Michael Bentt: Renaissance Man
Bentt defended his WBO title against Herbie Hide
Jerry Glick reporting: He played Sonny Liston opposite Will Smith in “Ali” on the big screen; he was in "Public Enemies" starring with Johnny Depp; he was in "State Property 2" with Damon Dash; he has appeared on television on Saturday Night Live; he did "Sons of Anarchy." He has played Othello, The Moor of Venice, and he has written for HBO and Bert Sugar’s “Fight Game.” Michael Bentt, former WBO Heavyweight Champion, has added to his boxing prowess by becoming a man of the arts. He will be making his directorial debut with Bobby Cassidy Jr’s heartwarming reprise of “Kid Shamrock,” the hard hitting story of the playwright’s dad, Bobby Cassidy Sr., former high ranking middleweight and light-heavyweight who fought against many top contenders in the ring and his own demons out of it.
Bentt, a tall, trim man who’s graying beard belie his youthful, artistic enthusiasm for the theater, graciously sat down with this reporter to talk about his two careers, the first one, boxing, and the current one, acting and directing.
Boxing started for Bentt as a youngster of about ten years old trying to make his dad proud. The elder Bentt was a fan and, Michael said, that boxing was a part of the Bentt household.
“My father was a boxing enthusiast,” recalled Bentt. “My dad would talk about boxing, watch fights, so I was kind of groomed into the boxing world. I wanted to please my dad.”
He had some rough moments when he gave boxing a try in a local gym. “I started boxing and I didn’t like it. I got beat up a lot in the gym.”
He gave up on boxing at the very start, at the age of ten, but picked it up again at fifteen after realizing that he had an innate talent that needed honing. He worked with some talented trainers, Joe Davis, Roy Edmonds, and Artie Cintron, “They groomed me,” said Bentt.
He had an illustrious amateur career winning four Golden Glove titles. He trained at the New York Recreation Gym and won the Heavyweight Open Championship in 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1988. He lost in the Olympic trials to a fellow future WBO World Champion Ray Mercer in 1988. They offered him a spot on the team but he refused. “They offered me the role of alternate but I refused it,” explained Bentt. “I felt that I had done enough to make the team, but there were politics involved. I didn’t want to be a glorified sparring partner.”
Being of Jamaican decent, Bentt decided to try out for the Jamaican team but ran into a snag that he could not overcome, and should not have been confronted with; he was told by the Jamaican officials that to compete for Jamaica he would have to renounce his US citizenship. Something he would not do.
Bentt explained that his dad had won two million in the lottery and the Jamaican team was shaking the Bentt family down for money ostensibly for “equipment” and “expenses”, etc. In other words, a payoff or join the team without US papers, hoping-or even expecting-for him to pay the money. He admitted that there was other reason that played a part in his not joining the Jamaican team, “I know how my father is,” claimed Bentt. “I didn’t want him saying, ‘look at what I’ve done for you.’ I didn’t want him to have that over me. I’m trying to get away from him.”
With pressures mounting from all sides, Bentt wisely elected to sit out the games and turn pro instead.
He expected to go unbeaten for awhile as a young pro, “Fifteen, twenty bums then Tyson,” said Bentt about his expectations at the time, but that is not how things went. In Bentt’s first pro fight he faced tough, 5-1, (4 KOs), Jerry Jones and shocked by a knockout loss in the first round. “Jerry Jones, this guy from nowhere, he could fight. He became a very reputable spoiler. Be careful who you fight in your pro debut. I took the shot; I should have been more prepared. Manny Steward fucked up. I had no idea he (Jones) was a southpaw. I take the responsibility, but if I give a guy a large amount of money I want him to do his homework on who he fights in his first pro fight. I could have killed him. I was despondent, suicidal for maybe twenty-two months after that. During that period, you talk about darkness? I’ve experienced that type of darkness again, but it wasn’t as all consuming. I put a gun in my mouth.”
He didn’t seek counseling back then at the age of 25, but now at 46 he realizes that he would have been better off if he had talked to a counselor at the time. He had fallen down a huge ladder with that loss. “I was billed as Kronk’s new superstar heavyweight.”
“Shelly Finkel said I think too much,” recalled Bentt. “Back then I took it as an insult. It’s a compliment now that I’m 46.”
He was Evander Holyfield’s chief sparring partner for two years and found his confidence after a sparring session with the future Hall of Famer that took place when Holyfield was preparing for one of his fights against Riddick Bowe in the early 90’s and the great trainer Georgie Benton called him over and said, according to Bentt, “Babycakes come over here for a minute,” Bentt said recalling Benton’s words, “When you spar with Evander, I can’t tell who the champion is.” Now that’s a confidence booster if there ever was one for a young fighter prompting him to think to himself, “You know what? I belong here.”
