How many grudge matches fulfill their promise? What satisfaction a man might take from punishing another is mitigated by his limitations, by the strengths of his opponent, by the third man in the ring. The grudge, all that percolating prefight animosity, is often little more than an indicator of intent, of a pleasure derived from the bloody interplay that, once the bell rings, is supposed to occur regardless.
As was the case with super middleweights David Benavidez and Caleb Plant, who met at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas Saturday. The two spent weeks antagonizing each other for reasons beyond promotion. And each in accordance with his character: Benavidez, pledging a violence Plant could neither fathom nor endure; Plant, dismissing that vitriol as the typical bluster of yet another overmatched opponent on the brink of a humiliating comeuppance. When it was over, Benavidez won a unanimous decision—an outcome that might seem unsatisfying to anyone who did not witness how much abuse he baked into those 10-9 rounds. And Plant? He had the consolatory victory of surviving, acquiring a badge of toughness he might very well flash the next time an opponent threatens him with unconsciousness.
That is part of what is interesting about Plant, and, perhaps, part of what is off-putting too. He is forever on the defensive, asserting his credentials in the face of criticism, real and imagined. His showboating—that shimmy after dropping Jose Uzcategui with a left hook, the delayed shoveling of dirt onto Anthony Dirrell after Plant iced him in the ninth—seem the actions of a man a bit surprised by his success. As if, in some nagging recess of his hypercompetitive and preternaturally arrogant psyche, he is not quite sure he is as good as he is. He is fixedly oriented against his detractors, to detractors as an abstract concept, even when speaking to the particular. One wonders how often Plant got told he would fail, not only as a boxer, and how often he let those words linger.
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As a professional, Plant has failed only twice: against Saul Alvarez, who stopped Plant in 2021, and against Benavidez. In both cases, he found success early because—before fatigue and its aggravator, punishment, diminish him—Plant is a sharp and skilled boxer. Piercing Benavidez with jabs, unleashing flashy combinations (often finishing with perfectly leveraged left hooks to the body), and moving deftly about the oversized ring, Plant impressed long enough to make the Showtime commentary team ignore both how well Benavidez defended those early punches, and the tax Benavidez was levying in exchange for the early rounds. The left hook responses that Benavidez offered to so many of Plant’s combinations, the right hands to the body he stuck when Plant pivoted out to his left, how coolly he let his gloves and arms absorb the punches that drained Plant even as they won him rounds—why talk about these when the underdog was barking so loudly?
At least early, this grudge match was a fight only when Plant was willing, and so surely, the logic at ringside went, that fight must be his. How then, to explain the eighth round, when fortunes changed suddenly and permanently in Benavidez’s favor? In truth, the eighth was the product of what preceded it: Benavidez’s ability to take a little bit out of Plant in even the rounds he appeared to be losing. His first punch of the night, a jab thrown directly at Plant’s left glove, a little “fuck you!” signaling the sincerity of all those evil proclamations, was followed by a protracted beating, an exercise in delayed gratification.
Employing a squarer stance, one conducive to combinations and, in particular, the lead right hands he threw with regularity against Plant, Benavidez fell short with many of his punches early. But over the second half of the fight, when Plant could no longer maintain a monopoly on range, the ring shrunk, and Plant’s odds of victory and staying upright followed suit. Benavidez, 27-0 (23), alters the speed and power of his punches expertly, loading up when the opportunity presents itself but often using the first, second, or even third piece of a combination to set up the shot he wants. In close, Benavidez shifts his body with his punches, allowing him to generate power in tight spaces while taking his head off-line. And he does all this with poise and conviction. The right hand in the eighth round that hurt Plant and signaled the irrevocable shift in the fight was an example of craft at the margins of sportsmanship. As Plant looked to hold, Benavidez, forced to lean back, with seemingly no opportunity for leverage on his punches, set his left arm along Plant’s jaw, holding his head in place long enough to line up a short right hand that buckled Plant for the first time. This moment, in its significance, felt indicative of the difference between a man trained to box and one born to fight.
Even late, his face pulped, body etiolated, Plant continued to fire back. But his punches became defensive, their intent to prevent his defeat, to stall the onslaught, not secure him the victory. Like he had all night, Benevidez shrugged these off, having parsed their diminishing venom, and chopped away.
Some, particularly those who believe Alvarez would beat Benavidez, those who believe Alvarez should avoid Benavidez, and those who believe both, might point to Plant’s survival as a criticism of “El Bandera Roja.” But Plant, 22-2 (13), owes his participation in those later rounds to referee Kenny Bayless, who sought to interject himself at every opportunity yet never penalized Plant for the excessive holding he used to preserve himself in his many harrowing moments. One less inexplicable interruption from Bayless, or a purposeful one for excessive holding, another inch or two in punching room for Benavidez, and Plant might very well have been reassembling himself to the rhythm of a ten-count. His holding was not strategic, like the low blow he used to temper Benavidez earlier in the fight—it was desperate. If you find that explanation a bit too convenient, too dismissive of Plant, there is always this: Plant proved himself tough enough to provide Benavidez satisfaction. His cruelty sated, the bully picked him up and dusted him off.
The division belongs to Alvarez though, assuming he beats mandatory challenger John Ryder this May. Simply put: if Alvarez is serious about retaining the 168-pound crown, then a reckoning with Benavidez awaits. But coming off his best win and on the threshold of his prime, Benavidez should do anything but simply await that reckoning.