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Papa Benitez knows best

Introducing the youngest of the Benitez boys and also the youngest champion in boxing history

The strange thing was, he said, how they no longer believed in him as a fighter. He frowned, this 17-year-old man-child still in his junior year of high school, as though puzzling over a problem in math. "Before, when I was unbeaten and a contender, before I fought for the championship, everyone spoke of me as a good fighter," Wilfredo Benitez said. He spoke haltingly, the seldom-used English not flowing with the liquidity of his native Spanish. "And now, now that I am champion, the people look at me like I was a, a...." Unable to snare the word he needed, he looked to his father for help.

Gregorio, his father and manager, shrugged and stared at the floor.

" a freak," Wilfredo Benitez, the WBA junior welterweight champion, concluded.

His father made an angry sound. Later, after the boy had left, he said, "It is not the champion they question. It is the father. Soon they will see."

In 1966 Gregorio Benitez moved his family to Puerto Rico from New York City, where he had worked in an auto-body shop for 19 years. He didn't like the way his four sons were growing up in the streets. "Too much dope, too much trouble," he said. "I told them we go home where it is not so bad."

At home in St. Just, just outside San Juan, the sons continued to fight, only now mostly in the ring. Gregorio Jr., the oldest at 21, had his first bout at the age of eight, turned pro at 15 and has recently retired. He is a quiet young man, with a quick, soft smile and sad eyes, and they say his father moved him too swiftly and he caught too many punches.

"They can say what they want," said the father, "but I retired Gregorio because he was bowlegged. He'd try to move quickly and he'd fall down. Then he got married and wanted to fight some more. But I say no. I told him marriage makes you too weak. You are retired. Now he helps me as a trainer."

The next in line was Alphonso, a year younger than Gregorio, and, it is said, the cleverest boxer of the brothers. As an amateur he was 14-1; then he decided he wanted to go to college.

"But college costs money," Alphonso said recently. "I discovered I needed $200 to buy books."

He went to his father, who booked him a pro fight in St. Croix.

"I didn't want him to be a fighter," Gregorio says. "He is a smart one. He is going to be an electrical engineer. But he needed the money and, besides, I was curious to see if he had any guts."

Alphonso did. He won his fight.

"He knocked the guy out in the fourth round," Gregorio says. "I gave him the money. I say, 'Here, go buy your books. You have just retired.' The champion's brother has brains. Besides, he don't like to fight."

Frankie, the next in line, likes to fight. Also, he likes girls and hates the gym. His father told him that was one combination he couldn't handle and tossed him out of the house.

Unlike Wilfredo, a stone-faced stalker with shattering power in either fist, Frankie, taller but lighter, fights with abandon. Throwing punches from any angle, and usually with a grin, he won his first 12 fights, eleven of them by knockout. That's when he discovered girls. In the sixth round of his next fight, against Laudiel Negron, his father threw in the towel.

"All that fun caught up with him," Gregorio says. "He is not like the champion. He doesn't want to train, to work hard. He likes to play."

For a time, Frankie reformed. He won his next 13 fights, four of them in New York, six of them by knockout. Then he reverted to romantic form. At the time he was the fifth-ranked lightweight contender. Now he is unranked, even at home. Since last October he has lost twice and fought a draw with Josué Màrquez, the Puerto Rican lightweight champion.

"He beat Màrquez, but they didn't give it to him," his father says bitterly. "Maybe that would have turned him around. Now it is up to him. He told his mother the other day he was ready to start training seriously again. We'll see."

Wilfredo Benitez, the champion, strides into the gym just a few yards behind his home, applause from a small group of fans breaking around him. He wears dark blue track pants striped in orange and a faded gray sweat shirt. His black hair is cut short and parted in the middle, and he has a small moustache kept well trimmed. He hopes it makes him look older. Except for a long, jagged scar on the left cheek, his light-brown face is unmarked. The scar was acquired one dark night when his father caught him stealing guavas from a tree. Trying to escape, Wilfredo ran into a barbed-wire fence.

At the cost of $15,000, the family built the gym behind the house 3½. years ago. Chickens run freely in the small yard between the gym and the single-story yellow stone house. Half-grown German shepherds sleep in the carport. Strong winds from the sea disturb a stand of palm trees.

The all-metal gym has the look of a small airplane hangar. Yellowing newspaper clippings, old fight photographs and posters are on the clean white walls. There are two rubbing tables; three heavy bags hang from chains attached to the red steel rafters. The ring, slightly smaller than regulation, is homemade but looks professional. In the back there is a small office crammed with a modest desk, a filing cabinet, a well-used Detecto scale and dozens of trophies and plaques. Always, there is a mingling of the thud of fists and the crowing of roosters.

It is Friday, three days before Memorial Day when the champion will make his first title defense against Emiliano Villa, a southpaw from Colombia. Sitting on a small, stained table the champion wraps his own hands with yards of soiled gauze. Around him five people stand joking. Except for one quick smile, he ignores them.

