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.