SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ In 1976, Wilfred Benitez, then a teenage boxing phenomenon with fancy footwork and a can't-miss future, became the youngest man ever to win a world title.

But 19 years later and ailing, the former three-time champion is depending on a $600 per month government grant and his family for survival.

Almost two decades ago, Benitez won instant fame by dropping Antonio ``Kid Pambele'' Cervantes to win the World Boxing Association junior welterweight belt at age 17.

During his 14-year career, he won the World Boxing Council welterweight belt in 1979 against Mexico's Carlos Palomino and the WBC super welterweight crown when he stopped Maurice Hope.

On Nov. 30, 1979, fighting as the WBC welterweight champ, he went toe-to-toe against Sugar Ray Leonard for 14 rounds, but with six seconds left in the 15th, a flurry by Leonard knocked Benitez to the canvas. Ten seconds later, Leonard was the new champ.

After that loss, Benitez, who compiled a 56-6-1 record with 31 knockouts, moved up to the super welters. In 1982, he captured the WBC title, but his reign with a loss to Thomas Hearns late in that year.

Benitez never had another title shot and by 1986, his career began souring.

Several states lifted his boxing license after a neurologist, Lawrence Charnas, determined he had nerve damage after outscoring Harry Daniels in a non-title bout at Baltimore.

At 27, Benitez felt he was washed up. He lost all of his fortune, estimated at $10 million by some. He won $1.2 million on the Leonard fight alone.

``It was all lost in the casinos,'' said his father Gregorio. ``All of it.''

In 1989, Benitez was diagnosed with traumatic encephalopathy, a disease caused by recurring concussions and whose primary effect is to debilitate the brain. He tried a short-lived comeback in 1990, but the stint ended when his license was revoked because of the disease.

Now 37, Benitez's trim 154-pound frame is gone. His smile is barely recognizable and depends on his mother, Clara Rosa, to take care of him.

Ailing and broke, Benitez's family appealed to the local government for help. Last week, Gov. Pedro Rossello signed into a law a benefits package for local boxers, which would pay Benitez $600 a month for life.

``It was the least we could do. Here's a man who put Puerto Rico on the map and worked hard to become one of the best in the world,'' said lawmaker Ramon Luis Rivera, chairman of the local senate youth, sports and recreation committee. ``He was a great champion. Now he is sick and he needs our help.''

Due to his condition, Benitez's speech is slurred and barely coherent. Nevertheless, the former champion was grateful.

``What can I say. This will help ease the pain'', Benitez said.

Benitez's case is the latest in a long list of Puerto Rican champions whose careers have ended poorly.

Wilfredo Gomez, a former WBC super bantamweight and featherweight champion, lost most of his assets soon after retiring and was arrested for domestic violence and cocaine possession.

Samuel Serrano, a former WBA junior lightweight champion, served a 10-year prison sentence for cocaine and marijuana trafficking.

As part of the benefits package passed by the local legislature, the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission, which operates in the budget of the commonwealth's department of sports and recreation, will have a division devoted to give boxers financial counseling as well as social services.

With many young locals rising, including International Boxing Federation welterweight champ Felix Trinidad, the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission is hoping to end the trend.

``Puerto Rican champions don't have a very good track record and we want to do our best to keep something like this from happening again'', Boxing Commission president Dommys Delgado said. ``It's a recurring tragedy that has to stop. It may be too late for Wilfred, but there are others who will benefit from this.''