What is a king? How does one become a king? These are simple questions that solicit a degree of complex answers that differ from society to society.
In most historical references, a king is a male that has been exalted above other members of a society to serve as its leader. In ancient history, the road to kingship was usually paved in battle. The most valiant male of the winning side was usually named The King and could only be dethroned through war. Therefore, it is fitting that in boxing, any fighter that dominates a specific era can be metaphorically crowned “King” and exalted above all other combatants.
Starting with John L. Sullivan, whom many consider boxing’s first world champion, each decade had a fighter crowned by fans as its mythical King. The early 1900s were ruled by Jack Johnson. The ’20s by Jack Dempsey, the ’30s through the ’40s were ruled by Joe Louis and Ray Robinson, followed by Rocky Marciano and then Muhammad Ali.
By now, most of us who follow the sport of boxing are familiar with Showtime’s stellar documentary, “The Kings.”
This documentary tells the story of an era that most experts consider the most significant period in boxing history. It’s a story that recounts the lives of four fighters who ruled that welterweight division in such a manner that they are known worldwide as the “Four Kings.” The kings as we know them are Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Each champion ruled uniquely.
Leonard was the graceful King who was enamored by his subjects. Hearns was revered for his power and the devastation he imposed on his enemies. Duran was rebuked and praised equally for his barbaric personality. And Hagler was downright feared. Through their reign, nine epic battles would take place between the four of them. These fights would be written about in books, displayed in movies, earn them worldwide fame, and ultimately enshrine them in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
But what if I were to tell you that perhaps history got it wrong, that the story isn’t complete. That amongst these four ruled a fifth king in the welterweight division. What if I told you that this King was just as accomplished as the other four?
That he fought three of the four kings, beating one and barely losing to another. He holds one accolade that none of the four kings has, and no other boxer since he has been able to achieve. Instead of one moniker, he is known by two: “El Radar” and the “Bible of Boxing.” That he, too, is enshrined in the IBHOF. Would you believe me? Why is the story of Wilfred Benítez not told with that of the “Four Kings”?
Wilfred Benítez was born on September 12, 1958, in New York City’s infamous borough, The Bronx. Benítez was introduced to boxing by his father and trainer Gregorio Benítez. When Wilfred was seven years old, Gregorio would move the family to Carolina, Puerto Rico. Gregorio had two older sons who also boxed, but the younger Wilfred would show the most promise. Wilfred breezed through his amateur career with ease. Having dominated the central American games at the age of 14, the gifted Benítez told his father he wanted to become a professional.
Don Gregorio knew that his son’s talent was exceptional. Despite only being 15 years old, his style and skills were more suited for the professional ranks. On November 22, 1973, two months after his 15th birthday, Benítez won his first professional fight. Over the next two years, the young Benitez would go to win his next 24 outings, knocking out 17 opponents along the way.
On March 6, 1976, a now 17-years-old Benítez would fight the 30-years-old, hardened champion, Antonio Cervantes, for the WBA light welterweight world title, a title that Cervantes successfully defended ten times. Many thought that this was too much, too soon for the 17-year-old Benítez. However, the young challenger, making NY fight fans and all Puerto Rico proud, would go onto beat Cervantes and win his first world title.
That night Benítez became the youngest fighter in the history of boxing to become a world champion, a feat that no other fighter has accomplished since. After three title defenses, Benitez vacated the title to move up in weight.
In 1979 he would challenge an accomplished Mexican fighter and future Hall of Famer Carlos Palomino for the WBC world welterweight title. Benitez would beat Palomino and win his second world title. At the time, he became the youngest fighter to win two world titles in two separate divisions.
The Era of the Four Kings
While Benitez was winning his first world title in 1976, Sugar Ray Leonard represented and won a gold medal for the United States in the 1976 Olympic Games. Their careers would take two distinct paths but come at a crossroads when Leonard challenged Benitez for his WBC welterweight title on November 30, 1979, before the four kings faced each other.
Leonard was facing a two-time world champion in Benitez. The fight showcased two world-class fighters at the top of their game. Ray Leonard was a graceful and skilled boxer, and Benítez was a defensive wizard and tactician with fine-tuned punching accuracy. The fight would be Ray’s most formidable challenge to date.
Although Leonard won the fight in a controversial stoppage in the 15th round, the controversy quickly became moot because all the judges had Leonard winning unanimously on the cards.
In the early minutes of the Showtime documentary’s first episode, Ray describes Wilfred as a defensive master that was tough to hit. He refers to him by his moniker “El Radar” (The Radar). Ray describes his fight with Benitez as a tough fight because he was hard to hit, and he would make you pay when you missed.
After his loss to Ray Leonard, Benítez would move up to super welterweight and fight for a world title within three fights. On May 23, 1981, Benitez Knocked out Maurice Hope to win the WBC world super welterweight title.
