David Benavidez squinted into the mirror, rubbed his eyes, and had to look again.
That reflection staring back wasn’t him. It couldn’t have been him. No way. Not behind the mounds of flesh around his face. It was as if someone stuck him with a needle and pumped him full of air.
He was a mini blimp. All that was missing was a strong cable to hold him down. The McDonald’s No. 1 was the main culprit. The Big Mac with the supersized fries and a vat of soda big enough to swim in was a weakness.
It’s a little hard to believe today, looking at the 20-year-old, 6-foot-1 super middleweight from Phoenix, Arizona, that Benavidez was once a stubby, 5-5, 250-pound roly-poly teenager who couldn’t get out of his own way and detested what he looked like—unable to even recognize himself in the mirror.
“I was 15 and I thought to myself that if I kept going that way, I would hit a point of no return and my boxing career would be over,” Benavidez recalled.
Over before it possibly even got started, washed down in the excess of fast food and lost discipline.
So on Friday night, when the undefeated Benavidez (18-0, 17 KOs) takes on Ronald Gavril (18-1, 14 KOs) for a vacant super middleweight title on the Premier Boxing Champions card on “Showtime Boxing: Special Edition” from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas, a specter from Benavidez’s past will be also be in attendance: the fat kid he used to be.
Benavides was raised around boxing. He constantly shadowed his older brother, Jose Benavidez Jr., the pesky three-year-old tagalong, full of energy that would don gloves larger than him, mimicking everything Jose would do. It took a herculean effort to just lift his arms and throw a punch. He hated the duck walk exercises his father, Jose Sr., made him do. Through time, however, boxing became a passion.
“ "I was 15 and I thought to myself that if I kept going that way, I would hit a point of no return and my boxing career would be over." ” David Benavidez
“Once I understood what I was doing, learning there was more than going in there and punching someone in the face, I wanted to go back and learn more,” said David, whose father came from Mexico and his mother from Ecuador. “I was throwing right hands, uppercuts, and fell in love with the sacrifice and the learning curve. There came a sense of accomplishment with doing what I did in the gym and seeing it work in the ring.
“Boxing taught me that you have to work harder than anyone else to get what you want. I liked other sports growing up, but boxing took up all of my time and energy. Boxing takes a lot out of you. I actually don’t know where I would be without it.”
When Jose Jr. signed a pro contract, he and Jose Sr. moved to Los Angeles to pursue his pro career, and something back home happened to David. He stopped boxing. He stopped going to the gym. He stopped everything.
“And blew up to 250 pounds,” David said, almost embarrassed. “I only had 10 amateur fights and I boxed my whole life, since I was three. I sparred Gennady Golovkin when I was 14, and [Roman] ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez, Kelly Pavlik, Gabriel Rosado. I sparred them all when I was young. To me, I always wanted their respect. I didn’t want to be that little kid that they were working with.
“I never took a break from boxing. I was training my whole life up to that point. I really didn’t have any bad habits, other than eating cake, candy, and fast food. I was eating too much, and when my brother and father moved, I lost my discipline. I gained 100 pounds in about a year. When my father saw me, he was furious. It was a little funny, because my brother, being a big brother making fun of the little fat brother, called me ‘fat boy’ or ‘fat ass.’ I had to do something about it. I didn’t want to be the next Butterbean. I felt like I disappointed my father.”
It took David about a year to shed the weight. By the time he was 16, when he turned pro in Mexico, he was down to around 170 pounds. Benavidez learned a valuable life lesson.
“I couldn’t even recognize myself, it’s then that I decided I had to something about the weight and how I looked,” David said. “Dieting was hard, especially when you’re a kid. My father was super strict. I didn’t think I could take the dieting anymore, so I had to decide that if I wanted to be a great fighter, this is what I had to go through. I was still good at boxing. I was just fat. When I was close to giving up, I told myself to give it a little more time.”
He cut out soda, Big Macs, cake, candy. The junk went.
Now, on Friday, he fights for a title.
“That experience of losing the weight made me how I am today, because I was a kid who overcame an obstacle and I use that as an advantage,” Benavidez said. “When I lost the weight, I also started getting taller. I look back lately on what I went through and the dedication I put into losing he pounds, and the times I told myself one day I can be a champion.”
Benavides has been watching film of Gavril, a 6-foot Romanian with a straight-forward, stalking style. David feels confident he can handle anything Gavril throws at him.
“I see myself knocking this guy out,” Benavidez said. “Whatever style he puts in front of me, I’m going to take care of him. I can’t wait to get my hands on him.”
With the fat kid’s voice in the back of David’s head whispering, “Don’t forget the sacrifices that got you here.”