By Robert Dominguez
When Wilfred Benitez stepped into the ring against Carlos Palomino on Jan. 14, 1979 for a scheduled 15-round bout in San Juan, Puerto Rico, there was plenty more at stake than just Palomino’s WBC welterweight title.
For Benitez, a New York-born Puerto Rican known for his speed, savvy and defensive skills, beating Palomino — a future Hall of Famer born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles — would enable the young challenger to make a huge and lasting impression on the boxing world in front of his “home” crowd.
In Palomino’s case, defeating the upstart Benitez, the welterweight division’s leading contender, would help cement his place in boxing history and his hold on a championship belt he’d worn for nearly three years and seven fights.
But for boxing fans — especially Latinos — a victory by their chosen warrior would earn them bragging rights in what has evolved into the sport’s fiercest national rivalry: Puerto Rico vs. Mexico.
“Fights between Mexican and Puerto Rican boxers are like cousins going at it,” says Joseph Santoliquito, president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.
“The fighters may be from different countries, but they share the same blood and basically the same culture, and you won’t find a more intense rivalry.”
The bitter history between the two boxing-crazed countries can be traced back to at least 1934, when Sixto Escobar became the first Puerto Rican champion by defeating Rodolfo (El Chango) Casanova of Mexico in a bantamweight title fight.
The year before, Jose Flores Perez, aka Battling Shaw or Benny Kid Roy, became the first Mexican to win a world title — light welterweight — kicking off what would be decades of dominance by South of the Border boxers.
There have been more than 200 Mexican and Mexican-American champions since then, second only to the more than 400 titleholders from the U.S.
Meanwhile, there have been about 70 champs with Puerto Rican roots — considered the best total per capita for any country — since Escobar brought home the bantamweight belt against Casanova.
Nearly half a century later, Palomino and Benitez would reignite the fistic feud when they met under a hot afternoon sun in San Juan’s open-air Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
At 20 years old, Benitez was a former prodigy from a boxing family — two of his brothers were professional prizefighters, and his father, Gregorio, was a trainer — but he was hardly a novice.
Benitez, who turned pro at 15, had won the WBA light welterweight title at just 17, when he already boasted a 25-0 record. He had also earned a reputation as a cocky, swell-headed kid who’d rather chase his many female admirers than train hard for what was the most important fight of his career.
Palomino, nine years older than Benitez, was a hard-punching rarity — he had a college degree — who didn’t think much of his opponent despite his fast rise up the rankings.
“I don’t expect to have too much trouble,” Palomino said before the fight. “Benitez isn’t very strong, and he’s been knocked down by a lot of very mediocre people.”
After the 15 rounds were over, not only had Palomino failed to knock Benitez down, the younger, faster fighter proved to be the stronger man.
Trained by former five-time champion Emile Griffith, Benitez used a combination of crisp jabs and wily defense to outlast Palomino in a lopsided victory.
The welterweight division — and Puerto Rican fight fans — had a new, charismatic champion who would go on to earn a third world title as a super welterweight and induction into Boxing’s Hall of Fame despite his career fizzling out at 32.
After losing his belt, Palomino would have just one more fight — a loss to Roberto Duran later that year — before hanging up his gloves weeks away from his 30th birthday. He would, however, make a brief and remarkable comeback in his late forties, going 4-1.
Yet a big part of both champions’ Hall of Fame legacies will be the day they thrilled fans with a hard-fought bout under the hot tropic sun that fueled the marvelous Puerto Rico-Mexico boxing rivalry that continues to this day.