An Excerpt from Sergio De La Pava's "A Naked Singularity"

In which our protagonist discusses great middleweight fighters of the early 1980s.
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Naked, singular.

Cover design by Isaac Tobin/University of Chicago Press

Editor's note: Originally self published in 2008, Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity was brought to a wider audience this year by the good people at the University of Chicago Press. It's been steadily garnering rave reviews in places like Slate and the Wall Street Journal. The novel is in the same shaggy, sprawling, brilliant key as DeLillo, Pynchon, Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace, but has a surprisingly accessible and engrossing plot. The narrator here is Casi, a young, talented public defender whose world is falling apart around him--he's contemplating switching from lawyer to criminal, while still pursuing justice for his clients. Where this becomes relevant to a sports website: Part of Casi's story is told through a sparkling set of asides on the career of Wilfred Benitez, a preternaturally gifted, tragically undisciplined (and non-fictional) middleweight boxer.

***

I knew what I was going to do in now less than two days and I wanted to go in there with the right mindset. I wanted to think positive thoughts so I thought about Benitez and what happened after he lost to Leonard. The problem with the loss to Leonard, well one of them anyway, was Wilfred’s reaction. The great boxer hates to lose. More than that really, he fears and despises it down to the final gasp of his soul’s air. In fact he can so little accept loss that even obvious losses are followed by inevitable, sometimes insane, excuses. And this is not a generalization about a group of people called Great Boxers. Rather this is a partial definition of that term: a concept that has great intuitive appeal when correctly considered. Losing a boxing match is not at all like discovering that another person is better than you at a particular skill. Remember that Boxing is basically fighting. If someone outfights you then you have to come to grips with all that entails. Being outfought, or worse knocked out, means you have been emasculated and are subsequently less of a man than your opponent. In other words, if the world consisted of just you and him, he would get what he wanted and you wouldn’t. You have to understand that notion to be a great boxer because there is nothing that will motivate you to continue taking an obvious beating, not love of money or fame, not enjoyment of athletic competition, other than the fear inspired by this realization. The great fighter’s arrogance will not allow him to concede that another person is better than him and this refusal makes him perform better. The problem with Benitez in the loss to Leonard was how easily he seemed to accept defeat. When the referee stopped the fight handing Wilfred his first loss, a TKO loss no less, Benitez didn’t argue with him even though only seconds remained in the fight and he didn’t seem badly hurt. Instead he smiled as if no big deal then exerted almost as much effort trying to congratulate Leonard as he had the previous fourteen rounds. It was almost as if he was relieved he had finally lost and more than one observer thought they saw this.

But every fighter eventually loses if he fights long enough and takes anything resembling appropriate risk and all the Leonard fight proved was that Benitez was no different. What truly matters is what happens after that first loss. After Wilfred’s first loss he climbed back into the ring on March 9, 1980 in Florida against someone named Johnny Turner. Benitez knocked Turner out in the ninth round and followed that victory, five months later, with another knockout win, this time over Tony Chiaverini.

In between those two Benitez fights, a new Welterweight Champion was crowned. After successfully defending the title he had taken from Benitez with a fourth-round knockout of Dave Green, Sugar Ray Leonard then defended his title against former lightweight champion Roberto Duran. Duran basically disliked everyone, especially opponents, but he seemed to reserve a special malice for the pretty boy Leonard. During the press tour leading up to the fight he did charming things like give Leonard’s wife the finger (meaning his middle one) and essentially questioned Leonard’s manhood at every opportunity. Many later characterized Duran’s actions as an attempt, ultimately successful, to draw the slick Leonard into the kind of chest-to-chest fight he could not win, but more likely they were simply evidence of a genuine hatred and arrogance from an insanely intense Man. The fight took place on June20, 1980 in Montreal, the site of Leonard’s Olympic triumph four years earlier, and, whatever the motivation, Leonard did principally stand toe to toe with Duran and he did get outfought and lose; a loss that featured Leonard absorbing a short right/left hook combination from Duran midway through the second that almost dropped him on his face and that had him in serious trouble. Toward the end of the fifteenth round Duran taunted Leonard by pointing at his own chin, a chin that had proven surprisingly difficult for Leonard to hit. When the fight was over Leonard extended a glove toward Duran as peace offering but Duran dismissively waved him off. Then when Leonard raised his arms in the universal boxing sign for I think I won Duran pushed him away, a look of complete disdain on his volcanic bearded face. When the close majority decision was announced, Duran was the new champion, there was no longer any dispute over who the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world was, and Duran had gone a long way toward securing his spot as one of the ten greatest boxers of all time. Leonard, who would later show a distinct aversion to granting rematches to vanquished foes, requested and was given an immediate rematch. The fight was scheduled for November 25, 1980 in New Orleans.

