Interview with Former WBO Heavyweight Champion Michael Bentt: “I Could Have Died”
Part One of a Two Part Interview
By Sean Newman (November 23, 2005)
It has been nearly 12 years since that fateful day in England for former WBO heavyweight champion Michael Bentt. Fresh off his shocking first round knockout upset win over Tommy ‘The Duke’ Morrison, Bentt was making his first title defense against then-unbeaten Herbie Hide. Bentt could not have known it at the time, but it would be the last time he would enter a boxing ring in a competitive sense. What he also could not have known just a few hours later was that he was one of the lucky ones, and that many new doors were about to be opened to him.
Born in London, England to Jamaican parents as Michael Bent, he later added an extra ‘t’ to his last name. At the time of the Morrison fight, HBO suggested that he did this to distance himself from his father, but Bentt now says that the reason for the change came after visiting England and learning that his ancestors had used two t’s in their last name. Bentt would go on to become one of the most decorated (and you’ll understand the reason for the italic print shortly) amateur heavyweights in United States history. Upon turning pro, he was beaten decisively in his professional debut before going on an eleven fight win streak, capped by the win over Morrison.
Then, in the fight with Hide, Bentt, who had had difficulties in training camp, took a pounding before ultimately being knocked out in the seventh round. Hours later, Bentt would collapse and spend 96 hours in a coma. Miraculously, Bentt pulled through, and would later say of the ordeal: “I nearly paid the ultimate price for a moment that allowed me to realize my potential. If my getting dismantled to the point of near death in my last fight was the price I had to pay to for a victory over Tommy Morrison the night we fought in Tulsa, I’ll never question the price of success.”
Bentt would later become a writer for Bert Sugar’s now-defunct ‘Fight Game’ magazine, as well as for the HBO boxing website. Lately, however, acting has been his focus. Boxing fans will remember him from the movie Ali, where he played Sonny Liston. He has also performed on stage in the title role of William Shakespeare’s Othello, and has produced a film called Broken.
Here, nearly 12 years following his last fight, Bentt shares all of those experiences with us in this two-part interview.
SN: How is everything going, Michael?
MB: Things are going fantastic, Sean. I can’t complain, I really can’t. Getting knocked out almost 12 years ago was the best thing to happen to me. If not for that, I’d still be fighting probably and getting brain damage. I feel great.
SN: That’s great to hear, Mike. Let’s jump right into things by starting at the beginning. As we all learned in the pre-fight buildup to the Tommy Morrison bout, you were a very accomplished amateur fighter…
MB: (interrupting) Well, not to brag, but the word ‘accomplished’ is kind of selling me short there, baby. (laughs)
SN: (laughing) Okay then, a very ‘decorated’ amateur fighter.
MB: Ahhh, there we go, my man.
SN: What was your record as an amateur and what are some of the titles that you won?
MB: 175-8. I remained unbeaten for four years against Americans until I lost to Ray Mercer in the Olympic Trials in 1988. I won the New York Golden Gloves four times which is a record to this day, the Empire State Games, the Kid Gloves. I went 15-4 as a member of the U.S. National Boxing Team in 19 international fights. I won 5 U.S. National Championships, which is also a record.
SN: What are some of your most memorable amateur accomplishments?
MB: I think the crown jewel is probably winning the four New York Golden Gloves championships. Until that point, no heavyweight had won four. Some great heavyweights who were amateurs and went on to be great pros came out in the Golden Gloves. Carl Williams before me, Riddick Bowe, Rocky Marciano, and I was the first guy to win it four times. Second would probably be winning my third ABF championship in 1987, and that feat hasn’t been accomplished in like 102 years in the annals of amateur boxing history.
SN: What other fighters did you meet who later become good heavyweights?
MB: Alex Stewart, who I fought in the 1985 Golden Gloves Finals in front of like 19,000 people in the Garden in New York. Of course Ray Mercer. I fought Felix Savon twice, lost to him twice. The first time we fought in Indianapolis, I lost to him on a 4-1 decision, and the second time we fought a week later in the North American Championship in Toronto, he beat me on a 3-2. He’s a bad boy, man. I don’t think in the annals of amateur boxing there has been a heavyweight that was put together as perfectly as Savon. He was like Teofilo Stevenson.
SN: You turned pro in early February 1989 against Jerry Jones, who would later go on to defeat Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams.
