Michael Bentt: ‘I started to see myself as a loser. I had a broken spirit. I was suicidal’

Michael Bentt
The star of a new Netflix show, Michael Bentt spoke to Matt Bozeat about how he beat Tommy Morrison and how he 'dodged a bullet' after losing to Herbie Hide

TO many Americans Michael Bentt is a drug dealer. Or a homosexual police informer. Or maybe Sonny Liston.  “Acting is like boxing turned inside out,” said the prizefighter-turned-thespian. “Boxers have to appear invincible, even though they all are consumed by massive doubts. In boxing, it comes down to whoever fakes it the best wins, but actors can’t have egos. You have to embrace shortcomings, doubts, insecurities and learn empathy. It’s heavy, man. But very rewarding.”

One day, an actor may take on the role of playing Bentt because, right from the start, his story is remarkable.

“Dad was a rude boy, a flashy ladies’ man,” remembered Bentt, now 54 years old. “He wasn’t there when I was born. He was out carousing with chicks. He cut my mum by playing around with other women, so she got him back by naming her son after the father he hated!”

Bentt was born in East Dulwich and spent the first five years of his life in Peckham before the family settled in Queens in New York, where visitors included his father’s cousin, Rudolph Bent. He had 103 pro fights – including a three-round stoppage loss to Sugar Ray Robinson in 1965.

“When I was eight years old he brought over the gloves he wore when he boxed Sugar Ray,” remembered Bentt. “I would box my brother in the basement – and he would slap me around.”

Elder brother Winston – “Probably the best athlete I saw in my life” – fought Mike Tyson during his amateur career, but he was stopped in the third round of their bout in the 1984 Empire State Games. Michael went further.

He compiled a 178-10 amateur slate, but twice missed out on the Olympics, in 1984 and 1988, and after defeat to Ray Mercer at the qualifiers for the latter, Bentt was finished with boxing.

“I had a nice amateur career,” he said, “and I never intended to turn pro.

“I was a school dropout who travelled the world – and boxing got me out of my dad’s house, which was the most important thing.

“We had conflict. He lived vicariously through me and I hated it. I wanted to play baseball and I was used as a pawn for my dad’s ego. I felt as though he only liked me because I was a boxer. He wouldn’t have cared [about me] if I had been a construction worker.”

After missing out on the Seoul Olympics, Bentt was set to be a college student – until Emanuel Steward rang.

“We negotiated a signing-on fee and I said: ‘Great, let’s do it,” remembered Bentt and he made his pro debut on February 7, 1989. “I will never forget that date,” he said. It is unforgettable because the unthinkable happened.

Live on ESPN, Steward unveiled his new heavyweight hope – and journeyman Jerry Jones chinned him inside a round. “With my amateur pedigree, should that have happened ? No,” said Bentt. “But I had no respect for him. I didn’t think he would punch back.

“I was beyond depressed after the fight. I was suicidal. It was like having your heart broken by a woman you love and I wanted to cover my head in shame every day.

“People had reason to judge me as a loser and I started to see myself as a loser. I had a broken spirit. My confidence as a boxer was shattered.

“I got a job at a hospital in Queens sterilising instruments and I thought: ‘I don’t belong here.’

“Months later, I got a call from a friend of Mickey Duff asking if I wanted to spar Gary Mason.

“I said: ‘No, of course not.’ I was terrified. I was scared of getting hurt and not meeting people’s expectations.

“But I thought about it and decided it was time to put up or shut up, so I rang him back and decided to give being a sparring partner a shot.

“I sparred with Gary and he couldn’t touch me. I was on fire. I said to him at breakfast one morning: ‘Are you taking it easy on me?’ and Gary said he wasn’t. He was No. 5 in the world at the time and I was handling him. That made me realise I still had something to give.”

Duff got Bentt a slot on the Gary Mason-James Pritchard undercard at the Royal Albert Hall in December, 1990 – but they parted company after the hapless James Holley fell apart in a round.

‘Christmas Turkey,’ read the Boxing News headline.

