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Last one standing

Published February 26, 2007


CLEAN-CUT AND SOFT-SPOKEN, boxer Roberto Benitez cracked a joke or two while he wrapped his hands and got ready to train last week. His warm smile never faded. Each wrap was precise, almost delicate. He hardly looked like a guy who has answered to "El Gallo - the rooster" or Dominican Destroyer or Slim Terror or Game Over. But with one movement, Benitez put credibility in the nicknames. The moment he stepped into the ring at his new home workout spot, Boxing 4 Fitness, his smile flat lined. The sparkle in his eyes shifted into a gaze of sheer determination. He started his work out, bouncing around the ring, shaking his head from side to side and stretching his limbs. Benitez was in his own world.

It's a place he discovered about age 10, when he sought refuge in a boxing gym in Brooklyn. At the Harriman Boys Club, Benitez fell in love with working out, with training, with boxing. It was his lifeline, and it kept him from the heavier stuff.

"His drug is working out," said trainer Ray Velez. 'That's his drug. He's addicted."

Other kids played basketball or swam. Benitez stayed in the boxing gym until somebody kicked him out.

That's still the case. Benitez's trainer, advisor and even his mom, constantly encourage the 10-time national champion and 2004 Olympian to relax. Less is more, they say. Benitez, 26, who is rehabbing from a broken hand, finally is believing them.

"I've been learning it," Benitez said. "Since coming here to Florida, I've learned a lot through Ray and my advisor (Paul D'Antuono). They remind me. You just gotta remind me to sometimes back off a little."

Taking it easy in the gym isn't the junior featherweight's style, and he's just as relentless in the ring. So much so that Martina Nunez called her son a little rooster after she saw him fight in the 1998 Goodwill Games.

Watching Benitez unleash each punch reminded her of the cockfights she saw growing up in the Dominican Republic.

"They just fight like, 'you're not going to beat me. I'm going to kill you,' " said Nunez, who lives in Marion County. "You'll see blood all over the floor, and they're still fighting and the last one standing in the ring, that's the winner. That's the rooster."

That's Benitez.

When he's fighting, Benitez trains five days a week in New York with Ray Velez. The duo work on technique, footwork and coordination drills. Velez knew Benitez from the Boys Club and has been Benitez's trainer for about two years.

"I still see flaws and stuff like that because if I sit back and admire like everybody else, then we'll never be great," Velez said. "My job is not to toot our own horn and say how good he is. My job is to find out where he needs to work.

"But sometimes," Velez added, "I do enjoy sitting back and watching him. He's got great speed. He's got power. He's very exciting."

But out of the gym, Benitez is more mellow. He's helping his 6-year-old daughter Janiyah with her homework, or he's speaking to kids who have been in trouble.

D'Antuono said his travel companion is even laid back on the road.

D'Antuono said, "He's the kid that somebody (like) myself, more than twice his age, looks at him and says, 'this is the son that everybody should have.' "

[Last modified February 26, 2007, 07:16:57]

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