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"Go downstairs!" Dundee exhorted Leonard between rounds. "Go to the body. Stick that left in his face. You can't stand in front of him and hit him with a right hand. Forget the right hand!" Leonard held out his hand, indicating where Benitez' face was. "But he's right there!" said Ray.
"Yeah," said Dundee. "He's right there, but then he ain't there."
Occasionally the two fighters stopped face to face, fiat-footed, feinting with their hands, weaving like wind-up dolls and searching for the openings. Leonard was looking at a mirror. In the sixth round, in fact, they cracked their foreheads together. Fortunately for Leonard, the blow raised only a welt. Unfortunately for Benitez, it opened a gash. Blood flowed down his face. His corner treated the cut, but Benitez knew that Leonard could reopen the wound and that the blood could impair his vision. Benitez was suffering from another problem, too. He had injured his left thumb early in the fight, and by the seventh round he was shaking his left glove at his side.
It was an odd fight, with much parrying and displays of ringcraft, and hard to judge. Neither man dominated. Neither could move the other around. Neither could set the other up. And there was not much banging. Leonard landed the harder blows and had Benitez going more than once late in the fight. In the ninth he delivered a flurry of punches, culminating with a right that put Benitez into the ropes. In the 11th Leonard hit him with a hook that jarred his mouthpiece loose. Benitez rope-a-doped. Leonard, who probably missed more punches in this fight than in all his previous 25 pro bouts combined, could not put him away. "No one, I mean no one, can make me miss punches like that," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Man. this guy's really good.' "
If the two used every feint and maneuver in the first 14 rounds, science deferred to war in the 15th. a round they both thought they needed to win. Actually, through 14 rounds Leonard was in front by at least two points on all three cards. Harry Gibbs, the English judge, had them the closest, 136-134 on the 10-points-must system. "Leonard missed so much." he said. "Boxing is the art of self-defense, and Benitez made Leonard miss."
The fighters swung from all points of the compass in the 15th. For weeks, preparing for this fight, Leonard had studied films of Wilfredo Gomez, the super bantamweight champ, who throws a devastating left uppercut. And now, off a jab, Leonard stepped inside and raised one home, catching Benitez on the chin. Down the champion went, to his knees. Regaining his feet, he stepped gingerly to a corner, kicking his legs to get the feeling back. He was ripe now. Leonard threw two punches more, and referee Carlos Padilla stopped the fight. Benitez had been beaten for the first time in 38 professional fights, and Leonard was the WBC's new welterweight champion.
Perhaps never has a title changed hands with more amicability and sportsmanship. Three times the two men embraced at the postfight press conference. "I have no excuses," said Benitez, with the gash still open and his thumb swelling. "He won easy, you know? He'll win a lot of fights like I do when I was champion, O.K.? He's a great challenger. He became champion beating me. I want to give him a good luck and God bless him."
Benitez' $1.2 million purse did nothing, of course, to inhibit his feelings of good will. Nor did the prospect of a return engagement next year. The two camps have a gentlemen's agreement for a rematch. Leonard's prospects in the marketplace are limitless now. With television behind Leonard, every opponent he chooses is in for a payday the likes of which he never had before. Among those who may thereby profit are the World Boxing Association champ, Pipino Cuevas, and former lightweight champ Roberto Duran.
The next day, Leonard stared at the mirror as Jermain worked on him. Angelo Dundee stood behind him. Leonard said quietly, "I think we should have had this guy in our corner."