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World Boxing Council junior middleweight champion Wilfred Benitez calls...

LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- World Boxing Council junior middleweight champion Wilfred Benitez calls his title defense tonight against former lightweight and welterweight king Roberto Duran 'the most important' fight of his career.

'If I beat Duran, I go for a fourth title,' Benitez says.

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Benitez, 23, wants to be the first person ever to win four world championships in four separate divisions. Only five other boxers have won as many as three. He is in a race with WBC lightweight champion Alexis Arguello, who also is eyeing a fourth world crown.

Benitez appeared supremely confident on the eve of his encounter with Duran, 30, whose once-feared 'hands of stone' have become suspect in recent bouts.

'I am the 'Bible of Boxing'', said Benitez, making his second defense of the 154-pound title he won with a 12th-round TKO over Maurice Hope last May 25 and defended with a 15-round unanimous decision over Carlos Santos on Nov. 14. 'I know all boxing. I can do anything I want to. I know all the techniques.'

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Benitez may be right. The New York-born fighter was only 17 when he won the World Boxing Association junior welterweight title from Antonio Cervantes on March 6, 1976. Benitez scored a split-decision victory over Carlos Palomino to win the WBC welterweight crown on Jan. 4, 1979.

En route to 42 victories -- 26 by knockout -- Benitez' only stumble was a 15th-round knockout by Sugar Ray Leonard in a welterweight title defense on Nov. 30, 1979. He also drew once.

'I want to win my fourth title before Alexis Arguello does,' said the champion. 'I hope to do that June 29 against (middleweight champion) Marvin Hagler.'

Benitez, who entered training camp at 172 pounds, said that the Duran fight will be his last as a junior middleweight.

'Middleweight is my natural weight,' he said. 'It has been hard for me to stay at this weight, but I'll have no problem for Saturday.'

While Benitez exudes confidence and talks about a fourth title, Duran, once the most menacing figures in boxing history in the lightweight division, is trying to climb back on top following his infamous eighth-round 'no mas' loss to Leonard on Nov. 25, 1980.

'Nobody allows Duran to forget this incident,' said Ray Arcel, Duran's trainer. 'They keep bringing it up. It's hard to explain what this young man went through when he went home to Panama. He had done nothing but bring fame and glory to that little country. It was wrong to condemn him.

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'They said he was a quitter. He never quit nothing. This kid is one of the great fighters of our period.'

Duran, who has compiled a 74-2 record with 55 KOs, seems constantly haunted by the spectre of his defeat by Leonard. During a news conference this week Duran, 30, spent more time talking about a rematch with Leonard than about Benitez.

Once called 'pound-for-pound' the best fighter in the world, Duran admitted a loss at the hands of Benitez could end the chances of a third Leonard fight.

'I don't see how I could continue,' Duran said.

Also on the card are three 10-round bouts, including the WBC's No. 3 super featherweight contender Edwin Rosario of Puerto Rico against Ezzard Charles of Houston, WBC No. 3 ranked super bantamweight Juan Meza of Los Angeles against Antonio Guido of Los Angeles, and undefeated middleweight Mark Holmes of Easton, Pa., brother of WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, against Ted Sanders of Los Angeles.

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