MB: You know what, man? I got 60 grand to turn pro with Emanuel Steward. Coming out of the Olympics, there were like three high profile guys who were heavyweights. Of course Ray Mercer and Riddick Bowe, because they were gold and silver medalists. I take that back. I was the number two guy because Bowe was deemed lazy and lethargic at that time. So he wasn’t being as hotly pursued as I was being pursued. Rock Newman interviewed me extensively after Butch Lewis. Ultimately, Emanuel Steward gave me the best deal. So I moved to Detroit. The bottom line is, if you give a guy 60 grand who had the kind of amateur background I had, do your homework. Sure, I took a shot, but 60 grand is 60 grand and you want to protect your investment, and at that point Emanuel probably had his hands full and was spreading himself too thin. I mean, he still had Tommy Hearns, a bunch of amateur guys who had turned pro with him, Frank Liles, Gerald McClellan.
And this guy in D.C., Jerry Jones knocked me the hell out. I had no idea he was a southpaw. Actually, he switched. He was orthodox initially, and he switched. I was going for a left hook to the body, and he threw a lead left and I never saw it. It was a clean shot, and it blacked me out. I lost all control and went down. I got up, took an eight count, had my hands up but I was out of it. It should have been stopped, because I could have been hurt. I remember sitting on my stool thinking “holy shit, this is a fucking nightmare.” Pro debut on national television.
Jones was a guy who learned to fight being locked up in prison, and ironically, Jerry and I became very good friends. We were both employed by Evander Holyfield in 1991 and 1992, and we became great friends.
SN: After that fight, you didn’t fight again for 22 months. Why such a long layoff?
MB: I was depressed. Depressed and humiliated, and I was scared about facing the unknown. I had turned pro with Emanuel Steward, the best guy in the business, and I’m thinking he is going to guide me safely and accordingly, he’s going to look after his investment. I was a bit naïve as well, because I honestly thought I would fight like 21 guys who Emanuel would put me in with knowing I could beat them, and then, a shot against a Mike Tyson. That’s how I was thinking, that’s how I thought it worked. But it didn’t work like that. (Laughs) It was quite the opposite. That essentially changed the course of my life. If not for that Jerry Jones knockout loss, which was humiliating and where I was despondent, I was depressed, I was so depressed that I put a gun in my mouth four or five months after the fight, if not for that fight, the Morrison fight would not have been so sweet. I wouldn’t have shed those tears, because after the fight with Morrison I cried like a baby. I thought “okay, now I’ve got redemption.”
SN: You ran off 10 consecutive wins after that fight with Jerry Jones, and you had an ESPN televised fight against Mark Wills, which you won, and then you get the shot against Morrison in Tulsa, Oklahoma, basically his hometown. First, how was that fight brought up to you, and how did you react when you heard of it?
MB: (laughs) Well, interestingly enough, Michael Katz was very instrumental in putting that fight together. Katz was one of the top boxing journalists at the time, and in my estimation, still is. I guess he was on the phone with Seth Abraham one day, and they were discussing an opening prior to Morrison’s fight with Lennox Lewis. Katz suggested Michael Bentt, you know, like ‘he is known in boxing, he’s a good guy, and at the very least, he’ll get some dough out of the 18 years he’s fought.’ Bill Cayton said no. I guess word got back to Morrison, and he okayed it.
Hey Sean, not to be arrogant or egotistical, but as an amateur, all these cats like Morrison, Mercer, they looked up to me. So, as a pro, I think that Tommy still felt that he had something to prove. He didn’t have to take the fight. Bill Cayton was offered the fight by Seth Abraham and HBO, and he said no. But Tommy insisted. I guess he had something to prove. And Stan Hoffman, who was my manager at the time, said ‘Mike, we’re fighting Morrison.’ And I was like ‘Okay, when? Just line it up.’
SN: As for the fight itself, Morrison seemed to land a left hook to the back of your neck…
MB: (interrupting) No, no, no, it landed on my right temple, and I was out.
SN: So you were stunned?
