Michael Bentt was forced into boxing by his domineering father but now he is plotting his own path among the stars
The former WBO heavyweight champion, Michael Bentt, is taking a break from writing a screenplay. He expresses himself on stage and screen as an actor and director these days, but thoughts of his life in boxing are never far from his mind. “My earliest memory as a young kid growing up in Queens was Muhammad Ali fighting in Germany. My dad was a huge admirer of Ali, or Cassius Clay as he insisted on calling him. He wanted a mascot who would become the next Ali and, unfortunately, I was that mascot.”
Bentt was born in London and grew up in a middle-class suburb of New York with a boxing-obsessed father who was intent on creating a champion, whether or not his son had any interest in the sport. Bentt’s father had built a reputation as a fierce street fighter on the streets of Kingston, before emigrating from Jamaica to the US to make his fortune. “Where I grew up was a decent and affluent place but some horrible stories went on behind those manicured lawns and nice cars. The niceness could be a mask.”
Bentt began fighting regularly in amateur contests aged nine, winning some and “getting tuned up” in others. He was academically gifted and a keen reader, but was also becoming more fluent with his fists. Despite his natural ability, the sport was never a natural fit and, after a year in the ring, he finally plucked up the courage to tell his father that his nascent boxing career was over. “I went to school, thought about it all day and resolved to tell dad I wanted out. I said: ‘Dad, I don’t want to box anymore.’ He went ballistic. When someone opposed his masculinity, it was time to clear out. He went over to our black and white television, broke off the antenna and did a number on me.”
Bentt took a vicious beating that day, but he also won a precious victory by standing up to his father. He went on to become one of the US’s most decorated amateur boxers ever but always had a complicated relationship with the sport. “I still had a fascination with boxing, I just didn’t want to get hit. I was becoming a chronic truant at school. I would go into the school library, pick out some books and ride the subway all day reading them.
“One day I read in the New York Daily News about boxers representing the United States who had perished in a plane crash in Poland. One of the boxers who died was a fighter who had shown me kindness and was really my first mentor. I decided to fight on for him, even though the whole time my father thought I fought because of his enthusiasm for boxing.”
After just missing out on qualification to the Seoul Olympics after a defeat to eventual gold medallist Ray Mercer, Bentt returned home determined to hang up the gloves. However, interest from a legendary trainer pulled him back in. “I was flying back from the trials in San Francisco and a teammate told me he was signing with Emanuel Steward and that he could put in a good word for me. I had no interest but Emanuel drove up to our house and wanted me to sign. He and my dad got on so well. They were both larger-than-life personalities. My dad had built a huge amount of resentment at me not making the 88 Olympics and this was my ticket out, so I said: ‘Let’s sign.’”
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