You couldn't hit him if you tried. You could let loose with everything you had, and he would stand right there in front of you, right there, and you would lunge and flail and hit only what he wanted you to hit, his shoulder or the palm of his hand or thin air. He had eyes in his ass, he says, and he ducked punches in his dreams. All his life he has practiced the art of escape, and now, in his 59th year, he wants you to understand that he has perfected it and that after a lifetime in the savage sport of boxing he is almost out of harm's way.
Oh, George Benton has taken some shots. How could he not have? The man is from Philadelphia. He boxed professionally for 21 years, fought anybody who would fight him and, although he was a perpetual top contender, never fought for the title. In 1970, when he was 37, someone put an end to his career by putting a bullet in his back, a bullet that remains lodged near his spine. He almost died, but he returned to the ring as a trainer, and since then he has schooled some of the very best—Joe Frazier and Johnny Bumphus and Mike McCallum and Leon Spinks—and now handles the finest stable of boxers in the world, including IBF junior welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker, WBA welterweight champion Meldrick Taylor and heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, who will defend his title on Nov. 13 against Riddick Bowe.
The master, the fighters call him. He teaches them jabs and feints and pivots and parries, all those little tricks nobody bothers to learn anymore. Twist your head. Scatter your jabs. Step on his toes. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don't and break his heart. But, hey, baby, as he would say, heartbreak is part of boxing—the one guarantee—and if the kids stay with him long enough, he will teach them something about that, too, something about surviving in a business that turns people into predators, that traffics in false friends, that encourages poor men to kill you with gloves while rich men kill you with paper and pencils.
Benton doesn't want his kids to run. He never ran when he fought; he moved his head, he twitched his shoulder, he made them miss. Those big bangers he battled, they knew where to find him. He was always there for the taking, his head within arm's length, but then, somehow, he would confound them; he would get away. Hell, even now, when he is sworn to distance and solitude, people know where to find him. When a fight is in town, and the lobbies of the big hotels stream with hard, hungry kids in multicolored sweat suits, sunglasses and webs of gold, you just go to the bar and look among the salesmen and the puffy-faced travelers in bad ties for a man the color of black coffee with a broad, handsome face and a high, wide nose and a cap set rakishly on top of his head. He always drinks a shot of Canadian Club, he always sits alone.
Well, not alone, not exactly. He simply does not fraternize, as he puts it, with boxing people, with Lou Duva, the manager who pays him for his services, for example, or Dan Duva, Lou's son, who promotes the fighters Benton trains. The salesmen and those puffy-faced travelers, the strays who drift in and out of the bar with time to kill, those are Benton's people, and if they sit next to him, he might sport them drinks and talk to them in a low, buzzy rasp that transforms all his s's into z's. Benton's stories—you can't even repeat the best ones, says Lou Duva, because "you'd get Georgie thrown in jail or shot by a jealous husband"—are about the juke joints, the all-night parties, the women, the swells, the high life in Philly. He'll tell you that he has fathered 11 children—nine out of wedlock—that boxing has made him a millionaire and that he's the "luckiest man in the world."
All night long he'll go on, but if you stay with him long enough, he might get right in your face and whisper that nobody gets close to George Benton—nobody, no man and especially no woman. He says that he hangs with nobody, depends on nobody, because he has had his heart broken enough, and the man beyond heartbreak is the man who goes alone.
The gym, on this day, is in Houston. Two kids in the middle of the ring are hitting each other. Benton is on the ring apron, watching, whispering, counting the seconds, signaling for the kids to stop the hitting or to start all over again, his life sliced up, as it has always been, into three-minute increments.
He has lost count of how many gyms he has seen, how many cities all over the world he has been in, as a fighter and as a trainer. All he knows is that this kind of place has been his whole life and that he feels comfortable here. See him at the edge of the ring? See the way the edges of his fancy dress shoes bite the canvas, the way he conducts every movement from the balls of his feet, without effort? That's balance, and balance is the name of the game. Every so often the two kids come flying toward him, stomping, grunting, throwing hard, but Benton doesn't retreat. He just leans back ever so slightly, and the battlers pass him by, splashing sweat and spit. Then he calls, "Time!" and the battlers come to him for their lesson. Although music is cracking open a set of tin-can speakers, he doesn't raise his voice. In the din he almost whispers, and the kids have to lean close to the old man's smile.
