hard to the head, blackening his left eye. As Perez staggered back, Curry smashed a crushing hook to the right side of Benitez' head. The Puerto Rican's legs quivered. Benitez' corner was in an uproar.
Leaping into the ring, Benitez' assistant trainer, Jaran Manzanet, yelled back over his shoulder, "Get him. He's hurt. He's hurt."
Quickly his corner hustled Benitez to his stool, sat him down and went to work with ice water and smelling salts.
"He's hurt," Manzanet yelled again.
"I see that," snapped Gregorio. "I see that."
Benitez' recovery was amazing. "Curry has a big punch," he said afterward, "I have a bigger spirit." From the eighth round on, he said, seeing Curry with his right eye was like peeking through a keyhole. Somehow he saw enough of him to bloody his nose in the eighth round, and he finished strongly to win the final two rounds.
Later, Curry stopped by Teddy Brenner's office to pick up a $1,000 check to get his group home to California. On the way out, Reid cashed the check at the Garden box office, collecting 10 $100 bills. The next morning it was discovered one of the bills was counterfeit.
"Good Lord," said Reid, "what else can they do to us in this town?"