How many grudge matches will fulfill their promise? The satisfaction a man can derive from punishing another is limited by his limitations, the strength of the opponent, the third man in the ring. The resentment, all that hostility that seeps in before a fight, is often more than an indicator of intent, of enjoying the bloody game that, when the bell rings, is about to happen anyway.
Like super middleweight David Benavidez and Caleb Plant met Saturday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The two spent weeks antagonizing each other for reasons beyond promotion. And each according to his character: Benavidez, vowing violence that Plant could neither understand nor endure; Plant, dismissing this vitriol as the typical clamor of another adversary who has the upper hand and is on the brink of humiliating reward. When it was over, Benavidez won via unanimous decision – a result that may seem unsatisfactory to anyone who hasn’t witnessed how many abuses took place over those 10-9 rounds. And the plant? He had won the comforting victory of survival, earning a badge of stamina that he might as well have flashed the next time his opponent threatened to knock him unconscious.
That’s part of what’s interesting about Plant, and perhaps part of what’s also repulsive. He is always on the defensive, asserting his credentials in the face of criticism, real and imagined. His performances – that shimmy after throwing Jose Uzcategui with a left hook, the delayed dirt dumping on Anthony Dirrell after Plant freezed him at nine – seem like the actions of a man a bit surprised by his success. As if in some nagging corner of his hyper-competitive and preternaturally arrogant psyche he wasn’t sure he was as good as he was. He is strongly oriented towards his opponents, towards opponents as an abstract concept, even when talking about details. One wonders how often Plant was told he was going to fail, not just as a boxer, and how often he let those words stick.
As a professional, Plant has only lost twice: against Saul Alvarez, who stopped Plant in 2021, and against Benavidez. In both cases, he was successful early on because – before his fatigue and his ever-increasing punishment – Plant is a bright and talented boxer. Piercing Benavidez with jabs, landing brilliant combinations (often finishing with perfect left body hooks) and moving nimbly around the large ring, Plant impressed long enough that the Showtime commentary team ignored both how well Benavidez defended those early punches and the tax, which Benavidez was charging in exchange for the early rounds. The left hook responses Benavidez offered for so many of Plant’s combos, the right hands to the body he jabbed when Plant turned left, how he calmly let his gloves and arms absorb the punches that sapped Plant even when they were winning rounds – what the hell say that when the weaker one barked so loud?
At least at first, this grudge match was only a fight if Plant was willing, so surely, by ringside logic, this fight had to be his. So how do you explain the eighth round when the fortunes suddenly and permanently changed in favor of Benavidez? In fact, eighth was the result of what preceded it: Benavidez’s ability to take some from Plant even in rounds he appeared to be losing. His first punch of the evening, a jab thrown directly into Plant’s left glove, a little “fuck you!” signaling the sincerity of all these evil proclamations followed a prolonged beating, an exercise in delayed gratification.
Employing a more square stance conducive to combos, and in particular the leading right hand that he regularly threw against Plant, Benavidez missed with many punches early on. But in the second half of the fight, with Plant no longer able to maintain a monopoly on range, the ring shrunk, and Plant’s chances of winning and staying upright followed suit. Benavidez, 27-0 (23), expertly varies the speed and power of his punches, charging up when the opportunity arises, but often using the first, second, and even third part of a combo to set up the shot he wants. Up close, Benavidez shifts his body with punches, allowing him to generate power in tight spaces while taking his head off the line. And he does all this with composure and conviction. The right hand in the eighth round, which injured Plant and signaled an irreversible change in the fight, was an example of craftsmanship on the margins of sportsmanship. As Plant looked like he wanted to grab, Benavidez, forced to lean back, apparently without a chance to capitalize on his punches, put his left hand on Plant’s jaw, holding his head in place long enough to form a short right arm that fastened Plant for the first time. This moment, in its importance, seemed to indicate the difference between a man trained to box and a man born to fight.
Even late, with his face crushed, his body burnt out, Plant continued to fire back. But his punches became defensive, their intention was to prevent his defeat, to stop the attack, not to ensure his victory. As he had done all night, Benevidez shrugged, analyzed their diminishing venom, and cut them off.
Some, especially those who believe Alvarez would beat Benavidez, those who believe Alvarez should avoid Benavidez, and those who believe both, may point to Plant’s survival as a critique of “El Bandera Roja”. But Plant, 22-2(13), owes his share of those later innings to referee Kenny Bayless, who tried to interfere at every opportunity but never punished Plant for the excessive holding he used to keep himself in many harrowing moments . One less inexplicable pause from Bayless, or a deliberate pause from over-holding, another inch or two in the impact room for Benavidez, and Plant might as well have pulled himself together to a count-to-ten rhythm. His hold wasn’t strategic like the downshoe he used to soften Benavidez early in the fight – it was desperate. If you think that explanation is too convenient, too dismissive of Plant, there’s always something like this: Plant turned out to be tough enough to please Benavidez. His cruelty was satisfied, the bully picked him up and dusted him off.
The division, however, belongs to Alvarez, assuming he defeats mandatory challenger John Ryder in May. Simply put, if Alvarez is serious about retaining the 168-pound crown, he’s facing a reckoning with Benavidez. But after his best win and on the brink of his prime, Benavidez should do anything but wait for the reckoning.