GEORGE BENTON: FROM CONTENDER TO PROFESSOR

By Dean Berks – It was early 1955 and twenty one year old George Benton strolled into Johnny Madison’s gym for his workout. As he entered, his friend Charlie Scott called out to him, “Hey George. Guess who you got turned down by today?”. “Who?” quizzed Benton. “You won’t believe this” came the reply. “Who?” Benton asked again. “Sugar Ray Robinson”. “You’re crazy” answered Benton. “Honest to God” continued Scott. “George Gainford called Herman Taylor for an opponent”, referring to Robinson’s manager Gainford and Philadelphia promoter Taylor, “And Taylor replied, ‘Yeah I got a guy, George Benton’. But when Taylor heard that he replied, ‘We don’t want him’.” At the time, Robinson had just started a comeback after two years out, and he ended up fighting Tiger Jones instead. And losing.

The above story from Dave Anderson’s fantastic “Ringmasters” book sums up just how highly regarded Benton was as a fighter. He journeyed from number one middleweight contender to one of history’s finest trainers and is generally associated with, and assumed the originator of, the Philly shell defence. With his left hand low and chin tucked inside his left shoulder, Benton could stand in front of an opponent, slipping and rolling with the oncoming punches before effortlessly firing back with his own counters. He was as smooth as they came and Philadelphian to the core.

Born in the City of Brotherly Love on 15 May 1933, Benton, one of eleven children, grew up watching Henry Armstrong, the aforementioned Robinson, and Philadelphia’s own lightweight champion Bob Montgomery. Starting boxing when 8 years old, he had his first amateur bout at 13, and learned all about avoiding punches whilst sparring with a fighter named Jimmy Collins. “You couldn’t hit him with a handful of rice”, was how he described being opposite Collins. Then one day, Collins complained to Benton’s trainer Joe Rose that he didn’t want to spar the young Benton anymore as he was getting “too big”. But the reality was that Benton was figuring Collins out and giving him all he could handle. He won the 147 Ib title in the Inquirer Diamond belt tournament, finishing his amateur career with a 67-10 record, then turned professional on 18 July 1949, aged just 16, with a first round knockout of one Chico Wade, then won his next six before losing a six round decision to Al Mobley. During this period, as he was held in such high regard in his gym, he would look after the other fighters when Rose had to go out of town to work. They listened and respected the young Benton and Rose knew that when he returned, the fighters would be fit and ready for action. The seeds of a great trainer were already being sewn.

Benton reeled off seventeen wins, including a points win over the highly regarded Holly Mims, before losing a majority decision to Joe Blackwood. He continued with seven victories and a draw before he was drafted in to the United States Army in 1956. Whilst in there, he coached the boxing team when he was stationed in Korea. Needless to say, the team won all of their tournaments. After leaving in 1958, he resumed his career, but inconsistency had set in. He won two fights before Willie Dockery took a ten round split decision over him. He then split two ten rounders with former victim, and now ranked contender Charley Joseph, racked up two more wins, but lost back-to-back decisions to Mims and Henry Hank. Two months later Gene Washington was stopped in nine, followed by a ten round decision over future junior middleweight champion Freddie Little. Benton then travelled to Scotland, losing on points to John McCormack. It was after this setback that he decided to retire. The division’s depth added to the fact that many avoided him and he was struggling to get fights, so he decided that a regular job was the way to go. Almost twelve months to the day though, after realising that he could earn more money in the ring than out of it, he returned with a third round stoppage of Chico Corsey. The break appeared to have revitalised him as he went on an nine fight winning streak, the highlight being a points win over future middleweight champion and number two ranked contender Joey Giardello. However, in a time when having the right connections meant everything, it was Giardello, who had upset Sugar Ray Robinson on points to become the number one contender, who received a shot at world champion Dick Tiger, taking the title on a fifteen round decision. And Giardello’s manager, Lou Duva, made sure that his man would never face Benton again, especially with the title on the line, a story that Duva would relay to Benton when they ended up working together many years down the line!! Now ranked number three in the world, Benton’s reputation was growing. He had once sparred former heavyweight champion, and the much feared, Sonny Liston. Reports had Liston swinging for air as the decidedly smaller Benton put on a boxing clinic, and now, after years of frustration and having done enough to earn his shot, he was once again finding himself avoided and denied a chance to become champion. Back in the ring, he moved on with three straight stoppages before being upset on a split decision by rising contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. It was a fight that could have gone either way, but for Benton it meant he was back to being deemed to dangerous a fight for the top contenders. He had come so close to the top, but now his chance to become middleweight champion had gone. He won four of his next five, before outpointing one Jimmy Ellis over ten. It was a win that got better with time as Ellis not only went unbeaten for the next five years, but he also went up in weight to become WBA heavyweight champion. But his career was unwinding. He won his next fight before losing three on the bounce, being stopped twice. The first was against Cuban great Luis Rodriguez who, after an evenly fought contest, topped Benton on a badly cut left eye in round 9. He was outpointed by Milo Calhoun, before meeting fellow Philadelphian hard man Bennie Briscoe. The now 33 year old was worn down by the pressure of the young and heavy handed Briscoe, being stopped on his stool before the tenth round. He continued against lower grade opposition, winning his next eight, but lost to Juarez de Lima in what would turn out to be his final bout.

