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Boxing History: Thomas Hearns vs. Wilfred Benitez

“The Hitman” Slips Into “Motor City Cobra” Mode

After his heartbreaking loss to “Sugar” Ray Leonard, his first ever as a professional, Tommy Hearns regrouped with decent wins over Ernie Singletary, Marcos Geraldo and Jeff McCracken. With revenge over Leonard uppermost in his mind, Tommy set his sights on winning another world title. He moved up seven pounds and challenged the incredibly talented Puerto Rican, Wilfred Benitez, for his WBC light middleweight title.

Winning this would prove that Tommy was still one of the finest fighters in the world and that he had suffered no ill effects as a result of the Leonard defeat. The fight was set for December the 3rd 1982 at the Super Dome in New Orleans.

Since his loss to Ray Leonard, also his only as a pro, Benitez had won six straight - including a KO win over Maurice Hope in the fight that had earned him his light middleweight world championship. Wilfred had also beaten the legendary Roberto Duran, while defending his belt. This had been truly excellent form and going into the fight with Hearns the experts were divided as to the outcome.

Tommy opted to use his fine and often underrated boxing skills as opposed to going for a quick KO. He respected Benitez’s uncommon defensive abilities and used his height and reach to good effect. Wilfred’s nickname was “El Radar” and at times he really did seem to be able to anticipate punches before they were even thrown.

Whilst being pinned on the ropes or in a corner is normally a dangerous place to be during a fight, Benitez was often right at home there. He had frustrated many opponents who, when thinking they had him right where they wanted him, could only hit fresh air. He also possessed underrated punching power and an incredibly big heart. Some, however, accused him of having crazy and eccentric qualities and this seems accurate when one considers his training habits.

For some of his fights it was claimed that he only prepared for seven to ten days - despite the calibre of the opponent he was scheduled to face. Wilfred had childlike qualities for sure and depending on your view he was either a nutcase or a genius. There has certainly never been anyone like him, before or since.

In the fight with Tommy, Benitez’s radar must have been faulty because he took a number of hard, flush shots to the head. Again seeking refuge in his usually comfortable position of having his back to the ropes, his head movement was no way near as sharp as it had been and Hearns was tagging him frequently.

This is not to say it was all one way traffic. The bout was evenly fought in many of the rounds and both men scored knockdowns. Benitez, typically, refuted the validity of his trip to the floor. Hearns himself may have failed to do as expected - namely go for the KO win - due to injuring his wrist during this portion of the action.

The fight was close but watching it one had the opinion that Tommy was the man generally in charge, as he landed the cleaner and harder punches.

It went to the fifteenth and final round and at the end both men thought they had won. The judges scores were surprising in that two of the three favoured Hearns overwhelmingly, while the other had the fight a draw.

This card was possibly the more accurate, the victory Tommy got was not deserving to be of the huge margin two of the officials had it as. He had done enough though and the majority decision gave him his second world title. Tommy was as happy as he could be.

Sadly, the storied career of Wilfred Benitez didn’t have a happy ending. He continued fighting until as recently as 1990, losing almost as often as winning. Sometimes the losses came at the hands of good fighters, such as Mustafa Hamsho and Davey Moore, while at other times he was beaten by men who would never have troubled him at all in the days of his prime.

Wilfred’s last fight was a loss to a guy named Scott Papsadora. His final record reads 53 - 8 -1. By the time of his eventual retirement serious damage had been done to his brain and today he lives in a nursing home suffering from a condition called post traumatic encefalopatia. He needs constant care and lives a very poor life.

It is a tragic case and serves to remind us of the dangers boxing can have sometimes. However talented and unique Benitez may have been there is no denying the essential need of the basic fundamentals when it comes to preparing for, and engaging in, a boxing match.

The claims of a bizarre and one off attitude endorsed by Wilfred while in training may be true and if so then these methods, along with his sometimes unsuccessful defensive postures in the ring (particularly as he got older) have almost definitely contributed to his now sorry state.

One can only hope that the remainder of his years are spent living as comfortably as is possible. Benitez’s place among the sport’s true greats is secure. It is a crying shame he is not able to bask in this status today.

As for Tommy, he would return to being “The Hitman” in due course. As Roberto Duran, and later Ray Leonard, would find out on hot evenings in June of 1984 and ’89 respectively!

About James Slater

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