Wilfred Benitez, the “fifth king,” turns 65

Many famous groups throughout history have had their less celebrated members. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are justly feted for walking on the Moon; but they needed Michael Collins, who was orbiting alone above them and never was able to set foot on the lunar surface, to make it home. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. hogged the headlines as they caroused through Las Vegas in the 1960s and 1970s, but Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford were members of the Rat Pack, too. Before John, Paul, George, and Ringo came John, Paul, George, and Pete; but just as The Beatles were about to become a global phenomenon, Pete Best was given his marching orders, after which he spent 20 years hiding in menial jobs before finally rediscovering the desire to return to music.

Boxing’s most famous grouping is surely the “Four Kings” who faced each other a total of nine times from welterweight to super-middleweight between 1980 and 1989. But there is a strong case to be made that four should really be five and that alongside Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, and Thomas Hearns we should be celebrating the “fifth king,” Wilfred Benitez, who turns 65 today.

Benitez faced only three of the established kings, never stepping into the ring with Hagler. He compiled a losing record against the ones he did face, but only just: suffering a final-round loss to Leonard and a majority decision defeat to Hearns but scoring a win over Duran. But whereas the others boasted lengthy careers – Duran, for example, fighting 119 times as a professional and retiring at 50; Hagler not even winning the middleweight crown until he was 26 – Benitez started early and flamed out ahead of time. Today, he lives under constant care in Chicago, having long ago succumbed to the brutality of boxing.

Born in the Bronx in 1958, Benitez and his family moved to Puerto Rico when he was seven, where he and his two older brothers all learned to box. Wilfred was the most naturally gifted of them all, sailing through his amateur career and deciding as a teenager that he was ready to turn professional. His sleek, smooth style, based on his defensive wizardry, was better suited to the pro ranks than the unpaid game and so, two months after turning 15, he made his pro debut.

A mere two years later, aged 17 and with a record of 25-0 (20 KOs), he challenged the great Antonio Cervantes, with 60 pro bouts under his belt, for the WBA super-lightweight crown; against the odds, he triumphed via wide unanimous decision, becoming the youngest person ever to win a world title. 

In 1979, having made three defenses of his 140-pound belt (and won multiple non-title fights), he moved up to welterweight, dethroning Carlos Palomino by split decision. He entered his second defense on November 30 of that year with a record of 38-0-1, despite being just 21 years old. His opponent for that defense was the up-and-coming American, “Sugar” Ray Leonard.

After a competitive battle Leonard, ahead on all three scorecards, scored a stoppage with just six seconds remaining in the 15th and final round, sending Benitez to his first defeat. He would bounce back 18 months later with a 12th round stoppage of Maurice Hope to add the WBC super-welterweight belt to his collection. In his second defense of this title, too, he would face a member of the Four Kings, this time Duran; using his ring generalship, he boxed his way to a unanimous decision win. But in his third defense, he met Hearns and suffered his second defeat.

He would not hold, or even contest, a world title again. At age 24, he had peaked, his career shortened both by its early start and his increasingly dilettante approach to training. After being outhustled over the distance by Mustafa Hamsho, he was stopped in two by Davey Moore, whom Duran had only recently blown out.

“He’s a young man but he’s an old fighter,” said Moore of Benitez afterward.

As Benitez had poured increasing amounts of energy into drinking and womanizing, and ever less into training, his style had devolved, and the defensive wizard spent more time taking punishment along the ropes, with inevitable consequences. 

In 1986, he lost again, to Matthew Hilton, after which Puerto Rican boxing authorities denied him a license to fight any more. He went to Argentina and, on November 28, 1986, lost to someone called Carlos Herrera. Depending on who tells the tale, either his management team abandoned him there or he chose to stay and “spent the rest of his days in Argentina crashing wherever he could, asking for handouts, and, at times, running at top speed throughout the streets until he collapsed on the ground from exhaustion.” 

After two years, Puerto Rican authorities sent an envoy to bring Benitez home; despite clearly suffering from the ravages of a lengthy boxing career, he had four more fights in 1990, all in the United States, before finally retiring age 32 with a record of 53-8-1 (31 KOs). Although his friends and family all reported changes in his personality and physical condition, he was functional until, just a few days after being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996, he collapsed at his mother’s home, fell into a coma, and awoke severely diminished.

Benitez had long since spent his boxing earnings, and his mother relied on her retirement income to finance his in-home care. When she died in 2008, his sister became his primary caregiver; after Hurricane Maria damaged their home in 2017 and placed a strain on resources on the island, she was able to raise enough money for them to move to an apartment in the west side of Chicago, where he lives now.

On his arrival, the Chicago Tribune described him as “wide-eyed, unable to speak or walk,” lying “in a fetal position” in a hospital bed, with motor skills that “have diminished so much that he can’t move his fingers.” It is a far cry from the precocious, dazzling, Hall of Fame talent who lit up the boxing world at a tender age – a tragic but all too familiar final act for a man who, while not universally granted membership to the most exclusive of kingships, is deservedly and unanimously regarded as true boxing royalty.