One big difference between Wilfred Benitez and the high rollers playing the tables as fight time approached last Saturday at Caesars Palace was that the gamblers had named their own stakes and Benitez hadn't, although he still had to play the hand he'd been dealt. Benitez would fight WBC super welterweight champion Maurice Hope for that title and a payoff of $175,000. Had Jimmy Jacobs, Benitez's co-manager, accepted another proffered match, Benitez might have been meeting Tommy Hearns somewhere else for the WBA welterweight title and $750,000—a difference of a cool $575,000.
Did Benitez have any input in the decision? Jacobs was asked. "Of course not," he said, seemingly surprised by the question. "When we took over Benitez's contract, we made a deal with him and his father, Gregorio, who trains him. He doesn't discuss with me how he'll fight, and I don't discuss managerial decisions with him." So much for that.
But Jacobs is no fool and Benitez is no tomato can, although the publicity accorded Sugar Ray Leonard, Hearns and Roberto Duran has tended to obscure his prowess. After eight bouts, the Jacobs-Benitez partnership has netted a total of $2.1 million in purses. On the question of whether to fight Hearns for more money or Hope for less, the matter of weight was crucial to Jacobs. "My concern was Wilfred's weight," he said. "I knew the agony he had making 147 pounds for Leonard." Benitez lost the WBC welterweight championship—and suffered the only defeat of his seven-year career—in that 1979 bout. The super welter class has a 154-pound maximum, no strain for Benitez. "Wilfred is only 22 and still growing," said Jacobs.
So, whether he liked it or not, the temporarily title-less Benitez, who had a 40-1-1 record and who had previously held both the WBC welterweight and the WBA junior welterweight crowns, would go for the super welterweight championship against Hope, a native of Antigua now living in London. A gritty and stylish lefthanded counterpuncher, Hope had lost but twice in 32 fights and hadn't been beaten since 1975. He had won the title in 1979 and had defended it three times since. Despite his record he was a 2½-to-1 underdog.
May 31, 1981
Entering the ring, Benitez charged to Hope's corner, where he stood, hands on hips, glaring at the champion. Finally, referee Richard Green came over and pushed Benitez toward his corner. "You're going to lose," Benitez shouted over his shoulder.
Which turned out to be the case after four even rounds in which Benitez was content to display his skills as a defensive tactician, fighting mostly off the ropes and then escaping to pound Hope with heavy shots to the body. Following a sparring session a week before the fight, Hope had lost a tooth. In the second round Saturday, a Benitez right had removed another. In the ninth, after a particularly savage right to the face, Hope would spit out a third. What a week for the tooth fairy!
In the fourth, Benitez was cut slightly in the corner of his right eye. (In the ninth, he would be cut in the corner of his left eye; neither was bothersome.) By the fifth round Hope was spitting blood from a torn mouth. He was clearly earning his $450,000 purse. In the sixth, the terrible body beating Hope was taking began to exact its toll. Benitez slammed the champion back against the ropes with a wicked left hook to the jaw, followed by a barrage of 18 straight punches before Hope could escape.
Then came a bizarre interlude. Benitez came out for the seventh with his trunks strangely bulging. Noticing the bulge, Green stopped the fight and sent Benitez to his corner where his handlers removed an ice bag they had neglected to take from inside his trunks. "I didn't know what it was," Green said later. "Then I saw the top of the ice bag. I couldn't believe it."
By the 10th round Hope was backing away, and Benitez, his right hand cocked, was stalking him. Near the end of the round the right drove Hope back onto his heels and a second right put him on the floor. The bell rang as he made it to his feet.
On sheer courage the champion weathered the 11th round, but he didn't make it through the 12th. Hurt early by a hook to the body, he backed onto the ropes near his corner. Benitez moved in swiftly and smashed a thunderbolt right cross flush against Hope's jaw. The challenger started to throw another punch but checked it as he watched Hope topple senseless to the floor.
Green started the count, then stopped to wave Benitez back to a neutral corner. "I turned to pick up the count," Green said later, "and I saw it didn't matter. Hope was out cold."
Thus ended Benitez's input for the afternoon. He had earned, as Jacobs will surely note in future negotiations, a fairly heady distinction in addition to the title. He had become the first fighter in 43 years—and the fifth and youngest ever—to win world titles in three divisions. His name is now up there with Bob Fitzsimmons, Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross and Henry Armstrong. And that might just turn out to be worth far more than that $575,000 differential.