You couldn't hit him if you tried. You could let loose with everything you had, and he would stand right there in front of you, right there, and you would lunge and flail and hit only what he wanted you to hit, his shoulder or the palm of his hand or thin air. He had eyes in his ass, he says, and he ducked punches in his dreams. All his life he has practiced the art of escape, and now, in his 59th year, he wants you to understand that he has perfected it and that after a lifetime in the savage sport of boxing he is almost out of harm's way.
Oh, George Benton has taken some shots. How could he not have? The man is from Philadelphia. He boxed professionally for 21 years, fought anybody who would fight him and, although he was a perpetual top contender, never fought for the title. In 1970, when he was 37, someone put an end to his career by putting a bullet in his back, a bullet that remains lodged near his spine. He almost died, but he returned to the ring as a trainer, and since then he has schooled some of the very best—Joe Frazier and Johnny Bumphus and Mike McCallum and Leon Spinks—and now handles the finest stable of boxers in the world, including IBF junior welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker, WBA welterweight champion Meldrick Taylor and heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, who will defend his title on Nov. 13 against Riddick Bowe.
The master, the fighters call him. He teaches them jabs and feints and pivots and parries, all those little tricks nobody bothers to learn anymore. Twist your head. Scatter your jabs. Step on his toes. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don't and break his heart. But, hey, baby, as he would say, heartbreak is part of boxing—the one guarantee—and if the kids stay with him long enough, he will teach them something about that, too, something about surviving in a business that turns people into predators, that traffics in false friends, that encourages poor men to kill you with gloves while rich men kill you with paper and pencils.
Benton doesn't want his kids to run. He never ran when he fought; he moved his head, he twitched his shoulder, he made them miss. Those big bangers he battled, they knew where to find him. He was always there for the taking, his head within arm's length, but then, somehow, he would confound them; he would get away. Hell, even now, when he is sworn to distance and solitude, people know where to find him. When a fight is in town, and the lobbies of the big hotels stream with hard, hungry kids in multicolored sweat suits, sunglasses and webs of gold, you just go to the bar and look among the salesmen and the puffy-faced travelers in bad ties for a man the color of black coffee with a broad, handsome face and a high, wide nose and a cap set rakishly on top of his head. He always drinks a shot of Canadian Club, he always sits alone.
Well, not alone, not exactly. He simply does not fraternize, as he puts it, with boxing people, with Lou Duva, the manager who pays him for his services, for example, or Dan Duva, Lou's son, who promotes the fighters Benton trains. The salesmen and those puffy-faced travelers, the strays who drift in and out of the bar with time to kill, those are Benton's people, and if they sit next to him, he might sport them drinks and talk to them in a low, buzzy rasp that transforms all his s's into z's. Benton's stories—you can't even repeat the best ones, says Lou Duva, because "you'd get Georgie thrown in jail or shot by a jealous husband"—are about the juke joints, the all-night parties, the women, the swells, the high life in Philly. He'll tell you that he has fathered 11 children—nine out of wedlock—that boxing has made him a millionaire and that he's the "luckiest man in the world."
All night long he'll go on, but if you stay with him long enough, he might get right in your face and whisper that nobody gets close to George Benton—nobody, no man and especially no woman. He says that he hangs with nobody, depends on nobody, because he has had his heart broken enough, and the man beyond heartbreak is the man who goes alone.
The gym, on this day, is in Houston. Two kids in the middle of the ring are hitting each other. Benton is on the ring apron, watching, whispering, counting the seconds, signaling for the kids to stop the hitting or to start all over again, his life sliced up, as it has always been, into three-minute increments.
He has lost count of how many gyms he has seen, how many cities all over the world he has been in, as a fighter and as a trainer. All he knows is that this kind of place has been his whole life and that he feels comfortable here. See him at the edge of the ring? See the way the edges of his fancy dress shoes bite the canvas, the way he conducts every movement from the balls of his feet, without effort? That's balance, and balance is the name of the game. Every so often the two kids come flying toward him, stomping, grunting, throwing hard, but Benton doesn't retreat. He just leans back ever so slightly, and the battlers pass him by, splashing sweat and spit. Then he calls, "Time!" and the battlers come to him for their lesson. Although music is cracking open a set of tin-can speakers, he doesn't raise his voice. In the din he almost whispers, and the kids have to lean close to the old man's smile.