At some point during their twelve-round fight, David Benavidez and Caleb Plant seemingly decided they didn’t hate one another anymore. (photo by Ryan Hafey)

The two top super middleweights and their respective camps spent a large portion of the last five years engaging in physical altercations, trading verbal barbs, invoking one another’s families, accosting one another in public and insulting one another on social media. It was perhaps boxing’s longest and most heated ongoing feud that had never been brought to the ring, an aspect that only intensified one another’s feelings about one another as both insisted the other was actively ducking them. 

It felt as authentic a feud as we’ve seen in the sport in some time. Quite often, the roots of trash talk in boxing barely dip beneath the soil, generally caused by nothing more than a loud disagreement over who would win in a fight. If other, more personal elements get inserted, it’s generally just a matter of angry people looking to escalate the situation. Perhaps more often than that, feuds are imagined by the fighters and those advising their public relations maneuvers as merely instruments to sell a fight.

Benavidez-Plant seemed to be much more than that. Though they clearly disliked one another beforehand, the origin story of the public feud is agreed to begin during a gym encounter in 2018, one which was filmed and posted to YouTube. Opinions differ as to how the skirmish began, but what is seen on camera is Benavidez, his father Jose Sr. and brother Jose Sr. in an aggressive argument with Plant, who eventually seemed to slap Jose Jr., which set off a full-blown brawl. In more recent interviews, Plant said that his animosity stemmed from an interview he’d heard with Jose Sr. wherein he had alleged that Caleb had tried to utilize the passing of his infant daughter Alia in 2015 for publicity. Jose Sr. denies ever saying this, and David suggested that the genesis of his hatred of Caleb began during their time as contemporaries in the amateurs and his “fake” persona. 

Whatever the original cause, the two would subsequently say plenty of things to make the other hate them. Things escalated to new levels when Plant began invoking Benavidez’s past struggles with weight and a positive test for cocaine 2018. Jose Sr. told reporters that he’d asked Plant to stop bringing up the drug test, and that Plant had agreed, before reneging on his promise and upping the ante even more. 

“This guy is always talking sh!t on me, he’s been bullying David for years and years about saying that he’s fat, and try to put him down, and doing all these things. This would be the biggest satisfaction of all time for me, to knock this guy out or make him quit on the stool. That will be a great satisfaction,” Jose Sr. told Fight Hub TV last week. “All these other fighters that we fight, a lot of respect, we become friends. But this guy, there’s no way. This guy is a bad person.”

As nasty as the tension was between both fighters and camps, there was still the sense that both men knew how to wield it for their own gain. Boxing is, after all, a sport and a live event property, so even the most legitimate of beefs can’t be acted upon spontaneously, and if they are, they might as well be profited from. In an interview with Elie Seckbach during fight week, Benavidez pulled back the curtain a tiny bit. 

“I’m going to expose (him), and that’s an entirely different motivation. Every boxer has a fighter that they don’t like, and it brings the best out of them. It might bring the best out of him, too, so we’re here to give the fans a great fight,” he said. “We’ve been preparing accordingly. I’ve been preparing really good, and he’s been preparing really good, so let’s give the fans a hell of a fight.”

Even in the midst of what was ostensibly a blood feud, Benavidez was still expressing that he and his opponent were working collaboratively to entertain the fans at the end of the day. He also used the collective “we,” to promise even on his opponent’s behalf that the price of the ticket, the cost of the pay-per-view, would be worth it. 

Whoever’s version of the events the led to the rivalry between the two fighters one chooses to believe, it’s hard to dispute that at least during the promotional era of their feud, Plant was playing the role of the antagonist, one he’s played to great success and reward in the past. Plant used the classic heel goalpost movement tactics in describing the stakes of the bout to CBS’ Brian Campbell: "Boxing is not a job for me, boxing is my life," Plant said. "Anyone who is trying to get in the way of that or disrupt is personal for me.” In other words, the personal barbs back and forth, even the ones he initiated, not a big deal. The “personal” nature of the fight for Plant was instead boxing’s most basic strawman enemy: There was a foe trying to take food off of his table that he needed to thwart. 

