They were facing each other in the center of the ring, Gregorio Benitez, who is called Goyo, and his son, Wilfred, and for the moment things seemed just as they once were—back in the days before the rebellion set in, when Wilfred was a boy and his father's was the only law he knew.
It was a warm, windy mid-December afternoon. The ring was in the backyard gym at the Benitez home in Saint Just, Puerto Rico, about 18 miles south of San Juan, and Wilfred Benitez was training to defend his WBC junior middleweight title against Roberto Duran in Las Vegas on Jan. 30. He had won the championship last May 23 when he caught Maurice Hope with a jackhammer right that left Hope unconscious for several minutes. Now once again the father was training his son, as he has since he first laced gloves on the boy 15 years ago when Wilfred was eight.
"But I think he'll throw me mostly rights," Wilfred said quietly.
"No, no," Goyo said. "Duran will fake his right and hook you with the left. Like this." Wilfred stepped back and nodded. "Si, si," he said. "I've seen him do that."
"Let's go!" Goyo said.
The father was wearing the heavily padded mitts trainers use to catch punches, and the son tracked him stoically about the ring, the father raising and dropping and shifting the targets of his hands. The son bobbed and came up throwing at them, snapping punches in fiery combinations. The father exhorted him to throw hard: "¬°Duro! ¬°Duro!"
Wilfred has the reflexes of a mongoose, and now he was throwing uppercuts in sets of five, his father facing him, telling him to punch harder: "¬°Màs duro! ¬°Duro! Come on. Let's go!" The punches came rapidly—left-right-left-right-left. Goyo cried out for Wilfred to do it again: "¬°De nuevo!" And harder! The effect was hypnotic, like watching partners in a dance performed to the stinging slap of the son's gloves and the father's voice.
"¬°De nuevo!" Pow-pow-pow-pow.
"¬°Duro...! ¬°De nuevo...! ¬°Duro...! ¬°De nuevo!"
To observe Wilfred Benitez in the ring—his feet moving purposefully: his fists flashing misleading messages before they strike; his head tipping here to slip a punch, dipping there to slip another: his eyes unblinking and round—is like watching a man paint the ceiling of the chapel of his craft.
"Oh yeah, that's right," says Carlos Palomino, who lost his WBC welterweight championship to Benitez in 1979. "He has become an artist. He was not a puncher as a welterweight. He was throwing like slaps at me, and he never hurt me. But I think he has reached his full weight and has matured as a puncher. That right hand he hit Hope with was no fluke. He is one fantastic fighter."
The English invented the manly art of self-defense, the object of which is to hit your opponent without getting hit in return. Damn, bloody simple, so said, but in recent years few fighters have mastered the art to the extent of Wilfred Benitez.
At 17 he became the youngest champion in history when he gave 30-year-old Antonio Cervantes a boxing lesson and took away his WBA junior welterweight (140-pound) title. Three years later he moved up to the welters (147-pound limit) and gave Palomino fits for 15 rounds. After an eight-month layoff, he lost that title to Sugar Ray Leonard on 'a TKO with six seconds left in the 15th round. That was Benitez' only loss in 44 fights: he has one draw, with Harold Weston. Less than four months after he beat Hope for his third world championship (154-pound limit) Benitez turned 23. making him the youngest fighter ever to win three titles. The others: Bob Fitzsimmons. Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross. Henry Armstrong and, since Benitez. Alexis Arguello.
"I am the Bible of Boxing." Benitez says, reciting his favorite line. "I know all the techniques, all the styles. I'm the champion. I know everything exactly. I have no plans against Duran, just preparing myself. He'll come out the same as always: to the body, fighting me against the ring posts, attacking me. That is his fight, throwing hard to surprise his opponent, to set him off balance, to get on top of him. But he won't with me. He's going, now, to confront the Bible of Boxing—the King of Techinque."
