“Evander Holyfield once said, ‘You make your reputation in the amateurs. Period.’ There I was, this A-list elite amateur boxer, everybody looking at me with all these expectations in my professional debut against Jerry Jones and then I hit the canvas in the first round. Knocked out. I was terrified of being judged. I came off the mountain top and went into a shell. I’m not comparing myself to George Foreman, but Jerry Jones was my Zaire. Yes, I had suicidal thoughts and it was terrifying. It was almost like the price I’d paid for going after what I wanted. Did I put a gun in my mouth and try to pull the trigger? Yes. What stopped me? Fear. The fear of living and the fear of not living. It was like a perfect contradiction.”
Michael Bentt went on to have a professional career of 11-2, scaling the heights of heavyweight boxing. However, America’s most accomplished amateur boxer to never make the Olympic team had a rather tumultuous and tortured journey. Born in London, UK to Jamaican parents, Bentt moved to the US when he was six years old. “The place we stayed at initially was an apartment in Paterson, New Jersey, then at some point my mom and dad got some money together and bought a property in Queens.”
For many, entering the sport of boxing is a passion or necessity due to their deprived surroundings. For Bentt it was neither. “Oh boy! Okay. How I got into boxing? Here we go. My father was a massive fan and he always wanted his sons to box. Me? I never liked the sport, but the only way he would extend his love to me is if I did what he said, so that’s how I got into boxing. For a young kid, that was a mind trip. I thought, if I boxed, my dad would love me.
“When I was nine I went to a gym, not too far from Sunnyside, Queens. It was 110th precinct, which overlooked Shea Stadium. I went to train, but didn’t like boxing, didn’t like getting hit and I had serious anxiety and fear that I had to confront every time I went.
“I basically went for about a year or so to please the old man and then one day I cut school. I was in fifth grade at the time and I came home and said, ‘Dad. I’ve got something I want to tell you. I don’t want to box anymore.’ I was under the impression that my father would respond rationally, but forgot that he’s Jamaican, so all rationality goes out of the window.
“My dad exploded. He had a real temper. If you followed his rules he acted like he loved you; but if you didn’t, he beat your ass. He was upset that I wasn’t going to live this dream out for him, so he gave me a bad beating, which always stuck with me.”
Bentt’s return to boxing five years later came as a result of an influence from his first stint. “I met my first boxing mentor when I was about nine years old. His name was George Pimentel. George was a Dominican fighter who was seventeen years old at the time and he would take me running with him, [take me] training, and [he] basically acted as a big inspiration. Although I didn’t love the sport, I loved George.
“By the age of fifteen, I’d stopped boxing for about five years and one day I cut school and went home. My brother had a paper around at the time and I remember reading the headline about a plane crash in Poland. I thought, that’s terrible, but it’s not my business. I had no affinity to it. Then I decided to flick through and I saw a picture of George. He had made the USA boxing team and had perished in that crash. That was crushing for me to read. That’s when I decided to dedicate myself to boxing, to honor my friend.” [The crash happened on March 14 1980, Warsaw, Poland. Eighty-seven people died on board, including fourteen top amateur boxers and eight trainers. Among them was Paul Palomino, Carlos’s brother. It was Poland’s worst air disaster since World War II].
Despite his apathy for boxing, with hard work and gritty determination, Bentt went on to become one of America’s most decorated amateur boxers of all time. He reflected on early honors: “The first title I won was in 1980 at the junior Olympics in New York. My first major title as an amateur was the Empire State Games in 1982 [Bentt won as a heavyweight and retained that title for the next two years running]. That was like a smaller version of the Olympics, held in Syracuse.
“Winning my first title? I was always conflicted with the sport. I came back into it for George, but in the back of my head all I kept thinking about was my dad and he’d only love me if I got hit in public. Just because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean to say you can’t find value in it, so when I started to win all these titles, I felt gratified. I had some worth. I won my first national championship in 1985 and that’s when I really felt I belonged in the sport.”
Bentt’s trail of success was unsurpassed. In addition to winning four New York Golden Gloves titles and also becoming a five-time US amateur boxing champion, he just missed qualifying for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, after a close points loss to Ray Mercer, the eventual heavyweight gold medalist.
Shortly after, the opportunity to represent Jamaica at the games presented itself. “The reason why I thought about fighting for the Jamaican team was because my father flew me over to Jamaica after I lost to Ray Mercer in the trials back in New York, with the intention of fighting for the team. He had connections over there. I thought, ‘OK. Let’s do it.’
“I mean this respectfully, but the level of talent in Jamaica was different. I was mentored by the likes of Mike McCallum. They were passionate, but they didn’t have the schooling we had in the US. I stopped their number-one and -two guys and was then waiting back in Queens to get word from the Jamaican national team.
“My father got a phone call from the bigwigs of the Jamaican national team and they said, ‘Your son is clearly a talented boxer,’ but in order for him to join the team in Seoul, he has to pay for the entire team’s voyage. My father had won the lottery and they thought he could pay for the whole team. My father rang me and told me about this call. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I’ll pass. That’s OK.’ Do you know why I said that? Because I didn’t want my father throwing it back in my face saying, ‘Do you see what I did for you?’”