After that bumpy start to his pro career, Bentt ran off eleven in row including a one round destruction on WBO titlist Tommy Morrison to annex the belt, only to lose it in his first defense against British contender Herbie Hide, after which he decided to call it a career at the age of 29.
Winning the belt from the hard hitting Morrison was a special moment for Bentt, but he admits that soon after the win he fell into a depression.
“If you work really, really hard,” explained Bentt. “When you’ve worked as long as I have at this thing, boxing, eighteen years of my life, sometime the magic shines on you for a second, and that night was magic, man. About 30 minutes after the fight I was depressed. I sat in the locker room; I looked at Stan (Hoffman) and I said ‘this is bullshit’. I thought when you win a piece of the world heavyweight championship, where’s the Chris Chambliss moment, the fans coming out rushing at me? I didn’t feel it on the inside.”
The huge moment felt small for the new champion. Morrison was HOB’s marquee fighter and he knocked him off; then the loss to Hide, why did it happen? To Bentt it was a matter of styles, “If I fought him ten times, he wins nine. Styles make fights.”
Hide just had his number, “He was awkward and hit very hard,” said Bentt.
So ends one chapter, and he begins a new one.
*BENTT ENTERS THE STAGE*
He began to do some commentary for boxing telecasts, and trained some of Hoffman’s young fighters. “I wanted to get a broader idea of TV production,” he explained. “I was living in the Poconos and there was a school, a college, North Hampton College that had a pretty good TV production program. So I enrolled.”
He took that class as an elective in his journalism major, and immediately fell in love with acting. “It’s just like boxing,” observed Bentt, “Only inside out.”
He found similarities between boxing and acting that made the theater an irresistible fishing lure. “Just like boxing you have to be naked and brave,” he added. Acting is performing and so is boxing. Both are forms of entertainment so after boxing acting was a perfect fit in Bentt’s life.
He followed that experience up by taking additional classes in New York at HB Studios, “I was in love,” he gushed. “It was also therapeutic.”
Bentt saw that last production of Kid Shamrock and came away with the feeling that the play is “Completely naked,” said Bentt. “I couldn’t have done that shit.”
He was writing for a boxing magazine, and taking acting classes, but it wasn’t until he was in Los Angeles and read for the role of Sonny Liston in the “Ali” movie that he got a better understanding of what acting is really all about.
“That story in itself is like a movie,” explained Bentt. “I had to fly to LA; I didn’t have any money. I had to borrow money from friends, good friends. I flew back and got a call from Michael Masloff who said ‘See me now.’ So I had to hustle up some more money, I was flat broke, and fly out there again.”
He was hired for the part, but not so fast, “He had Ving Rhames for the role. Ving Rhames’ picture was up there next to Will Smith’s picture. They had the lead’s photos up there, but he said, ‘You know what, you got the role.’ “
He had gone to a gym to train that day and who should happen to be leaving as he entered, Rhames himself who stopped and said congratulation and gave Bentt one piece of advice; “ ‘Go to Sonny Liston’s gravesite,’ “ recalled Bentt, “ ‘And just connect with him.’ “
Two weeks later Bentt drove to Las Vegas and did just that, “I communed with the guy, asking him for guidance.”
Working with a megastar like Will Smith was an experience that Bentt will not soon forget. “I was his chief sparring partner and chief bull shitter,” said Bentt. “Will’s a sweetheart; a fun loving guy, very talented.”
After they finished filming Bentt said that Smith visited him in his trailer and graciously handed an envelope to Bentt, “The guy’s a sweetheart,” said a very appreciative Bentt.
For Bentt this was more than simple generosity, it was validation, and appreciation of his own acting skills by someone whose skills are well documented.
Many actors want to try their hand at directing. Bentt may not have been thinking about it, but Bobby Cassidy was and asked Bentt to take the job and add his creativity to the story. Give it a new approach.
“I’ve known Bobby for years,” explained Bentt. “He covered me when I was an amateur; he covered me when I first turned pro. He did a piece on me for the “Ali” thing. When he did articles on boxing movies he asked my opinion. So about three or four years ago he emailed me a play, “Kid Shamrock.” ”
He thought he could relate to it. Regardless that it was about an Irishman and his demons, he felt a relationship as a Jamaican. To Bentt there is only one race involved here and it’s not Black, it’s not White, it’s “Boxer.”