Benton has always been this way. When he fights in his dreams, he doesn't throw punches, he just slips them, and he is invincible. You fight with your personality, he says. He grew up poor, after all, searching the streets of Philly for an angle that wouldn't land him in jail or make him kill anyone. The gym was up the block, "like God put it there just for me," he says, and it was there that he found his angle, there he started hustling—or, as Benton pronounces it, huzzling. His first amateur fight came at 13. His first pro fight was three years later, when he was still underage. He became a man as a middleweight, fighting from 1949 to 70. In his 80 bouts he never went down and was stopped only twice, once on a cut, once from exhaustion, near the end of his career. He beat, as he says, "some bad men." He lost only 12 times.
He never got his shot. He was the No. 1 contender, but he never fought for the title. Of course, there were reasons. Benton was too cute, too slick, too tough. He wasn't connected, and connections were important. He wasn't white, and at that time white skin was important. He fought only two white men his whole career, and when he got older, he functioned, he says, as "a policeman," busting up promising black fighters on the way up, making sure they didn't get too close to the top.
After he beat Joey Giardello in 1962, Benton thought he had earned the right to fight for the title. He was wrong. Giardello's manager worked in the New Jersey trucking business and was connected. The manager made sure that Giardello, not Benton, fought the champion, Dick Tiger. The manager's name was Lou Duva. "Yeah, I screwed George out of his shot," says Duva. "He didn't even know about it till I told him many years later."
Now, of course, Benton works for Duva, and when Benton looks around the Houston gym, and Holyfield comes walking in with his buddies and his boom box, Benton says, "This is my title shot, right here. This is it." He walks up to Holyfield, with whom he has been working since 1984, and begins taping the fighter's hands. Benton whispers, tells stories, laughs. When he is finished, he begins folding himself into his jaunty defensive postures, urging Holyfield to do the same. He never takes his eyes off Holyfield when they are in the gym.
Once, years ago, he had another heavyweight, and the heavyweight won the title listening to Benton. Leon Spinks—oh, his first fight against Muhammad Ali was so beautiful, he just kept moving, he never stopped, he did everything Benton asked of him. But Benton lost Spinks, or other men took him away. The night of the rematch with Ali, Benton stood in Spinks's corner, but there were too many other people, too many other voices, and Spinks "wasn't listening to a damn thing I was telling him," says Benton. So he walked. Right in the middle of the fight, Benton got up and walked away from the corner and left Spinks to the jumble of voices, and to Ali, who regained his title.
Alone with his fighter, in the corner, with all the other voices receding into the din—that's the way Benton likes it. In the first couple of rounds of Holyfield's last fight, against Larry Holmes, Holyfield didn't listen. Holmes lay on the ropes, and Holyfield tried to fight him there, tried to knock the old man out. But he "couldn't do nothing with him," Benton says, and the champion fought Holmes's fight until Holmes's elbow tore open his eyebrow, and he finally had to fight Benton's fight—jabbing, scoring points. The fight was a stinker and the crowd howled, but Benton didn't care. Why should he listen to the "professional booers," the know-nothings who would rather see blood than boxing? "Evander knew he was fighting the right fight, and that's what matters," says Benton. Was Holyfield as unhappy with Benton's strategy as he appeared to be, sitting miserably in the corner with the catcalls ringing in his ears? "If he was unhappy, he wouldn't continue to follow orders, would he?" Benton asks. "Like my trainer used to say: 'Win this one. Look good in the next one.' "
It is important for Holyfield to look good against Bowe. "He knows that this fight is the one that's going to make the public say cither, Evander, he's a hell of a fighter, or Evander, he's not much," Benton says. At 6'4" and 240 pounds, Bowe is much bigger than the 6'2½", 215-pound Holyfield; but so was George Foreman, and Benton is counseling Holyfield to fight Bowe in the same place he fought Big George: on the inside, "punching in bunches, right up underneath him, real agile."
