Part II: Interview with Former WBO Heavyweight Champion Michael Bentt: “I Could Have Died”
Part Two of a Two Part Interview
By Sean Newman (November 24, 2005)
In part one of this two part interview, Michael Bentt discussed his rise through the amateur and professional heavyweight ranks, including his two WBO heavyweight title fights against Tommy Morrison and Herbie Hide. Here, our discussion continues as Michael talks more about his fight with Hide, the injury he sustained, whether fighters should be retired against their will, his writing and acting, and the current state of the heavyweight division.
SN: Do you remember anything about that fight itself with Hide?
MB: The last thing I remember from the whole experience is eating pasta with my brother and a couple of guys from my group in the hotel lobby. The next thing I recall is seeing a light, like a headlight. I realized that it was Dr. John Sutcliffe, who was my neurosurgeon, and it was his penlight flashing over my eyes. So, there was a period of like 98 hours that is just a blank. I have probably watched the fight twice in ten years. The first time was just prior to coming out here to L.A. It helped me get in touch with a real sensitive place. I was playing Sonny Liston in the Ali film, and you can’t really play Liston without going through some kind of emotional pain, or that’s the way I thought. So I popped the tape in, and I felt liberated, oddly enough. Because, I took a fucking shellacking. I don’t know how I survived. The last series of shots that Herbie hits me with, he hits me with two right hands. The first right hand made my right leg come out from under me.
SN: Yes, I recall you went down with your body at what seemed almost a ninety degree angle.
MB: Exactly. The second right hand renders my left leg useless, and I flopped down face first. If you look at the tape, when I fall, my face hits the canvas. I bounced up like an inch or two off the canvas twice. I felt liberated watching that, because that was a nightmare that nearly cost me my life, but I survived.
SN: What injuries did you suffer?
MB: The medical terminology was a subdural hematoma. The British refer to it as ‘bleeding on the brain’. I had minimal bleeding, but my brain was concussed. I had massive swelling. Prior to them going in and doing brain surgery, the swelling went down. I had the same doctor that Gerald McClellan would have later. I had some complications on the plane ride home, and they thought it might be related to some blood deficiency. They though maybe I was anemic. The bottom line is, I was anemic to Herbie Hide’s punches. Herbie Hide may have beaten me, but if you rewind to three weeks prior to that fight, there was no way I should have fought that fight. In retrospect, it changed my life, because had I won that fight I’d probably still be fighting. I had a relatively young career at that point.
SN: I completely understand that, and I have a question for you on that topic, Michael. Take the case of Evander Holyfield, where the New York State Athletic Commission banned him from fighting. Do you think that was a fair decision?
MB: Absolutely. Absolutely, sure. If I’m a pilot, for Southwest Airlines, and my reflexes and my coordination is impaired, I’m going to be asked to step down, no? So, why the hell shouldn’t a commission that governs the sport have the same kind of power? Of course, Holyfield is going to be in denial. His job, as a fighter, is to deny pain. Shit, that’s his job. Who is going to safeguard his future brain cells? He’s not going to. The people who are now training him aren’t going to. They want that fast buck, because he’s still a draw. Unfortunately, this guy is going to end up like friggin’ Martin Rivera. It’s a goddamn shame. It’s tragic.
SN: It really is, Michael, but you have people on the other side of the fence saying that you can’t tell a fighter when to stop, that the fighter is the only one who can make that decision.
MB: That’s bullshit. By design, if I’m fighting Holyfield, my job is to render that man unconscious. At the end of the day, sure people say ‘he’s entitled to make a living’. Look, boxing is not a living, it’s life and death. Holyfield knows the score, but we pay people to make responsible decisions. Just like the Commissioner in New York, Stevens, he made a great decision. He cut him off.
SN: Switching gears, you’ve done some writing and some acting since your last fight. First let’s get to the writing. How did you get involved in writing and what was the experience like?
MB: Actually it was fulfilling, because as a fighter we fight we want to be seen and heard. Boxing gave me a platform, and when boxing was no longer a part of my life, I had to find a new platform, because I have something to say. I was doing boxing commentary overseas. Stan Hoffman had several Dutch fighters, and I would train some of the guys and also do English translation over in Holland. Eventually, I went back to school and enrolled in a journalism class. I wrote for the school newspaper, and that got the ball rolling. Michael Katz ran a few pieces that I had published in my school newspaper in the Daily News: a piece on Mark Breland, one on the Holyfield-Tyson upset. I left school after about a year and a half or two years because I ran out of money, and went back to New York. Then I met Bert Sugar at a press conference one night, and he said he’d like me to write some stuff for his new magazine called Fight Game. The first thing I wrote was a profile on Michael Grant, and then I wrote a piece that actually changed my life called ‘Anatomy of Knockout’, which detailed the whole Morrison experience, the Herbie Hide experience, the first time I got knocked out as an amateur against this guy named Ronald Turner. He weighed like 225 and I weighed 184, and he knocked me the fuck out in the second round. Only time I ever got knocked out as an amateur. It’s just going to that dark place and it wasn’t fun, but Bert said “Mike, this is a piece that only you can write.” And I bared my soul in that piece. Ron Shelton, who was a director and a huge fight fan, read that piece and called and said “If you can act at all, come out to L.A. and read for this movie as Sonny Liston.”
