Boxing's youngest world champion was mourning loss of relative, battling sickness during championship victory back in September.
Jose Benavidez Sr. was emotionally torn.
His younger son, David, was a few weeks away from the most important opportunity of his blossoming boxing career. The powerful prospect also was in mourning, distracted by the devastating death of a family member.
Benavidez’s uncle, Moises Balladares, was shot to death by police during a standoff in Avondale, Arizona on July 26. Balladares brandished a gun after threatening suicide, which caused police to use force, according to what an Avondale Police Department spokesman told the Arizona Republic.
Balladares – the only brother of David Benavidez’s mother, Michelle Cruz – was a veteran who served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was just 33.
Understandably, Benavidez was having difficulty focusing on preparing for his fight against Ronald Gavril for the then-vacant World Boxing Council super middleweight title on September 8.
“I was very close with him,” said David Benavidez, who’ll battle Gavril in a rematch Saturday night in Las Vegas on a Showtime-televised card (10 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. PT) that features a main event between former world champions Danny Garcia and Brandon Rios.
“He kind of helped raise me and my brother [Jose Jr.] when we were younger. He was like a second father figure. That’s what made losing him so tough.”
Jose Benavidez Sr., who trains his son, tried his best to keep David sheltered from the emotional aftermath of the tragedy while he was training in Big Bear Lake, California.
But phone calls from grieving family members made that almost impossible. To make matters worse, David Benavidez came down with a cold a little more than a week before he was to fight Gavril.
Jose Benavidez Sr. seriously considered postponing his son’s shot at a world title.
“I was really close to canceling that fight,” Jose Benavidez said. “Too many things had happened. That’s why I wanted to postpone it. But we said, ‘We’re warriors and we’ll just leave it up to God. And hopefully everything goes well.’ At that level, with it being a title fight, the decision was so hard to make. But we went with it.
“Him and his brother, they’ve been warriors since they were little. My other son [Jose Jr.] fought four fights with a broken hand. That was my mentality, that they’re warriors. I just felt something that told me we would win, and he did enough to win the fight.”
David Benavidez beat Gavril by split decision. He overcame a flash knockdown late in the 12th round to win on two of the three scorecards (117-111, 116-111, 111-116).
That victory made the 20-year-old Benavidez boxing’s youngest active world champion. Moises Balladares, one of his nephew’s biggest fans, would’ve been beyond proud.
“It was a difficult time for me when my uncle passed away,” David Benavidez said. “But he would’ve wanted me to keep working hard toward the fight and to just keep pushing forward. It was hard because I was really, really close to my uncle. But this was the biggest opportunity I ever had in my life. It was for a world title, so I really had to try to stay focused and I did the best I could.”
David Benavidez and Jose Benavidez Sr. didn’t discuss Balladares’ death before or soon after he fought Gavril. David Benavidez instead wore a patch honoring his uncle’s memory on the back of his trunks.
“ Their team has been talking a lot, saying they’re gonna knock me out,” Benavidez said. “I have a fire burning inside of me. I’m dealing with this anger and I’m gonna end this fight in a knockout. ” Super Middleweight World Champion David Benavidez
That patch will be visible again Saturday night, when the knockout artist from Phoenix hopes to produce a more convincing victory over Romania’s Gavril (18-2, 14 KOs).
David Benavidez (19-0, 17 KOs) hasn’t benefited from a more normal training camp for this 12-round rematch. The precocious champion challenged himself more in this camp as well by adding demanding strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza to his team.
Ariza has helped improve his stamina, which was an issue in later rounds against Gavril, the first opponent to take Benavidez 12 rounds. Benavidez also has learned from spirited sparring sessions with unbeaten WBA light heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol, undefeated light heavyweight contender Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Rogelio “Porky” Medina, who Benavidez stopped in the eighth round May 20.
“I feel like I could’ve taken him out, but I didn’t wanna gas out in my first 12-round fight,” Benavidez said. “That’s why I brought Alex into this training camp, so I could fight 15, 20 rounds with the same ferocity I fought with in the first couple rounds. I’m not planning to let it go to the scorecards this time.”
Seemingly in control of a competitive fight, carelessness cost Benavidez when Gavril landed a sneaky counter left that dropped him with 55 seconds remaining in the final round. Benavidez acknowledges Gavril gave him trouble at times, but nothing that prohibited him from agreeing to a rematch in his locker room immediately after their first fight.
“I felt like I was closing the fight out in the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds,” Benavidez said. “I just made a little error that I shouldn’t have made. I got dropped in the last round, but I wasn’t hurt at all. I jumped right back up, and with a smile on my face. It helped me grow mentally as a fighter. If I’m closing out the show like that, I have to do things in a little different way and be a little bit smarter.”
Benavidez believes that knockdown has made the 31-year-old Gavril, who’s promoted by Floyd Mayweather Jr., and his handlers overconfident as their rematch nears. The determined champion promised that they’ll pay for that miscalculation on Saturday night.
“Their team has been talking a lot, saying they’re gonna knock me out,” Benavidez said. “I have a fire burning inside of me. I’m dealing with this anger and I’m gonna end this fight in a knockout.”