The most-avoided-fighter-in-boxing label is not just a badge of honor, it’s also an unfathomable test of patience for the person who bears it.
That status is earned, if you truly can earn something you don’t want, by virtue of a few different attributes. The fighter has to be immensely talented and usually owns a stylistic trait that makes him or her incredibly difficult to defend against.
Former champion Paul Williams was a 6-foot-2 welterweight who fit the bill. He routinely threw 1,000 punches per fight. Those shots were delivered from awkward angles, a handful for any opponent.
But the label isn’t merely gained by physical traits. The final ingredient is related to the balance between risk and reward for a champion or high-profile fighter. And that’s the challenge David Benavidez faces after twice being stripped of his super middleweight title.
If Benavidez had kept that belt, he would have been standing in the way of Canelo Alvarez’s quest to become the undisputed super middleweight champion and surely would have landed a fight with boxing’s top star.
Instead, one week after Alvarez accomplished that feat by knocking out Caleb Plant, Benavidez (24-0, 21 KOs) will settle for a Saturday showdown against late-replacement Kyrone Davis in the former champion’s hometown of Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, Showtime).
“People are not eager to fight me, obviously, because I don’t have a belt,” Benavidez, 24, tells ESPN. “People only wanna take chances if there’s a belt involved. But a super strong dude, a lot of knockouts, a young dangerous fighter — they feel like there’s no reason to fight me.
“I’m willing to fight anybody,” he adds. “People don’t think like that no more, especially now that Canelo is in the mix. People are just trying to secure the fight with Canelo and trying to secure a check.”
Boxing fans long wished for a fight between Benavidez and Plant — two men with a history of bad blood — but it never materialized. Instead, Plant feasted on low-level opposition in title defenses and netted a $10 million payday with Alvarez this past weekend.
Benavidez was originally slated to face the man Plant beat for the title, Jose Uzcategui. The fight was set for Aug. 28, but was postponed after Benavidez contracted COVID. A different kind of positive test scrapped the fight altogether. An adverse finding for the powerful PED, rEPO, was found in Uzcategui’s A-sample — forcing him to be dropped from the fight.
While it wouldn’t have been among the biggest bouts or toughest tests of Benavidez’s career, he saw it as a chance to make a statement.
“I wanted to be the first one to knock him out,” says Benavidez, a Mexican-American fighting out of the Seattle area. “It definitely has been tough, and right when I get these fights, like Uzcategui, he gets popped for steroids. If anything, it makes me feel better that he would mess up a good paycheck; it must have meant that he was really afraid of me.
“It’s been very, very hard for me, but we’ll keep pushing. I’m going to be here for a long time. I’m going to keep calling for these big fights fans want to see and when they come, they come.”
Provided he gets past Davis with little issue, as is expected, the next step for Benavidez is tough to figure out. Would Plant want to dive right back in after his loss to Alvarez? Could someone move up from 160 for an enticing fight.
Another matchup fans yearn for is Benavidez vs. Jermall Charlo. The middleweight champion has repeatedly expressed his desire to move up to 168 pounds for a bout with Alvarez, but he didn’t appear too interested in a matchup with boxing’s most-avoided fighter.
“Typical Charlos, they start screaming and making a big show of things and [Jermall] said he would knock me out, break my neck. I thought for sure the fight’s going to happen,” Benavidez says.
“He says a whole bunch of B.S. That I have to be 25 to fight him. I have to be vaccinated [against COVID]. I think he just does things for attention. I don’t think he wants that fight. He was just acting out like a child. I’m going to keep trying to get under his skin … that would definitely be a fight I’d like to get.”
A fight with Charlo is the second biggest opportunity for Benavidez. No. 1, of course, is against Alvarez.
All Benavidez had to do was remain champion and the fight was his. He acknowledges as much. Benavidez is ESPN’s No. 2 super middleweight, he’s still undefeated and if it weren’t for issues outside the ring, Benavidez would no longer be avoided.
Three months shy of his 21st birthday, Benavidez became the youngest champion in super middleweight history with a 2017 victory over Ronald Gavril. He was dropped in the final round, but left no doubt in the immediate rematch.
Before he could make a second defense of his title, Benavidez was suspended four months and stripped of his belt after testing positive for cocaine in 2018. While he admits he made a mistake, Benavidez also points to inconsistent responses by the WBC.
“I didn’t even have a fight coming up. With Oscar Valdez, he tested dirty for something two weeks prior [to a fight],” Benavidez says, referring to Valdez’s positive test for phentermine ahead of his September bout with Robson Conceicao. “He didn’t get fined or stripped either.
“If these rules are in place but [the WBC has] favorites, you shouldn’t have rules to begin with. If you have rules, you should have everybody follow them. I faced the punishment, but honestly, it was the best thing to happen. That stuff isn’t acceptable anyway. I received the punishment like a man and that’s all it is to me.”
Benavidez regained the title with a ninth-round KO of Anthony Dirrell in 2019, but missed weight before his defense against Roamer Alexis Angulo. He was stripped again, and left without much leverage when it comes to big fights.
Alvarez holds all four titles at 168 pounds now, and Benavidez is on the short list of viable opponents when Alvarez returns on Cinco De Mayo weekend. So what would happen if he does manage to get his name called?
“I feel like I have the best shot [to beat Alvarez] because I have the most power in the division besides Canelo,” Benavidez says. “I have longer arms, as much as speed — probably even faster — and as much power, too. I’m just hungry for this opportunity.”
Perhaps most of all, Benavidez applies relentless pressure and his volume can be overwhelming. Just like another oft-avoided boxer before him, Antonio Margarito. But there’s another key weapon Benavidez possesses, and that’s the most important punch in boxing.
“We’ve been working on the jab a lot, something Canelo can’t get away from,” says Benavidez’s father and trainer, Jose Benavidez Sr.
“We’re coming forward, we’re not stepping back, we’re not going to try to box him. That’s what separates him. Everybody wants to move around and box [Alvarez].”
In the meantime, Benavidez can only fight whoever’s willing to step in the ring. This time, that’s Davis, a 27-year-old who struggled mightily with journeyman Martez McGregor in September but earned a draw with Dirrell in February.
A win over Davis won’t bring Benavidez any closer to Alvarez (or Charlo, for that matter), but what other choice does Benavidez have?
“If I have to earn a chance to fight Canelo, and have to fight the top three [contenders], I’m willing to do it,” he says. “It’s my job as a fighter and I’ll fight whoever as long as they pay me. I just want to fight as much as possible.
“I feel like I’ve paid my dues. I feel like I’m the strongest candidate to fight Canelo and I’m just ready for the opportunity. My job is to just continue beating these guys and when the opportunity comes, it comes.”