Famous Fighter of the Week: Wilfred Benitez

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By Matthew Baker

In a sport filled with stories of the meteoric rise to the top and the devastating fall from grace, no boxer burned his candle at both ends brighter or hotter than Wilfred Benitez.  A pugilistic prodigy from the Bronx, raised in Puerto Rico, Benitez became the youngest world champion in the sport’s history and, while in his 30’s, was diagnosed with the most nightmarish condition to which boxers are susceptible.

Nicknamed “El Radar” due to his uncanny ability to predict and dodge his opponent’s punches, Benitez was a defensive master who ratcheted up an amateur record of 123-6 before turning pro in 1973. At age 17, he defeated Antonio Cervantes to become Light Welterweight Champion of the World. His record as the youngest world champion ever still holds.

Though not a hard trainer (“he would rather be anywhere than the gym” his father/trainer famously said), Benitez came ferociously alive in the ring and beat such competition as Roberto Duran and Harold Weston, before his first loss to a young Sugar Ray Leonard. Against Carlos Santos, he won the first world championship bout between two Puerto Ricans. He later performed well against Mustafa Hamsho and Tommy Hearns.

But Benitez’s sunset was far less brilliant than his dawn had been. After a catastrophic 1986 loss to Carlos Herrera in Argentina, Benitez found his money and passport stolen by the fight’s promoter and he was stranded in Argentina for over a year. During this time, his health declined and, at age 31, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalitis, an incurable, degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head. It is known in more common parlance as pugilistic dementia. With virtually no memory, and no control over even his most basic bodily functions, Benitez now resides in an assisted living facility in Puerto Rico under the constant care of a nurse. Though he is occasionally trotted out for public appearances, such as his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame or the funeral of Hector “Macho” Camacho, and he always has a ready smile for fans and visitors, Benitez is essentially an invalid, a shell and shadow of his former self. With his millions and his championship belts gone, he lives on as a cruel reminder of the very darkest consequences boxing has to offer.

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