For Wilfred Benitez, Boxing's Brutal Toll Never Ends
All Wilfred Benitez wanted was to go home.
"He doesn't recognize that this is his house, that he is home," Yvonne Benitez said, warmly glancing toward her younger brother and gently touching his arm as the pair sat on a couch on the front porch. "He asks me, 'Do you know where I live?' I tell him he lives here. Sometimes I will say I am going to take you to your house later, nine or 10 at night. He looks at the clock and starts counting (the hours)."
Time and fate have been excruciatingly cruel to Benitez, who turned 52 last month.
In his day, Benitez was hailed as one of the best boxers and mobbed on the streets by fans. He had outclassed Roberto Duran and beat everyone except Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns during a 14-year career. Yet, on this quiet Wednesday, in a low-income neighborhood, 20 or so minutes from San Juan, this island's bustling capital, Benitez was surrounded by only family members. They are his caretakers, without complaint, yet saddened and angered at times, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Benitez suffers from an incurable, degenerative brain condition caused by the blows he took in the boxing ring. It's called post-traumatic encephalitis, leaving Benitez in a state of perpetual stare and smiles, and with the mentality of a child. It's not certain if he knows his identity, though, at times, the family says he does remember. They see him bobbing his head, the way he did when he was in the ring, and shadow boxing when encouraged.
Benitez was diagnosed with traumatic encephalopathy in 1989. His condition gradually worsened and he nearly died in 1994, after falling in his living room and into a coma.
Yvonne, 59, a graceful, proud and religious woman who has worked in the payroll office at the University of Puerto Rico for more than three decades and speaks fluent English, remains hopeful Wilfred will improve. She is the family's matriarch following the death of their mother, Clara Rosa Benitez, in 2008.
"It's in God's hands, and we are praying for a miracle," Yvonne said, pausing to wipe a tear.
Dressed in black Puma shoes, long, red shorts and a white mesh shirt, Benitez greeted his visitors with a firm handshake. He wears wire-rim glasses but is nearly blind in his left eye. He gently clutches the nearest person's arm and cannot hold a conversation, yet his family understands. He sleeps sporadically, maybe 90 minutes tops, roams continually and can't control his bodily functions. He also was diagnosed with diabetes six years ago.
"It's very sad, knowing how he was before, and now he's a child," Efrain Crespo -- Yvonne's husband of 28 years -- said through an interpreter.
The three-bedroom, three-bath home – the same one Benitez was raised in – is cluttered but filled with warmth and love. There aren't many reminders of an illustrious career that earned Benitez entry into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996.
A framed mural of Benitez hangs in the living room above the couch, a bronze championship trophy sits on a stand near the television and a weathered crystal is on the porch. Yvonne had to remove Wilfred's boxing photographs from the home because he would stuff them in his shirt, often causing him to lose his balance and fall.
The remnants of the gymnasium and boxing ring, where Benitez trained as a youth under his father Gregorio, sits at the end of the driveway in the backyard. The roof was torn off by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. A solitary boxing bag hangs near a broken-down vehicle; two dogs and a cat patrol the overgrown grounds. Yvonne hopes one day to turn the area into a small museum to honor her brother.
Naturally, boxing is considered a major sport here, having produced more amateur and professional world champions than any other sport in its history. Benitez was this island's seventh world champion and a member of one Puerto Rico's most famous boxing families -- brothers Frankie and Gregory Benitez also were top contenders in the 1970s. Wilfred's last bout took place in Winnipeg, Canada, on Sept. 18, 1990, six days after his 32nd birthday. He lost a 10-round decision against Scott Papasadora.
"If you are boxing fan in Puerto Rico, you definitely know who Benitez is," said Herman Colberg, 39, a local attorney who has recently joined state's boxing commission as an administrator. "Anyone who is 10 years younger than me probably didn't see Wilfredo fight, and that's too bad, because his style was great, and I loved the way he fought. He fought pretty, which is a character... it's something about Puerto Rican boxers, they fight pretty."
Benitez's situation is far from pretty.
While he earned millions during his career that saw him win 53 fights, 31 by KO, the money is gone and unaccounted for, Yvonne says. Benitez's championship belts also have vanished. Benitez lives on roughly $14,000 annually in government stipends and a $250 a month pension from the World Boxing Council. However, Yvonne lamented the stipends are often incorrect and pension checks are late.
Yvonne also is hopeful city leaders will fittingly recognize her brother. There was talk at one time of changing the name of their street, Calle Six, to Calle Wilfred Benitez, but that hasn't happened. A new community center a mile or so from the Benitiz home hails him with a plaque -- inside the building. Other Puerto Rican boxers have been honored with statues.
Even so, Yvonne is not bitter, saying she loves boxing and sports. Sure, she had hoped to be enjoying retirement and spending time with her three children and seven grandchildren, not to mention seeing a healthy and productive Wilfred. But that hasn't happened. She will continue to work, continue to worry and continue to pray.
Wilfred remained at her side. He smiled and held her hand.
He is home.