What has most clearly set Benitez apart from the crowd is an almost supernal quality that not even he quite understands. When he deigns to train and sharpen himself—which he reportedly didn't do before the Leonard fight, working only a week—Benitez is the most difficult target to hit in boxing. He's a ghost, as wispy as the cigar smoke at ringside. Even in his draw with Weston and his loss to Leonard, he baffled his opponents.
"He's about the trickiest and best defensive fighter I ever fought," says Weston, who was the fourth-ranked WBA welterweight when he met Benitez on Feb. 2, 1977. "You can throw 25 or 30 punches at him, and you might not even hit with one. I was shocked. He planted himself on the ropes, and I never expected any man in the world could get away from me on the ropes."
Leonard had had only 25 professional fights when he fought Benitez. Relatively unseasoned and numbed by the hype that attended his first big bout as a pro, Leonard was flat—and fortunate that Benitez had been idle eight months and hurt his left thumb in an early round. Leonard decked Benitez with a left jab in the third, but for most of the fight Sugar Ray merely fanned the air.
"It was like looking in a mirror." Leonard said later. "No one, I mean no one, can make me miss punches like that." With Leonard repeatedly missing with his right, his trainer Angelo Dundee instructed him to "Go downstairs! You can't stand in front of him and hit him with a right hand."
"But he's right there!" Sugar Ray said.
"Yeah, he's right there," Dundee said. "But then he ain't."
Palomino knows what Weston and Leonard went through: "All through the fight I felt like I would knock him out. I kept saying, 'The next round.' and 'The next round.' I was off nine months before this fight, and I was just missing him. I just felt it would take a little time. But by the eighth I began to feel that he knew what punch I was going to throw before I threw it. He had like a sixth sense. I'd never fought anybody with that sixth sense. He didn't move much, just enough to make you miss. It was like he had radar."
Says Cus D'Amato, 73, who managed and trained Floyd Patterson when he won the heavyweight title, "Many times a fellow has an intuitive sense that tells him, 'Get the hell out of here.' Benitez has this to an extraordinary degree. When his intuitive sense tells him that a punch is coming, he has already started to move. Patterson used to look at the muscles on his opponent's chest, the pecs, which cause the arm to move, to get advance warning of when and where a punch is coming. Benitez does the same thing and almost casually gets out of the way. A split second before the punch is even thrown, he's already slipping it and retaliating with his own counterpunch."
When discussing the source of his remarkable perception, Benitez allows it may have something to do with the late Bruce Lee. "I like the martial arts," he says. "Like Bruce Lee, I study my opponent. I stare at him. I get close enough to him so he thinks he can reach me, but he really can't. I keep looking at him, looking at him. Then I box him. I beat him with that. The rest is instinct and things I've learned."
He has been learning boxing for a long time. Wilfred was born in the Bronx. N.Y. on Sept. 12, 1958. After bearing four girls—Evelyn, Kleo, Yvonne and Mary—Do√±a Clara Elena Rosa Benitez gave birth to four boys, Gregorio Jr., Frankie, Alphonso and Wilfred, the youngest. Goyo had made 50¢ a bout boxing three-rounders as a youngster in Puerto Rico. In 1948 he moved to New-York and then got a job in an automobile paint shop, married Clara and settled down to raise a family. Goyo attended the fights and hung around gyms, watching and picking up this and that. "I went to the big fights and saw how others fight," he says. "I learned to hit the belly from Marcel Cerdan. I watch Sugar Ray Robinson and learn the hook from him—right to the body, double up on the hook."
Goyo set up matches for his sons and their friends in the playground of PS. 124 in the Bronx. Like a carnival barker, he would persuade passersby to pay a quarter for the show: "You want to see these kids fight?" Wilfred recalls getting $1 a fight, his share of the gate. "Sometimes Wilfred would fight twice," Goyo says. The boy was five then.
In 1966 Goyo moved his family back to Puerto Rico. Says Kleo, "Dad said. 'There's too much crime [in New York]. You'll have a better chance in Puerto Rico.' " That year Wilfred, 7½ years old and weighing 62 pounds, had his first organized fight, a draw in the Puerto Rican Golden Gloves. "I never liked boxing very much then," he says. "I just boxed for my father."
