The Story Of Michael Bentt: Heavyweight’s Forgotten Champion
By Ian Aldous
Considering he had an episode of the Netflix documentary series ‘Losers’ entitled ‘The Miscast Champion’ dedicated to his story, it’s immensely ironic when studying everything that Michael Bentt achieved in the amateur and professional games.
The fifty-four year-old once sat at the top table of heavyweight boxing, when in October of 1993, he became the WBO World heavyweight champion. But, to get to that moment, a rocky rollercoaster ride preceded and followed his crowning moment.
It all started in the Swinging Sixties. Bentt was born to Jamaican parents in London and would leave Britain’s bustling capital at the tender age of five to cross the Atlantic Ocean and live in a city equally as frantic as London. Queens in New York City is where Bentt’s boxing career was first moulded. His story is not the typical ‘rags-to-riches’ that boxing so often produces. His family lived a comfortable lifestyle and would never go without, but money doesn’t always buy happiness.
“It was dysfunctional. The reason why I was such a good amateur, I think, was because I was running away from the dysfunction of my home.”
Boxing was an escape for a young man seeking to make something of his life. His father was very hard on Michael and forced his son’s path towards boxing. Fortunately, he would indeed make the very most of the road that was chosen for him and blossom into a sublimely skilful heavyweight.
“My biggest achievement, in a nutshell, was beating the great Russian, Alexander Yagubkin who was a five-time world champion back then and I was the first American to beat him in like seven or eight years of U.S. vs. Soviet competition,” he says proudly. “That was a big thrill for me, man. And my second biggest achievement was winning the Golden Gloves in New York four times, which up to that point, hadn’t been done by a heavyweight yet.”
Five national titles and a bronze at the 1986 World Championships were yet more accolades he would attain in the unpaid ranks. Bentt is regarded by some as the most decorated boxer in the history of American amateur boxing never to have competed on a United States Olympic boxing team.
“Jim Lampley said that on a HBO Boxing broadcast, I think, when I fought Tommy Morrison.”
The cherry on top would have been a spot on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. Bentt lost to an opponent who would himself win the Olympic heavyweight gold – no shame in that. The surprise chance of representing the country of his parents’ birth would arise. So, he packed his bags and travelled to Jamaica.
“I lost to Ray Mercer in the Olympic trials final and my father, in his infinite wisdom, had this plan of going to Jamaica and he felt I could beat those guys easily – and I did,” he explains. “So, we had a way to compete for a gold medal at the (Olympic) Games. We went to Jamaica and I beat a couple of their elite heavyweights. We get back to the States and my father is having a conversation with the president of the Jamaican amateur boxing team and my father had won some money back then, quite a substantial amount of money, by the way. A little birdie must have told the people in Jamaica. Word gets out that my dad won some money and the president, allegedly, says the only way I can go with the team to Seoul would be if my father paid for the whole team to travel (laughs). There’s a word for that and it begins with an ‘E’ (laughs).”
Bentt shunned the opportunity to go to the Olympics knowing that one day his father would use the fact that he paid for the team to go as leverage against his son. God forbid he didn’t win gold – his father would never let him live that down. His pride wouldn’t let him accept.
Fellow amateur teammate, Frankie Liles pointed Bentt in the direction of the legendary Emanuel Steward with whom he would reluctantly turn pro. His boxing journey had already lasted far longer than he ever anticipated. Steward believed wholeheartedly in his charge and would openly assure people of how he expected Bentt to one day beat Mike Tyson.
“Emanuel Steward was one of the first men to ever love me like I wanted to be loved. He was showing me the kind of love I wanted from my father.”
Disaster would strike in his debut when Jerry Jones stunningly knocked the amateur star out in the very first-round of his professional career. His pride was torn to shreds and a two-year hiatus from the sport ensued.
“I was afraid of being exposed on that level again,” he admits. “I was afraid of getting into a boxing ring and throwing a punch against someone whose job it was to knock you on your f*cking ass.”
At another point in our conversation, Bentt even refers to himself being a “coward” during this period in his life. He was close to breaking point. At his very lowest, he took a gun and put it in his mouth. Thankfully, his trigger finger was restrained and not only his sporting journey, but his life continued. Out of darkness – light would eventually prevail.
“At this time I’m working at a Long Island Jewish hospital in Queens, New York. I’m getting a paycheck and I’m cool with not being the ‘boxer guy’. Paul Fucaloro (his amateur sponsor) calls me and says: ‘Mickey (Duff) has interest in me as a sparring partner for the number five heavyweight contender in the world, Gary Mason. What do you think about that?’ No, f*ck that. I didn’t say that, but that was my feeling. I tap-danced around it. I was scared; I couldn’t say that though.”
“One day, I’m packing these boxes (at the hospital) and a little voice says to me: ‘You don’t belong here’. About a week later, I knock on my boss’ door and I said: ‘Thank you for the opportunity, but I have to go’. I was staying at my brother’s apartment and I called Paul and I said we should investigate the Mickey Duff proposal of being a sparring partner for Mason. My ass was tight as f*ck because I’m scared! But, you have to confront your fears.”
Bentt is remarkably open and honest with me and isn’t afraid to put himself down. It’s highly likely he suffered with anxiety at this time in his career, but admits today that he didn’t even know what anxiety was, or what it meant back then. Mental health was a taboo subject until recently.
