Looking back, he understands the shooter had been waiting for him. Maybe it was the same guy who torched his Mercedes earlier that spring. Or not. Either way, it was pushing midnight, and his girlfriend was doing the dishes. So Jose Benavidez Jr. decided to walk his pets that night, the Schnauzer and something more exotic. “Like a cheetah,” he recalls. “A $10,000 cat.”
Jose wasn’t a minute from the house when he saw the guy: thin mustache and sideburns, Hispanic or black, black hoodie, hands in his pockets. On a summer night in Phoenix.
The Schnauzer started barking.
“Does your dog bite?” The voice was neutral, no accent. “I’m scared of dogs.”
The first shot came as Benavidez bent down to pick up the Schnauzer. It entered above his right knee, piercing the femoral artery. Benavidez fell. The gunman pointed at his head. The second shot clipped the right pinkie of Benavidez’s outstretched hand.
But as Jose managed to sit up, he noticed the gunman looking behind him, as if there were something there. He could see it in his face: fear.
“Dude,” Benavidez said. “You a b—-.”
That was Aug. 22, 2016. This Saturday in Omaha, Nebraska — in his third bout since doctors told him he’d never fight again — Benavidez (27-0) meets Terence Crawford (33-0) for the WBO welterweight title. It seems proof that Benavidez is tougher than the gangster anti-heroes who seem to fascinate him. Still, the glories of his comeback have been obscured by the mutual loathing of the fighters themselves. Even their respective camps have been assigned different hotels to minimize the possibility of violence.
For all their professed enmity, though, Crawford and Benavidez share more than perfect records. They like to fight. They like guns. (Benavidez’s pride is evident when he speaks of his Colt .38 Super with a grim reaper etched in white gold on its handle.) And they’ve each been shot.
Crawford’s story — after a dice game in 2008, the bullet miraculously traveling around his skull — has been told many times. But the Benavidez incident remains furtive, sinister, ever present. If it doesn’t define him, it identifies the unique dynamic that made him and, perhaps, almost destroyed him. Through interviews and public records obtained by ESPN, what emerges is the story of a single father and his two sons, Jose Jr., America’s youngest ever Golden Gloves champion, and David, the youngest to hold a super middleweight title. Taken together, they’re not merely prodigies but a kind of boxing parable, a suggestion that living through one’s sons can be a perilous form of vanity.
Jose Benavidez Jr. was 7 when he won his first trophy. At about 4 feet high, it seemed taller than Junior. “It was the biggest thing ever,” says his father, Jose Sr., who couldn’t have been older than 22 himself. “It changed my whole life.”
Epiphany gave way to purpose and, ultimately, obsession. Senior, as he’s called, had lived a complicated and violent life. His father killed a man in a bar, he says. His mother left him in Mexico, where he often scavenged for meals of discarded oranges or leaves with salt. Then he made it to Van Nuys, California. “I formed my own little gang in junior high school,” he recalls. “I taught them how to steal radios from cars.” By 16, when he had Junior, he was selling drugs and sleeping with a 9 mm at his bedside.
So he went to Phoenix. He started washing dishes at the Ritz-Carlton, worked his way up as a captain in banquet service, got a house. David was born May 1996. Life was good. Then came the trophy.
“I had all these dreams,” Jose Sr. recalls. “I was so motivated.”
He began showing up at every gym in town, studying trainers, making mental notes. “I stole from everybody,” he says.
Senior ordered instructional videos and old fights on VHS. He spent countless hours hitting rewind, committing every frame to memory: Felix Trinidad setting up the hook, Oscar De La Hoya’s variety of jabs, the elasticity of Naseem Hamed, the precise cruelty of Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. He watched through the night. It’s a wonder he ever slept, as Junior had to be up at 5 a.m. for roadwork.
Junior seemed the perfect vessel for his father’s ambition. It wasn’t merely his prodigious talent or a suitably mean disposition. It was the idea that the kid could be incentivized. Once, before a tournament, his father showed him a go kart. “If you win,” Senior said, “it’s yours.”
Junior already knew whom he’d meet in the finals: “I’m going to f— this m—–f—– up.”