Goyo taught all four of his sons, relentlessly. The oldest, Gregorio Jr., was doing roadwork at four in the morning when-he was 11, and it wasn't long before Wilfred, four years younger, was tagging along. "He would stop halfway through the running and tell me that he was going back," Gregorio Jr. recalls. "I would tell him, 'It's too dark for you to go home alone. You came out with me and you have to go back with me.' " In a makeshift ring set up in a yard adjacent to the family house, the father would have the boys spar against each other. "Wilfred used to cry to my father that he couldn't catch me or hit me," Gregorio Jr. says. "I told him, 'Do the same things I do.' Everything you told him to do, he did it."
It was then that Wilfred learned to switch back and forth from righty to lefty. "I'm a natural righty, but I can fight both sides," he says. "I switch from left to right to left to confuse my opponent. But my right is where I have all my strength. I'll bust the bridge of a guy's nose with my right."
Goyo taught his sons all the punches, from Rocky Marciano's overhand right to Kid Gavilan's bolo. And they all worked off the jab. Kids from the neighborhood started to come around to train, too, including an older boy named Esteban DeJesus. In 1972 Goyo took DeJesus to Madison Square Garden for a 10-round non-title fight with the new WBA lightweight champion of the world. Roberto Duran. DeJesus became the first and only fighter to drop Duran—he caught him with a left hook in the first round—and also the first to beat the Panamanian, winning a decision.
Wilfred says that what drew him to the gym, aside from a wish to please his father, was the sparring and the daily routine and the sense that he was good at what he did there. "I was in the gym all the time," he says. "I liked the discipline. You go into the gym and work out, you sweat, you develop your skills. That's what I enjoyed. Every day. Dedication. That I developed rapidly. I was 15, but it was like being 21."
Of the four sons, Wilfred worked the hardest and wanted a title the most. One by one the other three boys dropped away. There was talk that Goyo pushed his oldest son too hard and too fast, but he says now that he forced young Gregorio to quit the ring because he got married. "Gregorio was the best boxer," Goyo says. "But he fell in love. I told him, 'You get married, you no fight.' "
Alphonso left the gym because he preferred going to school. Today he's a computer technician with the Puerto Rican telephone company. Goyo's biggest disappointment was Frankie, at one time the promising lightweight. "I retired him because he liked the women too much," Goyo says. "He's crazy, but he was a tremendous fighter. Frankie sparred some with Wilfred before the Cervantes fight. Frankie was a little faster, but Wilfred was stronger and more intelligent."
In 1970 the Benitez family had moved from the house in Saint Just where they had lived since coming back from the U.S. into a new one there, where they still live. The gym Goyo built is out back, and the living room is a glittering testimony to Wilfred. Trophies are tightly packed on a table, his championship belts are on display, and his plaques hang on the walls. One small plaque, hung prominently in the center of the display, was a gift from Frankie to Goyo in 1981. It reads: WORLD'S GREATEST DAD.
Much has changed between the World's Greatest Dad and his youngest son the last few years, since the prodigy bloomed into a wildflower. And what a prodigy he was. "In the amateurs I was 15 years old and fighting older men, and I was boxing them all and beating them," Wilfred says. "Why shouldn't I become a professional?" He turned pro on Nov. 22, 1973 when he was still 15, and earned $100 by knocking out Hiram Santiago in the first round of his first fight. The mongoose was loose.
Teddy Brenner, then the matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, recalls the time he brought Wilfred to New York to fight Al Hughes in the Felt Forum. Wilfred had just turned 16, too young to box legally in New York. "He had a baptismal certificate that said he was older." Brenner says. "I didn't know how young he really was." Brenner remembers Wilfred sitting in his office and spotting a fly buzzing in front of him. "Watch this," Wilfred said and caught the fly in midair.
