Two years ago, at the 1997 World Amateur Boxing Championships in
Budapest, you had to come early if you wanted to see American
fighters. Not one survived the quarterfinals. The U.S. amateur
program, which had produced and nurtured the likes of Muhammad
Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones and Oscar De La Hoya, was on
the ropes and taking a licking.
The Humbling in Hungary was due in large part to the cocky
attitude of the American fighters. They didn't bother to adapt
their brawling, body-pummeling styles to the demands of the
sport's computer scoring system, which had been instituted in
1989 and emphasizes landing clean punches that the judges can
easily see. Says new national coach Tom Mustin of the '97 U.S.
boxers, "They had entourages as big as their egos, brought their
lawyers to camp and acted as if the gold medals were already
around their necks."
The selfless bunch Mustin brought to last week's worlds in
Houston worked the computers with Bill Gatesian cunning. Helped
by some dubious judging that led to a late Cuban pullout, Team
USA won four gold medals--its best-ever showing at the
championships. Among those bearing gold were featherweight
Ricardo Juarez, a Houstonian called Cadillac because he jogs
like he's reclining in an Eldorado; Sacramento light heavyweight
Michael Simms Jr., whose nickname Mr. Smell Good derives from
his custom of dabbing cologne on his hand wraps ("So I won't
offend"); and light flyweight Brian Viloria, whose Honolulu
birthright earned him the inevitable handle Hawaiian Punch.
A sophomore at Northern Michigan, Viloria began boxing as a
45-pound seven-year-old. "The gloves reached to my elbows, and I
had to be lifted into the ring," he recalls. He's now 5'7" and
106 pounds, apparently big enough to coach the cast of a TV
miniseries. "I was supposed to teach the star to box, but he had
two left feet," Viloria says. "I felt like I was trying to turn
Urkel into Tyson."
The most unlikely champion was Michael Bennett, a Chicago
heavyweight whose biceps look like grapefruits dosed with
Miracle Grow. "It's a gift," he explains. "Just DNA." Bennett is
the master of the "foo-fop-foops," his description of the fierce
left-right-left flurry he perfected in the Illinois penal
system. After putting together triple-F combos faster than any
ringsider could count to outpoint Serik Umirbekov of Kazakhstan
in the quarters, Bennett said, "I had to set up my shots to kill
him. That's why...." He backed up and added, almost
apologetically: "Not kill him, as much as knock him down."
Bennett, 28, is cautious about excessively violent talk because
he just finished a seven-year stretch for armed robbery and
aggravated unlawful restraint. Since getting sprung from the
Galesburg Correctional Center in July 1998, he has ripped
through the amateur ranks with astonishing speed, winning a
silver medal in April at the U.S. championships and a gold in
June at the U.S. Challenge. "I never expected to win my first
international tournament," Bennett said of his world crown. "I
feel devirginized, or whatever you want to call it."
His fistic deflowering came during his fourth year in prison. "I
never boxed as a kid," he says. "I was afraid my eyes would get
blackened." A standout running back at Senn High on the North
Side of Chicago, Bennett was the city's 190-pound wrestling
champ in 1990. On summer break after his freshman year at North
Park College in '91, Bennett and a high school buddy held up a
Toys "R" Us with a sawed-off shotgun. A few weeks later his
accomplice was arrested and fingered Bennett. "Ironically," says
Bennett, "I'd been studying criminal justice."
Though he was a first-time offender, he got 26 years. "I learned
criminals don't always get justice," says Bennett, whose
sentence was reduced to 15 years on appeal and who was released
after seven. "I'm not complaining. I made a mistake. Lots of
good men have made mistakes. Some pay more than others."
He started making his payments at the maximum-security facility
in Menard. "The system weeds out the weak and the meek," says
Bennett. "I was at the top of the food chain, so I didn't get
His prison mates dubbed him the Toy Store Bandit, a name he
detests. "One guy talked such major trash to me that I wanted to
fight him," says Bennett, "though not illegally." Bennett
enlisted a lifer to teach him to box. He can't remember the
con's name or the crime he was in for. "If you ask too many
questions, guys start thinking you're nosy," he says. "My
philosophy was, the less I knew, the less I'd be able to tell."
Bennett trashed the trash-talker in a prison tournament and
became Menard's heavyweight champ. Over the next few years he
was transferred to Danville, Shawnee and Galesburg, got a degree
in general education and got ring pointers from jailbirds named
Pharaoh, Mongoose and Papa-Son. Upon release, Bennett continued
his boxing education at a Garfield Park, Ill., gym. Six months
later he was fighting in a regional qualifier for the national
championships. "At first I didn't see potential in him," says Al
Mitchell, coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic squad. "He was a
flat-footed power puncher who didn't keep his guard up. To win
in the amateurs, you need defense and sharp, tight punches in
Bennett was a quick study. "Let's face it, the best guys are the
tough guys," Mitchell says. "If you don't make it as a prison
boxer, they turn you into a prison gymnast."
In Houston, Bennett won the final without having to throw a
punch. He was declared a winner by walkover when his opponent,
six-time world champion Felix Savon of Cuba, refused to enter
the ring. Before the bout the Cuban team, incensed over what it
considered unfair judging in a welterweight bout in which
Russia's Timour Gaidalov scored a 5-3 win over Cuba's Juan
Hernandez, withdrew from the tournament in protest. (After the
withdrawal a review panel reversed the decision and awarded the
gold medal to Hernandez.) "I'm a world champ, but I'm a tainted
champ," Bennett said wistfully. "I earned my way to the top of
the hill, but I never got to push the legendary king off."
Push may come to shove at the Sept. 24 U.S.-Cuba dual meet in
Mashantucket, Conn. "I hope Savon shows up," Bennett says. "It
would be nice to have him on my resume."
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN
Since getting out of prison in '98, Bennett has ripped through
the amateur ranks.