Boxer David Benavidez Returns to the Phoenix Streets Where He Launched His Career

David Benavidez
David Benavidez Valentin Romero
Along the desolate landscape of brick buildings with barred windows that line Van Buren Street west of downtown Phoenix lies a place where Arizona boxing champions are made and world titleholders prepare for upcoming prizefights: Central Boxing Gym.

The mural on the gym's exterior wall features a who's who in local boxing history. The state's first world champion Louie Espinoza, heavyweight contender Zora Folley, legendary promoter Al Fenn, and even long-time Arizona Republic sports journalist Norm Frauenheim are some of the greats that adorn the gym's west wall. To grace the wall is a mark of honor in the Arizona boxing community.

On a muggy morning in August, Al Milligan, the gym's manager and co-owner, is preparing to add three more faces to the mural. They all have the same last name: two-time World Boxing Council super middleweight champion, David Benavidez; his older brother and welterweight contender, José Benevidez Jr. (Junior); and their father (who is also their trainer), José Benavidez Sr.

"I got pictures of those boys when they were younger, but I want to put their recent pictures on the east wall," Milligan says. "On the west wall, I already have Junior on the bottom, but it's nothing like having one nice family portrait of the champions with their dad. This is always going to be on that wall."

click to enlarge The Benavidez family mural at Central Boxing Gym on West Van Buren Street was painted by Maggie Keane and Lucretia Torva. - TOM CARLSON
The Benavidez family mural at Central Boxing Gym on West Van Buren Street was painted by Maggie Keane and Lucretia Torva.
Tom Carlson

As the 59-year-old gym manager thumbs through a manila folder filled with photos of the two brothers, he recalls watching a husky 9-year-old David train at the gym around 2006. At the time, his brother José was building an excellent amateur boxing record and was subsequently the focus of their father's attention during training sessions. But it was hard not to notice the heavyset youth possessed a natural talent for the sweet science and seemed determined to become a professional boxer.

"When I saw David train for the very first time, I immediately knew that kid would become something. He was humble, always thought positive, and always pushed hard," Milligan says. "Everything was about Junior, Junior, Junior. But me and others would focus on David because of his style and the way he was. He didn't come into this gym and play around like a lot of kids did. He came in here and meant business."

Milligan's instincts were correct. David Benavidez would go on to become a two-time World Boxing Council super middleweight champion. This Saturday, November 13, he'll fight Kyrone Davis in a WBC eliminator match at Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix.

Junior — who Milligan quickly adds "did not fool around, either" — will also be returning to the ring after a three-year layoff. He'll face Francisco Emanuel Torres during the event's undercard.

The events that set this Phoenix family boxing affair in motion stretch back to the early 1990s, when Jose Senior — who was born in Guerrero, Mexico, and moved to southern California in his teens — relocated to the Valley seeking to get away from a life of crime.

"I was involved in gangs and doing all the wrong things," Senior says. "I had no parents and no guidance. I grew up in the streets. I didn't want them to go through what I went through. I decided to move to Arizona where I could get a job, be a normal person, and just work."

The family settled in a home at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road. Employed at the Ritz-Carlton, Senior enrolled Junior in boxing classes at Central Boxing Gym for self-defense when the boy was 6 years old. By 7, the youngster began winning amateur boxing competitions in Phoenix and the region. Senior soon became obsessed with the sport. His focus shifted to becoming a better trainer to refine his eldest son's natural ability during those early years.

"Boxing came like an accident into our lives. I thank God for that because it changed our whole world. It's what has kept us together," Senior says. "I always had doubts about if I could be a good trainer, but Junior started winning and winning and winning."

click to enlarge David Benavidez training with his father, Jose Sr. - VALENTIN ROMERO
David Benavidez training with his father, Jose Sr.
Valentin Romero

When the boys weren't in school, they spent most of their free time running trails in South Mountain Park and Preserve or at Central Boxing Gym, where Senior would later work as a manager.

"Those kids were training until he [Senior] closed those doors or left for the day," Milligan says. "That's when they got to rest... and they weren't even really resting — he would take them to run. It was strictly training in his book. He was a wonderful trainer to his kids and a lot of other fighters around here. He'll give all he has got to anyone who wants to train."

In 2009, when Junior was 16, he won the National Golden Gloves, making him the competition's youngest champ ever. Central Boxing Gym owner Patrick Zanzucchi helped Senior secure a two-week spot at lauded boxing trainer Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles, where greats like Manny Pacquiao, Gennady Golovkin (Triple G), and Phoenix's Ray Beltrán regularly trained before pay-day fights and where boxing insiders go to scout new talent.

"Wild Card is where everything started for us," Senior says. "That's when I discovered that Junior did have a lot of talent. People were blown away after watching him spar on the first day, and we got a lot of management offers. We ended up staying in L.A. and Junior signed with Top Rank."