Bowe is quick, and he can punch, but as Benton says, "I don't know how good his chin is, and I don't know how he is when he's in a dogfight." A dogfight is what Holyfield, with his limited defensive skills and his propensity for getting bonked on the chin at least once a fight, usually winds up participating in. "Evander's a warrior," says Benton. "He's got ice water in his veins. His offense is his defense. He'll walk through a wall if he has to."
On this day, however, Holyfield won't even walk into the ring. He's complaining that he's too sore to spar, and as Benton watches him hit the heavy bag, the trainer starts muttering to himself. "I was afraid of this," he says. "Lazy. But what can I do? Athletes today are spoiled. Them old-time trainers, they was mean. They took their pistols to the gym, and those mothers would use 'cm. God help the fighter who said he didn't want to spar!"
Benton shakes his head and in a few minutes disappears, maybe to a pawn shop to buy another gold ring, someone says, or maybe to the privacy of his room to read a biography of Jack Johnson or—who knows?—maybe just some other place where no one can follow.
He never expected to get shot and couldn't believe it when he did. The man with the gun—Benton didn't even know him. Chinaman, people called him. Earlier in the day, he had tried to pick up Benton's sister in a bar, and Benton's brother had laid him out. George was walking to work (this was 1970, and George, no longer a top contender, was tending bar at night), and Chinaman came out of nowhere, vowing to kill someone from the Benton family.
If George had been scared, if he had cowered and begged for mercy, he would be dead. Chinaman shot Benton in the back, but Benton turned—playing an angle, just as he had done so many times in the ring—and charged, with his spine nicked and his bowels leaking. He pinned Chinaman against a wall and bludgeoned him with his head until Chinaman dropped the gun. A couple of weeks later, when Benton was lying in the hospital, half crazy with drugs and pain, a few buddies called to say that he wouldn't have to face Chinaman in court, that they had taken care of him, Philly-style.
Benton was in and out of the hospital for two years. The discharge from his bowels infected his spine, and it was as if his body were being consumed in flames. He wore a body cast and went from 165 pounds to 108. In bed he heard voices. They said, "Hey, you were a good fighter in your day and a good hustler. You did well for yourself. Now we're gonna take this away from you and see how you live." He came out of the hospital almost broke, on welfare, tended bar on a cane and ran numbers. Then in the early 70s, Frazier came looking for him, and Benton taught him how to throw an overhand right. Then, several years later, Lou Duva came to Philly and told Benton that he had some good fighters who needed to learn defense. Come with me, Duva said long ago, before anyone knew about Whitaker, Taylor or Holyfield. Come with me, Duva said, and I'll make you a millionaire.
"Let me show you something," says Benton, late one night in Houston. He reaches into his pants pocket, finds his wallet and drops it on the bar, next to the glass of beer and the shot of CC. "Here," says Benton, "look at this." He takes a piece of paper out of his wallet, unfolds it and runs his fingers over the creases. It is a photocopy of a check from Lou Duva, paid to the order of Hardknocks, Inc., Benton's company. Duva gave him the check after Holyfield beat George Foreman last April. The check makes Benton a millionaire, as promised, and when he gets the blues, he sometimes pulls it out of his wallet and says to himself, "George, you ain't done too bad."
Those voices he heard in the hospital so many years ago—they said they would take everything from him and sec how he lived. But what they didn't tell him was that they would give him more than he ever imagined having—and see how he lived then. See how he lived once he learned, as Benton puts it, that "success breeds contempt," and that "when you got fame and fortune, you don't know who loves you or who you love."
Who could he love? A wife? He tried marriage; it didn't work out, so he swore off marriage. Friends? He tried that, too; friendship didn't work out, so he swore off friendship, at least the kind that fosters dependency. Sure, when he's in Philly, he likes to sport drinks for some old buddies, and he has some business associates he can trust. But money changes people, and it doesn't change the person who has it. It changes the person who doesn't have it, the person who starts looking at you differently.
Who else? Boxing people? "You feed them with a long spoon," says Benton. How about the fighters? Does Benton love them? Of course he does, too much. However, he can't depend on them. They get hit too much these days, especially Holyfield, especially Taylor, who tried slugging it out with Terry Norris on May 9 and got knocked out. The right hands, the left hands—each time they hit one of Benton's fighters, he feels the blow in his heart. But the thing about Benton is, he sees the punch coming, and each time, every time, he ducks.