Few may have thought to fashion former heavyweight champion Mike...
Sugar Ray Leonard Stops Wilfred Benitez November 30, 1979
- Sugar Ray Leonard 146 lbs
- Wilfred Benitez 144½ lbs
- TKO at 2:54 in round 15 of 15
- Location: Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
- Referee: Carlos Padilla
- Judge: Art Lurie 137-130
- Judge: Harry Gibbs 136-134
- Judge: Ray Solis 137-133
Benitez was the World Boxing Council Welterweight Champion, and Leonard was the WBC No. 2-rated welterweight contender.
The fight was televised live in prime time on ABC. The telecast also included Undisputed World Middleweight Champion Vito Antuofermo’s draw with Marvin Hagler and Marvin Johnson’s knockout of Victor Galindez to win the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship.
Leonard was a 3 to 1 favorite.
Benitez’s purse was $1.2 million, and Leonard’s was $1 million.
At the time, this was the richest fight ever between two fighters below the heavyweight division.
Gregorio Benitez, the father and trainer of Wilfred Benitez, wrote an article titled “Why Benitez Won’t Win” that appeared in the November 1979 issue of The Ring. “He has not listened to anything I have told him,” The elder Benitez claimed. “He would rather be out somewhere—anywhere—than in the gym.” Gregorio was so “disgusted” with Wilfred that he said, “Even if they gave me $200,000 to work in the corner, I would not.” However, he ended up working his son’s corner for the fight and later claimed he didn’t really believe Wilfred would lose. “If I say he is going to win, then he no work,” he said.
There was a capacity crowd of about 4,600 at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion.
As the bout began, the fighters met in the center of the ring in a 30-second staring match, their faces menacingly stony, inches apart. The crowd, rising, cheered them with loud whoops and whistles.
Then Leonard began moving and jabbing, and it appeared that he had found his target, that this might be an early evening. In the first round he tagged Benitez with a sweet hook that came off a jab and righthand, rocking the champ backwards. But Benitez got away. In the third Leonard caught him again, this time with a cleanly delivered left jab. Benitez went down on the seat of his pants. Up quickly, he took a standing eight-count, and at the bell walked to his corner smiling sheepishly.
Benitez found Leonard with two righthand leads in the fourth, and suddenly Leonard was fighting a different man. “I wasn’t aware I was in a championship early because I hit him so easy,” Leonard said. “But then he adjusted to my style. It was like looking in a mirror.” And Leonard was having trouble hitting his man, especially with the overhand right. Benitez slipped one after another, dipping under them.
“Go downstairs!” Dundee exhorted Leonard between rounds. “Go to the body. Stick that left in his face. You can’t stand in front of him and hit him with a right hand. Forget the right hand!” Leonard held out his hand, indicating where Benitez’ face was. “But he’s right there!” said Ray.
“Yeah,” said Dundee. “He’s right there, but then he ain’t there.”
Occasionally the two fighters stopped face to face, flat-footed, feinting with their hands, weaving like wind-up dolls and searching for the openings. Leonard was looking at a mirror. In the sixth round, in fact, they cracked their foreheads together. Fortunately for Leonard, the blow raised only a welt. Unfortunately for Benitez, it opened a gash. Blood flowed down his face. His corner treated the cut, but Benitez knew that Leonard could reopen the wound and that the blood could impair his vision. Benitez was suffering from another problem, too. He had injured his left thumb early in the fight, and by the seventh round he was shaking his left glove at his side.
It was an odd fight, with much parrying and displays of ringcraft, and hard to judge. Neither man dominated. Neither could move the other around. Neither could set the other up. And there was not much banging. Leonard landed the harder blows and had Benitez going more than once late in the fight. In the ninth he delivered a flurry of punches, culminating with a right that put Benitez into the ropes. In the 11th Leonard hit him with a hook that jarred his mouthpiece loose. Benitez rope-a-doped. Leonard, who probably missed more punches in this fight than in all his previous 25 pro bouts combined, could not put him away. “No one, I mean no one, can make me miss punches like that,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘Man, this guy’s really good.’ ”
If the two used every feint and maneuver in the first 14 rounds, science deferred to war in the 15th, a round they both thought they needed to win. Actually, through 14 rounds Leonard was in front by at least two points on all three cards. Harry Gibbs, the English judge, had them the closest, 136-134 on the 10-points-must system. “Leonard missed so much,” he said. “Boxing is the art of self-defense, and Benitez made Leonard miss.”
The fighters swung from all points of the compass in the 15th. For weeks, preparing for this fight, Leonard had studied films of Wilfredo Gomez, the super bantamweight champ, who throws a devastating left uppercut. And now, off a jab, Leonard stepped inside and raised one home, catching Benitez on the chin. Down the champion went, to his knees. Regaining his feet, he stepped gingerly to a corner, kicking his legs to get the feeling back. He was ripe now. Leonard threw two punches more, and referee Carlos Padilla stopped the fight. Benitez had been beaten for the first time in 38 professional fights, and Leonard was the WBC’s new welterweight champion.
On ESPN Classic Ringside: Sugar Ray Leonard, historian Bert Sugar said the Wilford Scypion-Willie Classen fight, which took place one week before Leonard fought Benitez and resulted in the death of Classen, was probably in the back of Referee Carlos Padilla’s mind when he stopped Leonard-Benitez with only six seconds to go. Leonard responded, “I don’t question that.”
Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer: “From a technical standpoint, there was more done in this fight than I’ve seen done for a long time. You saw two smart, scientific fighters—two champions in the ring at the same time. They brought the best out of each other.”
Jim Jacobs, Benitez’s co-manager: “I’m glad he [Referee Carlos Padilla] stopped the fight. I didn’t want the fighter to get hurt.”
Sugar Ray Leonard: “He’s a great champion. He fought with a lot of spirit.”
Wilfred Benitez: “Sugar Ray is the best in the world now. I was happy to get a fight with him. He was a great challenger and will prove to be a good champion.”