Even if you’ve been a fight fan most of your life, and even if you try to educate yourself when it comes to guys far before your time that you’d never know or care about unless you were a fight fan, you’re bound to encounter a few great scraps that you didn’t know existed or simply hadn’t yet seen.
Footage of primordial bouts has been lost, packed away or forgotten about, and sadly we may never see those gems, and we live with that.
Other classics simply escape our consciousness for one reason or another, though. Fights like Frankie Baltazar Jr. vs. Juan Escobar or even “Caveman” Lee vs. John LoCicero lacked really familiar names, but their tales were recounted unto younger boxing followers by responsible, bloodthirsty folk who watched them 30 or 40 years ago. Jung-Koo Chang vs. Katsuo Tokashiki was perhaps the Somsak Sithchatchawal vs. Mahyar Monshipour of the early 1980s, in that both featured two non-American fighters on foreign soil in excellent lower-weight collisions, though the latter match-up was pushed heavily on the Internet, while the former relied mostly on word of mouth.
Whatever the reason, despite how the Internet has accelerated the evolution of the boxing fan, we cannot be everywhere at once. Time is limited, and fights fly under the radar.
This one, while not quite the slugfest the above mentioned were, flew under mine for too long.
Wilfredo Benitez was born on Sept. 12, 1958 in the South Bronx, New York City, to Gregorio and Clara Rosa Benitez. The youngest of four boys, three of which boxed professionally, Wilfred, his name having been anglicized, showed early interest in the sport, emulating his older brothers and kicking around gyms in the neighborhood.
Outside of their boxing interest, Gregorio was a championship softballer, and the elder three brothers were said to have all been talented baseball players. Gregorio had indeed boxed as a young boy, though.
But tired of seeing his sons fighting on the streets and constantly flirting with more serious issues, Gregorio moved his family to St. Just, Puerto Rico, not far from San Juan, in 1966. Said Gregorio in a later interview with Sports Illustrated’s Pat Putnam, “Too much dope, too much trouble.”
In Puerto Rico, “Goyo,” as Gregorio was locally known, spent over $15,000 to build a boxing gym on the back driveway of their property — a gym in which all four boys would train. On playgrounds, Goyo would even have his sons spar each other and charge spectators a quarter to watch.
At the age of seven, Wilfred entered the Puerto Rican Golden Gloves, drawing with his first opponent. At 13 he won the AAU title, and he finished his amateur career with a 123-6 record. At just 15-years old, he made the move to professional with a 1st round knockout over Hiram Santiago in San Juan.
Even early in his pro career, Wilfred appeared gifted with a sort of pugilistic precognition, almost as if he knew what shot was coming next before his opponent did. His defensive ability earned him the nickname “El Radar.”
His first fight outside of the Caribbean was a co-headliner at Madison Square Garden Theater, then known as the Felt Forum, just before his 16th birthday in September, 1974. As he was too young to legally fight in New York, Gregorio apparently had falsified documents saying Wilfred was older.
Wilfred earned a 5th round technical knockout over journeyman Al Hughes, while his older brother, the free-swinging, fast-living Frankie pounded out an eight-round decision over Al’s twin brother Bobby.
On Oct. 25, popular Canadian fighting brothers Terry, Gary and Johnny Summerhays all fought at Madison Square Garden, with Terry and Johnny losing by TKO to Wilfred and Frankie, respectively. Gary lost a majority decision to Puerto Rican heavyweight Pedro Soto. Needless to say, it was a rough night for the Summerhays family, and not so much for Puerto Rico.
In December, Wilfred headlined a card at the Felt Forum, at 16 years of age. Wilfred claimed his 14th win in 14 fights by unanimous decision, and again Frankie fought on the card, earning another eight-round decision in a rematch with Bobby Hughes.