Minus an Olympic medal in his collection of accolades, Bentt outlined his highlights in the amateurs. “There were two moments. When I won my fourth Golden Glove championship, but something that is better than that, is when I beat the great [three-time amateur world champion] Russian, Alexander Yagubkin. Up until that point, he hadn’t lost to an American for about five years and he’d also beaten me before in 1985 in Seoul in the world championships. Then in 1986 I beat him at the world championships in Reno, Nevada.
“There are few occasions where I could honestly say [that], as a fighter on the big stage, I was in the zone. In the gym, many times; but in big competition, very few. When I fought Yagubkin that night it was one of those times. He’d beaten me 4-1 when we fought in Seoul and, man, did I want to beat him so bad.
“I beat him 3-2, but that night I peaked emotionally in the quarterfinals. I still had two more fights to win the championships and lost my next fight to this lanky, tall, awkward, scary looking Dutchman called Arnold Vanderlyde. This guy had been in with all the best fighters and that night he boxed my freakin’ ears off. Nobody told me about peaking and the psychology of it during a competition. It’s a very important part of any boxer’s strategy if you’re are looking to be successful long term as an amateur. I peaked and then plummeted.”
After 170 amateur fights, with only ten defeats, Bentt decided to make the leap to the professional ranks, with a gentle push from a good friend and fellow US boxing team member. “Frankie Liles and I were coming back on the plane together after the Olympic team box-offs and Frankie had just lost to Roy Jones Jr. and I’d just lost to Ray Mercer and we were both depressed. Frankie asked me, ‘Any plans about turning pro?’ and I said, ‘No, no.’ He then said, ‘If you do, go with Emanuel Steward. He’d love to speak with you.’
“I didn’t want to turn pro. I wanted to go off to college and get a degree. But because I didn’t make the Olympic team, my father harbored a lot of resentment. He lived vicariously through me and I knew that if I didn’t get out of this guy’s orbit, something very violent was going to happen. I started talking with different people about turning pro, because doing that would help me achieve my objective, which was to get the hell out of his house and get as far away from him as I possibly could. I met with a number of people including Butch Lewis, Rock Newman, Stan Hoffman, and then Emanuel Steward.
“Manny and I clicked straight away. He came to my house in Queens and offered me a contract and I thought, ‘Great. I’m outta here.’”
Bentt made his pro debut on February 7, 1989 against Jerry Jones at the Trump Castle, Atlantic City. “Here I was, an elite amateur boxer and I got knocked out in the first round. I don’t have any damn excuse. I was on the attack and I got caught by a shot that I never saw. Was that luck on Jerry’s behalf? No such thing as luck in boxing. When a boxer practices for years and years and years to land and throw punches and then he does that—that’s not luck. At that point in my life, that was the hardest I’d ever been hit by a boxer and hurt. It was beyond surreal. I knew I was hurt, but I also knew there was no way to climb out of this.”
Feeling depressed and suicidal, Bentt decided to take a self-enforced break from the sport. “I was dating a woman at the time and she arranged for me to get a job as a stocker in a hospital—basically stocking materials in different rooms. I dug the camaraderie, but a voice was always whispering to me, ‘You don’t belong here, bro.’”
On December 12, 1990, Bentt returned to the ring against James Holley at the Royal Albert Hall in London, knocking his opponent out in the first round. “I’ll be completely candid with you. The shot I hit James Holley with wasn’t a shot. I barely grazed the cat!”
While in his country of birth, Bentt, which was spelled ‘Bent’ at the time, explained where the extra ‘t’ came from. “I was in England fighting James Holley under the watchful eyes of the great Mickey Duff. What a character he was! After I lost my first fight to Jerry Jones, I took twenty-two months off and I was terrified of being exposed. A friend of mine, Paul, who was a boxing guy and one of my sponsors as an amateur boxer, got a phone call from Gary Mason’s camp asking if I’d be a sparring partner for him. I refused for weeks and then I finally said, ‘I’ll do it.’ That’s when I finally met Mickey Duff and he became my manager for the James Holley fight. When I was in the UK, that’s when I adopted the extra ‘t’. I found out that some of my family members in the UK had the two t’s and that was that.”
Clocking up a further nine wins on the bounce, Bentt was now challenging Tommy Morrison for his WBO world heavyweight title on October 29, 1993 at the Civic Center in Tulsa. Morrison boasted a record of 38-1 at the time, with most of his wins coming by stoppage. “I knew that my talent surpassed Tommy’s. I had to think like that. My trainer at the time, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, also believed I had every right to challenge Tommy.
“Tommy had performed brilliantly against George Foreman. He outboxed, outpaced, and outsmarted him. Tommy also came back from that slaughter at the hands of Ray Mercer [the Rocky V star’s only loss in thirty-nine fights at the time] and that’s not easy to do, because that takes time to come back from something like that. I lost a very close decision to Ray, who then went on to win the Olympic gold medal in 1988, so I saw that as a strength.