In doing so, he became the first Latino fighter to win a world title in three divisions.
He also became the fifth boxer ever to win a championship in three divisions, the first since Henry Armstrong four decades earlier.
His second defense of the super welterweight title came against the savage Roberto Duran.
Duran was the second of the three kings Benitez would fight. Benítez’s defense and masterful boxing tactics frustrated Duran for much of the fight. While Duran had glimmers of success, Benitez’s elusive and expert boxing skills proved to be too much for Duran. (Click here to watch that fight on tape.)
Benitez beat Duran via unanimous decision and retained the WBC super welterweight title.
Later that year, on December 3, 1982, in his third defense of this title, Benitez would again face off against another of the four kings. This time he would be defending his title against the hard-hitting Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns.
This was a brutal fight that brought out the best of both men. Benitez suffered a flash knockdown in round five, in front of Leonard who helped call the action for HBO. That gave Hearns a slight lead advantage. Benítez returned the favor and knocked an off balance Hearns down in round nine, as his team yowled that he hadn’t been touched.
Pat Putnam summed up the battle, which ended with Hearns having his hand raised, his rep raised as he kept at trying to make the same type of noise at 154 that he made at 147. “It has been the lot of Thomas Hearns to be regarded solely as a cannon, something to be rolled into a ring to reduce an opponent to rubble,” the SI man wrote. “Last Friday night, against Wilfred Benitez in New Orleans’ Superdome, Hearns finally showed that he brings more to boxing than a big bang. Fighting with only his left hand from the eighth round on after hurting the right on Benitez’ head, Hearns outboxed the master boxer and lifted the Puerto Rican’s WBC super welterweight (154-pound) championship on a majority decision.”
This would be the last title Benítez would ever win.
After the “Four Kings”
After his loss to Tommy Hearns, Benítez was 24 years young, but he was 9 inside a sport that ages most of its athletes in “dog-years.” While most fighters at the age of 24 are starting to find their zone in boxing, Benitez was already an accomplished three division champion and had his ticket stamped for his induction into the IBHOF. Sadly, Benitez’s skills declined faster than a 787 jet that suffered dual-engine failure. He would fight fifteen more times over the next seven years and lose six of those outings.
The severe degradation of skills was one sign that things were not well with the young pugilist. Family and friends say that his speech was slurring during this time, his behavior was erratic, and he would often make nonsensical comments during conversations.
In a The Sweet Science article titled “Malfunctioning Radar: The Tragic Fate of Wilfred Benitez,” Jose Corpas gives a detailed account of the onset of Benitez’s turbulent behavior. Corpas tells a story about a time that Benitez was left stranded in Argentina for almost two years after a boxing match. The story drastically changes depending on who is telling it. Benítez’s family holds firm that his promoters took him to Salta, Argentina, for a fight. After the fight, on Nov. 28, 1986, they stole his winnings, his passport, and left the former world champion stranded on the streets begging for almost two years.
The promoters tell an entirely different account of what happened in Argentina. According to the article, promoter Miguel Herrera claims that Benitez was paid; he was paid late, but he was paid. Herrera also claims that Benitez voluntarily stayed in Argentina and that he paid for Benitez’ hotel stay for a month before he cut him off. Afterward, “the fighter 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 resting, he would get up and run some more,” writes Corpas.
We don’t know precisely why and how Wilfred Benitez became stranded in Argentina. However, we do know that Benitez’ health was failing up to that point, and it was failing fast. Before his fight with Carlos Herrera in Argentina, Corpas says that a local reporter told him that Benitez failed the prefight examination and needed help getting into the ring. After almost two years of being stranded in Salta, the Puerto Rican government sent an envoy to Argentina to bring the champ back to his native home.
A Tragic Ending
Despite his poor health and seriously degraded boxing skills, somehow Benitez was cleared to fight shortly after his return from Argentina. He would fight four more times and lose two of those outings. His last fight was on September 18, 1990, two days after his 32nd birthday. A fighter dubbed “El Radar” for his ability to foresee and defensively dodge his opponent’s attack with ease was just now target practice for upcoming fighters. And, no offense to Scott Papasodora, then 15-6-1 as he met Benitez in the legend’s last bout, but also for fighters who were at their ceiling.
I wish I could end the story here.
I wish I could tell you that the former world champion would retire and live happily ever after along with the other four kings. Tragically, this was just the beginning of a series of dreadful events that would affect the champ and his family for the rest of their lives.
