He’s the last of a legendary breed, the only active and undefeated champion since kickboxing’s inception, a living link between the sport’s past and present. Now, at 36, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez intends to galvanize his sport’s future. He wants to fight boxer Sugar Ray Leonard in a bout mixing martial arts and boxing. This dream match, Urquidez believes, is the only option left for both him and Leonard, two superstars who don’t want to retire but have no challengers left.
Kickboxing is a sport young enough to be considered somewhat esoteric and old enough to have had champions who propelled it from obscurity to global acceptance. Heavyweight Joe Lewis and middleweight Bill “Superfoot” Wallace are two such champions. Each entered the sport in his prime, at the sport’s birth in 1974, and retired as documented legends, cornerstones in an entity that now spans the world. There’s another star who, like Lewis and Wallace, has been around from the beginning and has cut a global reputation through his sport. He’s about eight years younger than his stellar peers, but his name is equally synonymous with kickboxing. As the only active member of the original champions, he represents the last of this legendary breed. Benny The Jet” Urquidez is a champion who has, as much as anybody, made American-style kickboxing a legitimate and formidable sport. He was the first American to beat Asian champion kickboxers at their own game and on their own turf. Over the past 14 years, he has fought for just about every sanctioning body under every kind of rules. And, incredibly, he’s defeated opponents from light- to heavyweights. The invincible Urquidez has amassed a remarkable record of 57-0 with 49 knockouts. He’s a champion who mixes grace and style and hits with the force of a dragon-slayer. He also holds four world titles. Recently Benny “The Jet” has faced a major problem. For several good reasons he hasn’t fought in three years, since winning his fourth world title in November 1985 against welterweight Tom Laroche of Canada. People have automatically assumed he retired. He hasn’t. Now, at 36, the champion wants to propel professional kickboxing a giant step forward. He wants to fight boxing superstar Sugar Ray Leonard in a combination boxing/ kickboxing bout which he dubs the “dream match.” The lightning-fisted, enormously popular Sugar Ray Leonard, 32, has been cited as the biggest gate attraction in boxing history. He has earned over $60 million. Blessed with catlike reflexes and natural showmanship, the champion is considered the most accomplished an graceful fighter in his sport. In the ring, Leonard emulates Muhammad Ali and the late great Bruce Lee, hi two idols (see Summer 1987 cover stor in The Fighter). Leonard amassed a amateur record of 155-5 before enterin the 1976 Olympics and winning a gol medal. Since turning pro, he has retire and unretired twice. His current record is 35-1 with 25 knockouts, his only loss the stone hands of Roberto Duran, loss he avenged in a rematch. In beating Donny Lalonde on November 7th 1988, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, he earned an unprecedented fifth world title in his sport.
We Love the Concept, but Does Sugar Ray? The Urquidez Leonard dream match to us was an intriguing proposition. We caught up with Urquidez and his long time manager, Stuart Sobel, at Benny’s Jet Center in Van Nuys, California. We wondered how the dream match idea was set afoot and whether it had any validity. Why would Leonard, and for the matter, the public, be interested in such a match? “Because he has no challenger an neither do I,” retorts Urquidez. “Becaus he is considered the best in his sport of boxing, and I’m considered the best in mine, kickboxing. The two sports are not dissimilar. Ray has brought worldwide interest in the lighter weights, just as I have. And he uses the science of fighting and works well under pressure, just as I do. “Actually,” Urquidez adds, to answer the question of public interest, “we are both showmen; we like to give the public a good show. Fans who’ve seen my fight in person can tell me what technique used on what opponent in what round [yet] they won’t even remember who the were with at the time. I have some die-hard fans. Sugar Ray does too, I’m sure.
The dream bout with Leonard germinated a long time ago. Sobel produced a February 26, 1982 reply from Leonard’s manager, Mike Trainer of Silver Spring, Maryland, answering Sobel’s original query. “It’s been going on seven years now,” explains Sobel. Back then, Sugar Ray had already knocked out Thomas Hearns and he was just coming off another bout with an unheralded opponent, which didn’t capture the public interest. Afterward, a newspaper wrote, `Leonard has no more worlds to conquer, unless he wants to take over Wall Street.’ “So I called Ray’s manager and spoke with his secretary several times. I also sent him a video of Benny taken from a pilot TV sports talk show in which, by coincidence, Thomas Hearns also appeared. I told Mr. Trainer I felt we were in the same predicament regarding our respective client’s careers. I suggested a match. Less than a week later I received a letter from Mr. Trainer stating, in essence, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ A month or two later, Leonard retired from the ring because of an eye injury. “Both Benny and I let the matter drop then,” Sobel says. “We never mentioned it in print until now because there was no point. Ray had retired, and to challenge a man who had retired — with an injury, no less — was not our style.” Then, of course, on April 6, 1987, Leonard unretired to fight — and defeat by a 12-round split decision — the formidable “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. Everyone thought that fight was a one-shot deal for Sugar Ray; that he’d retire again. But no. On November 7, 1988, at the time of this writing, Leonard fought World Light Heavyweight Champion Donny Lalonde, winning by a 9th round KO in what some reporters called “the fight of 1988”. In so doing, Leonard won both the World Boxing Council light heavyweight and the newly created WBC super middleweight world titles and an estimated $15 million. The victory consequently made him the only man in boxing history to win five world titles in five weight divisions. Nonetheless, the Lalonde bout represented only the third time Leonard had entered the ring in nearly seven years. Given Trainer’s earlier refusal, is there a chance the Urquidez/Leonard dream match could become a reality? “Yes,” states Sobel without hesitation. “But I cannot disclose any details at this time. I can tell you this: If the answer is “yes” you’ll be hearing about it everywhere.” The Early “Mixed” Matches Matches pitting together martial artists and boxers are not without precedent. In the first such known bout in 1963 in Salt Lake City, Utah, world judo champ Gene LeBell defeated a boxing world contender, Milo Savage, by choking him out in the 4th round. In 1976, boxing legend Muhammad Ali faced wrestling champ Antonio Inoki in Japan in what was deceptively billed as “boxer versus martial artist”. Inoki spent all 12 rounds lying on the canvas while kicking Ali in the legs with the instep of his wrestling shoes. According to the rules, Ali couldn’t hit him while he was down and Inoki didn’t have to stand up and fight. The debacle ended in a draw. (Interestingly, the aforementioned Gene LeBell was the referee.) Ali suffered blood clots in his legs and Inoki suffered severe public and media disfavor for his failure to fight. Would the proposed Urquidez/Leonard dream match be in the same vein as the LeBell/Savage or Ali/Inoki bouts? “No,” says Urquidez. “In both of the other bouts the martial artists did not wear gloves. I would. Also, in the case of Ali and LeBell, their opponents were not universally known, but Ray and I both are. From time to time a promoter has sug-gested that kind of bout, but it was never against an undisputed champion. “At one point,” Urquidez reveals, “a promoter asked if I would be interested in fighting Roberto Duran and, more recently, a promoter inquired about Aaron Pryor. If Duran had beaten Leonard in their second bout, I would have been interested. “The way I see it,” sums up Urquidez, “if the top kickboxer engages in this type of [mixed] competition, it has to be with someone of the same caliber in boxing.
