Although the great, indeed the wizard-like Wilfredo Benitez was never a member of the exclusive boxing club known and celebrated as “The Four Kings” (Marvin Hagler, Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran), there are plenty of fight fans who strongly feel this was a major injury. Benitez, who has fought memorable battles with three of the “Four Kings,” should have been in, and therefore the title of the majestic club should have been “The Five Kings.”
One of Benitez’s biggest wins came 40 years ago (January 30, 1982) – in Las Vegas, scene of course of a number of the titanic battles “The Four Kings” lit up the boxing world with – against Duran. Benitez, having lost his welterweight title to Leonard in November of 1979, this by late-round stoppage, had regrouped and he had gone up to capture a world title at 154 pounds. Duran had of course beaten Sugar Ray (in one of the greatest fights of all time), but the Panamanian God had then done the unthinkable in quitting against Leonard in the return instantly dubbed “No Mas” (even though there is a good chance Roberto never actually said those words).
Since the capitulation of capitulations, Duran had also moved up to 154, where he had scored two points wins, over Nino Gonzalez and Luigi Minchillo. All Duran wanted was a shot at redemption against Leonard, and he felt a win over Benitez would get him the fight. In fact, ahead of the challenge of the Puerto Rican slickster, 30 year old Duran said he would retire from the sport if he lost to Benitez. “I am fighting Benitez to get one more chance at Ray Leonard,” Duran said. “Leonard is my ultimate goal. But if I lose to Benitez……”
As for the reigning and defending WBC super-welterweight champ, Benitez said all he wanted after beating Duran was a shot at middleweight king Hagler. Benitez wanted to beat Duran and then rule at a fourth weight. “This is my last fight as a junior-middleweight and it is very important,” Benitez said. “After this fight I want to become a middleweight and beat Marvin Hagler for my fourth title.”
As things turned out, neither guy go to do what he had wanted to do at the time.
Benitez, 43-1-1 and still close to his peak at age 23, had perhaps trained harder than ever before; a new sense of maturity coming over the boxing genius who was notorious for being childlike and lazy in the gym. Duran, 74-2, had whipped himself into top shape. But youth was served. Youth and dazzling boxing brilliance was served.
Duran could barely hit Benitez. It was that simple. Or that clever from “El Radar” and his uncanny ability to make a shot miss by a fraction of an inch. And Benitez was far more than just a defensive master. The champion opened a cut over Roberto’s eye and Benitez punished Duran’s body, sapping his strength. By the 15th, Duran was all but empty, exhausted. Yet on this night there was no quit in him; he couldn’t afford to ever repeat the monumental mistake he had made in New Orleans. And together, Benitez and Duran put on a show in the final round. It was over and it was close on the cards. Too close. Benitez won by scores of 144-141, 145-141 and 143-142, yet most had him up by a bigger margin.
Benitez never got a shot at Hagler and he didn’t move up to 160; Instead he got a super-fight date with Hearns, which he lost by reasonably close decision that December. Duran never retired after losing for just the third time in his career; he instead lost again, to an even more unpredictable fighter (unpredictable in more ways than one) in Kirkland Laing. Duran bounced back and, in June of 1983, he beat Davey Moore to win the WBA 154 pound crown.
Benitez was every bit as special as Duran, Hearns, Leonard and Hagler. At least he could be on his best night. One of Benitez’ very best nights came 40 years ago today.