When the WBC released its June ratings, it was no surprise that Wilfred Benitez, the three-time world champion who last December lost his junior middleweight title to Thomas Hearns, wasn't among the top 20 middleweights. Benitez had fought but once in that class, against unranked Tony Cerda, and while he had won, his performance had been dismal.
Yet last Saturday on a 101° Las Vegas afternoon in the Dunes Hotel's outdoor stadium, Benitez, his body padded to 157¾ pounds, met Mustafa Hamsho, the WBC's No. 1 middleweight contender, in a 12-round bout billed as a WBC title elimination match. As if Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the undisputed champion, weren't quite capable of eliminating any and all middleweights himself.
It should be noted that one of those whom Hagler had previously eliminated, by technical knockout, was Hamsho, who lasted 11 rounds in October 1981 before departing to have 54 stitches in his face. But Hamsho had won all four of his fights since then, and probably deserved to be the No. 1 contender of both the WBC and WBA although the WBA, ridiculously enough, ranks him 12th. The middleweight division is like Mrs. Hubbard's cupboard: It's bare. It's so empty, in fact, that Hagler's next fight—in November—will be against Roberto Duran, the WBA junior middleweight champion, another no-show in the middleweight rankings.
Benitez' sudden emergence as a leading middleweight contender—a status he retained only until he stepped into the ring with Hamsho—was the result of WBC president José Sulaimàn's intention to play three-card monte with Hagler's title: Now you see it, now you don't. Sulaimàn has announced, "Marvin Hagler apparently has resigned the organization's title."
Hagler has resigned nothing. The world champion has been mousetrapped by a change in the WBC championship rules, which, since the death of Duk Koo Kim in a lightweight title fight last November with Boom Boom Mancini, now limits title fights to 12 rounds. Because Hagler has chosen to fight 15 rounds, which is still the WBA championship distance, Sulaimàn had taken this as an affront to the WBC. Apparently the WBC president considers his no-account organization more important than a highly respected world champion. That brings us to two truths: The fight fan cares about Hagler; and nobody gives a damn about the WBC and its ever-changing regulations.
That, in turn, brings us full circle to Benitez, the 24-year-old former junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight champ. For $150,000 he agreed to fight Hamsho, with, so the story line went, the winner to fight Hagler—assuming he still has the title. For putting his No. 1 ranking on the line, Hamsho was given $250,000. Both camps thought it was found money.
"What have we got to lose?" asked Jimmy Jacobs, Benitez' astute manager, before the fight. "If Wilfred beats Hamsho, then we fight for the middleweight title. If we lose, we'll still be the mandatory challenger to Hearns for the junior middleweight championship."
Al Certo thought Hamsho had an even better deal. Since the sudden death of Paddy Flood on March 28, Certo has been Hamsho's sole manager and trainer. "They are giving us a quarter million for fighting a bum, a myth," he told Hamsho. "You can forget about those three titles, about him being a superstar. That's all media hype. He fought only two good fighters, Sugar Ray Leonard and Hearns, and he lost to both [and lost the welterweight and junior middleweight titles, respectively]. He beat Carlos Palomino, but I think Palomino took the day off. It's going to be a piece of cake."
Since his marriage last January to Elizabeth Alonso, Benitez has split with his father, Gregorio, who had trained him since his first day in the gym, 16½ years ago. When Wilfred and his bride moved from Puerto Rico to New York, Gregorio closed his gym in Puerto Rico, but remained there. The father told the son, "You are married and you are a big man now. You know how to walk in New York City."
Benitez selected Victor Machado as his new trainer. Later, Cus D'Amato, who trained champions Floyd Patterson and José Torres, was brought in as an adviser. Benitez claimed, however, there was nothing the two men could teach him. "No, no, no," he said. "You know, my father showed me how to take care of myself when I am not with him. But my father is taking care of business in Puerto Rico. He's doing good. Someday he'll be in my corner again. Never should a son give his back to his father. I trust my father. I believe in him."
Benitez has always been a brilliant defensive fighter, sometimes at the expense of his offense. D'Amato delicately suggested a few changes that would improve Benitez' attack while taking nothing away from his defense. Benitez would listen intently and nod but....
"See, I know this fellow, Hamsho. He's an aggressive guy," D'Amato said. "He keeps coming, almost on a straight line. Now he can absorb the punches because he sees them coming. Now Benitez can punch a lot harder than people think. But he doesn't punch; he just comes out to outbox opponents with his smarts. I talked to him about moving side to side and punching. With Hamsho coming on a straight line, Benitez can move to the side and hit with maximum power and not be afraid of being hit, because Hamsho won't be in a position to hit him."
During training, Benitez showed no inclination to adopt D'Amato's suggestion. Instead he tried to refine a defense that was already perfect. Meanwhile, Hamsho, a 29-year-old native of Latakia, Syria, practiced doing what he does best: hitting other people. He recounts with great pride his prowess as a street brawler in Syria. "I fight so much that every day I need a new shirt, and every day they throw me out of school," he says. "I live in a tough neighborhood and sometimes it was hell. You fought to survive. You fought because you are bored. You were young, and you had nothing else to do."