Before Leonard/Duran II took place, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns fought long-time welterweight titleist Jose “Pipino” Cuevas on August 2, 1980 in Hearns’s hometown Detroit. The Mexican Cuevas was making the twelfth defense of his title against the undefeated Hearns (28-0 [26 knockouts]). In the second round Hearns, who would prove to be one of the most devastating punchers in boxing history, caught the normally iron-chinned Cuevas with a right cross to the jaw. Cuevas’s legs did a funny dance, his hips swiveled until he stood there, barely suspended, defenseless and waiting. Hearns moved forward, repeated what he had done with another evil right cross, this time to the head, and Cuevas pitched face first onto the canvas. He got up at the count of eight but he looked like a hollow shell and the referee rightly stopped the fight giving Hearns the title and setting off a raucous Detroit celebration for their favorite son, the undefeated and seemingly undefeatable Motor City Cobra.

In the November rematch with Duran, Leonard did fight far more slickly and consequently he was winning. So much so that he even took to clowning in the ring, embarrassing Duran by doing things like winding up exaggeratedly or sticking his face out in invitation then slipping the punch. Then incredibly, in the eighth round, Duran turned away from Leonard and uttered the two most famous words in boxing history. Duran’s no mas meant he had quit in the ring, a huge no-no and an incalculable shock given the type of fighter Duran had been to that point, and Leonard was again the champ. No one knew exactly what had happened and that probably remains true today.

Elsewhere, the new Middleweight Champion of the World was Marvelous Marvin Hagler who two months earlier had gone to England to knock out their Alan Minter in the third round and become champ. With Leonard, Duran, Hearns, and to a lesser extent Hagler all over the boxing news, Benitez was in danger of becoming a decided afterthought.

Although not in the class of those fighters, Maurice Hope was the Junior Middleweight Champion. Hope agreed to defend his title against Benitez on May 23, 1981 in Las Vegas. Benitez would be attempting to secure his third world title in as many weight classes; an achievement that had been substantially devalued by the proliferation of weight classes and world titles but one that would nonetheless represent a significant fistic claim that none of his contemporaries could make. (Perhaps not for long, however, as Alexis Arguello would be attempting the same thing a mere month later when he would challenge Jim Wa for the Lightweight Championship.) Hope was a nice fighter with a stiff jab that was one of Boxing’s best and an awkward southpaw style but this was still Wilfred Benitez. Benitez dominated Hope from the start putting on a truly beautiful performance. Maurice Hope, it turns out, had none because he possessed nowhere near the quickness or speed of Leonard and so, with Wilfred’s defense as tight as ever, was unable to land even isolated clean punches let alone put multiple punches together. This was Benitez as the brilliant boxer who looked like he had been born and would die in a ring. He won every round, occasionally fighting as a southpaw and often backing Hope up with vicious combinations and dropping him in the tenth with a straight right. Then in the twelfth, as Hope retreated into a corner, Benitez feinted with his left, shifted his weight perfectly, then threw probably the best punch he would ever throw, an overhand right that landed flush and completely eviscerated Hope. Hope lay perfectly flat on the canvas and if they didn’t have to close the arena that night he might still be there. Benitez was the new Junior Middleweight Champion and he joined Henry Armstrong and Bob Fitzsimmons as one of only three triple crown champions in boxing history. Benitez left the ring to celebrate, the hangers-on literally doing just that. Maurice Hope went to the hospital. He was released the next day and less than four hours later got married in Vegas’s We’ve Only Just Begun wedding chapel. In the wedding pictures Hope doesn’t smile because Benitez has knocked two of his teeth out.

The Hope fight placed Benitez back at the forefront of Boxing. A devastating one-punch kayo of a respected fighter, by a man whose boxing skills were beyond dispute and one who had just shown he could also fight effectively from a southpaw stance, (Benitez was in fact a converted southpaw and in previous fights like the one with Bruce Curry had shown a tendency to involuntarily regress to that earliest incarnation when in deep trouble; however, in the Hope fight Benitez quite intentionally used the stance solely to better deal with Hope’s own lefty stance), spoke to a maturity and completeness as a fighter aspired to by only the very greatest. The twenty-two-year-old Benitez was on top again. When he returned to Puerto Rico he was greeted by hundreds of fans at the airport and the island’s newscasts led with his victory. His prominence was restored to pre-Leonard levels and, from a general Boxing standpoint, the slew of other truly great fighters between Welterweight (147lb. limit) and Middleweight (160 lbs.) guaranteed that an unprecedented number of so-called Superfights would take place between them with enormous money and a higher order of immortality at stake.