Wilfred had a reputation of his own, as he was notorious for hating to train, in addition to a storied volatile relationship with his father, who would later pen an article for Ring Magazine entitled “Why Benitez Will Lose His Title,” commenting that he was only trying to motivate his son.
A stoic, unforgiving figure by many accounts, Gregorio was said to have “ruined” his eldest son Gregorio Jr., who also turned pro at 15, but was retired by Sr. at 17 for apparently being bowlegged. Rumors persisted, though, that the quiet young man took too many punches in a long amateur career.
“The Benitez Brothers” carved their names into the consciousness of the Boricua public, and Wilfred in particular gained a following in Puerto Rico for his dazzling footwork and defensive wizardry. Fighting mostly between San Juan and St. Maarten, Dutch Antilles, their names were familiar in the region.
Fighting 11 times in 1975, the youngest Benitez brought his record to 25-0 (20 KO) before enticing WBA junior welterweight titlist and veteran boxer-puncher Antonio “Kid Pambele” Cervantes to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan for a showdown on March 6, 1976.
With odds makers tabbing the 17-year old Benitez an underdog by as much as 4-1, a nip and tuck bout featured Wilfred walking Cervantes into jabs and right crosses as the latter looked for one big shot at a time for much of the fight. The Colombian Cervantes found brief success to Benitez’ body and forced a fair amount of the action, but was also stung in both the 9th and 11th rounds by right hands.
Upon being awarded a split decision victory, many of the 17,000 in attendance rushed the ring to celebrate Benitez becoming the youngest ever world champion, as well as Puerto Rico’s seventh world champ.
The new champion was back in the gym two weeks later, and Argentinian veteran Nicolino Locche’s manager Tito Lectoure claimed a deal was set for Locche to meet Benitez that June, according to The Springfield Union. Whether the proposed deal was ever truly in place or not, Wilfred wound up slated to face no. 4 ranked Colombian contender Emiliano Villa in May, even though Villa had lost to Locche earlier in the year.
Following a heated sparring session with heavyweight Francisco Alvarez, an onlooker noted than none of Wilfred’s sparring partners were left-handed like Villa. Gregorio Sr., generally speaking for his son, replied to the onlooker, “Right or left, Villa is made to order for the champion. It will be a tough fight, for Villa has a strong chin. But he comes straight in and catches almost everything. Besides, the champion can fight as a southpaw if he wants.”
A cautious 1st round proved to simply be the precursor to Benitez taking Villa to school, strafing the challenger with jabs and crosses for almost 14 straight rounds. Never was Villa close to being in control, but Benitez obliged Villa’s rushes and exchanged with him for most of the final round.
Benitez successfully defended his belt by wide unanimous decision, earning $60,000 for the fight, and immediately afterwards Gregorio Sr. asked, “Can anyone doubt that he is a champion now?”
Outside of the ring though, Gregorio Sr. struggled to keep Wilfred away from his admitted weakness: girls. And Wilfred still hated to train. His father would later say, “…he would rather be somewhere — anywhere — but the gym.”
Regardless, Benitez was scheduled to rematch Cervantes on Dec. 5, and took on Tony Petronelli, nephew of Marvin Hagler’s head trainer and co-manager Goody Petronelli. Wilfred defended his title by 3rd round TKO, and headed for a second bout with Cervantes.
A car accident in early November in which Wilfred suffered lacerations and bruises derailed the fight though, and in late November the WBA stripped Benitez of his belt for “asking for postponements beyond those usually granted,” and failing to defend his title against Cervantes due to his injuries.
As both Wilfred had planned on moving up in weight soon either way, he decided to test the waters above 140 lbs., and Madison Square Garden Boxing matchmaker Teddy Brenner pitted him against talented but less-than-sterling welterweight Harold Weston.
Born in 1952, Harold Weston, Jr. hailed from the East Village in New York City. Harold’s boxing trainer father, Harold Sr., handled a few established guys like Puerto Rican middleweight Jose “Monon” Gonzalez, and was chums with famed trainer/manager Gil Clancy and his business partner, Howie Albert.
