The ever changing landscape of modern boxing often makes us forget the rich history developed over the last century.
As time goes on and generations are introduced to the new wave, boxing tales between the 1970s and 1980s are often left untold. Anything before that seems to be a lifetime ago.
Before the mouthwatering collection of fights the 80s witnessed between Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. There was an outstanding talent in the 70s who would become boxing’s youngest world champion at the age of 17, a record still unbroken today.
Wilfred Benítez, born September 12, 1958, is a Puerto Rican former three-weight world champion. Labelled El Radar (‘The Radar’) for his gifted talent to telegraph and evade his opponent’s attacks, Benítez was one of the most mesmerising defensive boxers of his generation.
Turning professional at the fresh faced age of 15, in November 1973 Benítez marked his debut in ferocious style with a first round knockout of Hiram Santiago. By the age of 16, he would be recognized in the world level bracket by the then only two sanctioning bodies, the WBA and WBC.
On March 6, 1976, El Radar would face the lineal and WBA light welterweight holder Antonio Cervantes (74-9-3, 35 KOs) in a bout scheduled for 15 rounds.
With over a decade in age difference, the 30-year-old columbian Cervantes with 10 defenses of his title, would hand over his title reign to the young champ in a split decision defeat.
Quoting Stanley Weston and Steve Farhood formerly of The Ring:
“At age 17½, he was too young to appreciate history, but old enough to have made it.”
Defending his light welterweight titles just three times and drawing against Harold Weston in the process, El Radar would make the move to welterweight in search for more crowning moments.
Facing and beating the likes of Bruce Curry (33-8, 17 KOs) and Randy Shields (41-9, 21 KOs), Benítez now with a record of 36 wins, no losses and one draw would challenge lineal and WBC champion Carlos Palomino (31-4-3, 19 KOs) on January 14, 1979.
Dazzling the crowd in Puerto Rico, El Radar would box to a split decision victory and become a two weight world champion at the age of 20. Palomino, the super popular Mexican in the 70s, would lose his titles after he defended them eight times successfully prior to facing Benítez.
In his first defense only three months later, Benítez avenged his draw with Weston two years earlier in an unanimous decision victory. However, his reign in the welterweight division proved temporary.
El Radar vs. Sugar Ray
Marking it as one of the best and most interesting fights of the decade, a young Sugar Ray Leonard (36-3-1, 25 KOs) would feature in his toughest test to date when he met El Radar on November 30, 1979 in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.
Two wonderful boxers with like-for-like skills, Leonard was the favorite, possessing the Olympic pedigree advantage over Benítez. Leonard would win gold in Montreal three years prior to the bout.
The fight had everything, and in particular showed one of the most intense and entertaining staredowns in boxing history. Sugar Ray buzzed Benítez in the first round with a left hook but El Radar simply shrugged off the attack.
The third round would see Benítez drop to the canvas after a surprising jab floored the champion. Embarrassed with himself, Benítez would ensure to the crowd it was a wild mistake.
Leonard, who was finding his man with ease, started to question his opponents courage at the halfway point –
“I wasn’t aware I was in a championship fight early because I hit him so easy,”
“But then he adjusted to my style. It was like looking in a mirror.”
During the sixth, Benítez would come off worse in a clash of heads, leaving him a bloodied mess for the rest of the 15 round bout. In the 11th, Benítez would see his mouthguard rattled from a Leonard left hook. El Radar was also struggling from a thumb injury that left him with one fighting hand.
In what is one of the more bizarre refereeing stunts, Carlos Padilla called a stop to the fight with just six seconds to go in the final round. Many shocked in the crowd, Sugar Ray was the new champion and began his reign at the top.
To the surprise of Benítez, he was in defeat for the first time in 38 fights. El Radar made his man miss throughout the whole fight, however, if it was to go to the judges it was deemed it would’ve been Sugar still victorious.
One Last Reign at the Top
Leaving the 1970s with legacy defining achievements, the 80s presented one last challenge for Benítez, could he crack it at light middleweight?
On May 23, 1981, Benítez challenge and destroyed WBC light middleweight champion Maurice Hope (30-4-1, 25 KOs) in Las Vegas. Knocking out Hope in the twelfth round, Benítez at 22 would become the youngest three weight world champion in boxing history. The stoppage would also be remarked as one of the best of the year.
In his next three fights in the early 80s, El Radar would staple his name amongst the best and prove that he never ran from the biggest challenges.
In his first defense of the WBC strap against fellow Puerto Rican Carlos Santos (41-4, 28 KOs) it was the first world championship fight between two Puerto Ricans in boxing history. To no ones surprise however, it would be hosted in the boxing capital, Las Vegas.
Claiming victory over Santos in 15 rounds, Benítez wouldn’t rest for long as he defended the title against Roberto Duran (103-16, 70 KOs) at the start of 1982.
El Radar performed admirably against Duran, winning the fight on all three judges scorecards.
Many believed it would be Benítez to retire Duran in the their 1982 meeting, however, hands of stone still had plenty left in the tank as history shows.
With nearly twelve months out of the ring, which was the most at this time of his career, El Radar would defend his title for the next time against another Hall of Fame fighter, Thomas Hearns (61-5-1, 48 KOs).
With both men having a knockdown each in the fight, it was Hearns who would take victory via majority decision and hand Benítez his second loss of his career. Now without championship bragging rights, El Radar would become a shadow of his previous self and suffer a points defeat to Mustafa Hamsho (44-5-2, 28 KOs) and an early stoppage to Davey Moore (18-5, 14 KOs) in his next few fights.
Throughout the rest of the 80s, El Radar tried to return to world level but would suffer more defeats than needed. Retiring after his 1990 loss to Scott Papasodora (16-9, 7 KOs), the record of El Radar reads 62 fights, 53 wins, 31 by way of knockout, eight losses and one draw.