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Michael Bentt: ‘Knowing that I’d never box again, my overriding feeling was one of relief’

Michael Bentt
Despite his significant success in the ring, Michael Bentt’s relationship with boxing was deeply conflicted. Here, he explains how a brush with death ultimately led him to his true calling

I WAS born on September 4, 1965 in East Dulwich in London, but moved to New York with my family on April 3, 1972. My dad was a construction worker – a mason. One day he got into a scuffle with his foreman. My father was fierce. He wasn’t the type of guy you wanted to fight. He ended up battering this guy pretty good. But it turned out that this guy was connected. He knew people, shall we say. So it was time for us to leave the UK.

My father was a strapping man and handsome as hell, but he couldn’t read or write, so he had an inferiority complex. He would light up a room with his charisma, but he had demons. If he came home and there was a bottle of ketchup out of place, he’d go into a rage. He wasn’t the best human being in the world but I can empathise with him now. When he was 12 years old, he witnessed his father die of a heart attack when they were out fishing. We carry that stuff around with us.

My father demanded that I boxed. He was a big fan of Cassius Clay, so he wanted me to mimic him. I didn’t like boxing and was forced into it when I was about nine-and-a-half or 10. My first experience was at a gym in the shadow of Shea Stadium in Queens, where we lived. I trained there for nine months. My first mentor was a guy named George Pimental. He believed in me and showed me love, which is something that my father couldn’t do.

One day when I was in the fifth grade, I cut school and decided that I was going to man up to my father and tell him that I didn’t want to box any more. When I did that, he gave me a five-star ass whooping. He beat me horribly. I didn’t go back into a boxing gym until about five years later. I remember flicking through the newspaper when the USA Boxing team perished in a plane crash in Poland in 1980. I saw a picture of George Pimental and it broke my heart. At that moment, I decided that I was going to box again for George.

I made it onto the USA Boxing team in the winter of 1983. I was scouted by the head coach, Pat Nappi. When I started training at the US Olympic complex in Colorado Springs, something clicked in me. It gave me an education and allowed me to cultivate myself, as I started travelling all over the world with the team. I think that’s why I was so successful in the amateurs – because I was outside of my father’s dungeon.

As an amateur, I won four New York Golden Gloves titles, five US national titles and bronze medals at the World Championships and Pan American Games. I fought the great Cuban, Félix Savón, in Toronto in 1987. They gave him the decision, but the next day, four or five guys from the Cuban team came up to me and said, ‘Bentt, you beat Savon last night.’ That was validation. My number-one highlight from my amateur career was when I beat the USSR’s Alexander Yagubkin at the 1986 World Championships. He had won the tournament in 1982.

After losing to Ray Mercer in the heavyweight final at the 1988 US Olympic Trials, I was selected as his opponent at the Olympic Box-offs. As he had won at the Trials, he only needed to beat me once at the Box-offs to qualify for the Olympics. I needed to beat him twice. At the end of our fight at the Box-offs, Ray turned to me and said, ‘I guess I’ll have to see you again tomorrow night.’ He knew he’d lost. But then they announced that they’d given him the decision. Man, that broke my f****** heart.

After missing out on a spot on the US Olympic team, I went over to Jamaica – the country of my parents – and ended up qualifying for the Jamaican Olympic team. About two weeks prior to the start of the Olympics, my father got a phone call from one of the Jamaican officials. They’d found out that he’d won some money on the lottery. They said that in order for me to represent Jamaica, my dad had to sponsor the team. My father asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I’ll pass.’ I knew that if I went to the Olympics, my father would always say to me, ‘Look what I did for you.’ I didn’t want him to have that hold over me.

When I decided to turn pro, my motive was completely financial. My friend, Frankie Liles – who went on to become a world super-middleweight champion – was also turning pro around the same time. He told me that he was going to sign with Emanuel Steward and he said that he’d mention my name to him. Two or three days later, I got a phone call from Emanuel. He met my father and I at our house in Queens and we made the deal right there. I felt a connection with Emanuel. He treated me like a prince. He used to tell people, ‘This is the only man who can beat Mike Tyson.’ That’s how much he believed in me.

