It was with great delight that I received a letter from onetime journeyman heavyweight Lou Benson Jr. of Baltimore on October 17. Although the 48-year-old Benson, who compiled a 17-11-2 (8 KOs) record during a career that lasted from 1975-92, was very proud about being inducted into the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004, he wasn’t writing about himself.
Even though he joined the likes of such fistic greats as Joe Gans, Harry Jeffra, and Vincent and Joe Dundee, he wasn’t aggrandizing his enshrinement or tooting his own horn. Instead, he was urging boxing writers to correct what he perceived as an injustice by voting to induct Jeffra into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, in 2006.
“Surely you are aware of some of his fistic accomplishments, such as beating the great Sixto Escobar to win the world bantamweight title in 1937,” wrote Benson. “In perhaps the heyday of the sport, Harry defeated Joey Archibald in 1940 to win the world featherweight title. Please look closely at Harry Jeffra’s record and career, and rightfully vote for his induction.”
Benson’s interest in Jeffra has as much to do with personal reasons as it does with Jeffra’s professional accomplishments. As a teenager, Benson used to accompany his father, Lou Sr., to meetings of the Veteran Boxer’s Association’s Ring 108, of which Jeffra was a member. Lou Sr. was a professional heavyweight who amassed a record of 12-6 (7 KOs) while campaigning from 1952-55.
“I was headed for trouble at that time, and boxing saved my life,” said Benson, whose father died of a massive heart attack at age 44 when he was just 18 years old and a veteran of two pro fights.
“As a young amateur and professional fighter I could always count on a word of advice, praise or critique from Harry, which went a long way in my mind. Not only was Harry a respected ex-world champion, he was also a gentleman. Meeting him was the thrill of a lifetime.”
Boxing straightened out Benson so much, he went on to not only have a somewhat successful pro career, he also served as a Baltimore city sheriff for 20 years. Truth be told, he only moonlighted as a professional boxer.
At 5’11” tall he began his career as a light heavyweight, but quickly evolved into a heavyweight and fought a who’s who of notable prospects, contenders, and even one future world champion. He says he dropped future light heavyweight titlist Dwight Muhummad Qawi at Baltimore’s Civic Center in June 1978 before losing a six-round decision. For any non-believers, he insists that he has a copy of the fight on Super 8 film.
“That was the toughest six-round fight I ever had,” said Benson. “He was a tough son of a gun, but back then there were ten light heavyweights who would be champions today.”
Besides tangling with a slew of undefeated heavyweight prospects like Carl “The Truth” Williams, James Broad, Chris McDonald and Lee Canalito, Benson also mixed it up with the murderous punching Jeff Sims, cross-town rival George Chaplin in a bout for the Maryland State Title, Englishman John Louis Gardner in England, and knockout artist Marcelo Victor Figueroa of Argentina in France.
While he lost to most of them, he did battle McDonald, who had upset James Broad at the 1980 Olympic Trials, to a hard-fought, eight-round draw on the undercard of a Tony Ayala Jr. fight in San Antonio August 1981. The bout was showcased on NBC’s Sportsworld.
“McDonald was a helluva fighter,” said Benson. “He was one of NBC’s Tomorrow’s Champions. He cut my eye, but I busted him up pretty good too. It was a nip and tuck fight.”
His biggest career disappointment was getting stopped by Chaplin in the ninth round in Baltimore in June 1983. If he won, Benson had been promised a $75,000 bout against Gerry Cooney. Because Benson was a self-described working stiff, that amount of money seemed like a fortune to him. Considering the fact that his career high purse was the $7,500 he earned against Chaplin, that would have been an appropriate assessment at the time.
One of his only laments is his fourth-round disqualification loss to Sims in the winner’s hometown of Miami Beach in January 1984. Benson said that Sims hit him so hard with an overhand right in the second round, he was forced to clinch to survive.
“Sims was a tiger who could punch like hell,” explained Benson. “I was seeing double after he hit me. Hell, I was seeing double for three days afterwards. The referee acted like I was trying to cheat, but I was doing what I had to do until my head cleared and my vision returned.”
Benson once accepted a bout against Mike Tyson, but much to his chagrin it never came to fruition. It was at a point of Iron Mike’s career where he was having trouble finding opponents who weren’t terrified of him. Benson was offered $25,000 on a Monday to fight Tyson on a Friday.
What most people don’t realize is that he and Tyson had a little bit of history. In March 1983, a few years before Tyson even turned pro, he and his mentor Cus D’Amato visited Benson’s dressing room after he lost what describes as a hometown decision to Marty Capasso in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“Cus told me he knew how I felt, that the same thing had happened to Floyd Patterson when he fought Joey Maxim in Cleveland,” recalled Benson. “Mike was with him and he was very gracious.”
Years later, in 1991, while Tyson was incarcerated for rape in Indiana, Benson embarked on a comeback after a six-year hiatus from the ring. A local writer lobbied hard for Benson to get a match with Tyson inside the prison walls. Unfortunately those plans were scuttled by prison officials.
Sadly, eight years later, Benson would find himself behind bars after trying to help out a friend in need. The friend, a welterweight who had fought professionally in the late fifties and sixties, was on lifetime parole for a homicide. He had been supportive of Benson throughout his career, so Benson, who by virtue of being involved in boxing says he knew no shortage of sleazy people, did not feel ethically challenged by associating with him.
The ex-pug, who was down and out and living above a dive bar, got into some more legal trouble in the late nineties. Rather than risk having his parole revoked, he offered up Benson, who authorities had long suspected of associating with local bookmakers and gangsters.
“The FBI had the guy call me and say people were trying to break into his house and kill him – and that he was in fear for his life,” recalled Benson. “He said he had a gun, but no bullets. He asked me for some bullets, and me being the fool that I am, I gave them to him.”
After being arrested, Benson resigned from the sheriff’s department and wound up serving a year in federal prison. “I’m probably the only guy that ever went to jail for giving someone a few bullets,” he said. “But I realize what I did was wrong. It was a stupid thing to do.”
Benson now manages a bar that is owned by his wife Rachel, to whom he has been married since 1990. Benson says the Dew Drop Inn, which is located in Baltimore County, serves the best steamed shrimp in the area. It is also home to several pool playing leagues that are drawn there by the three on-premise tables.
Benson works the evening shift and is home soon after the 2 AM closing time, which gives him time to spend with his family, which includes two children from a previous marriage and the two children that he and Rachel have together. Twenty-year-old Parker, his only son, would be a great fighter, says Benson, “if only he was a little bit more disciplined.”
Benson, who keeps his weight at about 205 pounds by speed-walking each morning, offers no excuses for either his limited success as a fighter or his transgressions with the law.
Unlike so many other ex-fighters, he doesn’t say that mismanagement or the lack of opportunity prevented him from becoming all that he could be. It is obvious that Benson knows who he is and is honest enough, with himself and others, warts and all, to hold his head high.
“I had as much opportunity as a lot of other guys,” said the refreshingly candid Benson. “I mostly managed myself, and I accepted all those fights in other people’s hometowns. I wasn’t the only guy doing that. Some guys did that and became champions. I take my hat off to them.
“The way I look at it, I went out a winner,” he adds. “I had a colorful career. I never won a title, never made a million dollars, but I fought on ESPN and on European television. I have a lot of memories, and most of them are good.”
(The Dew Drop Inn is located at 12301 Philadelphia Road in Baltimore County. The phone number is 410-538-3126. Benson, a master storyteller, holds court there nightly. Don’t forget to order the steamed shrimp.)