If there was one thing that had characterized the champ's fighting style, it was his slow starts and furious finishes. And now, after 13 tiring rounds in San Juan, Puerto Rico last Sunday afternoon, Carlos Palomino, 29, the WBC world welterweight titleholder, was clearly, if typically, behind on points. All through the fight, 20-year-old Wilfredo Benitez had toyed with him, showing a certain disdain. Benitez had been elusive, moving like a wisp through the hot (86°) and humid air at the local ballpark, Hiram Bi-thorn Stadium. For the most part, Benitez had relied on his jab; it was not destructive but it piled up points. Now was the time for the champ to make his patented late move.
Before the fight, Palomino had allowed that his eighth title defense—for which he earned $465,000, a record in this division—wouldn't be tough. His opponent's body was weak, Palomino said, and his chin was like glass. "I don't expect to have too much trouble," he said. "Benitez isn't very strong, and he's been knocked down by a lot of very mediocre people."
Benitez had, indeed, been knocked down a lot. But no one had ever kept him down; he always got back up to win. In 37 fights, the Puerto Rican's only black mark was a draw with Harold Weston. Benitez had won all the rest, 22 of them by knockout. Still, no one gave him serious consideration as a puncher.
In March of 1976 Benitez had won a 15-round decision—and the WB A junior welterweight championship—from Antonio Cervantes. Benitez was 17 at the time; it had been a stunning upset. After two successful defenses, he had given up the title by default. The WBA had wanted him to fight a rematch against Cervantes. Benitez said he would, just as soon as his hands healed from injuries suffered in an auto accident. The WBA said it wouldn't wait.
"After that, he just seemed to lose interest," said Gregorio Benitez, Wilfredo's father, trainer and former manager. "He lost his enthusiasm, his fire. I decided to sell his contract. I hoped new money might give him new enthusiasm. And it has worked."
Gregorio sold his son's contract to Jimmy Jacobs for $75,000. Once the world's greatest handball player, Jacobs runs a multimillion-dollar fight-film distributorship in New York City.
One of Jacobs' first moves was to bring in Emile Griffith, a five-time world champion in the welter and middleweight divisions, to train Benitez. Wilfredo's father was insulted. "What do you want Griffith around for?" Gregorio said to Jacobs. "You may be his manager now, but I'm still his trainer."
"You can both train him," Jacobs said.
The arrangement led to some stormy sessions in the gym. Three weeks before the Palomino fight, Griffith was still at home in New York, and Benitez was training in Puerto Rico. Then Wilfredo called Jacobs. "I want Emile to train me," he said.
Griffith was on the next plane to San Juan, where Gregorio promised to pick him up at the airport. After waiting several hours, Griffith finally decided Gregorio wasn't coming. He took a cab.
"I was flattered when Wilfredo demanded that I train him," said Griffith, a usually gentle man who has been pushed to some volcanic eruptions by the elder Benitez. "Wilfredo said he wouldn't fight unless I was in his corner. So I came. I love the boy. There's, not too much I can teach him, but I have a job and I want to do it well. It's not for the money and it's not for the fame. I've already made my fame."
For Palomino, Griffith shortened and sharpened Wilfredo's punches. He planned a brilliant defensive fight from the center of the ring.
"No knockdowns," he ordered. "Don't go for a knockout. Palomino is a dangerous one-punch fighter. He can hit. He is dangerous. He punches over punches. Keep your hands up and fight to go the distance. Be sharp. If you listen to me, you will win."
Gregorio thought Griffith's plan was sheer nonsense. "All Griffith does is tell him about how it was when he was champion," he scoffed. "Wilfredo doesn't listen to him. He only listens to me."
Griffith was patient. Because he didn't want to hurt the son, he had to stand mute against the father. Each day he would go to the gym behind the Benitez' home in a San Juan suburb, quietly do the job his self-respect demanded, and then return to his hotel in the city.