MB: No, I was out. I was out. But once again, the biggest factor in me winning that fight was me being prepared because I was knocked out. I learned a very, very important lesson. Because whenever you fight someone, Sean, and you don’t respect them, or you disregard the fact that they have two hands and the guy weighs 229 pounds, and the guy has experience…I fought for 18 years…so, if I throw a right hand, and I can throw a right hand blindfolded, if it hits you right, it can hurt you. Because there is technique involved, there’s leverage, there’s distance, and timing. Morrison discounted all of that because of his ego. Once again, the most important factor to me was losing to Jerry Jones, because any man that has two hands can hurt me. So, in the back of my mind, I had three things planned. If and when Tommy hurt me, and I figured he would eventually hurt me, and I planned for it, but the first thing I would do if I got hurt is grab him. He was too strong for that shit. The second thing I would do is move around the ring, but the ring was a freakin’ phone booth. So where am I going to move? Two steps and I’m against the ropes. The third option I employed, even in training camp, was parrying, keeping my hands up, and blocking Tommy’s shots. And eventually, an opening would present itself.
Of course, during a fight, it’s automatic, because you work on it during training camp. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, my trainer, had a mantra, and excuse my French, the mantra was: Make this motherfucker throw punches! And eventually, he’s going to give you something, and Tommy, I watched this guy’s fights religiously…every time he got someone in trouble, be it Joe Hipp, be it the Russian (Yuri Vaulin), or Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams, he would stop and hold his breath momentarily. By doing that, he became stiff. Do you follow me? It’s like a bamboo tree blowing in the wind. If the tree tries to fight against the wind, it will snap in half. But, if the tree goes with the wind, it can absorb the force of the wind…within reason. Does that make sense to you?
SN: Absolutely, and I’ve never looked at that fight that way.
MB: I did. (Laughs) Let me tell you something. For two months I ate, slept and drank Morrison. Essentially, I had a hard-on for him, you know what I’m saying? I resented the fact, and as a fighter you use everything to motivate you, and I resented the fact that Tommy was like our modern rendition of ‘The Great White Hope’. And I resented that shit. Why play to that shit, you know what I mean? If you’re going to play to that, I’m going to use it. That was giving me ammunition. And no way in the world was he going to beat me. I was willing to die that night. And, we should all be careful what we wish for, because in the next fight I almost died.
SN: Was the counter right you hit Morrison with something you had worked on in training or was it just something instinctual?
MB: It was instinctual, but once again, as an amateur I was known as having a complete arsenal. A guy can become a great pro if he has guidance and someone watching his back as a pro. If you’re a great amateur, you can be a great pro. There’s no difference. It’s just a matter of settling down, pacing yourself and having the proper people to pull the right strings for you. It’s not like Tommy Morrison was the perfect guy for me, but that night, nobody was beating me. If Mike Tyson was in the ring with me that night, October 29, 1993, and I fought the Tyson who just fought Michael Spinks, he’s not beating me, because I would have found a way to win. It’s like a starving lion. I honored my craft. I was scared, because I didn’t want to lose. I didn’t want to just be known as the guy who won five national championships and lost to Ray Mercer in the Trials. I didn’t want to be an asterisk, a sidebar. That fight essentially changed my life. I knew that on paper, they were discounting me, meaning the HBO bigwigs, the boardroom guys, they were overlooking me, as was Tommy and Tommy’s camp. But it served me well. I have to underscore again, that fighting and losing to Jerry Jones was preparation for Morrison, because no way in the world would I have been as aware as I was that night if I didn’t know what it was like to lose. I knew what it was to go into a ring the favorite, and not respect the power and not respect the two hands of my opponent.
SN: What was the aftermath of that fight like for you, having just won the WBO world heavyweight championship?
MB: You know what? About ten minutes after the whole fight, I wouldn’t call the aftermath a celebration, it was more a realization of potential. I wasn’t celebrating anything. For me, it was like okay, I realized my potential, for this moment, I’m joining my peers. No one can take this from me. No one. Larry Merchant basically said that amateur boxing has no realm, like being discussed on HBO. If that’s a fact, why do Shelly Finkel and Bob Arum and Don King send their talent scouts to amateur fights? They’re looking for potential gold mines. A good amateur boxer is, potentially, a future star.
Back to the question, about ten minutes after the fight, I’m sitting there in the corner, by myself, and the press is coming in and interviewing Stan and everyone, and I’m just taking it all in. To say it was anticlimactic is a gross understatement. I was depressed, because I was like ‘Now what?’ If this was what it was like to win the heavyweight championship, or even a portion of it, damn. That’s it? But, maybe, I’m sensitive enough to know that, as a fighter, you’re never really fighting for yourself. Like Roy Jones, he was never really fighting for himself. My dad and I had, have a tumultuous relationship, and he saw me fighting, so I guess indirectly me winning that championship was like me saying to him, and to myself, ‘See, I am good enough.’ But now what?
