Fighting for a world title for the first time can be overwhelming for a boxer, even an experienced one. There are more demands on your time. The stakes are the highest. The opponent is elite.
For a 20-year-old who has never been through anything remotely like it, it can be a career-killer.
That was the situation David Benavidez faced in September. He was fighting veteran Ronald Gavril at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas for the vacant WBC super middleweight title, three months shy of his 21st birthday. Worse, Benavidez got the flu the week before the fight.
“That took a lot out of me, but I did what I had to do,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
He won the title and will make his first defense on Saturday at Mandalay Bay when he rematches with Gavril in a nationally televised bout on Showtime. He handled his first title shot like a seasoned pro and believes the result will be more emphatically in his favor this time around.
And that’s because he faced down a tragedy. His uncle, Moises Balladares, a 33-year-old veteran who had served in Afghanistan and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, was shot and killed by police in Avondale, Arizona. The incident happened in late July, in the middle of Benavidez’s camp. He was close with his uncle and they’d recently spoken.
A witness told police that Balladares was screaming that the Veterans Administration Hospital didn’t care about him. Police negotiated with him for an hour, but when police saw him holding a weapon, an officer fatally shot Balladares.
Benavidez’s first thought was to cancel the fight, but he quickly changed his mind.
“I stopped training for a couple of days, three, four days,” Benavidez said before one of his final workouts. “We were really close. But I started thinking that if he had any say in it, he wouldn’t want me to pull out of the fight. It was something I’d trained for my whole life, and sometimes, we need to go through adversity. That just makes you stronger as a person.”
The bout against Gavril was a Fight of the Year contender, and it was a grueling, physical affair. Benavidez was worn down by the flu and by the nonstop pressure Gavril applied.
There were times in the fight when Benavidez’s resources were at a low ebb, and he wasn’t sure if he could push through. But he could hear his uncle’s voice in his head, urging him to fight harder.
“In the later rounds, I felt him,” Benavidez said. “I was a little bit tired, but I could hear my uncle saying, ‘Push forward, bud. You’re going to be a world champion.’ That motivated me a lot. I wanted to become the champion that he knew I was going to be.”
The death hit Benavidez hard for many reasons. Balladares “had seen a lot, you know?” Benavidez said, and came out of the military after about 10 years of service different than he’d gone in.
They’d spoken on the phone the day Balladares died. Benavidez was training when the call came in.
“The last words I told him were, ‘I’m going to call you back. I’m at the gym and I’ll call you when I get back home,’ ” Benavidez said. “When I got home, he didn’t answer and it just didn’t feel right.”
Benavidez honored his uncle the best way he knew how: He fought fiercely, competing with an elite opponent who was highly motivated on even terms. The result was a split decision in Benavidez’s favor, but it wasn’t met with universal acceptance. Benavidez was backstage after the fight, soaking it all in, when he first heard about the rematch.
“David handled himself with class,” said Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions, Gavril’s promoter. “There was never a hesitation. Right there backstage, he said he would do an immediate rematch and he honored his word.
“That was a great fight. A great fight. It was a hard, tough fight and he could have said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do a rematch next.’ But give him credit. He said he would and he’s kept his word.”
Benavidez, still just a puppy in the sport, has a chance to become one of the bright stars in boxing, but he has a lot of improvement to do. He grew up in a boxing family and his older brother, Jose Benavidez Jr., is an ex-world champion, as well. He knows what this life is like and he relishes it.
“You can get in this game and just go through the motions and be another guy, or you can make up your mind that you’re going to be something special,” Benavidez said. “I don’t want to take any shortcuts. I don’t want to take the easy path. I want all of the tough guys, all the best fighters. When I come out on top, doing it that way, everyone will know who’s the best.”
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