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.