By Robert Quijano
On Sunday, April 23, 2017 at the invitation of my friend, colleague, and fellow member of the Puerto Rican Boxing Press, I joined Efrain Diaz in going to the home of former three time World Champion Wilfred Benitez. Benitez was the youngest to win a World Championship at the age of 17 and had notable bouts against Carlos Palomino, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and many more amassing a record of 53 wins (31 by KO) and 8 losses. Benitez who is considered one of the top five boxers in the history of Puerto Rico is also in the Boxing Hall of Fame. It is very unfortunate but Benitez suffers from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (formally known as Pugilistic Dementia) and was recently in the hospital where he was close to death.
Diaz started what is now a movement to help remember Benitez and help gather funds to help with his recovery. What began as creating 20 shirts has become a major movement here in Puerto Rico. The shirts with multiple pictures of Benitez on the front and back state “Te Olvidastes de Mi (You Forgot about me?)?” All over Puerto Rico, people in and out of the boxing community as well as entertainers are purchasing the shirt and proclaiming, “No Campeon, No Me Olvido de Ti (No, Champion, I haven’t forgotten you)!” Former Champions Felix “Tito” Trinidad and John Ruiz have made videos asking for everyone to remember Benitez and assist in the movement to raise funds needed for medical costs/home care. Mexican boxer Francisco “Bandido” Vargas has also made a video asking for assistance. Jason Sosa recently entered the ring wearing the shirt for his fight with Vasily Lomachenko. Speaking to Diaz before we entered the residence, I asked how the movement started and what we can expect. Diaz stated that when Benitez was recently hospitalized, his sister approved Diaz making the shirts to help raise funds for the costs. Diaz started with only 20 shirts but now has orders for all over Puerto Rico, the United States, and Latin America. Diaz assured that all funds are going to Benitez. Diaz told me that it was not his intention to create a movement but that is what happened. People love Benitez and a lot of people are helping to gather funds for Benitez so he can be okay. Diaz also stated that all of the people in Latin America talking about Benitez and wanting to help has been spectacular. Diaz gave the number to call to order shirts at $20 each (787-344-5907) and also advised that they can be ordered by sending an inbox message with the personal details at the newly created Wilfred “El Radar” Benitez-Pagina Oficial Facebook page. You can also contact Diaz via his email (email@example.com). Those wishing to help with funds can also deposit in the checking account “Pro Fondos Wilfred Benitez #6208001756 from First Bank. *Note late last night Yvonne Benitez created a gofundme page (Ayuda a “El Radar” Benitez) to also request assistance for Benitez.
We arrived at Benitez’ residence and were met outside by renowned Referee Luis Pabon and two time Puerto Rico Olympian Jeyvier Cintron (who just won his professional debut on 4/21/17 in Florida). We entered and were greeted by Yvonne and her husband Efrain. Yvonne was finishing giving food to Benitez via his feeding tube in his stomach. I asked Yvonne if she was a nurse or had to learn immediately how to care for Benitez. Yvonne has been taking care of Benitez since July 25th 2008 and although she was not a nurse, her mother was and Yvonne had worked in a medical facility for 42 years. Yvonne and her husband take shifts to care/watch over Benitez. Efrain takes the night shift and actually sleeps in a chair beside Benitez to ensure he doesn’t pull out his feeding tube. Yvonne advised that Benitez has his difficult moments where he doesn’t acknowledge anyone and doesn’t cooperate. Yvonne spoke of Benitez’ youth and how their father trained the entire family in boxing. Benitez is 58 years old and Yvonne is 66. Yvonne advised that she has always watched over Benitez and although he always requested that she go to one of his fights, Yvonne stated that she couldn’t. Yvonne stated that when she finally did watch Benitez fight, he lost the controversial fight with Thomas Hearns. The effort that Yvonne and her husband Efrain do daily should be applauded and other than the two of them, her daughter also named Yvonne tries to assist as well as her 12 year old grandson. Yvonne said that she tries to get Benitez in a wheelchair twice a week so that he is upright but they have to brace him in the chair so he doesn’t slump forward. Efrain mentioned that he has to carry Benitez like a child and he feels like he is Benitez’ father. I asked Yvonne how she felt with the support coming from this movement and she replied, she is happy and it has made her speechless.
During the visit everyone took their time speaking to Benitez, who at times had a blank stare but when it came time for pictures, Benitez loved the attention. Benitez raised his left hand in a fist and would not drop it. Jeyvier speaking to Benitez was an incredible moment of the past of Puerto Rican boxing and the future. Jeyvier joked with Benitez and Benitez responded with smiles. Jeyvier began shadow boxing and Benitez struggled with the word “Izquierdo (Left).” Jeyvier is a southpaw just like Benitez and Benitez when asked to jab, motioned his fist into Jeyvier’s hand. The smiles and interaction between both was very emotional. It was very difficult seeing the Champion who brought so much glory to Puerto Rico in that condition but at the same time incredible to see his responses to Jeyvier. Jeyvier didn’t want to leave. Seeing Benitez in his current state brought memories to me of my uncle who suffered eight strokes and was in the same condition. When I spoke to Benitez, I told him what an honor it was to meet him and he squeezed my hand. I told him that I have him in my prayers and how proud I was of him. Situations as difficult as this are very hard and sad but this movement of people saying they haven’t forgotten the Champ is very moving. Pabon advised that next month he has to referee a fight in Japan and will bring a shirt to WBA President Gilbert Mendoza as well as one for Roberto Duran. Former World Champion Alfredo “El Salsero” Escalera arrived with his wife and daughter. All purchased shirts and Escalera spoke to Benitez for some time. You could see the sadness in Escalera’s eyes as he conversed with Benitez. Making these shirts visible via social media, TV, and radio are very helpful but the request for assistance is much needed. Diaz advised that he no longer has a personal phone because there are so many texting or calling to order shirts. If you can help, please do. Whether you are ordering a shirt, donating to the bank account or the gofundme page, or can send large adult pampers, wipes, rubber gloves (size Large), and pads. This family needs assistance. Benitez needs the help. Please contact Diaz, anything helps. When we departed the residence after spending the majority of the afternoon there, Yvonne thanked us for coming and advised that Benitez visibly enjoyed the visit from everyone. Yvonne stated that she hoped we would return and not to forget. How can we forget? No Champion, I haven’t forgotten you. No Campeon, No me olvido de ti!