And he did. The template was cut: combat followed by compensation. Junior loved them both, still a child when he learned to monetize his motivation. Sometimes, the bounty was straight cash. Or a pair of Jordans. Once, a T-Mobile Sidekick. He remembers going to grade school just to show off the new 14-ounce gloves his dad had ordered from Ringside.
“Where’s your pencil?” the teacher asked. “Where’s your notebook?”
“I don’t need that,” he said.
In 2009, several years after his divorce, Senior and his sons showed up at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, California. While David is remembered as a shy, heavyset kid, Junior — who won the National Golden Gloves at 16, just months before — was handsome, charismatic and in all ways precocious. Shortly after his arrival, he sparred then 140-pound champion Amir Khan to a standstill. Then there were sessions with Shane Mosley, Paulie Malinaggi and Manny Pacquiao. Freddie Roach, seven-time trainer of the year, called Junior “my best prospect.” Not only did Junior know how to fight. He knew how to hustle.
“I always had a hustler mentality,” he says. “My dad taught me nothing in life is free.”
They’d buy bootleg DVDs for two bucks and sell them for $20. They sold fake gold teeth grills and counterfeit Jordan sneakers. It was an education in “The Hustle.” But it was essential, Senior told his sons, in the event that “anything ever happens to me.”
If Junior understood the compulsory curriculum, he also knew that the House of Benavidez depended, in large measure, on the largess of its patrons. They included would-be managers, promoters and the ubiquitous sponsors. Junior was a star, and there were always guys who’d pay to be around a star.
Even as an amateur, Junior’s sponsors kept him in that which he loved: fast cars. Some he shared with his father. Others he raced. Junior set a goal: to buy his first exotic automobile before he was 21.
In January 2010, at 17, he became the youngest fighter to sign with Top Rank. The deal called for $100,000 in bonus payments and $2,000 a month in living expenses. His manager, Billy Keane, was a familiar figure at the Wild Card.
Five months later, with Junior already 5-0, the contract was “restated” on the occasion of his 18th birthday. This time, Keane was out, and Jose Sr. took his percentage. Junior promptly bought a Maserati.
In time, he added to his collection: Corvette, Viper, vintage Camaro IROC, not to mention the Mercedes S550 that wound up a charred husk. But just as Junior changed cars, Senior changed benefactors.
Senior replaced Keane with Steve Feder, who managed several Wild Card fighters, and brought in an investor.
“We were kind of broke when we went to California,” Senior says. “They gave me $100,000 for 14 points, but they didn’t do a good job. … I was the main manager, always.”
Feder declined comment but has been in arbitration at least twice with Benavidez, according to the California State Athletic Commission. Soon enough, the Hall of Fame trainer was gone, too.
“The more we got into it, the more jealous the dad became,” Roach says. “I had a father who was my trainer, too, so I understood the situation: The dad’s got to be in charge. The dad wanted to be the head trainer, so he took the kid back to Arizona where he could have control.”
Berny Montes, 46, finds his reputation something of a mystery.
“That’s what everybody says: ‘I don’t want to mess with you.'”
Sure, he grew up in the Coffelt-Lamoreaux housing projects in South Phoenix. But the toughest thing about his childhood, he says, was being overweight and picked on. Certainly, Montes became formidable enough to prosper in business. Berny’s Car Wash on Corona Avenue is a neighborhood institution. Then there are real estate holdings. What he’s most proud of, however, is the patent to a boxing glove-drying device he keeps framed by the entrance of his home.
Berny’s Sports has sponsored many prominent fighters, including WBO featherweight champion Oscar Valdez, Orlando Salido, Viktor Postol and former lightweight champion Ray Beltran. But his introduction to the pro game came via the Benavidezes. Montes was going through a depression — overweight and overeating, he recalls — and looking for a personal trainer when he found Senior in a makeshift gym at a local swap meet. Soon, Senior invited Montes to Las Vegas, where Junior was fighting at Texas Station Casino.
It was Montes’ first time in Vegas. His first time in the dressing room. His first time in the corner. And he was mesmerized: “I’m like, ‘Wow! This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a manager.'”