In those days, Brenner says, Goyo's word was inviolate: "If the father had told Wilfred to jump off a burning building, he would have jumped." For the first two years that Benitez was a pro, that was the way it was. "His father is one of the best trainers around," Brenner says. "He's a Vince Lombardi." Goyo had Wilfred believing in himself at 17. "I felt I could confront anyone," Benitez says. "Why couldn't I fight the champion? I wasn't scared of Cervantes, I made him miss. The little giant won. I used to say, 'Boy! If I win this, I'll be the youngest champion ever. ¬°Extraordinario!"
That it was. "He trained two months for Cervantes," Goyo says. "That was the best he ever trained." While training, he promised his father the $7,500 purse. Goyo recalls, "He told me, I don't want the money, I want to be champion. Make me a champion.' "
That fight showed Benitez to be the most promising fighter in the world. It also was the last time Wilfred trained for a fight as if it really mattered. "When I entered boxing I wanted the championship, money, health and women," Benitez says.
Soon, the Lombardi of Saint Just had lost control of his prodigy. While training to defend his title against Cervantes, Wilfred ran his car off the road and wedged it between two trees, leaving the front end hanging over a steep cliff. He was hospitalized briefly, and the fight was canceled. "He's lucky he's still alive," Goyo says.
Wilfred then began to train in discotheques rather than his father's gym. His lax attitude showed in the fight with Bruce Curry in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 18, 1977. Goyo argued and pleaded with his son. "Curry will knock you out," the father said. "You haven't been training. Nobody will fight Curry because he has a punch."
"Nah." Wilfred said.
Curry knocked Benitez down three times—twice in the fourth round, in which the bell saved Benitez from being knocked out, and once in the fifth, when Wilfred ended up stretched over a strand of the ring ropes, half in the ring and half out. "He trained about 10 minutes for that fight," Brenner says. "He got off the deck one time with one leg walking north and the other east. There's no way he should've gotten up and continued. I don't know what carried him through that fight."
What ultimately won the fight for Benitez—by a controversial split decision—was his superior boxing skill and that sixth sense that kept him from getting clobbered yet again. As painful and embarrassing as the experience was, the Curry fight revealed a new dimension in Benitez. "If there was any doubt about his courage, this fight made you take your hat off to him," D'Amato says. "When he got off that floor, you wouldn't have given two cents for his chances."
"Bad preparation," said Benitez, who beat Curry handily in a return match, 10 weeks later.
Benitez disappeared altogether while training for his fight against Randy Shields on Aug. 25, 1978, quietly breaking camp in New York City one day to spend a week with his girl friend in Florida. Benitez neglected to tell Brenner he was leaving. The Garden matchmaker was frantic. "I had every Puerto Rican private detective in New York out looking for him," he says. Goyo finally found Wilfred in Orlando, where he had spent the week at Disney World. "I rode all the rides." he says. "I rode the submarine, I went into the past." The thing was, he says, that he had been left alone in New York with more than $1,000 in his pocket and a girl in Orlando. "There went my discipline," he says.
And there went Goyo. Wilfred knocked out Shields in the sixth round but by then his father had had it. "He had gone bad," Goyo says. The boy had worn the yoke since he was eight, had been unfailingly obedient to his father's will. "A man-kid," Wilfred says. "Or a kid-man." Up early, roadwork with fists flying, into the gym to bang and spar, early to bed.
"When you try to do this to an 18-year-old kid who has been disciplined all his life, you're going to get rebellion," Brenner says. "I've noticed it since he won the title and people began to pat him on the back and he realized he was an individual. Rebellion set in. It happens all the time in the boxing business between father and son. Never fails."
"I listen to my father only to avert any problems," Wilfred says. "He demands a lot from me mentally and physically. I have my own mind and I get angry.... I feel like I want to kill someone."
In the summer of 1978, after the Shields fight, Goyo sold his son's contract for $75,000 to Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton. They retained Goyo as trainer for approximately 10% of all purses. The $75,000 Jacobs and Cayton paid for the contract turned out to be a fire-sale special. Wilfred has made about $3 million since then, and Jacobs expects him to collect another $1.4 million for the Duran fight.
