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Five Months on Top: The sudden rise and frightening fall of Michael Bentt

A decorated amateur shocked everyone in 1993, and by 1994 it was all over.

Morrison V Bentt Getty Images
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Born in London but raised in Queens, New York, Michael Bentt had the ability in boxing. That was very clear in his amateur days in the 1980s. While he didn’t reach the major international heights — he wasn’t an Olympian — he was a standout on both the New York and domestic heavyweight scene as an amateur, and it wasn’t hard to see him having some pro potential.

His amateur days ended in 1988, when he tried to make the U.S. Olympic team but was beaten by Ray Mercer, first at the Olympic trials in California, then at the Olympic box-offs in Las Vegas, the latter a closer fight than the former.

Mercer, of course, went on to win Olympic gold at Seoul ‘88, and was a good if not great professional, fighting from 1989 to 2008 with a career record of 36-7-1 (26 KO), a brief run as WBO titleholder in the early 90s, and fights with the likes of Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and Wladimir Klitschko (those four among his seven defeats).

Bentt also turned pro in 1989, on Feb. 7 of that year, to be precise, taking to the ring in Atlantic City to fight Jerry Jones, an opponent with a 5-1 record who was just there for Bentt to pick up a debut victory under trainer Emanuel Steward.

Nobody much knew it then, but Bentt didn’t really want to fight. He said in later years that he never really did, only boxing in an attempt to please his father, who was a major fan of the sport. In turn, with his father angry about Bentt not making the Olympic team, he decided to turn pro mostly to get out of Queens.

When Bentt, a top tier amateur, finally turned pro, he was stopped in the first round by a ham-and-egger. It could have ended there, and nearly did. Bentt took a long break from boxing and went through a severe depression, by his own account, including thoughts of suicide.

He returned to the ring in Dec. 1990, going overseas to fight at Royal Albert Hall against a journeyman named James Holley, who was 3-21. Bentt knocked him out in the first round, and his pro career had a pulse again.

He’d win three fights in 1991, four in 1992, and two more in 1993 before he got the call to face WBO titleholder Tommy Morrison on Oct. 29, 1993, in Morrison’s backyard in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Bentt — 10-1 (5 KO) at this point — was meant to be a tune-up before Morrison faced Lennox Lewis in what would have been a big fight. The 24-year-old Morrison had rattled off eight straight wins following a disastrous 1991 thrashing at the hands of the aforementioned Mercer, and had picked up a win in June 1993 over George Foreman, where Morrison went against the grain, opting not to brawl with Foreman and instead use his youthful legs to move and box more. It didn’t win him fans that night in Las Vegas, but he did win him the vacant WBO belt, which at the time was still far more lightly regarded than the WBC, WBA, or IBF titles.

Bentt knew, however, that he had the skills. His pro record was one thing, filled with 10 straight wins over low-level fighters following that debut shock. He wasn’t really a qualified contender on paper, in all honesty. But he’d also sparred with top fighters, and held his own with the likes of Evander Holyfield in camps. He came in with a level of confidence that his record shouldn’t have given him.

Early in the opening round, Morrison looked like he’d do as expected, drilling Bentt wth a left hook that staggered the challenger against the ropes. He clipped him with another as Bentt tried to fight out.

And then it happened. Bentt caught Morrison with a right hand down the pipe, and Tommy Morrison was down and clearly not in a good way. Morrison got up quickly, and referee Danny Campbell let the fight go on after the eight count.

Bentt pounced, smashing Morrison back down to the canvas a second time right away. Morrison’s eyes were gone, but Campbell gave him another shot to fight on. Morrison did what he could, coming back and firing that left hook, hoping for the miracle. But the legs weren’t there, and Bentt was dialed in. Another flurry put Tommy down a third time, and it was over in 93 seconds.

28-year-old Michael Bentt was a world heavyweight champion. The gleeful celebration of the Bentt team was contrasted by Morrison’s disbelief, but Tommy congratulated his conqueror when Bentt came over to his corner to show respect. It was what it was. Morrison got caught, and Bentt did not let him recover.

Bentt broke down in tears after that, and Morrison came back over to congratulate him again. Bentt would later recall that once the smoke cleared, so did the elation. He realized he’d now have the pressures of a champion.

“That was not a comforting thought,” he’d say. “In the press conference and weeks after I had to put that face on and make out 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.”

Neither Lewis nor Tyson would come next, though. Instead, it was undefeated Herbie Hide, a hard-punching Nigerian based in the United Kingdom. The 25-0 (24 KO) Hide was 22 years of age when he met Bentt in Mar. 1994, five months after the upset of Tommy Morrison.

Bentt says he suffered a concussion in training and that he had been advised to call the fight off at the last minute, but also admits that Hide simply punched like a monster. “Hide had scary power and I don’t know where it came from,” he said, relating a story of Riddick Bowe telling Bentt years later that Hide punched harder than anyone he’d ever faced.

Bentt-Hide went down at “The Den,” the home of Millwall F.C. in London. The two had fought in the streets after a press conference, but that is far less remembered than what happened on the night.

You can watch the fight there for yourself. Hide dominated. He wasn’t overly aggressive, didn’t fight wild, and used his jab and movement to keep Bentt from getting much of anything going at all for six rounds.

With 12 seconds left in the seventh round, Bentt was caught with a good right hand. Hide kept both hands flying, and Bentt went down, face-first on the canvas. He tried to get up late in the count from referee Paul Thomas, but he was counted out even though he was on his feet.

It wound up being the last pro fight Michael Bentt would ever have, but not because he lost. Backstage after the fight, Bentt collapsed and went into a coma for several days. He did come out of that, but he didn’t return to the ring. He said he considered a comeback later, but was told by the New York commission that he shouldn’t fight again, and he didn’t press the matter.

In time, he would find a new path in life. Bentt first went to college in Pennsylvania, and then turned to acting, playing Sonny Liston in Michael Mann’s Ali in 2001. He’d also work on Mann’s films Collateral (2004) and Public Enemies (2009), plus Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), among other film and television roles. He would then direct an off-Broadway production of “Kid Shamrock,” a play about the life of New York middleweight Bobby Cassidy. He auditioned to become part of HBO’s broadcast team, a role that instead went to Lennox Lewis.

All in all, considering how badly things could have gone that night in 1994, things have gone pretty well for Michael Bentt, it seems. He may have only had five months on top, but hey, here we are over 20 years later, still talking about that quick rise and fall.

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