At his breakfast table in Caesar's Palace, Jimmy Jacobs was on the telephone to New York. Jacobs is the manager and chief speechmaker for Wilfredo Benitez, the undefeated welterweight champion who intends to take Sugar Ray Leonard down a notch Friday. At a volume that made 3,000 miles of telephone line superfluous, Jacobs was telling someone how confident Benitez is.
"A television reporter from Channel 8 comes to Wilfredo," Jacobs said, "and he says, 'Wilfredo, you are the champion, but Sugar Ray is undefeated and he is a 3-to-1 favorite and everyone is saying he will win, so what do you think about that?'
"And Wilfredo gets off a great line. Wilfredo says, 'My manager said my objective is to salvage some dignity.'
"A great, great line. Wilfredo is absolutely convinced, after seeing Leonard's last six fights on cassettes, that he is going to win. I keep telling Wilfredo to build up Leonard. Say 'There's never been a fighter like Leonard.'
"That way, he gets some credit for beating Leonard when he does it. Otherwise, everyone will just say Sugar Ray disappointed them."
Because Benitez speaks little English (his line about salvaging dignity was whispered into his ear by Jacobs) and because he has fought mostly in Puerto Rico (this is only his second fight outside Puerto Rico and New York), the general public has no idea that Benitez is a wonderful fighter of unprecedented accomplishment.
At 21, Benitez has been a professional fighter since the month after his 15th birthday. He won the world junior welterweight championship at 17, becoming the youngest champion ever. At 20, he beat the great and grizzled Carlos Palomino for the welterweight title. In 38 fights, 23 of them knockouts, the only blemish on Benitez's record is a draw 2 1/2 years ago when he did an Ali-the-clown impression so long he infuriated the judges.
It has been Benitez's history, testified to by all concerned, that he is a lazy fellow who customarily saves his greatest energy for the pursuit of women, which, of course, admits him to a club made up of who knows how many fighters, dentists, truck drivers and, to be fair, one or two newspapermen.
Having said that, it is no less true that Benitez does his work when only his best work is good enough to do the job.
"When Wilfredo fights an ordinary fighter, inevitably he looks ordinary," said Jacobs, the fighter's manager the last year and a half. "His attitude at those times is not what I'd call lazy. I'd call it supreme indifference.
"But when he fights someone when everybody says he's going to lose, then Wilfredo fights his greatest fights."
Benitez's two championship victories, over Antonio Cervantes and Palomino, were unexpected but undisputed. The kid was a machine. He won 15-round decisions over 30-ish veterans who had lost only nine times in 115 fights.
A good defensive fighter whose constant bobbing and weaving make him a most difficult target to hit, Benitez is primarily a counterpuncher who lives off his opponents' carelessness.
"Wilfredo is a magnificent boxer who punches hard enough to get your attention," Jacobs said.
"He is infinitely better than anyone Leonard has fought. Head and Shoulders above them."
Angelo Dundee, Leonard's manager agrees.
"If you put Benitez in a group with the real great fighters, the Jose Cuevases, the Roberto Durans, you have to split hairs to say who's the best," Dundee said. "When he was 17 -- 17! -- he beat Cervantes, who now has come back to win a championship in a heavier division. I see this guy as real good."
Jacobs, 50, who has made the study of fighters his lifelong preoccupation (he owns the largest library of fight films in the world), says review of Leonard's most recent fights show a pattern of dominance that is thrilling.
"You see a fighter with tremendous speed, first of all, and you see a fighter who like Sugar Ray Robinson, the best ever, throws four- and five-punch combinations. And he can miss you with the first two and knock you out with the third punch, which is terribly impressive.
"He's the greatest finisher in the game today, maybe the greatest since Joe Louis. When he gets a man hurt, he finishes him in a hurry. The fight's over. When Leonard gets a man in trouble, the people head for the exits."
Not only that, Jacobs said, but Leonard is good on defense.
"In all of Leonard's fights, he rarely, rarely gets hit. That's because he is fast and because he fights when and where he wants to fight. He chooses the time and the place in the ring when punches will be distributed.
"Some painfully beautiful, exquisitely beautiful, women often hide behind that beauty. And Leonard is a painfully beautiful, exquisitely beautiful, fighter.
"We'll find out Friday if he's hiding behind that beauty or not.
"Wilfredo will not allow Ray to call the time and the place of the fighting. With Wilfredo, Ray will be in with a consummate professional fighter. Ray will never be hit the way he'll be hit in this fight."
What's more, Jacobs said, he can see in Benitez's training the last two months that the fighter is serious. Jacobs can see in Benitez what he calls "that touch of fear, the same fear a great actor feels on opening night on Broadway, the same fear a brain surgeon feels when he is about to open your head."
No supreme indifference this time.
"Leonard has said he will knock Wilfredo out by the 10th round (of a scheduled 15)," Jacobs said.
"So when reporters asked Wilfredo about that the next day, Wilfredo said, 'I realize I'm in grave danger.'" Jacobs liked that line, too.