One night in 1970 changed Benton’s life forever. Walking down a street in his hometown, he heard someone call out his name from a doorway. He knew the man as “Chinaman”. Benton walked over and the man said he wanted revenge for an incident that had happened earlier on in the evening. It turned out that this man had tried to pick up Benton’s sister in a bar and his brother had knocked him out. He then vowed to get revenge on any Benton. He had found George. He pulled out a thirty-eight calibre pistol and shot Benton in the back, chipping and lodging in to his spine. Benton grabbed his attacker, headbutting him until he dropped the weapon. The action saved his life, but his in-ring career was over.

He was in and out of hospital for the next two years. The bullet had pierced his bowel, which in turn had infected his spine. He had to wear a body cast and his weight fell from 165 lbs down to 105 lbs. Laying in the hospital bed one night he claimed to have heard a voice say to him “You were a good fighter and a good hustler, but I’m going to take that all away from you. I want to see if you can come back”. He never forgot the voice as he knew it was challenging him to make something of himself once again. When he got out of the hospital, he had a couple of jobs but then started training fighters. One day former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier approached him about keeping an eye on the fighters in his gym whilst head trainer Eddie Futch was out of town. Benton gladly accepted. When Futch came back, Frazier asked to keep Benton around. He was back in boxing.

As assistant to Futch he learned more about the mental aspect of being a trainer, learning how to approach different personalities and how to impart advice. And, combined with his own knowledge, the importance of knowing how to break down styles. He worked with former opponent Bennie Briscoe, taking him on a twelve fight unbeaten run, culminating with a shot at middleweight champion Rodrigo Valdes, then he was in the corner alongside Futch for the historical “Thrilla in Manila” rubber match between Frazier and Muhammad Ali, on 1 October 1975. In a brutal contest between the now past their best rivals, Frazier was retired on his stool at the end of the fourteenth round with both eyes rapidly closing. Ali himself was close to exhaustion in the opposite corner. While never second guessing Futch’s decision, Benton had admitted that if he had been chief second, he would have told Frazier to jump up and down in the corner, raring to go, as he had observed Ali’s corner and had seen the champion virtually depleted of energy. His feeling was that Ali may well have, at that moment, thrown the towel in. The fact that Ali voiced afterwards that he felt “it was the closet thing to death” he had experienced may have added further weight to that judgment. Three years later, he would get another crack at the self proclaimed “Greatest” when 1976 Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks recieved a surprising shot at the title. Spinks was just 6-0-1, with 5 KO’s whilst Ali, now 36 years old, was vastly more experienced at 55-2, with 37 KO’s. Ali had chosen Spinks as he knew a fourth fight with Ken Norton would be ordered by the WBC. He would make a lot of money fighting who he had perceived as a lesser threat in Spinks. Benton had helped train Spinks for his previous fight and his manager Butch Lewis had requested his help once again. He went to work, devising a strategy where Spinks pressed Ali, throwing straight punches, knowing that Ali would pull out of the range of hooks. He knew the strength of Ali’s jaw so told Spinks to just keep busy and not load up on punches. In sparring, Spinks would fire his jab just under his opponents left shoulder, with the effect being felt in the later rounds when Ali would struggle to lift that arm. On the night of 15 February 1978, Spinks upset Ali with a fifteen round split decision. But fame and fortune grasped “Neon” Leon as he basked in the glory of becoming heavyweight champion. Benton could barely get near him, as family, friends, ex-marine buddies, and hangers-on all took up his time. He signed for a rematch with Ali and was promptly stripped of the WBC title for refusing to face Norton. Training for this fight was a calamity. Benton had advised the same strategy as before, but this was an unprepared Spinks and a fully focused Ali. On fight night, 15 September 1978, the corner was pure chaos. Firstly, no one had thought to bring his protective cup, water bottle or bucket, all of which had to be borrowed off of Mike Rossman, who had won the WBA light-heavyweight title on the undercard. Then Benton was told that Sam Solomon, Spinks head trainer, his brother Michael and himself, would take turns talking to Leon between each round. Benton had to wait until round five to speak after even his marine friends had got in on the act!! Spinks had hardly done a thing up to that moment. Benton got in his ear and Spinks had his best round. But when Benton went to climb the steps at the end of the round, someone else went up. Benton had had enough, storming back to the changing room and grabbing his coat, before promptly leaving the arena. Needless to say, Spinks lost the title on a unanimous decision.