SN: Was there ever any talk of a rematch with Morrison, following that fight? Because Morrison went on to say in pre-fight pieces after that fight that he looked at tapes of you and thought ‘this is a guy who couldn’t beat me with a ball bat.’ Did you ever hear that?
MB: No…(laughs)…Goddamn. (laughs)
MB: It’s all good. It’s water under the bridge now. But, to get beat that decisively…you know, like Jerry Jones, on paper, wasn’t in my same orbit. Jerry Jones didn’t have the distinguished amateur career that Michael Bentt had, but Jerry Jones knocked Michael Bentt out in one round. And Jones, prior to him fighting me, did you ever hear of him?
SN: No, I hadn’t.
MB: No, exactly. So, I think that Tommy’s problem was that he was in denial, and that is probably the toughest thing for a fighter to admit, that a guy has his number. Now in truth, if we fought again, would I have knocked him out in the first round…who knows? But, I know that the cat who fought Morrison on October 29, wasn’t losing to him. Tommy wasn’t going to outbox me, because I could take his shot. That left hook to the temple…whooo…was a brick. My resolve though, my mojo, if you will, said, “no, fuck that.” There were no talks of a rematch to me. Maybe my manager entertained some talks, but my thing was capitalizing and building momentum, and then have a homecoming fight against Herbie Hide. If I was managing a guy in who was in my position, I would go the route that my manager Stan Hoffman initiated, fighting guys overseas. I wouldn’t have fought Herbie Hide at that point, though. Fights are won and lost in training camp.
In my training camp, like three weeks before the fight, I got, essentially knocked out, by a guy named King Ipitan. I was sparring with him for like a week and I was hammering the guy, and he threw a right hand and it blacked me out. I get rushed to the hospital. Well, first of all, I got out of the ring, after finishing the round, and I hit the speed bag and I collapse. I go to Doctor Robert Boyd’s office and got admitted to the hospital for like a week. And Dr. Boyd says, you know, you’re not going to fight. So, I assured him I wouldn’t fight. So we had to devise a plan because we didn’t want to just blow it off like that. We said, look, we’ll travel to England, and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad was going to arrive late to the training camp in London. We were going to go through the paces in England, and I started feeling good. Eddie comes and says, ‘Michael, you can’t fight.’ I said, ‘you know what, Eddie? I’m fighting.’ I’m a fighter, you know? Let’s go. Now I’m not saying Herbie Hide wouldn’t give me problems on my best night. I’m not that arrogant. Riddick Bowe said that the hardest puncher he ever faced was Herbie Hide. The boy can crack, man. He nearly killed me.
SN: Well, it looked like Herbie Hide had Bowe’s number for the first two rounds, but then he almost had an anxiety attack.
MB: No, he had a right hand attack. (Laughs) Riddick Bowe just put that right hand on him, you know what I mean? It seemed like the fact that Herbie’s punches weren’t doing the damage that they did to me or his previous opponents kind of, maybe, unnerved him, coupled with the other right hands that Riddick was bouncing off his head. I’m not saying that if I had fought Herbie at 100%, he wouldn’t have beaten me. I’m saying, I would not have nearly gotten killed. In retrospect, that’s the one thing that I’m really ambivalent about with boxing. Boxers, like Tommy Morrison, he’s a soldier, a warrior. And I love him for that. The fact that he can’t admit defeat, I respect that. But who is going to save the Tommy Morrisons and Michael Bentts from themselves? I shouldn’t have fought against Herbie Hide. You know, King Ipitan is still fighting. When I came out here five years ago, he auditioned for the role of George Foreman in the movie Ali, and the guy was walking on his heels then. About a year and a half ago I’m at a fight, just some rinky-dink fight, some little Hollywood smoker, and the guy comes in walking on his heels and gets knocked out by some creampuff. So who’s going to save the King Ipitans, the Michael Bentts, the Tommy Morrisons, from themselves, man? That night, the guys who were responsible for my welfare, had my blood on their hands. I could have died, man. I could have died.