SN: Recall what the experience of making the Ali movie was like.
MB: It was surreal. Here I was, I have an expertise which is why I was hired. Michael Mann wanted to hire all boxers to make the experience for Will as visceral and authentic as possible. Will Smith learned how to fight for real, so you had to be careful with him. My motto was “if you make a mistake as Ali, I’m going to make you pay as Liston.” It was as simple as that. It was like going to an acting school for me, being around guys like Michael Mann, Jon Voight, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Jeffrey Wright. Shit, I’m just an aspiring actor. Oddly enough, the boxer’s approach and the actor’s approach is so similar. In boxing we have to arm ourselves with this armor of invincibility and fearlessness, and the actor has to be bold enough to drop the curtain and let people in. They are both in a place in their lives that is challenging and scary, and it’s like, sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it because it’s so fucking hard. Same way with boxing. Nothing over the past decade has given me more gratification than nailing a character, though. Sometimes I fall on my face, and that’s cool, because I’m learning.
SN: Most boxing fans are aware that you were in Ali, and you also had an appearance in Million Dollar Baby, but I’d like you to tell us about your stage work, most notably as Othello.
MB: They say that an actor, particularly an African American actor, you have to scale the mountain of the Moor. Honestly, I don’t feel like I really, really nailed it in one series of performances, but I think the closest I got to nailing it was in my third performance. There’s years and years involved in getting that character. I think that and Hamlet were probably Shakespeare’s most challenging roles. Othello is so majestic and reigns so supreme and falls from such a high perch, which makes it all the more tragic. Othello is Mike Tyson, Othello is Sonny Liston. For me, the challenge was just to identify with the words. I used the words to remind of things, like having an argument with my father, or when Mickey Duff tried to embarrass me in front of a crowd of people. You have to pull from your experiences and personalize it. The experience of playing Othello was overwhelming at times, but very gratifying ultimately. Ron Shelton paid me a great compliment. He said, “You know, Mike, you’re the only person to win the heavyweight championship AND play Othello.” I was like, damn. (Laughs) I’ll take it. There’s more work to do though. I’d love to do it again.
SN: How far do you hope or expect your acting to take you?
MB: (Laughs) Well, Hollywood is the beacon of the film world. If I was living in the West End or Birmingham, England, or Ortego Bay, Jamaica I’d be acting. I’m not acting to be a star, I just want to be proficient at it and have the respect of my peers. As a fighter, that’s all I really wanted to have, to have guys like Roy Jones say ‘that was a great fight’. As an actor, you’d like to have Denzel Washington or Ben Kingsley say ‘Hey Mike, you nailed that performance’. Of course I want to feed my family, and there’s that aspect as well. This thing is a discipline and when Michael Mann or Ron Shelton says ‘action’, they’re not paying you because you are an ex-boxer. You have to know your shit. I’m in it for the long run. It may not come for 5, or 10, or 15 years, but I’m going to keep growing and keep digging and keep challenging myself as an actor, and keep trying to feed my family as an actor.
You know what, Sean? There’s a film that I produced, it’s called ‘Broken’. The website is www.brokenthefilm.com. Check out the stuff there. It’s a short film, about this Latino fighter and I have a role in it as well in addition to being one of the producers.
SN: I’ll do that, and I’ll encourage all of our readers to do the same. Back to boxing, in the present, the heavyweight division is obviously in a sad state. When you look at things as they are, do you have any regrets that you could not continue your career after the Hide fight?
MB: You know what? When I was training with Will Smith, James Toney, Al Cole and Charles Shufford back in 2000 for six months for our roles in Ali, I was thinking, you know, I’m sparring with these cats and I’m handling these guys. So I had an inkling to entertain making some phone calls, but I remember something Georgie Benton told me. In my estimation, Eddie Futch is head and shoulders above a lot of guys who are now ‘trainers’, but in my estimation the most insightful guy and the man who had the biggest influence on me was Georgie Benton. When the whole Ali experience wrapped and I was contemplating making a phone call, Georgie said “Mike, never ever dishonor or humiliate yourself by fighting again.” I never got that until maybe five years ago. Because I can’t fight again. Even though I sustained a horrible injury almost 12 years ago, and I probably shouldn’t fight again competitively, some commission or some state that has no commission might say ‘Michael Bentt can fight’, and that’s a goddamn shame. So that sticks with me.
I’ve been divided myself, though, man. One side says, “I’m done, I’ve got nothing more to prove.” Sometimes I go to the gym and guys are like “Mike, you should make a comeback,” and I tell them “hey, my man, check it out, I’ve got nothing to prove. My championship belt is under my bed collecting dust, and it’ll stay there.” I’m happy with that. And my five national championships will go down in the annals of amateur boxing. People refer to me as the most accomplished amateur never to make an Olympic team, I’ll take that. That’s not bad. And I think if I’m going to recite Mr. Shakespeare’s words, I need my brain cells, baby. (Laughs) You know what I mean? I don’t want to be mumbling.