But success was to come when in a strange twist of fate, Lou Duva, now manager with his son Dan at Main Events Promotions, sought out Benton to train the fighters at their stable. He worked with world champions Johnny Bumphus, Rocky Lockridge and Leo Randolph. Then in 1984, things jumped up a notch when Main Events signed Olympic gold medalists Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Tyrell Biggs, plus bronze medal winner Evander Holyfield. It was an extraordinary array of talent. In Whitaker, Benton found a kindred spirit in their respective styles. Settling Whitaker down, he educated him in the art of defending and countering whilst staying in the pocket, skills that were mastered and executed to perfection. Whitaker went on to win titles in four divisions and is generally regarded as one of the top five lightweight champions in history. In a later interview, Whitaker heaped praise on his former trainer. “It was always a teachable moment with George” he reflected, “There was always something in the ring that he was able to talk to me about. He gave me everything from the old school that worked for me and it worked. Whether it was aiming for the chest or aiming for the shoulders, just the way he would have fought in the 50’s and the 60’s, and I fell in love with that style of boxing. And I was able to put that out there along with the skills and speed that I already had. It was a gift given to me and a gift that nobody else had”. Taylor represented the Philly fighter in Benton’s heart. Blessed with blurring speed and toughness, Taylor considered himself a fighter first and a boxer second, electing, at times, to war in the trenches as opposed to employing his natural gifts. He went on to win world titles in two divisions, but his legacy was cemented in his unification with fellow unbeaten champion Julio Cesar Chavez. Taylor put on a dazzling display, outboxing the Mexican for long periods, but shipping a lot of punishment along the way. He was eventually dropped and stopped with just two seconds left in the fight, whilst ahead on two of the scorecards. Before the last round, Benton, unsure of how the fight was being scored, instructed Taylor to outfight Chavez instead of boxing and moving. Taylor felt in the aftermath that the advice had contributed to him losing. He was never quite the same fighter again and he had lost some of the faith in Benton and Duva. After losing his WBA welterweight title to Crisanto Espana, they parted ways. With Biggs it was a very different story. He never really quite adapted to the professional ranks, struggling it times with fringe contenders, as well as a substance abuse problem. He was put in with then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, prematurely for many, for his one and only title shot. Biggs took a beating, as Tyson handed him a seventh round stoppage loss.

