Work in Sports
No place to go but up
Bennett's career remains promising despite loss
SYDNEY, Australia -- The best thing about Michael Bennett's fight on Tuesday was that when it was over, it didn't really feel like it was over. Yes, Cuba's Felix Savon thrashed him and, yes, Bennett was retired from the Olympics. But there had been enough fight in him that you had to think, This was more like a beginning.
So far, Bennett's had a couple of those. He's only been boxing for two years, having learned the game behind bars from cons named Pharoah, Mongoose and Paspason. Bennett, who robbed a Toys 'R' Us store with an accomplice, had been given a 26-year sentence and was serving it in quiet desperation when he took up the sport. Released after seven years, he plunged into the amateur game, where the instruction was more rigorous and the payoff more sharply focused.
In his first tournament out of Menard Correctional Center -- The Pit -- Bennett won a silver medal. He was hooked. On a steep learning curve, Bennett soon became the cream of the boxing crop, ending up not only on the U.S. team but becoming the heavyweight world champion.
"You ask me if I could go back and erase that time," he says, mindful of the shame it caused his mother back in Chicago. "But if I did, I'd never have learned to box."
With his background and game, Bennett, 29, was an unlikely hero. But to watch him advance through competition, and to hear him talk about his intentions to mentor youth -- "I'm not a role model, I'm an example" -- had even the most cynical boxing fans rooting for him.
Of course, those cheers could only get him so far. His feel-good story crumbled around him as soon as two-time gold medalist Savon climbed over, and not through, the ropes. Savon, though aging fast at 33, remains a towering presence at 6-6. Everybody says Savon can be had, that he's showing vulnerabilities. But nobody has really exposed him, and he remains, in amateur boxing at least, an intimidating foe.
Bennett, at least, was not intimidated. He charged into Savon but could not penetrate the Cuban's long jab, could not fight inside and could not stay out of his range. The fight was eventually stopped in the third round of the scheduled four-rounder, with Savon winning 23-8.
Afterward, Bennett assured everyone he had done his best -- nobody doubted him -- and that he would be moving on from here. A pro career surely beckons -- he may not be a major talent but his resolve against higher odds is impressive -- and we'll no doubt be hearing from him again. When you remember where he had come from, and where he was likely to go, all of a sudden this loss doesn't seem that huge after all.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Richard Hoffer is in Sydney covering the boxing competition for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Hoffer's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.