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David Benavidez Underwhelmed In Victory

David Benavidez waits for the start of a fight for an interim WBC light heavyweight title against Oleksandr Gvozdyk at MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 15, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Steve Marcus/Getty Images

David Benavidez is a menace. He picks up steam as he fights, and there typically comes a moment when the steam boils over and he bludgeons his opponent until they wilt. Early fight success against him often feels meaningless. "I've hurt everyone I’ve got in the ring with," he said before the Caleb Plant fight in 2023.

His record backs up the talk. In 29 professional fights—all wins—Benavidez has scored 24 knockouts. Among the five fights that went the distance, two saw Benavidez win every single round. One saw him pummel Plant to within an inch of a stoppage, which Plant escaped through inhuman pain tolerance and referee Kenny Bayless allowing him to grab Benavidez often enough to halt the punishment. In the fourth fight, Benavidez got knocked down hard by Ronald Gavril in the final round (the only time in his pro career he’s been dropped) and didn’t do enough to win in the eyes of one of the three judges, but that was almost seven years ago. So I’ll get into the fifth, which I spent $74.99 to watch on pay-per-view Saturday night.

Benavidez was fighting Oleksandr Gvozdyk in his 175-pound debut, moving up from 168. A fun perk of following boxing is that you get to pay at least $60 each time you watch a remotely big fight and, for five rounds, my investment felt worth it. Benavidez looked exceptional, slamming hooks into Gvozdyk’s sides—if the thump of a solid body shot doesn’t make you wince, nothing will—and throwing combinations to the head at obscene speeds usually reserved for much smaller fighters. He even looked sharp defensively, moving his head along irregular lines while evading Gvozdyk’s blows. 

But then Benavidez slowed down, and he never sped back up. His high output, a hallmark of his previous dominance, disappeared. He won a clear decision in the end anyway, sweeping the early rounds and winning a couple more late but, unlike his previous fights, he looked less impressive over time. This is easy to rationalize—he spoke of a hand tendon injury after the fight, which he said was why he didn’t throw many punches, and Gvozdyk showed Homer Simpson-esque durability. Yet the fight still was a letdown. I lost the battle with my minuscule attention span by the eighth round and started playing games on my phone.

Before Saturday night, I didn’t anticipate having to defend Benavidez. All previous signs had pointed to the fact that he is a special fighter, but this was not a special performance. He now has a price to pay. Other fighters in the division will gain confidence. Prospective high-profile opponents can write him off, validly or not—you looked like shit against Gvozdyk, David, so you know I’d destroy you. Fans might want to watch him less. Annoying editorial interns are writing critical things about him. He’ll probably feel the need to re-prove himself, even though he didn’t really do anything wrong, even though he won. 

One particular opponent has been dismissing Benavidez for a while. With the win over Plant and a six-round demolition of Demetrius Andrade in November (if you want to watch peak freight-train Benavidez, start there), Benavidez seemed well positioned for a fight with Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, boxing’s biggest star and the undisputed champion at 168 pounds. Canelo has acted like Benavidez is beneath him, saying he can do whatever he wants, demanding $150 to $200 million for the fight, and protesting that Benavidez is too big, though Canelo once floated fighting a 200-pounder. Canelo has instead beat up a string of lesser opponents; he hasn’t fought a live underdog since he lost to Dmitry Bivol in May 2022. 

The boxing world has largely taken Benavidez’s side. I liked how Benavidez had been handling the Canelo situation too; rather than waiting around for Canelo to "buy a pair of nuts," as he not-so delicately put it on Instagram in March, he moved ahead with forging his own legacy. Last night’s performance marked a stumbling block, though: The first time Benavidez didn’t hurt someone he was in the ring with. Now Canelo might finally have some juice to say that Benavidez isn't all that.

That’s what made Saturday so disappointing: As soon as that moment of knockout inevitability arrived in the fourth and fifth rounds, with Benavidez peppering Gvozdyk, it vanished. It can feel unfair to criticize Benavidez for struggling against a tough opponent—Gvozdyk had lost just once before, to Artur Beterbiev, a career-long 175-pounder who has knocked out everyone he’s ever fought—but that’s an occupational hazard when the bar is so high. In October, Beterbiev is fighting Canelo-conqueror Bivol to determine the undisputed champion in the division. Benavidez has said he wants the winner, but if he challenges either of them without rediscovering his best self, he’ll lose.

Benavidez gave himself a seven out of 10 in his post-fight interview with Jim Gray, so he knows there’s work to be done. This wasn’t a dramatic letdown, but it’s enough to get boxing’s reactionary fanbase buzzing about how Canelo would have destroyed him. Benavidez had best get started thinking of ways to not just keep winning, but to look good while doing it.

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