After the fight, Wilfred Benitez capsuled it in his fractured English, in words that had a childlike directness. Of his contest with Roberto Duran he said, "I am a smart boxer, and that is not good for him."
A less debatable statement has rarely been uttered. Benitez made a believer out of Duran, whose try at winning Benitez's WBC super welterweight title was a constant disaster in a 15-round unanimous decision.
Duran, the famed intimidator, couldn't intimidate. Duran, the dominator, was dominated. Duran, the rope fighter, was outslugged on the ropes. Duran saw the other side of Benitez, the craftsman who chose in this fight to slug it out with a puncher and won 10 of the 15 rounds. The scorecards of the three judges who had it closer were an abomination. Several ringside opinions had Duran winning only three rounds.
A now-it-can-be-told story has been produced in the aftermath of the fight. Why did Benitez abandon his usual boxing style and so surprisingly take the fight to Duran from the opening round? Why did he dare to assault Duran with all those right leads, the most dangerous punch in boxing because you get nailed badly if you miss?
The strategy against Duran was planned only 30 minutes before the fight, in Benitez's dressing room, by the fighter and his father Gregorio, an old fighter himself. "You do not let him chase you," Gregorio Benitez said he told his son. "Tonight, you chase him."
The father-son relationship has been less than joyous through the years. Usually, Benitez has a certain scorn for his father, who a couple of years ago was angry enough to sell the boy's contract to Jim Jacobs. The latter gambled he could control the strong-headed Wilfred. Jacobs admits it hasn't been easy, and that full control of Benitez has not yet been achieved.
"Nobody talks tactics to Wilfred during the weeks he is training for a fight," Jacobs said. "He is his own man, has his own mind. But around fight time, he does listen to his father. Why shouldn't he? Wilfred has been fighting since he's 8 years old, and all those years every time he went back to his corner, his father was always there. Let's just say that he trusts his father on fight night."
Those daring right leads with which Benitez speared and confounded Duran at the start and in the middle of so many rounds were not his father's idea. They were Benitez's strategy.
Jacobs said, "For hours, Wilfred studied the videotapes of Duran's last two fights, which went to decisions, and he pointed out to us the failings of Duran's opponents. Wilfred said, 'Look, they are afraid to throw right hands at Duran. I will throw right hands at Duran. You watch me. I will hit him much with my right hand.' "
Those right leads that kept Duran off balance also set him up for Benitez's solid and rapid left hooks. Benitez did not pay for it with much cost until the 12th round when, still daring to fight Duran's fight, he was caught by a right that wobbled him. He was hurt, and now Duran's fans were scenting a late-round comeback for their hero and a knockout of Benitez.
But two rounds later, Benitez was the boss again, and in the 15th, when it became a gorgeous street fight on the ropes in a neutral corner, Benitez chose not to break it off. He could have, by simple maneuvering, but he appeared to be enjoying his show of supremacy on the ropes, too. Now, the rope fighter, Duran, had to know he was being beaten at every turn by this consummate artist.
Jacobs said Benitez was specially motivated in this fight; that he had lived for years with the legend of Duran as the hero boxer of Latin America and that he knew he was a better fighter and he wanted to be that legend.
Ray Arcel, Duran's 82-year-old trainer who had come out of retirement one more time to be with his man in this fight, said he knew by the third round it was useless. "Roberto wasn't responding. He didn't have the reflexes this time. He's had a hard 30 years. Weight-making always takes it out of him. After the third round I was just hoping he wouldn't get knocked out."
Arcel is the straight talker in Duran's camp. After the infamous eighth-round "no mas" default to Sugar Ray Leonard in New Orleans, Duran and his Panamanian people were pleading a tummyache as an explanation for the sudden forfeit. But Arcel said, "He quit, it's as simple as that."
In the weeks preceding this fight, Duran said repeatedly that his only goal was a third fight with Leonard, and that if he lost to Benitez he would retire.
"Whatever my manager decides, that's what I'll do," Duran said afterward.
Manager Carlos Eleta turned to him and said, "Roberto, I don't want you to keep on fighting."
Leonard was at ringside as the color commentator for Home Box Office. What Benitez did to Duran elevates Leonard. Now he is the only man who ever licked Benitez, by a knockout, and Duran. Of 119 fights in the records of those two, there are only four losses, half of them dealt out by Leonard.
It also has served to make Leonard a bigger man in boxing if, indeed, he is not already the biggest. Not only is he the conqueror of Benitez and Duran, Leonard is where the money is. The total purse of less than $2 million they collected Saturday night is trifling compared to the millions each could get for a Leonard fight.
Benitez, a 152-pounder last night, never will descend again to the 147 pounds at which he was beaten by Leonard. Like Leonard, he is looking upward at the 160-pound middleweight title owned by Marvin Hagler. The prevalent belief is that whichever one gets to the slower Hagler first will win that title. Now, it seems, we have a race.