Senior asked if he wanted to be a sponsor. Gladly.
Before long, Senior, his new wife and David were living in Montes’ condo next door. (“Rent-free,” Montes says. “The guy was always broke.”) Junior received a $500 monthly allowance plus training expenses, including camps in Big Bear, California. If Montes was awed by Junior’s talent, he also detected a split in his soul. If part of him wanted to be the obedient son, another part was given to rebellion. Junior was drawn to both the ring and the street.
Montes detailed to ESPN a conversation he once had with the young fighter: “You fight so beautifully. Either you’re going to be a boxer and make a lot of money, or you’re going to be a gang member. But let me tell you something, you suck at being a gangster.”
In David, then 14, Montes saw himself: “That was me in school, the fat kid. We really connected. He was 240, and I was 250. I took David to the gym every day. I told him he could do it. We lost the weight together.”
If Junior was conflicted, David’s ambition was just taking shape. As his weight dropped, his stature rose. With Junior’s career stalled by an injured hand and inconsistent training, David began acquitting himself well in sparring sessions with the likes of champions such as Kelly Pavlick, Peter Quillen and Gennady Golovkin.
“That’s when the dad started paying attention to David,” says Montes, who went from being the boy’s confidante to his backer. A prospective deal called for Montes to manage and sponsor David in return for 10 percent of his purses, starting three years after his pro debut. Montes had his lawyer draw up a contract and, per Senior’s apparent concerns, several revisions. But it never got signed.
Meanwhile, Montes says he paid David’s $500 monthly allowance, training expenses and even his opponent’s purses (not an unusual practice at the lower rungs of the sport). On April 25, 2015, at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix, Montes recalls paying the promoter $3,000 for an opponent. David was 9-0 and had just won a junior NABF title; his brother was 22-0, having won an interim 140-pound belt.
While those records suggest that the self-taught trainer/dad knew what he was doing, Montes felt like “a cow who is milked for cash.” Almost two years after David turned pro, Montes had come to believe Senior would never sign the contract: “He was afraid of losing his kids. He wants control of everything.”
Senior recalls it differently. He remembers a highly distraught Montes asking to be trained: “He came to my gym one time, and he was all [messed up] … doing really bad. I got him motivation. I helped him a lot. … I didn’t know he was doing these things.”
What things? Senior was asked.
“One day I go to Mexico, and on the way back they told me — at the border, they said he sells drugs.”
If this were another epiphany, it’s one that Montes strongly denies.
Senior continues: “From then, I just tried to get away from him, little by little — but he didn’t want to leave. He says, ‘If you leave, you’re going to have to pay me $100,000.’
“I didn’t give him $100,000. I gave him whatever he claims to have invested — he didn’t even invest it, it was a sponsorship — plus, I give him $10,000 extra.”
How much in total?
“Forty to $50,000, somewhere in there,” Senior says. “And I told him, ‘I’m not trying to take advantage. You can do whatever you’re going to do. I’m not going to be threatened.’ …
“Then he started sending people saying he was going to kill me. … I got a lot of calls. … I had people following us.”
Junior’s Mercedes was torched near a Southern California gym in the spring of 2016. Some months before, outside a party, another of his cars was riddled with bullets. Senior was asked if he believed Montes was behind any of it, including the shooting itself.
“To be honest, I don’t think so,” he says, adding that his eldest son was “hanging around with people he’s not supposed to be hanging around with.”
Montes denies ever threatening any member of the Benavidez family.
His one felony conviction came in 1995, for possession of marijuana for sale. “I’m not proud of that,” he says, but he denies any involvement with drugs at any time since. He says Senior paid him a fraction of what he was owed, but he harbors no hard feelings. He admits to missing his old training partner, though: “I still can’t look at a picture of David.”
On Aug. 25, 2016, three days after he was shot, Jose Benavidez Jr. was interviewed by police at Banner University Medical Center. Montes’ name had come up as an “investigative lead” from a couple of sources, including a man who identified himself as a “boxing journalist,” and said he was calling on behalf of Jose Senior. From the detective’s interview summary: “I asked Jose what his problem with Bernie was, and he told me Bernie was his brother’s manager. Jose said Bernie has problems with his brother and father, not him. He said the reason Bernie has involved him in the past is his brother and father do not have items to be damaged.”
