If there was one thing that had characterized the champ's fighting style, it was his slow starts and furious finishes. And now, after 13 tiring rounds in San Juan, Puerto Rico last Sunday afternoon, Carlos Palomino, 29, the WBC world welterweight titleholder, was clearly, if typically, behind on points. All through the fight, 20-year-old Wilfredo Benitez had toyed with him, showing a certain disdain. Benitez had been elusive, moving like a wisp through the hot (86�) and humid air at the local ballpark, Hiram Bi-thorn Stadium. For the most part, Benitez had relied on his jab; it was not destructive but it piled up points. Now was the time for the champ to make his patented late move.
Before the fight, Palomino had allowed that his eighth title defense—for which he earned $465,000, a record in this division—wouldn't be tough. His opponent's body was weak, Palomino said, and his chin was like glass. "I don't expect to have too much trouble," he said. " Benitez isn't very strong, and he's been knocked down by a lot of very mediocre people."
Benitez had, indeed, been knocked down a lot. But no one had ever kept him down; he always got back up to win. In 37 fights, the Puerto Rican's only black mark was a draw with Harold Weston. Benitez had won all the rest, 22 of them by knockout. Still, no one gave him serious consideration as a puncher.
In March of 1976 Benitez had won a 15-round decision—and the WB A junior welterweight championship—from Antonio Cervantes. Benitez was 17 at the time; it had been a stunning upset. After two successful defenses, he had given up the title by default. The WBA had wanted him to fight a rematch against Cervantes. Benitez said he would, just as soon as his hands healed from injuries suffered in an auto accident. The WBA said it wouldn't wait.
"After that, he just seemed to lose interest," said Gregorio Benitez, Wilfredo's father, trainer and former manager. "He lost his enthusiasm, his fire. I decided to sell his contract. I hoped new money might give him new enthusiasm. And it has worked."
Gregorio sold his son's contract to Jimmy Jacobs for $75,000. Once the world's greatest handball player, Jacobs runs a multimillion-dollar fight-film distributorship in New York City.
One of Jacobs' first moves was to bring in Emile Griffith, a five-time world champion in the welter and middleweight divisions, to train Benitez. Wilfredo's father was insulted. "What do you want Griffith around for?" Gregorio said to Jacobs. "You may be his manager now, but I'm still his trainer."
"You can both train him," Jacobs said.
The arrangement led to some stormy sessions in the gym. Three weeks before the Palomino fight, Griffith was still at home in New York, and Benitez was training in Puerto Rico. Then Wilfredo called Jacobs. "I want Emile to train me," he said.
Griffith was on the next plane to San Juan, where Gregorio promised to pick him up at the airport. After waiting several hours, Griffith finally decided Gregorio wasn't coming. He took a cab.