Though the lines are of course quite blurry when it comes to who was assuming which role, or if ones could even be defined at all, if one came into the fight with the idea that Plant was the heel and Benavidez was looking to give him his comeuppance, then the fight itself played out in an almost perfect, pro wrestling-esque way. Plant poked, prodded and avoided consequence for large portions of the first half of the fight. His active, well-placed jab and clever footwork allowed him to glide around the 22-foot ring and away from Benavidez. Around the seventh round however, Benavidez caught up to him, and once he did, he didn’t let him out of his grasp (ironically, it was Plant’s grasp, his holding on the inside, and referee Kenny Bayless’ allowance of it, that became the fight’s only real “controversy” in discourse about the fight afterwards). 

Benavidez is an incredibly gifted inside fighter, both because of his hand speed, his imagination in putting punches together, and his ability to use his physical stature in creative ways. He can both sling uppercuts with his long arms up the middle and chop down at his opponent, sometimes within the same sequence of punches. This ability, the mounting exhaustion and facial damage, and a healthy dose of courage, kept Plant in front of Benavidez for nearly all of the second half of the fight, absorbing punishment while still trying to fire back.

The two men might not be able to pinpoint when they stopped hating one another. Was it at the end of the ninth round when, after eight previous ones ending with them talking trash after the bell, they simply looked at one another and nodded? Was it before the twelfth round, when a day after Benavidez threatened to “break (Plant’s) f------ face” and Plant put a finger gun to his throat, they finally touched gloves? Or was it merely the final bell, the ultimate signal that none of these feelings were worth harboring anymore?

When the final bell rang, both men seemed to be confused at to whether they would continue the mere act of hating one another or not. Both Benavidez and Plant stuttered in their step after the bell, unsure of whether to ignore one another and celebrate atop the ropes, or whether to acknowledge one another. It was Plant who broke the script first, as Benavidez was headed to the corner pad, Plant stayed in step with him in a non-aggressive way. Benavidez turned around, and the two fully embraced for the first time.

In the time between the final bell and the decision being read in favor of Benavidez, the other parties involved reconciled as well. Jose Sr. and Jr. both spoke to Plant, David spoke to Plant’s corner, and all either tapped gloves or one another’s shoulders in acknowledgment. 

A skeptic might look at the Benavidez-Plant saga and presume that it was a carefully constructed storyline acted out between two men who knew how to sell a fight. For that to be the case, all parties involved would have had to have been fairly talented method actors, willing to tap into genuinely fraught emotional issues for entertainment’s sake. 

But the more romantic way of viewing it, the way most of us want to see the sport, is that two people with genuine issues with one another can resolve them through combat, that Benavidez and Plant were “settling it like men.”

There are certainly issues with the idea that violence can wash away all past behavior, but, in this case, and in many within boxing, it functioned that way. At its core, theirs was a feud that began because two men thought they were better than one another, two supremely proud athletes for whom the ultimate insult is the suggestion that they can’t achieve something—in this case, beating the other person. Everything that happened since then was two proud but angry, hurt people lashing out. But once they stepped in the ring with one another and realized that the other was just like them, willing to sacrifice their wellbeing on the premise that they were the superior fighter, they recognized that familiar perspective.  

Though they had declared prior to the bout that they would not have respect for one another even after the fight, that clearly changed, and more. In the midst of his post-fight interview with Jim Gray, Benavidez was asked if he was surprised Plant stayed on his feet despite all the punishment he’d sustained. 

"Yeah, I was. I was gonna talk sh!t but...I like this guy now,” Benavidez said.

Plant reciprocated the praise in his interview, at one point breaking his speech pattern entirely in the midst of a somewhat boilerplate post-fight answer, pausing, looking at the canvas as if he was now just talking to himself, uttering “he's a hell of a fighter.”

In the hallways of the MGM Grand, Jose Sr. formally extended the olive branch. 

"I'm a man, and if I'm wrong, I'm gonna go and apologize, you know? For some people, they don't do that. He did it, and to me, that means a lot. And I told him you know, I know we can't be friends because of all that. No, f--- that sh!t, you know. Forget all that sh!t. I can be your friend. I'm not ashamed to say that," he told FightHype cameras. "I gave him a big hug. I let it go, and I told him, you don't want to me my friend? I want to be your friend. At the end of the day, he's a good guy bro."

Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman