The idea that David Benavidez might be one of boxing's boogeymen has percolated throughout the sport over the last few years. In his development fights and title defenses (when he was a champion), he had plowed through lesser opposition mostly with ease. With wrecking balls in both hands, an active motor and a high Ring IQ, Benavidez had already demonstrated that he possessed high-level talent; but despite his manifold offensive gifts, he still hadn't beaten elite opposition.
There were three reasons for his lack of top opponents: For one, he wasn't fighting in a strong division until recently. There just weren't too many legitimate top guys to fight. A second factor was of his own doing. Benavidez had lost two titles outside of the ring (failing a drug test and missing weight). As a result, he didn't have the same bargaining position. Without a belt, no one was forced to fight him or go through him to unify the titles. And finally, let's face it, no elite fighter had been in a rush to face him for any reason, title or not. Opponents and their teams have eyes. And while watching Benavidez beat up another opponent, potential challengers weren't licking their lips and proclaiming, "This is the guy that I want!"
However, former champion Caleb Plant accepted the Benavidez challenge and for that he deserves credit. He could have gone in any number of directions for another title shot, but instead he chose the most perilous option.
|Photo courtesy of Ryan Hafey|
In analyzing the matchup, Plant had a path to victory. Featuring superior foot speed, fast hands, a sneaky left hook and an ability to land punches while on the move, Plant presented challenges for the more flat-footed Benavidez. In addition, Plant was going to fight on his own terms. He wouldn't get sucked into a war or feel the need to play to the crowd, vital attributes in potentially beating Benavidez.
Plant started Saturday's fight brightly. With his jab, left hook and purposeful movement, he flummoxed Benavidez in the early rounds and controlled the pace of the fight. That Benavidez couldn't even reach more than 40 punches a round until the sixth demonstrates how successful Plant was in the first half of the match.
But as early as the third round, Plant started to lose command of what was working for him. Instead of circling and using purposeful lateral movement to land his punches, he too often went into retreat or decided to hold. And as Benavidez started to get cooking with power punches, Plant evaded or held even more. It was a negative style, which is fine, but Plant also wasn't getting enough work done.
In an interesting development, Benavidez gained a foothold in the fight with his left hook. Now, this was a bold play in that Plant's best punch is his left hook. Remember the old boxing adage, "Never hook with a hooker." Well, Benavidez was willing to turn that axiom on its head and expose himself to Plant's power in order to land his. It was a decision that smacked of machismo, and it worked for him. When they traded their best hooks, Benavidez's shots were far more substantial. Benavidez still wasn't landing with regularity in the third and fourth rounds, but his single left hooks were damaging.
The fight started to swing in Benavidez's direction for good in the middle rounds. What I found most exhilarating was how Benavidez would dominate a stretch of the fight with one punch and then the next round he would get the best of Plant with another weapon in his arsenal. It seemed as if in each successive round he dug into his bag of tricks and found something else that worked. He went from the left hook to the head, to the overhand right, to the left hook to the body, to the right uppercut, to opening up with combinations. Despite Plant's elusiveness, Benavidez was able to get through with all sorts of nastiness.
As Benavidez had more and more success in the fight, it became clear that referee Kenny Bayless wasn't going to give David a fair shake. Despite Plant's incessant holding, it was Benavidez who was often warned for fouling. In addition, Bayless wouldn't let Benavidez work with a free hand in the clinch. There were literally a dozen times where I believe that Bayless broke up the action when the fight could have continued. These instances often stopped Benavidez's momentum and temporarily saved Plant from taking more damage.
And as bad as all that was, Bayless' most egregious moment was when he stopped the action when Plant was hurt to take him to the ringside doctor for a cut that was in an unthreatening area. Overall, it was a terrible display from Bayless, who once was one of the best referees in the sport.
Despite the difficulties that Benavidez had with Bayless, he hurt Plant seemingly at will in the latter half of the fight. In the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh, I thought that Plant was close to being stopped. And perhaps his corner or Bayless could have called off the fight, but to Plant's credit he was able to survive.
|Photo courtesy of Ryan Hafey|
Ultimately, Benavidez won via an impressive unanimous decision; I don't think that he should be criticized for not getting the stoppage. He was fighting two guys in the ring, and with a different official I think that he would have been more than capable of scoring the KO.
Plant just didn't have the punching power to keep Benavidez honest. Although he made Benavidez uncomfortable and forced him to think his way through the fight, Plant couldn't stop Benavidez from marching forward. Plant has shown that he can be a capable operator in the ring, but when he faces real power, he's at a significant disadvantage.
As for Benavidez, he has won me over during the last few years. Initially, I wasn't a huge fan of his; I felt that he didn't take the sport seriously enough. But since he lost his last title, I have been impressed with how he has rededicated himself to boxing. He hasn't had the same problems with making weight. His conditioning is now much better. And this has enabled him to become even more imposing in the ring.
If Benavidez can stay on the straight-and-narrow he will have many more triumphs ahead of him. He's now hitting his peak and would give any fighter trouble in his surrounding weight classes. His offensive arsenal is frightening and his ring intelligence is an underrated part of his game. Let's hope he understands how close he is to the precipice of greatness.