“Post getting knocked out by Jerry Jones, I had something to prove. I was employed as a sparring partner for Evander Holyfield for his fight with Buster Douglas. When I was sparring Evander, I wasn’t letting up. Typically, the job of the sparring partner is to make the champion look good. However, I was in competition with Evander when we sparred. I had a lot to prove to myself. On one of my days off, I came back into the hotel and there was George Benton sitting at a bar in the lobby and he waves me over to him. He said, ‘Goddamn, babycakes. When you fuck around and spar with Evander, I can’t tell who the champion is.’ I especially remembered that when I was going into the fight against Morrison and it played in my mind on a loop like a tape recorder.
“Come fight night, I wanted to validate myself in front of my peers. That was a great motivation for me. Here I was in Tulsa, in Tommy’s hometown, and I got hurt in the opening seconds of the fight. After I got hit with that shot to my right temple and I went against the ropes, a voice said to me, ‘You cannot go back to Queens a loser. Stop fucking around and lean into this cat.’ All the work I’d done with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Bert Cooper, George Benton over the years and all the work I’d done studying Tommy Morrison fanatically for three months, watching tapes of him and how he responded to being hurt or how he hurt somebody, now came into play.
“At the very moment of being hurt, all that rushed back to me vividly and went through my right hand. That punch knocked him down. He then got back up and looked at the camera. His eyes were glazed. I felt sorry for him. You know why? Because I’ve been there and know how it feels. When I got knocked out against Jerry Jones, although that didn’t match the importance of Tommy’s knockout, it matched that complete experience of unadulterated exposure.
“Being heavyweight champion of the world? I’ll tell you what was ping-ponging inside my head at that point of being crowned. ‘You’ve got to do it all again.’ That was not a comforting thought. In the press conference and weeks after I had to put that face on and make out [that] I was near-invincible. I remember saying to the press, I’m ready for Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. Was I? Come on. Of course I wasn’t. I can admit that now.”
Five months later on March 19, 1994, Bentt traveled to London, UK to defend his WBO strap against Herbie Hide. “About eight weeks prior to the fight, in training camp I walked into a punch. That’s the best way I can describe it. I was hurt and concussed. I was sent to a doctor and he basically said, ‘When you go to England, go through the motions, but don’t fight. Call it off at the last minute.’
“Am I saying the punch in sparring affected the result with Herbie Hide? The truth is, Herbie Hide dismantled me, whether I had a concussion or not, or even if I was one hundred percent. In 2016 I was at a boxing reunion and I was with Riddick [Bowe, who stopped Hide in six rounds a year later to become WBO world champion] and we were sipping on champagne and I brought up Herbie Hide. Riddick starts laughing and I said, ‘What you laughing at? That guy killed me bro.’ In between chuckles he says, ‘Mike. That guy is the hardest fighter I’ve ever been hit by.’ I said, ‘Good. You too!’ Hide had scary power and I don’t know where it came from.” Bentt was knocked out in the seventh session by the heavyweight from Norwich, England.
Unfortunately, the fight was not over for Bentt. “Soon after returning to the changing room, I collapsed and went into a ninety-six-hour coma. Years later I considered fighting again and the New York State Athletic Commission said under no circumstances should I fight again, because I was pre-exposed to concussion. That’s scary. I guess that last fight was a close call.
“Even though I was conflicted in terms of wanting to box and the doctors telling me I couldn’t, I still wanted to keep fighting. That’s all I thought I knew. However, once I had the opportunity to meet with different people from different walks of life, particularly in the arts, I thought, ‘Time to close this chapter and open another one.’ That’s what saved me.”
Bentt embraced the opportunities with gusto. Shortly after hanging up the gloves, he was cast alongside Will Smith in the biopic Ali, playing none other than the fearsome Sonny Liston. He also acted as an advisor in the film Million Dollar Baby, starring Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank (the film would win four academy awards in 2005). “They were sweethearts. Clint Eastwood is a big boxing fan, not to mention an epic, iconic star. Will [Smith] was also a massive fan and star, who was from Philadelphia. When I was on set with either Will or Clint, I felt like I belonged right there with them, in the same way I belonged with Tommy Morrison, Ray Mercer or Evander Holyfield. I didn’t feel out of place.”
Bentt went on to reflect on his time in boxing. “If I hadn’t discovered what I’m doing these days as an actor and director, there’s no way I could have appreciated what I did in my previous life. But at the time there’s no way I had that level of appreciation in boxing, because I had no idea that people had appreciated what I’d been through and what I’d overcame. It takes time for that level of detail to surface.
“However, nowadays, I’ve got this incurable disease which may not be fatal, but it’s certainly real and puts you on a tightrope every now and then. It’s called ambition! I’m wildly ambitious. I use my experiences in boxing to help others in their lives and that’s a great high.”