He begins to find his feet again.
“I’m working with Evander (Holyfield) for his first or second heavyweight championship fight. Georgie (Benton) is training Evander for this fight and I had something to prove to the entire boxing establishment. Here I am, a five-time national champion and I was put on a pedestal and I got knocked out. I’m a bum? I’m a quitter? I’m a loser? I’m all those things. When I sparred Evander Holyfield, man – I gave that motherf*cker fits (laughs)!
At a later date, Benton bestowed upon Bentt the ultimate compliment, which Bentt delivers in Benton’s Philly tone: ‘God damn, babycakes. When you sparred with Evander, I couldn’t tell who the champion is!’
In 1993, Tommy Morrison was a star in America. The knockout-artist had amassed a 38-1 record with most of those wins coming by virtue of brutal stoppage. Morrison had outboxed one of the hardest hitters the heavyweight division has ever seen in George Foreman to claim the vacant WBO World heavyweight title.
Bentt arrived for his unforeseen world title shot on a ten-fight winning streak and was brought in as a mere tune-up title defence for Morrison’s touted $8m bout with WBC champion, Lennox Lewis. The ‘tune-up’ who would one day find himself in acting, ironically didn’t read this script.
“I looked into Tommy’s eyes as we touched gloves and I was on a different kind of f*cking fire,” he reveals. “I was ready to die that night, if that’s what I had to do.”
“During the fight, I got hit with a legitimate shot that, if it caught me less prepared, the fight is stopped. I get clipped with a left hook on my temple; I buckled and go into the ropes. That’s when something clicked and I remember vividly a voice says to me: ‘You cannot go back to Queens getting knocked out by this motherf*cker, bro’.”
I dispute how it wouldn’t exactly have been a disgrace to lose to Morrison; something to which Bentt disagrees vehemently with.
“If I had lost to Tommy Morrison, this conversation ain’t taking place, man. I’m probably an alcoholic on skid row.”
“I don’t win that fight without having the wonderful gift and experience of working with Georgie Benton who, in my estimation, is on the Mount Rushmore of boxing instructors. I don’t beat Tommy Morrison without the years I spent under Georgie Benton’s tutelage as an amateur. That’s not to take anything away from Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. He was the knife that was sharpening those tools for me in that moment. Georgie was the collection of knives that sharpened those tools for me prior to that moment.”
With his back to the ropes and under heavy fire, a crippling right-hand buckled the champion who never recovered. Three knockdowns and 93 seconds after the first bell – Michael Bentt was the new heavyweight champion. Overwhelmed with emotion and visibly in tears in the ring and on live television, life wouldn’t necessarily change for the better.
“Five minutes later, I’m sitting back in the dressing room and I’m depressed. Why? Because if I had got knocked out, like I got knocked out in my first pro fight – I’m a f*cking bum. I didn’t trust the applause, it’s superficial, it’s bullshit. You love me when I win, but not when I lose.”
The unexpected champion had arrived but he failed to fully invest and believe in himself.
“I never trusted or believed in the hype.”
Bentt brought the WBO belt back to his birthplace in 1994, when he faced off with Herbie Hide at a press conference that resulted in both men brawling outside a London hotel. Both pugilists were fined for their actions and the violent scenes were beamed across TV screens worldwide.
“Well, I’m glad I could entertain you guys over there in the UK (laughs)!
His first and only title defence would see the curtain fall for a final time. The criminally underrated Hide had power and speed that the champion just couldn’t cope with that night at Millwall’s football stadium. He was Bentt’s kryptonite.
“If I fight Herbie Hide ten times; he beats me 9.995 times,” Bentt said. “I didn’t have his number, stylistically. He had my number. He was very quick for a heavyweight and awkward as f*ck. He was like a Ken Norton meets Jimmy Young with Earnie Shavers type power!”
“Before the fight, I was concussed in a sparring session. I survived the round and was kind of wobbly. They take me to a doctor and this doctor’s prominent in amateur and professional boxing in the U.S. He examines me and tells me: ‘When you get to England, don’t fight; go through the motions. Don’t fight’. Those were his words specifically.”
“It would be an understatement to say that shit was scary.”
The champion loses his titles after being stopped in the seventh round on a chilly night under the south London stars. After the fight in his dressing room, Bentt collapses and spends 96 hours in an induced coma, but fortunately lived to tell the tale. The next person he would see is the brain surgeon whose name is etched in his mind to this day.
“I remember seeing this light, turns out it was a penlight and I see this metal label saying: ‘John Sutcliffe’. I processed recognising that I was still alive even though I wasn’t aware I was in an induced coma. When you come out of it, you know something just ain’t kosher.”
It was only once his fighting days had concluded that Bentt would find what he believes is his true calling in life. The world of television, cinema and theatre beckoned. A role playing Sonny Liston in ‘Ali’ was perfect for the former heavyweight champion as well as countless other roles. He’s recently been part of an upcoming documentary on Muhammad Ali by famed documentary-maker, Ken Burns and voiced a character in a soon to be released short film about a boxer’s tragic passing. Another project will see Bentt working on a Netflix documentary about his battle against a particular fighter with whom he crossed paths. He’s a content man and is enjoying his best life long after his fighting days ceased.
“I’m lucky. I don’t know how I got here, but I’m lucky I landed where I landed.”
There were many ups and downs, but Michael Bentt is in a wonderful place.