SAN JUAN – Former Puerto Rican boxer Wilfredo Benitez lives in a wheelchair and survives on state aid, forgotten by the world after squandering the millions of dollars he earned during a career in which he was the youngest fighter ever to win a world title.
Next Sunday will mark 35 years since that distant March 6, 1976 when the 17-year-old Benitez dared to take on Colombia’s Antonio “Kid Pambele” Cervantes for the WBA Light Welterweight title.
More than three decades later, Benitez suffers badly from years of taking blows to the head, and is unable to say a word to explain what he did with what, at the time, was a fantastic fortune equaled by very few sports stars.
The money piled up by Benitez during his career quickly evaporated thanks to his and his father’s dismal handling of it, as they lavished it all on cars, gifts, women and luxuries of every kind.
Benitez’s health, like his bank account, also began to decline due to the punishment he took in the ring from the age of 7.
The boxer’s sister Ivonne Benitez told Efe that she has always remained proud of the champ and close to him, especially after his health problems set in and he was diagnosed with chronic brain injuries.
Benitez, now 52, cannot do without Ivonne’s assistance in his daily life at a cramped little house in Carolina, near San Juan.
Ivonne had to take charge of the ex-champion after his mother died in 2008.
“My mom was always worried about who would look after him if she died, so I promised that I’d always stay beside him. Helping my brother has changed my life completely,” Ivonne Benitez said with tears in her eyes.
“He is like one more child. I’m here for whatever he needs. He was the doll I played with when he was born, and I love him as I do all my brothers,” she said.
The champion’s sister said that Benitez gets help with medicines from the Carolina municipality and a pension from the Puerto Rican government, which, however, is not enough to pay for his physical therapy.
Veteran boxing writer Mario Rivera Martino told Efe that the Benitez-Cervantes bout was one of the sport’s “greatest events.”
He recalled that “Benitez’s excellent boxing style” was the main factor in his win over Cervantes, then at the peak of his career.
“In all the history of boxing there has never been anything like it. It was certainly the greatest moment in Benitez’s career and one of the most important for the sport in Puerto Rico,” he said.
It was a fairly even fight, but Benitez, known as “El Radar,” used more savvy than strength to surprise the then-champion and beat him by a split decision in 15 rounds.
After his historic victory, in which Benitez also became the first Latino boxer to win $1 million for a single fight, he continued his spectacular series of triumphs, including the WBC Welterweight Championship that he snatched from Mexico’s Carlos Palomino.
Benitez retired in 1990 with a 52-8-1 record and was inducted six years later into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. EFE