In an article for the NY Times, journalist Evelyn Nieves interviewed Benitez’s mother and caretaker, Clara Rosa Benitez. Mrs. Benitez gives a first-hand account of the onset of her son’s condition. She says that after her son retired from boxing, his health wasn’t wholly deteriorated. He was doing well up to his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996, she maintains. Mrs. Benitez recounts that he went to the induction ceremony and was doing well. Shortly after he returned, the boxer collapsed and woke up three days later, suffering from severe brain damage. Doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic encephalitis attributed to the punches he received throughout his boxing career. As is the case with most fighters, Wilfred Benítez was broke, and most of the money he made in boxing was gone. Mrs. Benitez had to take care of her son and all his medical costs with her retirement and a government stipend. Mrs. Benitez was the primary caretaker of her son until she died in 2008. His sister took over as his caretaker and still takes care of the former world champion.
After Hurricane Maria devastated much of Puerto Rico in 2017, many families found it challenging to take care of relatives who were medically disabled. Benitez’ home was destroyed, and he couldn’t continue his physical therapy due to the deteriorated conditions on the island. Through donations, his sister moved with him to an apartment on the west side of Chicago, where the former world champion currently resides. He is currently receiving proper medical care and has shown some improvement since moving to Chicago.
A Case For Kingship
I opened this article asking what I think are two simple questions. What is a King? How does one become a king? While these questions can be answered using historical figures and timelines, when it comes to boxing, I don’t think I’m any closer to an answer than when I first started writing this article. Unlike any other sport, boxing lends itself to a massive degree of subjective opinions when debating who is great and who isn’t. Both experts and casual fans can argue ad nauseum the many things that elevate one fighter above another, to such an extent that the once mythical “pound-for-pound” argument has transcended into an actual, highly debated, quantifying rating in an attempt to identify degrees of greatness among fighters, past and present.
“The Four Kings,” as we know them, were crowned because they were the best in their division. They were all multiple word champions, all inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. More importantly, they all fought each other in epic battles that have stood the test of time. If that’s the case, why is Wilfred Benitez omitted from the list?
To make a compelling argument on behalf of Wilfred Benitez, I imagined Benítez in excellent health and sound mind, sitting in from of his television watching the documentary. What if Wilfred Benitez wasn’t disabled?
What if he was healthy and able to understand and articulate his feelings on “The Four Kings” as part of that “The Kings” documentary? Would he ask the question, “Hey, why was I left out?”
Would Benitez say, “I, too, fought all those guys! What are the experts basing this on?”
I think the last question is the one worth exploring. In the case of boxing royalty pertaining to the four kings, what are the requirements for kingship? Was it the number of wins? If that’s the case, Benitez boasts an impressive record of 53-8-1 with 31 KOs. That’s 26 more fights than Ray Leonard had and it’s almost even with Hearns and Hagler.
Is it a matter of championships won? Benitez is a three-time world champion in three different divisions and the youngest ever to win a world title, a record which still stands today.
We know inclusion into “The Kings” club is not a matter of induction into the Hall of Fame because Wilfred Benitez is right in there with the other four.
Is it because Benitez only has one win over three of the kings? Nah, that can’t be it. I mean, only two of the other Kings defeated more than one King. Leonard leads the way with three wins over all the other kings. Hagler is next with two wins, over Hearns and Duran. However, Duran and Hearns only have one win over the other three. That’s exactly how many wins Benitez has in his fights with the Kings.
Lastly, it’s definitely not a matter of resumes. In his 66 fights, Benitez fought in ten world title fights and fought ten world champions, five of whom would be inducted into the IBHOF. It seems to me that he meets all the criteria for kingship. No, he DOES meet the criteria.
It seems that most of the world has forgotten the grand champion and superb athlete he once was. One would be hard-pressed to find any books, films, or literature outside of boxing magazines about Wilfred Benitez. Wilfred is not the first or last boxer who will only be remembered largely while active in the sport. In fact, most fighters are forgotten about the instant they retire. However, Benitez wasn’t your average boxer, nor were his accolades.
Benitez’ greatness hasn’t been properly acknowledged, it’s more than possible, because in summing up his exploits we are forced to accept the savagery and brutality of boxing. You can’t not see how Benitez’ health took that turn for the worse, and assume that absorbing trauma to the head while boxing caused that. This reckoning forces us to have a conversation about the safety of fighters. It demands us to discuss who should or should not be held accountable when a fighter suffers from post-traumatic encephalitis, boxing-induced Parkinson’s disease, or dementia. Maybe remembering Benitez forces promoters and sanctioning bodies to face the ugly reality of the sport they profit from, very often more than fighters themselves.
In ancient kingdoms, the lame were usually the outcasts within a society, not worthy of basic human dignity, let alone being revered in the way royalty is. Is it plausible that subconsciously in our minds, Benitez’ condition makes him unfit to be a king? Perhaps Benitez’s willful omission from the “The Kings” and our memories say more about us as a society and less about him as a fighter. Whatever the case is, Wilfred Benitez is definitely worthy of being crowned a “King.”