Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard were excellent defensively, through speed and movement. Roberto Duran was expert at rolling with punches. Archie Moore and Ken Norton employed the cross-arm defense, which could make landing jabs and crosses difficult.
And then there was Wilfred Benitez, the all-time king of defense. He had the closest component to actual radar a fighter could have. His effectiveness on the ropes is legendary. It was not uncommon for an opponent to miss with an entire series of blows with Benitez ‘trapped’ on the ropes, utilizing only the energy to move down a few inches, then back three or four inches, then forward again as the radar locked on the each missile and identified all coordinates of destination, speed and distance to target.
Without a doubt, like many young guys of that time, I loved to occasionally try to be Benitez when boxing with the guys. Moving in that cool way, with my back against whatever was supposed to be the ropes, I felt like I looked just like him, but oddly, my face was usually bleeding afterwards.
This isn’t about his phenomenal defensive capability, however. Wilfred Benitez was also a light puncher. He was, as welterweight king, a strategist always prepared to go the distance, outmaneuvering and outthinking his opponent. After losing his crown to Benitez, Carlos Palomino called him the ‘lightest puncher’ he’d ever fought.
After losing his welterweight title to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1979, it didn’t take Benitez long to eyeball the 154 lb crown. A rematch with Leonard wasn’t likely as big money matches with Duran and Tommy Hearns loomed for Leonard. He may have plotted that having another title would bring the big money matches and possibly even Leonard himself to his doorstep.
When Benitez put on an easy seven pounds and challenged Maurice Hope for his junior middleweight title on May 23, 1981, it was hard to know what to expect. It wasn’t whether Benitez would win, but how hard he would have to work for it, entering the ring with fighters punching harder than the welters he was facing. He was outmatched in the power department in nearly every junior welterweight and welterweight encounter. That was the question mark as he went after larger game.
Maurice Hope was a good, sound southpaw whose solid jab, good skills and nice work ethic had led him to the title, removing the belt from Rocky Mattioli the year before and three defenses prior. He was tough and a good puncher.
It was not the fact that Benitez beat Hope. It was not that he outmaneuvered Hope. It was not that he worked well off the ropes. The shocking development was that he out punched Hope, ultimately backed him up, knocked out a tooth, and knocked him down in the tenth. The ultimate capper was that this defensive genius fired a rocket right hand in the twelfth round, and knocked the sturdy Antigua-born Brit stiff. A sharp spray of sweat exploded into the air. Hope’s guard, a split second inadequate, was still up when he slowly crumbled to the canvas unconscious. Benitez’ attention moved from Hope to the crowd. He smiled into his audience as if in acknowledgment of a gift given to his fans that he had kept wrapped for a long time.
The punch was a punctuation of cruel deception. I wonder if Hope felt hornswaggled during the beating. I wonder what thoughts he had before the punch and after gathering himself up. What did he think when he looked at the man who had taken his title a master boxer without a punch, a chess player without the machismo of power, a fancy pretty boy alien to brutality?
This punch put the boxing world on notice. No longer was Benitez an ultra skilled fighter with a missing dimension. Possibly his finest performance overall came with his subsequent clear points win over Roberto Duran, but his mauling of Hope was both elegant and brutal, and indicated clearly he had found an extra tool from his immense toolkit.
It also ended Mo Hope. He had worked his way to become a respected champion of a disrespected, in-between weight class that grew increasingly to be, and still is, a place where those with multi-belt and pound for pound aspirations stop and urinate. Hope fought only once more, losing to Luigi Minchillo. But he was a very good fighter whose best moments are all too obscure in comparison to the Benitez fight.
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 1: Louis vs. Ali
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 2: Holmes vs. Frazier
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 3: Liston vs. Foreman
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 4: Imposters unmasked
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 5: Going after Goliath
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 6: Marciano vs. Holyfield
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 7: Brutality borrowed
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 8: A hook for the books (Weaver vs. Tate)
Also See: Scar Tissue Part 9: De La Hoya vs Duran
© Copyright / All Rights reserved: Doghouse Boxing 1998-2005