Hamsho was thrown out of school in the fifth grade and went to work for his father in a grocery store. As an amateur boxer he won 31 fights, lost one. In 1969 he was the Syrian junior middleweight amateur champion. Then he went to work as a seaman. In 1974 he jumped ship in Providence and headed for New York City, where he hooked up with Flood at the Gramercy Gym on 14th Street.
"I noticed him because he was always trying to help somebody," says Hamsho, who now lives in Bayonne, N.J. "In the beginning he gave me hope. He kept me alive; he carried me. He saw something in me. It was my anger. In the gym I'd fight anybody who'd stand in front of me. Even heavyweights. I always had guts. He always told me to be a boxer, that I didn't have to beat up everybody I fought."
In his early professional career, before he got his green card as a resident alien in 1978, Hamsho fought under the names of Rocky Estafire, Mike Estaire and Mike Estafire. He lost his first pro fight in 1975, and then fought 34 times without a defeat until meeting Hagler in 1981.
"I've got no excuses for the Hagler fight," Hamsho says. "I was too cocky. I didn't respect the guy. I wasn't worried about his punching. I didn't listen to anybody. I caught every punch he threw. Now I listen to people."
When Flood died, of a cerebral hemorrhage, Hamsho was devastated. On Father's Day, he went to Flood's grave. "He was like a father to me," Hamsho said. "I'm not fighting Benitez to get another fight at Hagler. I'm fighting for me and for Paddy. I'm fighting because I want to prove I'm Number One, not by politics but because of my ability." For the final week of training, Certo brought in Al Salvani, a 73-year-old cornerman from California, for his skill as a cut man and for his counsel. Salvani went right to work. First he told Hamsho to forget about Benitez' head. "His head will feint you crazy," said Salvani. "Ignore it. All I want you to hit is anywhere between his collarbones and his belt buckle. And I want your punches short and all from underneath. Dig. They're the most damaging punches. And he thinks you are going to come straight at him. Don't. Move side to side. Annoy him. You don't go straight at nobody. Never."
After a week, Salvani shook his head as he watched Hamsho work. "He's a marvel," Salvani said. "You tell him something once and he does it like he's been doing it all his life. Before, all he wanted to do was work, work. work. You couldn't stop him. Now he listens to me. He says, 'Whatever you tell me, I do.' I think he respects me."
Hamsho introduced himself to Benitez very quickly. In the opening seconds he rushed across the ring, drove Benitez into the ropes with a forearm chop to the throat and then slammed a straight left to the face. Benitez' eyes opened wide. No one had ever treated him so roughly. Then Hamsho, a southpaw, went to work on Benitez' body. By the second round Benitez was flinching as Hamsho slammed shot after shot at the Salvani target zone.
Hurt by a hard left to the head late in the second, Benitez barely made it back to his corner, where Machado revived him with an ammonia capsule. It's a very common practice, only Machado made the mistake of dropping the capsule in front of a Nevada State Athletic Commission inspector. He could be fined as much as $1,000.
"Everybody does it," Machado said. "I just got caught. I was stupid because I dropped the capsule. Wilfred took a heavy blow in the second round, and I used it. Otherwise in the third they would have been counting 10 over him. I'm never going to see anyone count 10 on Wilfred."
In the third, the revived Benitez tried to bring the fight into the center of the ring. It was a mistake. Five times Hamsho, between cuffing him handily, pushed him to the floor. Benitez averted a sixth trip only with a last-second desperate hug around Hamsho's knees. After that, until the end of the fight, Benitez chose never to venture farther than a few feet from his own corner. At each bell, he would take two steps out and then one back, and there he'd stay as Hamsho hammered away at will.
After the 10th round, as Hamsho waited in his corner, Certo looked at him and said, "Paddy is here. He knows what is happening."
"I know," Hamsho said huskily, tears forming in his eyes. "I can feel him."
The scoring was lopsided: Judges Lou Tabat (118-109) and Chuck Minker (118-111) each gave Benitez two rounds; Dalby Shirley (117-111) gave him three. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED gave him none, scoring it 120-107.
As a middleweight, Benitez had proved to be a dud. As Jacobs said, "You keep moving up and up until finally you reach a plateau where the people are stronger and tougher. Hamsho was much stronger than Wilfred. I think this fight dictated that Wilfred will fight as a junior middleweight."
When it was over, there was immediate talk of a rematch between Hagler and Hamsho after the Duran fight. "Why Hagler?" Certo asked. "We'd rather take off a few pounds and fight Hearns. We were supposed to fight him before we fought Benitez, but they turned us down. I'm not too choked up about fighting Hagler. But, then, if they offer us enough money, we'll fight anybody."
Were you watching, José?