When Harold Jr. was nine, he began boxing in one of the city-run Department of Parks rec centers that had been opened in the 1940s.
Then known as “Baby Harold,” Weston had the privilege of growing up among fighters with world class talent. Even so, as a teen, Harold still had to pay his $10 a month fee at the Telstar Gym on W. 28th St. in Manhattan. Rather than get jobs like so many other kids his age, Harold stuck around the gym and offered to keep the joint clean in order to pay his way.
In an interview with The New York Times’ Dave Anderson in 1968, a 16-year old Weston would say, “I want to be a fighter. And this keeps me off the streets down in the east village where I live. I don’t associate with any of them people down there on the streets. I come to the gym, I go home, I sleep, I get up and do my roadwork, I go home, I come to the gym, the same thing every day, but I like it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it. I’m not making any money yet, but it’s like a summer job.”
The following year in ’69, Weston fought his way into the finals bracket of the “Novice” category of the New York Daily News Golden Gloves, and while on the NYC Golden Gloves team in 1970 fought his way to winning the championship at 147 lbs. by defeating Ronald Columbus in front of 20,000 spectators.
Instead of going to the national version of the Golden Gloves tournament, Weston opted to turn pro, finishing with a reported amateur record of 46-6, and entered the paid ranks with Harold Sr. (often referred to as “Pops”), Clancy and Albert as his team.
Harold turned professional in July of 1970 with a six-round decision win over Ralph Castner, and scored a win on the undercard of Floyd Patterson vs. Charley Green at Madison Square Garden in his second pro fight.
In his first 15 outings, Weston sported a record of 13-2 (4 KO), his only two losses to fringe contenders and Felt Forum regulars Jose Rodriguez and Edwin “Chuchu” Malave.
In his 14th fight, the loss to Malave, Harold and Edwin had haggled over how many rounds the fight should be scheduled for, with Weston wanting 10 and Malave wanting eight. They instead compromised on a nine-round bout, which proved to perhaps be Weston’s undoing, as he lost a split decision when two judges scored the bout for Malave by a point. The two had fought on the same cards before, and their bout was supposed to have been the opening bout of a triple-header at MSG, headlined by classic Philly middleweight Willie “The Worm” Monroe. Instead, Gil Clancy-trained Colombian middleweight Rodrigo Valdez headlined with a TKO win over Bobby Cassidy.
He went 2-2-1 in his next five bouts, losing again to both Malave and Jose Rodriguez before being drafted into the U.S. Army in mid-1972.
Stationed in Texas at Fort Hood, then Ford Dix, Weston was granted leave to fight undefeated middleweight (and part-time truck driver) Vito Antuofermo. As Vito was a known for having a rough style and issues with cuts, and Harold’s style was swarming and often stifling, the bout was reportedly a taxing one. By halfway through the 2nd round, Vito’s left eye was a bleeding mess, though it may have been a result of their heads clashing inside. In the 5th, the bout was stopped on cuts when the entire left side of Vito’s face all but exploded in crimson, giving Weston a TKO victory.
Harold again went on leave in 1974 and was scheduled to face Dominican weltweright Dario Hidalgo, who had previously gone 1-1 with future WBA welterweight titlist Angel Espada. The bout fell through, however, and Harold instead faced Mario Saurennann at the Felt Forum in a bruising fight that ended with Weston getting a majority decision, even though Saurennann’s eyes were near swollen shut.
The two fought again at the Forum a little less than three months later, and this time Weston got a more clear-cut points decision.
Fresh out of the Army, in October 1974 Weston took on once-defeated prospect Fausto Rodriguez, who had just beaten Dario Hidalgo two months earlier, again headlining at the Felt Forum.