I had my first pro fight in February 1989 and lost to Jerry Jones. At one point in my life I blamed Emanuel for that loss, but it’s the fighter who takes the shots. So as the fighter, you have to be accountable. Post-Jerry Jones I went through a really dark period. When you’re this hotshot prospect and you get knocked out in the first round, it permeates your entire life. I was mentally paralysed for 22 months. I couldn’t box.

When I’d signed with Emanuel he’d given me a substantial signing-on bonus. Even though I only had that one fight under him, he never asked me to pay any of it back. I can’t think of any other boxing manager who wouldn’t have tried to sue me or demand that I come back and fight. During that 22-month period when I exiled myself from boxing, all Emanuel said to me was that if I ever wanted to come back, the door would always be open. That’s the type of guy he was.

During this time, I began working as a clerk at Long Island Jewish Hospital in Queens – sterilising the medical instruments. The job was a fantastic distraction for me, as being stuck in my own headspace was not a good place to be. One day – I’d probably been drinking – I took a gun and put the barrel in my mouth. I held it there for maybe 15 seconds, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted to, but I couldn’t pull the trigger.

As much as I liked the people who I worked with at the hospital, I knew I didn’t belong there. Out of the blue one day, an opportunity came up to act as a sparring partner for the British heavyweight champion, Gary Mason. His manager, Mickey Duff, had a camp set up in Clearwater, Florida. He wanted me to go down there, but I didn’t want to do it because I was terrified of being exposed again. He kept asking me and eventually I said yes. One morning during camp, when Gary and I were having breakfast together, I asked him if he was taking it easy on me in sparring. That’s how much I was doubting myself. Gary broke out in a huge laugh and assured me that he wasn’t taking it easy on me.

I continued to work with Gary and Mickey in the US and UK. I made my comeback on one of Gary’s undercards in London and won the fight. I also sparred Gary ahead of his fight with Lennox Lewis in 1991. Things turned sour with Mickey when we fell out one day. I’d fractured my right hand on Gary’s head during sparring and told Mickey that I needed to see a doctor. By the third or fourth day of mentioning this to Mickey, he still hadn’t arranged a trip to the hospital for me. When I asked him again, he blew up at me. We had a vicious argument. Although he didn’t explicitly say that he was no longer working with me, I got the message.

Oddly enough, a British sports manager, Mel Goldberg, was living in the same complex that I was living in at the time. He became my manager for a few fights. It was during this time, in around 1991 or 1992, that Mel received a phone call from Evander Holyfield’s team. They wanted to hire me as a sparring partner for Evander, who was then the world heavyweight champion. When I was an amateur, I’d previously sparred Evander, as well as Tyrell Biggs, before they competed at the 1984 Olympics. When they both turned pro after the Olympics, I worked with them again. We trained all over the country and I was their chief sparring partner.

When Mel told me about the phone call, I was filled with anxiety because I knew I had something to prove to Evander and his team. My objective was to give him hell every time I sparred with him. On one of the rest days during camp, I saw Evander’s trainer, George Benton, sitting at a bar across the street. He waved me over to him and said to me, ‘Goddamn, babycakes! When you spar Evander, I can’t tell who the champion is.’ That was a stamp of approval right there.

When Mel had to leave America and go back to the UK, he was contacted by Stan Hoffman, who’d heard that I was now available. Stan then put together a few fights for me and I started training under Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. I’d been a massive fan of Eddie as a fighter. Although I didn’t actually like boxing, I studied the craft maniacally. If I’m doing something, I’m going to study it like crazy. I watched videos of the likes of Eddie, Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes, Alexis Arguello and Roberto Duran.

Stan was the architect behind the Tommy Morrison fight in 1993. I’d won 10 in a row since losing my pro debut, but I was viewed as a tune-up opponent for Morrison, who was supposed to be fighting Lennox Lewis later in the year. I got a strong sense that I was an afterthought, but I was zoned in for the fight – physically and mentally – and it showed on the night. The referee could’ve stopped it after I knocked him down the first time. When he got up, his eyes were totally glazed over. Two more knockdowns later, it was all over in the first round. I was now the WBO heavyweight champion, but I didn’t make any real money. After all the deductions, my cheque was $62 grand. If I’d made a couple of million dollars, I would’ve invested it and done well with that money. I would’ve retired after that fight.