SN: I can understand that. Is there anyone out there now, though, especially in light of VItali Klitschko’s retirement, who is capable of becoming a dominant champion?
MB: (Sighs) A dominant champion in the same vein as a Holyfield, or Lewis or Tyson…no. No one really jumps out at me. Each guy has a fault. Essentially, the most talented guy out there in the heavyweight division and the most talented guy to come along in a long time, doesn’t trust himself. He’s a frontrunner, as Georgie Benton would say. And I think you know who I’m talking about.
SN: Wladimir Klitschko?
MB: Yes sir. I have never seen a heavyweight throw a left hook off of a jab like he does. I’m like “Goddamn!” Guys who I came up with in Bed-Stuy Boxing Club in Brooklyn, like Mark Breland, he was probably the most…I’ll go out on a limb here. Aside from Howard Davis and Ray Leonard, who were the glamour boys, I don’t think you can have a composite of an amateur fighter more perfect than Mark Breland. He was tall, lanky, his left hook off a jab was a motherfucker, and George Washington who trained Mark, called the jab, hook, and right hand the cherry tree special because guys would just get chopped down. I never saw a big man throw it as fluidly as Wladimir does.
SN: And I don’t think I’ve heard anyone put it better than you just did when you said he does not trust himself.
MB: No, he doesn’t. We saw that when he fought the cat from Nigeria…Samuel Peter. That is the poster child for a guy who is strong, tough, but no talent. None. Sure, if you put him in with Jeremy Williams, he’ll knock him out every time they fight, because Jeremy Williams never had a heavyweight chin. He was a talented fighter, and he had a heavyweight punch but not a heavyweight chin. But Sam Peter is just raw, he’s crude, you know what I mean? Everyone is hopping on his bandwagon because, you know, he’s from Nigeria, and I guess everyone is trying to paint him in the same mold as Ike Ibeabuchi. Ike Ibeabuchi was a bad motherfucker. He’s the kind of cat that I would…(Laughs)…that I would NOT fight. If I had a heavyweight, if I was a manager of a heavyweight, that’s the kind of motherfucker we would fight for 50 million dollars! You don’t fuck with him for less than that! Ike had a complete arsenal; movement, defense, had a granite chin. Sam Peter is one-dimensional. He’s a poor man’s Mike Tyson. I’m going off here. (Laughs)
SN: Well I’ve just got one more thing here, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you this, but you are obviously a very intelligent and articulate person, and you mentioned earlier doing commentary overseas, is television commentary something else you might be interested in doing?
MB: Nooo. Honestly, I did a couple of spots for HBO, a thing where they were kicking off KO Nation. Oscar De La Hoya was supposed to fly in and do the first test broadcast with Fran Charles. Oscar, for some reason, didn’t make it. I got a call from a buddy, my son’s godfather, Arthur Curry, who is the HBO Vice President of Talent. He gave me a call and suggested I come and read for it. I auditioned and I ended up doing the blow-by-blow with Fran Charles the night of the Junior Jones-Paul Ingle fight and the main event was Lewis-Grant at the Garden. I called it as I saw it, and I don’t know whether they thought I was savvy enough or if I was too honest, but I basically slammed Michael Grant, who was being groomed as the next heir apparent. Even though Grant lost, I think they still had hopes that Lewis was fading out and Mike would somehow reclaim his luster. To make a long story short, I didn’t get anymore phone calls from HBO. I did some things for Cedric Kushner’s Heavyweight Explosion, some things overseas with BBC, and I would love to do some commentary for BBC. I have an affinity for their style of broadcasting, and also being born in London, I have an affinity for that part of the world. If someone said ‘Mike, come on board, do some commentary’, I’d explore it, but I’m not going to go looking for it.
SN: Is there anything else you’d like to add to this, Mike?
MB: I think we’ve done a pretty thorough job. (Laughs) I do want to say this, though, and I said this earlier, but it tends to be misconstrued. I’m not apologizing for it, but I said I resented Morrison for the Great White Hope brouhaha, but as a fighter, we have to use anything and everything that is going to motivate us. That night, what I used to motivate me, it’s some really, really dark shit in my personal history and in the history of this country. When you step into the ring with that kind of venom, it’s kind of hard to walk out of the ring a loser. All I am is a product of my past and what I hope to be in the future.
SN: Thanks so much for your time, Mike. It was great talking to you.
MB: My pleasure.
Writer’s Note: I would like to thank my good friend Tom Thompson, the editor-in-chief of www.tigerboxing.com, for his help with this interview. I would also like to thank Michael Bentt once again for his enthusiasm and willingness to talk to me, as well as for the considerable amount of time he so generously gave in doing so. Thanks, Mike. Finally, everyone is encouraged to visit the site of the film Michael co-produced at www.brokenthefilm.com. Check it out.
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