The change in management, at least in the beginning, didn't help. Jacobs sent Wilfred to D'Amato's upstate New York training camp.
D'Amato admired Wilfred's talent enormously but concluded, "This fellow has a terrible ego. He won't admit there are some things about boxing that he doesn't know." Benitez left after a month. "He was lonesome," D'Amato says. "He couldn't go to town, couldn't have his girl up here. Nothing meant anything to him but having a good time."
"I don't train because they keep on repeating things over and over," Benitez says. "I already know all those things. I do my own thing. I don't need all this training. I'm a professional. I only have to maintain my speed, my movement."
There has been an aimless drift, even chaos, in Wilfred's life the last few years. Wilfred stirred his father's wrath by insisting that Emile Griffith, the five-time former world welterweight and middleweight champion, train him for the Palomino fight. Griffith shortened Benitez' punches, and Wilfred, when he won the title, told Griffith, "You make me champ!" During Wilfred's first defense against Weston in San Juan, Goyo was at El Nuevo Comandante, the racetrack on the outskirts of the city, when someone shoved a radio to his ear, telling him his son was losing.
Goyo dashed from the track and drove to the stadium. He arrived by the end of the ninth round, leaped through the ropes between rounds and confronted his sagging son. Slapping Wilfred's face, he yelled, "Hey, what's the matter with you? Get out there and kill that guy!" Benitez won the decision. As Wilfred's fight with Ray Leonard approached, Goyo criticized his son—who was acting as his own trainer—for not training properly, even writing an article in The Ring that began, "He can't win this fight."
Because it was his first loss, the Leonard bout was pivotal in Benitez' career. "After Leonard made all that money, that changed me," he says. Moreover, he feels he has his loss to Leonard to avenge, as does Duran his. They will make a curious pair on Jan. 30: two big guys—both will come in near 154 pounds—fighting for the right to come down to 147 to meet the little guy, Leonard.
The World's Greatest Father, at the wheel of his 1979 Bronco, is driving along the highway leading to the hills to the south of Saint Just. Ahead of him, running steadily, are Wilfred and Gregorio Jr., who is running backward and throwing punches in the air, as his father taught him to do long ago. There is less than a month until the fight with Duran, and the father, who is again his son's trainer, doesn't like the way Wilfred has been training. Goyo believes Wilfred will be in better shape for Duran than he has been in three years, but Goyo also views Duran as dangerous. "¬°Peligro! ¬°Peligrisimo! We've got to be in condition," he says.
Two days before, as Wilfred finished sparring six rounds in the gym, the father complained, "That's not enough. Right now he should be doing 15 rounds. He didn't run enough today. He ran a mile by himself. When I run with him, I make him run and throw punches."
"Nobody can show me how to box but my father," Wilfred admits. "He pushes me. You have to train me hard. The way my father trains me is the best...." But it hasn't been an easy relationship, and never will be again.
Goyo watches Gregorio and Wilfred, who is chugging forward, his arms and hands held in the attitude of a runner. Goyo whips the Bronco out and pulls even with Wilfred. "¬°Tira golpes!" the father yells. That is, throw punches as you run.
Wilfred doesn't acknowledge it.
"¬°Tira golpes!" The son stares ahead, expressionless. The father tries a third time. Again nothing. The son jogs on, as if his father wasn't there.
"Ahhh!" says the father in disgust. He presses hard on the accelerator and leaves the son behind.
Benitez' performance in the ring doesn't usually reflect his minimal work in the gym.
The Benitez farm has a stabilizing effect.
Benitez' jackhammer right left Hope unconscious, uncrowned in their title bout.
Clara and Gregorio have pretty good footwork, too.
Wilfred and his nieces Yvonne (left), Yazmin (right), nephew Edgardo and sister Yvonne.
Benitez lost to Leonard but made him miss often.