A close, difficult contest, Weston’s right eye was near-closed by a punch in the 2nd, prompting Clancy to almost stop the fight. Harold reportedly boxed well and fought his way back into the bout, but was leveled by a right hand from the hard-punching Rodriguez in the 10th, and got up to lose a close split decision.
Earlier on the card, Puerto Rican welterweight Justice Ortiz earned a controversial split decision over Dominican Guelo Hernandez, causing the mostly-Dominican crowd to shower the ring with glass bottles and chairs. Heavyweight ex-champ Floyd Patterson, who was commentating ringside for the local broadcast of the bouts, could only mutter “This kind of thing can’t help boxing” as the fans scuffled with security for 45 minutes.
According to The Evening Times of Trenton, N.J., tension was broken a bit in the wake of Weston’s loss to the Dominican Rodriguez.
Weston then traveled abroad for the first time to face experienced but faded former 140 lb. titlist Bruno Arcari in Rome, Italy. Weston would later say of the February, 1975 bout, “I was beating him good, but that referee did everything to interfere. You know at one point in the fight, he actually told me to stop ducking!” Harold lost a 10-round points decision.
Despite the loss, Harold came back to the U.S. and clearly stepped up his opposition in his next seven fights. Even in going 4-0-3, he stayed competitive with the well-carved Hedgemon Lewis, Johnny Gant and Saoul Mamby in the draws, proving to himself that he was worthy of fighting at higher levels. He later credited the Lewis draw for “making” him.
In June 1976, an entertaining, hectic 10-round contest between Weston and Minneapolis-based big welterweight Rafael Rodriguez ended in a majority decision win for Weston at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.
Following up with a KO2 over unheralded Ronald Whyms, the chips had fallen into place for Harold Weston Jr. to meet undefeated Puerto Rican Wilfred Benitez.
Benitez and Weston were reportedly very familiar with one another, having trained together and sparred on numerous occasions in NYC. And to oddly continue the “family vs. family” narrative that began with the Benitez brothers fighting the Hughes and Summerhays brothers, both men had their fathers in their corner.
In training, and not just for this bout, Weston was granted access to train with world class guys like Dick Tiger, Ismael Laguna, Johnny Persol and many others, including Emile Griffith, who he’d often traveled with for training camps and fights, and who he had also considered something of a mentor. Griffith had been handled from start to finish by Howie Albert, and fought with Clancy in his corner for something in the realm of 120 rounds.
His 22-6-4 record aside, Harold Weston was not completely inexperienced when it came to stepping in the ring with elite fighters.
Harold was approached by Don King to fight in his “U.S. Boxing Championship” tournament — an ABC broadcast event that was essentially an effort to find American stars in the sport, and would later fail miserably. But as Weston refused to sign with King, and because Gil Clancy had known MSG honcho Teddy Brenner for a while, Harold was matched with Benitez instead.
Although on paper Benitez’ class appeared to be too much for Weston, his poor training habits were well-known and a legitimate concern against a hungry fringe contender ranked in the top 10 by both the WBA and WBC at the time.
The bout represented the first fight card at Madison Square Garden in 1977, and was part of a triple-header also featuring Weston’s good friend Emile Griffith, who was 39 and on the comeback trail at the end of his career. It would also be Griffith’s 28th appearance at Madison Square Garden.
It’s safe to say Benitez vs. Weston stole the show.
Before roughly 10,000 fans, Weston bulled forward and raked Benitez to the body with hooks and uppercuts, and Benitez danced and pivoted his way into and out of trouble over and over. When Benitez would begin to pull away with excellent defense and flashy shots, Weston came back with right hands over the top and continued his body assault, prompting Wilfred to feign getting wobbled, shuffling his feet and other clowning around, which unfortunately became the overall story of the fight. Lost in the reports of Benitez’ wild tactics was the fact that both men displayed splendid in-fighting ability and very seldom clinched.
Likely not on any sort of top-anything list in terms of overall action, importance or how memorable an event it was, it’s nevertheless a “Random Classic.”