The strange thing was, he said, how they no longer believed in him as a fighter. He frowned, this 17-year-old man-child still in his junior year of high school, as though puzzling over a problem in math. "Before, when I was unbeaten and a contender, before I fought for the championship, everyone spoke of me as a good fighter," Wilfredo Benitez said. He spoke haltingly, the seldom-used English not flowing with the liquidity of his native Spanish. "And now, now that I am champion, the people look at me like I was a, a...." Unable to snare the word he needed, he looked to his father for help.
Gregorio, his father and manager, shrugged and stared at the floor.
"...like a freak," Wilfredo Benitez, the WBA junior welterweight champion, concluded.
His father made an angry sound. Later, after the boy had left, he said, "It is not the champion they question. It is the father. Soon they will see."
In 1966 Gregorio Benitez moved his family to Puerto Rico from New York City, where he had worked in an auto-body shop for 19 years. He didn't like the way his four sons were growing up in the streets. "Too much dope, too much trouble," he said. "I told them we go home where it is not so bad."
At home in St. Just, just outside San Juan, the sons continued to fight, only now mostly in the ring. Gregorio Jr., the oldest at 21, had his first bout at the age of eight, turned pro at 15 and has recently retired. He is a quiet young man, with a quick, soft smile and sad eyes, and they say his father moved him too swiftly and he caught too many punches.
"They can say what they want," said the father, "but I retired Gregorio because he was bowlegged. He'd try to move quickly and he'd fall down. Then he got married and wanted to fight some more. But I say no. I told him marriage makes you too weak. You are retired. Now he helps me as a trainer."
The next in line was Alphonso, a year younger than Gregorio, and, it is said, the cleverest boxer of the brothers. As an amateur he was 14-1; then he decided he wanted to go to college.
"But college costs money," Alphonso said recently. "I discovered I needed $200 to buy books."
He went to his father, who booked him a pro fight in St. Croix.