A NOT-VERY-FUNNY thing happened to Tommy ‘The Duke’ Morrison on his way to a world heavyweight title fight against Lennox Lewis. He bumped into Michael Bentt and 93 seconds later, Morrison wasn’t fighting Lewis any more.
Born in London, Bentt spent his first six years living with an aunt in East Dulwich and the then travelled back and forth between Jamaica and New York, where his father was trying to set down roots.
His father’s cousin, George Bentt, was the last boxer Sugar Ray Robinson beat, while big brother Winston boxed Mike Tyson as an amateur. Michael was a three-time winner of the United States Amateur Boxing championships, was four times crowned New York Golden Gloves champion and won bronze at the 1986 World Amateurs.
He missed out on the Seoul Olympics after Ray Mercer handed him the seventh and eight losses of his 156-fight amateur career and had Emanuel Steward in his corner when he made his professional debut against Jerry Jones on an ESPN-screened show in February 1989.
Bentt, the can’t-miss prospect, was beaten inside a round.
“I was beyond depressed,” he said. “I was suicidal. I wanted to cover my head in shame every day.”
Bentt gave up boxing and went to work in a hospital in Detroit, cleaning implements. He returned to New York and met a friend for a run. Bentt said: “I came back to my car and there was something under my windscreen wiper. It read: ‘HEY CHAMP ESPN KO HA HA HA.’
“It was very painful and I never forget things like that.”
Bentt went back to work and tried to forget about boxing. Mickey Duff, the British manager and promoter, reminded him about his former career with a phone call asking him to spar unbeaten Gary Mason.
“I said: ‘No, of course not’,” said Bentt. “I was terrified. But I thought about it and decided to give being a sparring partner a shot.”
Bentt’s confidence was restored by their sparring sessions and he made a comeback that gathered momentum after he joined Stan Hoffman’s stable.
After back-to-back wins, Hoffman secured a crack at WBO champion Tommy Morrison. ‘The Duke’ had signed to challenge WBC champion Lennox Lewis for a $7.25m purse and decided he needed “experience for the bigger fights that lie ahead.”
He boxed Bentt in October 1989. Michael was an 11-fight novice and Riddick Bowe, a friend from their amateur days, said he “hoped he wouldn’t get hurt.”
Bentt was hurt early on but kept his defences tight, then counter-attacked to blast Morrison to his knees three times for a sensational stoppage in 93 seconds.
He made his first defence against Herbie Hide at Millwall Football Club – and the fight started ahead of schedule.
Bentt remembers: “I was wearing a Millwall hat at a press conference and he slapped it off my head. I thought the wind had blown it off, but I noticed Hide and the reporters sniggering, so I retaliated. It was a bad decision.”
Worse was to follow. Bentt was counted out in the seventh round and rushed to the Royal London Hospital “I remember eating pasta in a nice restaurant a few hours before the fight – and the next thing I remember is waking up in hospital,” he said. “I’ve watched the fight on YouTube, but it doesn’t trigger any memories.”
Consultant neurosurgeon John Sutcliffe diagnosed Bentt as suffering from “cumulative concussive damage to the brain”.
He spent 98 hours in a coma and apart from “a wobbly moment” on the plane journey home, says he made a full recovery.
Bentt became a journalist, a television commentator, a trainer, then an actor. “I took an acting class and fell in love with it,” he said. “It was just like boxing. You are naked in front of an audience.”
Bentt played Sonny Liston in the 2001 Will Smith movie Ali, has appeared in productions of Hamlet and Othello, and had regular work in the TV series Sons of Anarchy.
He also directed the play Kid Shamrock, written by Bobby Cassidy about his contender father Bobby Cassidy Snr and starring John Duddy, Mark Breland and Seamus McDonagh.
“It’s a tough play,” he said, “very moving and emotional, but they nailed it.”