Tuesday, September 19|
Bennett learned to box behind bars
ESPN.com news services
MASHANTUCKET, Conn. -- The date that American
boxer Michael Bennett will never forget is July 28, 1998 -- the
day he was released from prison.
After serving a seven-year sentence for armed robbery, Bennett
stuck with boxing, a craft he learned to help him keep in shape
while incarcerated at Menard Federal Prison in Illinois.
A virtual unknown on the U.S. amateur boxing scene two years
ago, Bennett's odyssey of redemption will take the 29-year-old
Chicago native to Sydney, Australia as the captain of the
12-member U.S. boxing team.
"I got a chance to start over, and I am definitely going to
(take) full advantage, and go to Sydney and fight hard," said
Bennett, who will be the U.S. representative in the heavyweight
division. "It is great to be considered the best at what this
country has to offer, especially from where I have come from."
Bennett made the mistake of being with the wrong person at the
wrong time. He and a friend committed a heist of a toy store
and he was convicted and sentenced to 26 years. But after a
successful appeal, Bennett's sentence was reduced to 15 years
and he was released after seven for good behavior.
"It wasn't real trouble, I just didn't stay focused," Bennett
said. "I started hanging out with the wrong guy over the summer.
I was just doing ordinary things, being an ordinary person
trying to get through society. I had a job, I was going to
school, playing football, typical young man, and I decided to
lie to my mother and hang with the wrong crowd."
In prison, Bennett earned an associate's degree in general
education. Under the guidance of other inmates, he learned how to box.
"When I was incarcerated, I decided to give it an honest
effort," Bennett said. "I want to stay physically fit and I grew
to like it. A few guys taught me the fundamentals of boxing. I
didn't know what a jab, straight right hook was. A few guys try
to pass the knowledge along the way."
Bennett proved to be a quick learner in his newfound avocation.
"In my first tournament, I actually won it," Bennett recalled.
"It was a keepsake to remind me the episode of where I come
from, and the mistakes I made and to keep me focused."
Upon his release, Bennett was nervous about returning to society
but was glad that his family was still intact. He got
regrounded and also found religion.
Bennett joined Garfield Park Gym in Chicago. Under the guidance
of George Hernandez, he honed his skills, and six months later
finished second at the U.S. championships in April 1999.
Two months later at the National Golden Gloves competition in
Syracuse, New York, Bennett again finished second as he was
stopped by reigning three-time U.S amateur heavyweight champion
Davarryl Williamson in the finals.
The loss only made Bennett train and work harder. At the U.S.
Challenge, he finished first, earning a berth on the American
team that would compete at the World Championships.
"I was definitely blessed. My hard work definitely paid off
because I was there and busted my butt, giving it 100 percent,"
Bennett said. "I was actually trying to play catch-up against
these other young men, who have been boxing since they were
boys. My hard work and dedication has paid off."
At the World Championships, Bennett met up with international
competition for the first time. After winning his first three
bouts to reach the finals, he faced the best amateur boxer in
the world -- Cuban superstar Felix Savon.
Bennett was looking forward to battling the two-time defending
Olympic champion but never got his chance. The Cuban boxing
delegates protested a decision against a Cuban fighter earlier
in the day. Savon did not fight as as a sign of protest and
Bennett was declared the winner via walkover to become world
"When that guy was sitting in the ring, I was like, 'Oh, no.
Kick him out of there, grab him out of there,'" recalled
Bennett. "It was a sad situation that it took place like that.
But like I said, that was God playing so I take it in stride
-- I will be patient.
"I was (disappointed). Knowing who he is, you always want take
off the king of the hill, but like I said, that wasn't my time."
Bennett began 2000 by winning his first U.S. championship and
secured his berth on the Olympic team with two hard-fought
victories over Olympic favorite and 1996 alternate Williamson
in the Olympic trials and Box-offs.
He also placed first at the Americas Olympic Qualifier in Tampa,
However, Bennett had one last hurdle to clear. Because he was a
convicted felon, he had to gain clearance from Australian
authorities in order to enter the country.
"That was a big burden lifted off my shoulders," Bennett said. "I
can finally look forward to just training hard and competing. I
am just thankful that God was on my side and everything went well.
When things are in other people's hands, that you can't control,
you have to worry."
A virtual nobody two years ago, Bennett now is ready to conquer
the world in Sydney.
"I just have to take one step at a time," he said. "Now, I am
going Sydney-bound and hopefully with the grace of God, I am
going to win a gold medal."
|Michael Bennett, right, wants a shot at Cuba's Felix Savon.|
American boxers ready for Sydney