But it was with Holyfield that Benton had his biggest success. From cruiserweight champion to four-time heavyweight champion, Holyfield’s grounding started with Benton. But when he first turned pro, he suffered with terrible stamina problems, blowing out after just three rounds. Benton knew it was more of a psychological barrier than a physical deficit and worked on “convincing” Holyfield that he was okay. When Holyfield was on the bags or sparring, Benton, with stopwatch in hand, would con him by telling him he had done three minutes of work when, in fact, he had just completed two minutes. So when the time was increased back to three, Holyfield believed he had done four. And he went from strength to strength. Benton spent hours analysing styles and formulating strategies for his fighters, drilling the lessons in to them that they must learn to adapt to and conquer all styles of boxing. When Holyfield was to face James “Buster” Douglas for the heavyweight title, he observed that Douglas double jabbed before throwing a right uppercut from distance. He had Holyfield repeatedly rocking back on his right leg in training before countering the uppercut with a straight right. The constant repetition was instinctively rewarded when the same move knocked out Douglas in the third round and handed Holyfield the title. Benton had his first “true” heavyweight champion. He had also taken stock of the fact that boxer’s who over-rely on their jab had a tendency to use it less when jabbed back, a tactic that had also seen Holyfield outbox Douglas over the first two rounds. Holyfield made three defences before running in to Olympic silver medalist Riddick Bowe. Bowe was trained by Benton’s former mentor Futch who had done a remarkable job of transforming him from a fighter with a lackadaisical attitude to serious heavyweight contender. Holyfield had sparred Bowe previously and, despite giving away all physical advantages, Benton believed that the champion had the skills and speed to outbox his younger rival. And the first round appeared to confirm this, with Holyfield following the gameplan that had been mapped out. But pride can be a dangerous thing, and when Holyfield was tagged with a big right in round two, the strategy went out of the window. From that point, Holyfield set out to prove he could outpunch the much bigger Bowe. It proved his undoing and cost him the title as he lost a unanimous decision. Briefly retiring, by the time Holyfield returned, it was with a new team, and Emanuel Steward had taken over from Benton.

But behind the scenes, things were unravelling. Benton’s relationship with Duva had become strained. While the main issue was never disclosed, it was believed that Benton had become tired of Duva’s theatrics and was left feeling unheralded in their partnership. So in 1994, he walked away from Main Events, bringing an end to a highly successful era that also included stints training Mike McCallum and Michael Moorer.

Benton continued working, and was in the corner for one of the most bizarre moments in boxing history when Oliver McCall met Lennox Lewis on 7 February 1997 in a rematch for the vacant WBC heavyweight title. Lewis dominated the first three rounds as McCall barely mustered up any interest in fighting, hardly throwing any punches. At the end of the third McCall wandered around the ring, refusing to sit down. Benton could only look on, bewildered by what was unfolding in front of him. But things were to get stranger. After another listless round, McCall started sobbing in the ring. Referee Mills Lane asked him if he wanted to continue and McCall nodded. But after only a brief period of the fifth, and McCall once again showing no inclination of wanting to box, Lane stopped the fight. McCall instantly climbed out of the ring. It was the first time a fighter appeared to have a mental breakdown in the ring. Afterwards, Benton commented in the media that he had been aware of McCall’s troubled past but had thought he was now clean. He warned others of the dangers of drugs, using McCall as a perfect example.

From here Benton would seldom be seen in the corner. Throughout his life, he rarely mixed with “boxing people”, preferring his own company. As he put it himself, “Nobody gets close, no man, and especially no woman”. He had enjoyed the parties and nightlife in his heyday, and had fathered eleven children, nine out of wedlock. He called himself “the luckiest guy in the world” for what boxing had given him. When asked if there was any fighter he would have liked the opportunity to have trained, he always said ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, not to discredit Angelo Dundee or Janks Morton, but he felt that he could have got a little bit more out him. After having seen what he had achieved, there is every reason to believe that he could have too.

In both 1989 and 1990, he was recognised by the Boxing Writers Association of America as ‘Trainer of the Year’, being awarded the ‘Futch-Condon Award’. In 2001, he was inducted in to the International Boxing Hall of Fame for his achievements.

On 19 September 2011, Benton sadly passed away after battling pneumonia. He was 78.

When boxing’s greatest trainers are discussed, George Benton will always be one of the names mentioned. Widely recognised and appreciated for his defensive wizardry, his knowledge and experience would always benefit fighters of all ages and experience. The list of fighters who benefitted from his expertise is an impressive one. He was one of the finest teachers in boxing, part of a bygone era that, especially in the modern boxing world, feels further and further away. As he liked to say, “Styles. It’s all about styles”. It would be wise to listen to the man who became known to his students as ‘The Professor’.