Michael Bentt

Through matchmaker Johnny Bos, Bentt met Stan Hoffman. He got Bentt active – and sparring Evander Holyfield.

“George Benton said to me in a bar after sparring: ‘When you spar Holyfield, I don’t know who the champ is,’” said Bentt. “That always stuck in my mind. I thought if the circumstances and my mind is right,
I can beat anybody.”

Bentt, now 10-1, put this new-found confidence to the test against WBO champion Tommy Morrison in Tulsa, Oklahoma in October, 1989.

“It wasn’t my talent that got me the shot,” admitted Bentt. “It was my connections. [Journalist] Mike Katz knew me from the amateurs and one day he was interviewing Bill Cayton.

“Bill was looking for an opponent for Tommy Morrison. He was going to fight Lennox Lewis and they wanted to promote the fight. Mike said: ‘Why don’t you give Mike Bentt a shot?’

“Bill said no, and when Tommy got wind of this, he said, ‘Let me fight this guy.’ He pushed for the fight, but if there was one person I knew I could beat it was Tommy Morrison.”

Nobody else seemed to think an upset was possible.

“HBO were interviewing me and sending me subliminal messages,” said Bentt, clearly the type who overthinks things. “They were saying: ‘You got knocked out in your first fight, can you take Tommy’s power?’

“I used that [as motivation] and my relationship with my father. That gave me the most ammunition. I wanted to prove I didn’t need his support to be successful.”

Bentt looked unlikely to prove his point when, inside the opening minute, Morrison buckled his knees with a left hook.

“I was hurt bad,” said Bentt. “When you get hit cleanly on the temple or chin, it’s like someone unplugs your computer. Everything goes black and that happened for a second.”

Bentt had watched enough of Morrison to know that once his head cleared, he would get his chance.

“I researched all Tommy’s fights,” he said, “and I realised that when he had someone hurt, he would get tight and hold his breath and when you do that, you freeze yourself.”

Once he spotted an opening, Bentt let his hands go – and a right hand connected.

“He was in no man’s land,” remembered Bentt. “He was out of it and defenceless.”

Bentt kept the punches coming until Morrison hit the floor, a look of dazed disbelief etched on his face.

“When you knock someone down and the stakes are so high, you can get caught up in it,” said Bentt. “He was hurt, but I knew I had to be careful. He was known for getting up from knockdowns and winning fights – and he was known for his monster left hook. After the first knockdown, I kept my right hand glued to my chin. He threw a big left hook, I caught it and countered.”

Twice more Morrison hit the floor and after the third knockdown, and just 93 seconds, the fight was over. Bentt was whisked back to Britain – and into a defence against Herbie Hide at Millwall Football Club’s, The Den.

The fighters knew each other having chatted about the handicap of having a lisp at a boxing awards night, but any goodwill between them went out of the window at a memorable press conference.

“I was wearing a Millwall [Football Club] hat and he slapped it off my head,” said Bentt. “I thought the wind had blown it off, but I noticed Hide and the reporters sniggering, so I retaliated. It was a bad decision. But that’s the nature of fighters. We are emotional and have something to prove. We wear our emotions on our sleeve.”

Michael Bentt

Bentt doesn’t remember too much of what followed.

“I remember eating pasta in a nice restaurant a few hours before the fight,” he said, “and the next thing
I remember is waking up in hospital. I’ve watched the fight on YouTube, but it doesn’t trigger any memories. I was completely battered.”

He spent four days in a coma and John Sutcliffe, the surgeon who also operated on Gerald McClellan, told Bentt when he came round that he had ‘dodged a bullet’.

Bentt says that within two weeks, he had made a full physical recovery, but added: “The emotional scars were there.

“Nobody likes to lose, but I think that fight saved my life. I would still be fighting today if that hadn’t happened and I never wanted to end up damaged.

“I had a good little run, did things nobody thought were possible and, fortunately for my ego, most boxing fans associate me with Tommy Morrison rather than Herbie Hide.”

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