Boxing’s public sat around devising and imagining more matchups between these five physical geniuses and by and large they would ultimately have their wishes granted. Benitez longed for a rematch against Leonard while, as the first of the welters to move up to junior-middle, many wanted to see him move up once more to challenge Hagler and attempt to win an unprecedented fourth world title. Instead Benitez signed to make the second defense of his title against Roberto Duran who was hoping to begin the removal of that inexplicable black mark on his resume by winning a third title and beating a fellow great. The fight, which was scheduled for January 30, 1982 in Caesars Palace, carried an even greater significance, and thus greater pressure for the fighters, in the rabid Latin American boxing community because it featured two of its all-time premier boxers.

At a New York City prefight press conference held to hype the upcoming bout, Duran began the intimidations that had unnerved Leonard before their first fight. As the two men approached each other for that corny publicity staredown, Duran fired a right hand at Benitez’s face. Benitez, who in those days could probably avoid a punch while sleeping and dreaming he was dead, slipped the blow and responded with his own right that landed and raised a welt above Duran’s eye. The exchange showed, at a minimum, that Benitez would be more comfortable than Leonard in the unique Duran milieu and also that, as was usual with Duran, the upcoming fight would be personal.

Before Benitez/Duran took place, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns squared off. The fight, which was an immense event featuring two extremely popular fighters, took place on September 16, 1981. The fight was billed as boxer (Leonard) versus puncher (Hearns) but actually ended up featuring an intriguing flip-flop in styles by the two fighters. Early on Leonard warily avoided Hearns’s already legendary power and as a result did little. Then suddenly, in the sixth, Leonard connected with a left and badly hurt Hearns almost taking him out. Hearns reacted by getting on his bicycle and outboxing Leonard from a distance using his substantial reach advantage to pile up a significant lead on the cards and badly swell Leonard’s eye. Finally in the last stage of the fight a desperate Leonard, who’d been exhorted by his trainer Angelo Dundee with his famous you’re blowin it now son, rallied to hurt and finally stop Hearns in the fourteenth round of a close fight. The victory put Leonard on an even higher stratosphere and all interested eyes turned towards a potential megafight with Hagler.

When Benitez and Duran finally did meet in the ring Duran found that it was not much easier to hit Benitez than it had been at the press conference. Benitez was even better than he had been against Hope considering that Duran for all his insanity had never been handled like this. (Duran’s only two losses at the time were the close nontitle loss to DeJesus and the bizarre quit against Leonard.) The fight started a lot like Benitez/Leonard with a great deal of feints and respect and little action, but by the middle rounds Benitez had taken over, cutting Duran and pasting him with impunity. Duran never solved Benitez’s defense and actually looked outclassed, which was almost inconceivable. In the end, to no one’s surprise, Duran wasn’t even slightly chastened but, his insolence aside, Benitez had won convincingly in another legendary performance.

Regardless of what his future would hold, after the Duran fight Wilfred Benitez had assured himself an extremely lofty place in boxing history. He felt invincible, suprahuman. He had just out-toughed the original tough guy and obviously no one was slicker. He was what any human should ultimately aspire to. He was beautiful and ugly simultaneously. The beauty was evident from the beginning and the ugliness was supplied by the very nature of his profession. Now the Leonard fight must have seemed like a hiccup, one that would be avenged at that. Then he would move up to middleweight and fight Hagler. And once Hagler had been befuddled, if he could retire without another loss, Benitez would get more than a few votes as the greatest boxer ever, period.

Everything was that good. In Puerto Rico he was almost deified. He was healthy, good-looking, and charming with a smile and childlike nature anyone he met loved. His bank account was swollen and awaiting more. Everyone wanted to be around him, happy just to be near him. He was as good at what he did as anyone in the world and he was twenty three years old.

 

I was like that Benitez. I had maybe not always put the appropriate work in and had therefore messed up. I too had lost. But likewise I would rise again. Everyone I saw around me looked like they were in my way and I was sick of walking around these people and would start to go through them if need be to get what I wanted, needed.

***

You can buy A Naked Singularity here.


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