The youngest of the brothers has been fighting since 1967, when as a 62-pound 7-year-old he held his first opponent to a draw in the Puerto Rican Golden Gloves. As an amateur he won 123 of 129 fights. He became a professional at the age of 15, knocking out one Hiram Santiago in the first round. He won his first 25 fights, all but six of them by knockout. Then last March his father matched him against Antonio (Kid Pambele) Cervantes, the 30-year-old, going-on-36 junior lightweight champion who had won 73 fights against eight losses and three draws.

The Puerto Rican fans were furious. Once again the father's qualifications as a manager were questioned. The 46-year-old ex-auto-body-shop owner had never fought himself, had never worked under a professional trainer or manager. He had ruined Gregorio, it was said, and now he was going to do the same to Wilfredo.

"Some people learn by competing," says the unshaken senior Benitez. "I learn by observing. In New York I went to all the big fights and I see how others work, how others fight. I studied every trainer, every big fighter. For five years I worked in the amateurs before my first son became a professional. I have worked over 3,000 fights, amateur and professional."

Kid Pambele was a solid 4-1 favorite. Oh, oh, thought Wilfredo, if I don't whip this guy they are going to run my dad out of Puerto Rico. In public he said, "I've been lighting bigger and older guys since I was eight. So what's new?"

It turned out to be a dull fight. Kid Pambele, figuring he was in with easy prey, spent the night looking for and never finding the big knockout punch. Going the other way, Benitez was content to amass points with a stinging jab. When it was over, Wilfredo Benitez had become the world's youngest champion ever, on a split decision.

Two weeks later the new champion was back in the gym. Now on Friday he was sparring his final 10 rounds against four partners, the last a 180-pound heavyweight named Francisco Alvarez. Every round was war. An observer thought it was strange that none of the sparring partners was left-handed like Wilfredo's next opponent.

"Right or left, Villa is made to order for the champion," said Wilfredo's father. "It will be a tough fight, for Villa has a strong chin. But he comes straight in and he catches almost everything. Besides, the champion can fight as a southpaw if he wants."

Villa said he didn't care how the champion fought. Although a relative unknown, the tough Colombian was ranked No. 4 by the WBA and claimed that both lightweight champion Roberto Duran and his own countryman, Pambele, had refused to fight him.

At the weigh-in both fighters came in at 140 pounds, the division limit. Villa's manager, Tabacito Sanz, asked Bill Brennan, a World Boxing Association official, if the WBA had the power to reverse a hometown decision. He said he didn't like fighting a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico.

"No," said Brennan. "Only the local commission can do that."

"Don't worry about it," the champion's father told Sanz. "This isn't Panama or Argentina. They don't give us nothing here. If there's a hometown decision, you'll get it." Then Sanz wanted to know if the referee would be a Puerto Rican.

"Who cares?" said Gregorio Benitez. "The only important thing is that they get a guy who can count to 10."

The first in the ring, Villa was wearing white trunks and shoes, trimmed in black. Benitez, a lightly backed 2-1 favorite, was dressed in bright red trunks, high red-and-white socks and high red suede shoes. In the spirit of the moment, the crowd inside San Juan's Roberto Clemente Coliseum greeted him uproariously.

Then the high school student went out to earn his $60,000, and respect for his father, the only trainer he has ever had. The first round was one of caution, with neither fighter showing much. It was Villa's best round.

In the second round Benitez went to his jab, a beautiful and destructive piece of machinery. By the seventh round Villa, trying to escape the jab, began to take heavy punishment, to both the head and the body, from Wilfredo's right hand. No matter what the Colombian tried, Benitez' attack never varied; always it was those stinging accurate jabs, a few stunning right hands, an occasional digging hook. Only great courage kept Villa up.

In the final round, any chance for a decision long lost, Villa dug deeply within himself and went for a knockout. With the fight all but over, Benitez could have retreated safely. No way. For the last two minutes, without pause, the two fighters stood toe to toe, without pretense of defense, each trying to hammer the other into the ground.

The decision was foregone. Judge Rudy Ortega scored it 149-137, giving the champion all but one round in the 10-point must system; Judge Wally Schmidt had it 148-137; the referee, Ismael Falu, scored it 149-141.

"Can anyone doubt that he is a champion now?" Gregorio Benitez asked. "And now we have to plan ahead. Duran? Yes, we want Duran. He has been having too much trouble making the lighter weight, but he will have to pay to fight us. And Kid Pambele wants another fight. It will cost him some money, too. Then I think the champion wants to move up."

At last Wilfredo smiled. "To welterweight. Then junior middleweight. And, I think, finally as the middleweight champion. It would be nice to go on fighting until I am 30. I will be in my prime then."

There are two good reasons he may make it. For one, he is an excellent fighter. And then, the telephone in the Benitez' house is in the father's bedroom. When the girls call, and many do, Gregorio always tells them the champion is out doing road work. And, most of the time, he is.