Detectives made several attempts to follow up, but Junior never responded. It was clear he did not want to pursue the matter, which, as a result, was never referred to the prosecutor. Montes was never contacted by police.
“If they really thought any of this was true, they would have questioned him,” said Kamille Dean, Montes’ attorney, who added in a statement that her client “denies any involvement with any shooting. Mr. Montes parted ways with the Benavidez Family due to contractual disputes. On behalf of everyone from Berny’s Sports, Mr. Montes wishes Junior the best and good luck with the fight.”
Benavidez’s odds of coming back to fight for the welterweight title were less than his odds of finding his $10,000 cat, which disappeared with the first shot and was never seen again.
Senior moved the boys first to Oregon, then to Las Vegas. “If I was running away from someone, I wouldn’t be on Instagram or Facebook,” he says. “I did it for them. I wanted them away from their friends.”
That’s not to say Junior didn’t find his way home. On the night of June 21, 2017, he noticed a man parked in front of his girlfriend’s house. The guy must’ve been there half an hour, acting weird. At least that’s how it seemed to Junior. He got his Colt Super .38, confronted the motorist and was charged with aggravated assault.
The case will be expunged, pending his successful completion of an anger management course. “I was paranoid,” concedes Junior, who still changes his cell number frequently. “I didn’t know who to trust.”
Five months later, veteran strength and conditioning coach Alex Ariza began working with the Benavidez camp. He was supposed to focus on David, but he found himself increasingly drawn to Junior, who seemed intent on proving that he could still fight professionally.
This wasn’t the brash boy Ariza remembered from back in the day, showing off his newest car or his latest tattoo at the Wild Card. This was a man with the scars — visible and otherwise — to prove it: a helix of staple traces winding around his knee, above the tattoo of Santa Muerte, Our Lady of Holy Death.
How can he fight? Ariza thought to himself. He’s barely walking. The femur had been shattered. Muscle and scar tissue had braided together, like a root. Now, to ensure that the quadriceps fired properly, they had to be separated by needling, cupping and deep tissue work.
The trainer had worked with some brave champions: Diego Corrales, Erik Morales, Marcos Maidana and Manny Pacquiao. But he had never seen an athlete endure that sustained level of pain. “It’s like pulling the skin from your body,” Ariza said. “He’d just bite down, not to cry, not to show weakness. The doctor would ask if he wanted to take a break. He’d say no. He’d get this blank stare, like he was going somewhere far away.”
The little gangster kid was gone. Instead, there was humility, stoicism, acknowledgment.
Ariza wasn’t there for Junior’s fight in June, a one-punch liver shot that felled undefeated Venezuelan Frank Rojas. And he won’t be in Omaha, either.
He says he saw it coming. He brought in a hand-wrapping specialist Senior didn’t like. Then David apparently signed contracts with Billy Keane, Junior’s first manager, and Top Rank Promotions. Top Rank CEO Bob Arum dropped any claim to Benavidez after David returned the signing bonus. He has since tested positive for cocaine. Still, despite Ariza’s own acrimonious history with Arum, Senior considered him part of the Keane-Top Rank coup, he says.
Then again, this wasn’t really about promoters or managers. It was about fathers and sons. David and Junior had come to confide in Ariza. “I think the father became threatened,” he says.
As for the Crawford fight, Ariza still doesn’t think Junior has had enough time to fully rehab the knee. But the Benavidezes have been talking Crawford for a while, even before the shooting. The WBO champion is what Junior was once forecast to be: not merely a welterweight king but a potentially great one. Junior says he’s longer and taller and stronger, a natural welterweight since adolescence. The shooting hasn’t diminished him, but rather, it has endowed him with resilience and fortitude.
Junior bridles at the idea that Crawford comes too soon.
Then again, it wasn’t his call.
“I’m the one who makes that decision,” Jose Benavidez Sr. says.