The bout would not be taken seriously unless both fighters were evenly matched; that is, both their talent and their weight would have to be equal. And what about weight? Sugar Ray fought Lalonde at 165 pounds, which is far above the former welterweight’s typical fighting weight. In fact, to make himself heavier for the official weigh-in, Leonard later admitted he filled his pockets with silver dollars. Urquidez’ natural weight is 158 pounds and he usually drops weight for a fight. (Leonard stands 5-foot-10 and Urquidez is about 5-foot-7.) Would matching the weights be a problem? Not for me,” says Benny. “During my career. I have fought and beaten opponents in every division from light through heavyweight. I started my career as a lightweight, but in the beginning of the sport here in America, some of the first martial arts fights were really glorified “Tough Man-contests. There were basically no rules. Whoever was left standing after all of the fighters had competed was the winner. “In order to win my first professional title, I fought [elimination matches] for two days. The last man I defeated was a heavyweight kickboxer [Hawaii’s Dana Goodson] who stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 225 pounds. / won by pinning him to the mat. To me. a fight is a fight. I don’t care how big the opponent is. I’ve fought and trained with them all.” Then there’s the question of Benny’s three-year layoff. Although he never officially retired from the ring, he has not been fighting regularly. “We’ve had offers,” replies Sobel. “Actually, we’ve never rejected an offer because of an opponent’s talent, or because of terms and conditions of the rules. What’s important to us is the career strategy represented by an opponent and the purse. What kind of strategy? “Each opponent that’s selected for Benny,” explains Sobel, “especially at this stage of his career, must be done with planning for a subsequent bout. There must be some sort of goal in mind. Each purse should be larger than the previous one. Each bout, too, should be bigger, with wider exposure, than the last. “A fight is not done merely for competition,” maintains Sobel. “There is planning, strategy, and a sense of the future that must be taken into consideration. At this point, it can only help an opponent’s career to get into the ring with Benny. But the reverse is not true, at least in kickboxing. That doesn’t mean we would turn down an offer if the purse was right.” Money, understandably, is an issue. Sobel confirmed that Urquidez makes more for doing a movie than for fighting a fight; yet, he was always one of the most highly paid kickboxers in his sport. Since 1975, Urquidez has become increasingly active in showbusiness.
Besides teaching celebrities like Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing), he has landed starring roles and fight choreographer positions in motion pictures. Urquidez adds his own perspective on the opponent predicament that has hindered his activity for the past three years. “There has to be a reason for the public to speculate [on the outcome of a – bout],” he says. “After all, this is a sport and not a fight for the sake of a fight. It’s an event. To personally get me excited I need a challenge. With no disrespect meant to anyone, I just don’t see it in kickboxing.” Enter, thus, Sugar Ray Leonard. Urquidez maintains his layoff wouldn’t hurt his performance in a bout with Leonard. “I’m in the ring six days a week sparring with my stable,” Benny points out. “When Sugar Ray got into the ring with Marvin Hagler, he hadn’t fought for two years and eleven months. I’m up for the challenge, and I’m ready right now.” Apart from the apparent financial and pugilistic motives, Urquidez cites another more uncommon reason for wanting to see this dream match happen. “For years,” he says, “we have all seen so-called `dream bouts’ from computer decisions, fight experts, and friends and fans discussing their opinions. In particular, I remember seeing computer printouts pitting Muhammad Ali against Joe Louis [the boxer], as well as Bruce Lee agains Sugar Ray. There was even one with former World Middleweight Champion Bil “Superfoot” Wallace and me. “They always show one current champion and one that can no longer get into the ring because he has either retired or died; or the weights, such as with Bill and me, just didn’t match. “Sugar Ray and I are both champions,” says Urquidez. “We are both the same weight, and we are both in our prime. And I believe were both really in the same situation career-wise. Neither of us has anyone to fight and nothing to prove; and neither of us wants to retire from our sport. Currently, he holds five world titles and I hold four. I really believe that I’m his only real competition, just as he is mine. “It will be a once-in-a-lifetime event and a show like you won’t believe.” For me, the fight would be an honor. I respect the way Sugar Ray conducts himself in and out of the ring. This match would be the high point of my career. I really do hope it will appeal to Ray that way too, and that we can pull it off.”