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September 16, 2000
The human side of Olympic stardom
No Olympic sport is as much maligned as boxing. But the heartbreaking lives and stories of some members of the US boxing team, stories of hard circumstances, brings humanity to the grandeur and pomp of an Olympic Games.
Among the team in Sydney is Dante Craig, who lost his mother to breast cancer and all but lost his will with her. Clarence Vinson, whose brother and cousin were both killed on the streets of Washington, D.C.? Or it could be Jose Navarro, who grew up in south-central Los Angeles as the youngest of 12 children, including two older brothers who tried to make the Olympic team and failed?
They are the most honest of athletes in the least honest of sports. And then there is Michael Bennett, who must rank as one of the human interest stories of the Games.
In mid-1998, Michael Bennett wasn't anybody's idea of a role model. He was a convicted felon serving out seven years in an Illinois state prison for armed robbery. Today, the soft-spoken 29-year-old, who learned to box in prison, is pounding his heart out for Olympic gold as co-captain of the U.S. boxing team.
Tom Mustin, coach of the U.S. team, calls the unflappable 6ft 1 inch, 201-pound heavyweight "the most level-headed guy on the team." That's not a description that many, including Bennett, would have used in 1991 when the then-college freshman took a fateful decision to join a friend in robbing a toy store at gunpoint.
"I knew it was crazy," says Bennett, a Chicago native with no prior arrests or criminal record. He was right. That rash act brought him an armed robbery conviction and a 15-year prison sentence, later reduced to seven years.
But instead of regret and dismay, the years sitting in prison produced something else in the fighter: a desire to make his mother Yvonne proud again, and a determination not to let one impulsive decision ruin his life.
A seize-the-day mentality has driven Bennett since his release from prison July 28, 1998: "I came out with a goal, and that was to box and do the best I possibly could and not have any what-ifs."
It helps explain how a newly released ex-convict, with only primitive boxing skills, could refine them in time to win an improbable shot at Olympic glory against two-time defending gold medallist Felix Savon of Cuba, the favourite. (He meets Savon early - in the second round.) Bennett had been an all-around athlete who seemed marked to be the kind of success that doesn't always come out of single-parent homes in Chicago's inner city. After high school, he went to college, then came home on summer vacation and started hanging around with a guy who his mother had warned him to avoid.
He had never dreamed of being a boxer, never idolised an Olympic champion. Bennett thought he would grow up to play professional football for the Chicago Bears. That was his dream. It wasn't the kind of dream that survives seven years in prison.
The boxing was almost an accident
Bennett says that even when he screwed up so terribly, he never doubted his own ability to make something of himself. In prison, he worked and he finished an associate's degree in college, and he threw himself into boxing. "A lot of guys in prison get discouraged," he says. "They give up. I never gave up. I never had that thought."
He is not glad in any way that he went to prison. But Bennett also understands that his mistake also provided the opportunity that puts him now, at the age of 28, on the world's stage. "I would never have learned to box if I hadn't been incarcerated," he says. "You never had to tell him something twice," says Harry Jenkins, a fellow inmate who invited Bennett to join the 10 fighters he trained three hours a day, six days a week at an Illinois Correctional Centre.
Jenkins, 43, who has been in prison for 24 years for attempted murder, tested the newcomer by sending one boxer after another against Bennett for three rounds, three minutes each, usually without headgear.
"I used to think he was going to quit. Never did quit," says Jenkins, who is still an inmate.
Instead, Bennett, a former high school wrestler and college American football player, was a quick study who displayed remarkable stamina, even as Jenkins found new ways to explore the depth of his will. Jenkins says Bennett's quest means a lot to the inmates left behind.
"All of us in the Illinois prisons are sitting here and watching," he says. "He's got to do this for us, for the country, for everyone."
Others will be watching, too, especially the wide-eyed youngsters at Chicago's Garfield Park, Bennett's home gym, where he trained during the summer.
Bennett takes such scrutiny seriously: "You have to be aware of what you do because they pay attention to everything. They try to imitate the way you swagger. They try to imitate the way you jump rope, the way you hold your hands."
Bennett need only glance at Garfield Park's "Wall of Tears" to see how important his influence could be. The wall, covered with clippings and other memorabilia, commemorates young boxers from the neighbourhood who succumbed to street violence:
George Hernandez, the trainer at Garfield Park who created the wall, says he immediately spotted Bennett's raw but unmistakable talent when the young ex-con arrived at Garfield to try to rebuild his life. But because Bennett was launching his career at an advanced age for a fighter, he faced a tough decision: Turn pro and accept meagre returns at first in hopes of a big pay-day up the road. Or remain an amateur and pursue an Olympic berth, knowing the heavyweight ranks are often thin. "Do you want to fight for $100 a round or take a chance on winning the gold?" Hernandez remembers asking.
"Whatever you want to do," Bennett replied.
"Let's go for this gold!" Hernandez exhorted.
Bennett took a job in a steel mill, where he toiled from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. He then did his roadwork, slept, trained and returned to the mill to begin the cycle again."It was a hell of a day. Sometimes he had to go straight from a fight to work without any sleep," Hernandez says. "If he wanted to go to theOlympics, we couldn't fool around."
Bennett's personal stake at the Olympics could not be higher: If he topples Savon in a gold medal bout, it would jump-start a lucrative pro career in boxing's most glamorous division. If he loses, he might be nothing more than a historical footnote.
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