David was 12 when his father and brother moved to Los Angeles for Junior's career. His parents had divorced a few years earlier, and he didn't want to leave his mom or his hometown behind. David was also looking forward to taking a break from training since he had been doing it most of his life. Within a year, the stocky 170-pound preteen who stood around 5'5" ballooned up to 250 pounds.

"I had been training for about nine years — imagine finally getting a year where I don't have to do anything. I just went crazy and started eating everything I could," David says. "Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, McDonald's. I was living in paradise until I stepped on the scale a year later."

Around this time, Junior returned to Phoenix after a few pro fights to visit family and friends. He couldn't believe how obese his little brother had become over the past year.

"I pretty much just kinda took him from my mom and took him back to California," Junior says. "My mom and I got into a huge argument and we didn't talk for a while. But that's when I knew it was about time for David to get back to training."

It took David about another year at Wild Card Boxing to get back into fighting shape. He also sprouted to 6'1" and became an incredibly fast puncher for his size. At 15, David was able to put up a fight against seasoned vets like Nigerian heavyweight Lateef Kayode and famed middleweight Triple G during sparring sessions at the West Hollywood gym around 2012.

"It was very scary at that time because Triple G was a monster, so when I put David in there to spar with him, I was super nervous," says Senior. "But David did really good and held his own. It was unbelievable. Triple G then hired him to be his sparring partner for upcoming fights. It gave David a lot of confidence."

After maintaining an undefeated amateur boxing record, David turned pro at 16 years old and began hammering his competition in the super middleweight division. Within four years, he was the youngest titleholder in professional boxing history after beating Roland Gavrill for the WBC super middleweight title when he was 20 years old.

The young boxer was stripped of his belt after testing positive for cocaine during a random test conducted by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency as a part of the WBC's Clean Boxing Program in 2018. The following year, David won the WBC title a second time after stopping Anthony Dirrell in the ninth round.

He was stripped of the belt again in 2020 after missing the 168-pound weight limit for his title defense against Roamer Alexis Angulo. David blames himself for not being fully prepared to handle pandemic quarantine protocols while trying to cut weight during fight week.

"I had made weight the day before we got there, but at the time no one knew what to expect because we didn't know the restrictions of being in a bubble," David says. "I felt like I let a lot of people down again because that was the second time I got my title taken away. Sometimes I feel like the only person who can beat me is myself."

The undefeated fighter's bout against Kyrone Davis on Saturday also saw its share of setbacks. The WBC eliminator was originally set to be against Bolivian boxer José Uzcátagui in August but had to be rescheduled after David tested positive for COVID-19. Two weeks before Saturday's match, Uzcategui tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and was quickly replaced with Davis.

click to enlarge David Benavidez lands a punch on Ronald Gavril during a title fight in February 2018 in Las Vegas. Benavidez retained his title by unanimous decision. - STEVE MARCUS / GETTY IMAGES
David Benavidez lands a punch on Ronald Gavril during a title fight in February 2018 in Las Vegas. Benavidez retained his title by unanimous decision.
Steve Marcus / Getty Images

The 24-year-old former champ is the heavy betting favorite regardless of who he's sharing the ring with on fight night. If David remains undefeated after Saturday, he expects to face The Ring magazine's top-ranked pound-for-pound boxer Canelo Alvarez for all five major super middleweight titles, including the coveted WBC strap sometime in 2022.

It's been a decade since David has called Phoenix home. He briefly moved back after his initial L.A. stay, but ended up returning to the City of Angels to pursue his professional career. After stints in Portland and Las Vegas, David, his fiancee, and infant son finally settled in Seattle to live near his father and brother.

The former champ says he's looking forward to his homecoming fight Saturday and very excited to return to the gym where he spent much of his youth. In between training sessions and pre-fight meetings this week, David says he also plans to visit other boxing gyms in the city to inspire the next generation of Phoenix fighters.

"Phoenix will always have a special place in my heart because that's where I grew up and that's where a lot of my family lives," David says. "Coming back this time couldn't be a more perfect scenario, you know? Me, fighting in the main event at Phoenix Suns Arena, my brother fighting on the undercard, and our people being able to come see us."

Back at Central Boxing Gym, Milligan points to a poster of a young, chubby-faced David that hangs in the gym's lobby. He says he uses it to motivate youngsters who have the potential to become decent fighters, but who are out of shape or are not taking training seriously.

"There's a lot of kids who are up in weight when they first come here, and all I do is walk them to this poster of David and say, "This is what David used to look like. But he never stopped training and he never looked back,'" Milligan says. "David couldn't care less what anybody said about him. He stayed humble, he stayed positive, and look at where he's at. It paid off."

And no matter what happens on Saturday evening, the Benavidez family has secured its place among the greats in Arizona's boxing history, Milligan says.

"That family has got so much heart, it's unbelievable," Milligan says. "I've seen lots of families come through this gym, but ain't none who can match up to them."
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