"I tell him he is good but he must get better," Griffith said. "I don't always compliment him. I tell him he's got to do better. I want a perfect fighter. I got this from my manager, Gil Clancy. I never satisfied him. Once I fought what I thought was a most beautiful fight. I was elated. 'Wasn't I good?' I asked Clancy. He said, 'You're not bending your knee enough.' He said, 'That guy could have got you. You're good, but you must be better.' That's what I tried to do for Wilfredo. Since he won that first title he got a little cocky. That devil! So sometimes I have to pretend to get very angry with him. Then he listens to me."
And so, with both his father and Griffith in his corner, and with both urging him to fight Palomino his way, Benitez went out and tried to be what Griffith demanded of him: the perfect fighter.
In the first round, Benitez showed that he had made up his mind. He went to the center of the ring, as Griffith had said he must, and there he stayed, bobbing and weaving, hands held high, his punches short and crisp.
From the waist up Benitez is like the sea, always moving, rolling in waves, hard to find and harder to hit. But from the midsection down, his stance is extra wide and his feet are always flat, like a puncher's. It is a curious style, as though half of him were an illusion. Palomino found the style difficult to solve.
"I think he's going to come at me right away with a rush and try to get lucky with one punch," Palomino had predicted. For four rounds he waited for the rush that never came. Then Palomino decided he had better go to work.
Stepping up his pace a little, Palomino stung Benitez with two right hands midway through the fifth round, and then nailed him with a solid hook to the head near the end. As Benitez backed into the ropes. Palomino chased him. But the bell rang before more damage could be done.
Palomino came back to the corner and told his manager, Jackie McCoy, that his hands felt fine. He had broken the right hand late in 1976, and he had broken the left one in his last title defense against Armando Mu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±iz seven months ago. He hadn't fought since. But now Palomino decided to really turn it on. It would be earlier than usual, but he didn't think Benitez had the stamina to survive a furious pace.
In the sixth and seventh rounds, however, when Palomino reached back, he discovered there was nothing there. "I don't know if it was the heat or the long layoff or what," Palomino said later, "but I couldn't move the way I wanted to. I was slow. I could only throw one punch at a time; there were no combinations."
"No zip," said McCoy. "No spark. No fire. He just didn't have a thing tonight."
As Palomino tried to step up the pace, Benitez recalled thinking, "Oh, oh, here he comes." And a round later he thought, "He hasn't got it. He can't hurt me. He's mine."
From that moment, the fight was as good as over. Less cautious, Benitez began to punch in combinations, stinging but not stunning. And the jab, the beautiful jab, quick and deadly, was snapping Palomino's head back time after time.
From the 12th round on, McCoy was telling Palomino, "You're going to have to knock him out to win."
But it was not to be.
In the last two rounds, knowing Palomino didn't have enough left to hurt him, Benitez backed to the ropes, and there he planted himself, supremely confident, hitting and being hit. And knowing that within a few minutes he'd be the new WBC welterweight champion.
The decision shouldn't have been close. Judge Harry Gibbs of London scored it 146-143 Benitez. Then came a shocker. Judge Zack Clayton of Philadelphia had it 145-142 Palomino.
At ringside, Promoter Bob Arum grabbed his nose and shouted, "It stinks! It stinks!"
Finally, the score of referee Jay Edson of Naples, Fla., was announced. He had it 147-143 Benitez.
"I wonder what fight Zack was watching?" Gibbs said.
"All those little tap-tap-tap jabs don't mean anything," Clayton said, trying to explain his scoring system. "I don't count them as much. The crowd sees them and goes crazy. But those big body punches that hurt you really count. Those the crowd don't see. I count them, and everybody knows Palomino hit harder than Benitez."
But only at a rate of one to 100, it seemed.
And there was Griffith in the ring, carrying the WBC title belt, and crying.
"Oh, I'm more happy than the fighter," he sobbed. "He makes me very happy. He trained so hard and all the terrible crazy things he had to go through. I can't talk."
Then Griffith left. Probably to tell Benitez he needs to bend the knee more.