Next up was Herbie Hide in 1994. It was my first defence of the title and it was marketed as a homecoming fight in London. I’d first met Herbie at an awards ceremony the year before. I remember he was very respectful. Little did we know that a few months later we’d be having a dust-up on the rooftop of a London hotel. That scuffle at the press conference was all about egos. As fighters, you can’t press each other’s buttons and expect nothing to happen. At the time, I had no idea that Herbie’s little brother, Alan, had leukaemia. Had I known that, I would’ve suppressed my ego. I wouldn’t have smacked Herbie at the press conference. I established a friendship with Alan after I fought Herbie. We became pen pals. When I got a phone call one day and found out that Alan was gone, it hit me hard.

Even though I was coming off the win over Morrison, I was still in conflict with the sport because of how I’d been forced into it by my father all those years before. I knew my time as a heavyweight champion wasn’t going to last long. From the moment Herbie first hit me, I knew it wasn’t going to go well. I lost in the seventh round but it could’ve been stopped earlier than that. If I fought Herbie 10 times, he’d beat me 9.95 times. He was all wrong for me. His punching power was freakish and scary.   

I don’t remember collapsing in the locker room after the fight. I remember eating pasta at my hotel on the afternoon of the fight. Everything after that is vague. A few weeks before the fight, I’d walked into a right hand in sparring. I was concussed. The physician advised me not to go ahead with the fight, but at the time I thought, ‘I’m a fighter. I don’t pull out of fights.’ It was my decision. Now I know that that’s a bulls**t concept.

After I collapsed, I was rushed to hospital. I had a swollen brain. I was put into an induced coma for 96 hours. The first thing I saw when I came out of the coma was the neurosurgeon’s name tag – Dr John Sutcliffe. He was the same physician who, a year later, would work on Gerald McClellan after his fight with Nigel Benn. I was like, ‘What the f**k happened?’ I was released from hospital two or three days after I woke from the coma.

John Gichigi/ALLSPORT

Knowing that I’d never box again, my overriding feeling was one of relief. But I still had a huge hole to fill in my life, as boxing had defined me. What was I going to do now? A few months after coming out of hospital, I was still battling some dark demons – trying to find something to give me a sense of fulfilment. I decided to enrol in Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, where I was living at the time. I had a commentary gig on Top Rank Boxing on ESPN, but I wanted to get a broader understanding of TV production, which was something that interested me. I majored in Television and Radio Production. For my minor, I took an acting class, as I’d always wanted to act. Along with writing, these things saved my life.

I’d had an interest in writing ever since my school days, so it was natural for me to pick it up again. I wrote a piece called Anatomy of a Knockout, in which I described how it feels to be KO’d. It was published in Bert Sugar’s Fight Game magazine. One day I got a phone call from the movie director, Ron Shelton. He told me that he was a big boxing fan and he really liked my article. He arranged an audition for me for Michael Mann’s upcoming movie in 2001… Ali. Getting the role of Sonny Liston completely changed the trajectory of my life. After my injury, I obviously wasn’t supposed to be getting hit on the head any more. But when I was filming the fight scenes with Will Smith, I remember thinking to myself, ‘If I accidentally get hit by a shot and the worst happens, it’d be completely worth it. I’d die for this experience.’

To prepare for my role, Michael gave me a catalogue of information on Liston. I digested that thing and let it marinate in my mind. I found out that his father had brutalised him growing up and left him with scars on his back. I got Sonny Liston.

Since Ali, I’ve been so lucky to work with the likes of Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp and Sylvester Stallone. In total, I’ve featured in close to 40 movies and TV shows. I currently split my time between Atlanta and Los Angeles. I’m working on a few projects where I’m writing and producing. Nothing that I did in boxing comes close to the feeling that I get when I’m acting. Nothing gives me that same sense of fulfilment and validation.

Michael Bentt was speaking to Paul Wheeler

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