Two years ago, at the 1997 World Amateur Boxing Championships in Budapest, you had to come early if you wanted to see American fighters. Not one survived the quarterfinals. The U.S. amateur program, which had produced and nurtured the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones and Oscar De La Hoya, was on the ropes and taking a licking.
The Humbling in Hungary was due in large part to the cocky attitude of the American fighters. They didn't bother to adapt their brawling, body-pummeling styles to the demands of the sport's computer scoring system, which had been instituted in 1989 and emphasizes landing clean punches that the judges can easily see. Says new national coach Tom Mustin of the '97 U.S. boxers, "They had entourages as big as their egos, brought their lawyers to camp and acted as if the gold medals were already around their necks."
The selfless bunch Mustin brought to last week's worlds in Houston worked the computers with Bill Gatesian cunning. Helped by some dubious judging that led to a late Cuban pullout, Team USA won four gold medals—its best-ever showing at the championships. Among those bearing gold were featherweight Ricardo Juarez, a Houstonian called Cadillac because he jogs like he's reclining in an Eldorado; Sacramento light heavyweight Michael Simms Jr., whose nickname Mr. Smell Good derives from his custom of dabbing cologne on his hand wraps ("So I won't offend"); and light flyweight Brian Viloria, whose Honolulu birthright earned him the inevitable handle Hawaiian Punch.
A sophomore at Northern Michigan, Viloria began boxing as a 45-pound seven-year-old. "The gloves reached to my elbows, and I had to be lifted into the ring," he recalls. He's now 5'7" and 106 pounds, apparently big enough to coach the cast of a TV miniseries. "I was supposed to teach the star to box, but he had two left feet," Viloria says. "I felt like I was trying to turn Urkel into Tyson."
The most unlikely champion was Michael Bennett, a Chicago heavyweight whose biceps look like grapefruits dosed with Miracle Grow. "It's a gift," he explains. "Just DNA." Bennett is the master of the "foo-fop-foops," his description of the fierce left-right-left flurry he perfected in the Illinois penal system. After putting together triple-F combos faster than any ringsider could count to outpoint Serik Umirbekov of Kazakhstan in the quarters, Bennett said, "I had to set up my shots to kill him. That's why...." He backed up and added, almost apologetically: "Not kill him, as much as knock him down."
Bennett, 28, is cautious about excessively violent talk because he just finished a seven-year stretch for armed robbery and aggravated unlawful restraint. Since getting sprung from the Galesburg Correctional Center in July 1998, he has ripped through the amateur ranks with astonishing speed, winning a silver medal in April at the U.S. championships and a gold in June at the U.S. Challenge. "I never expected to win my first international tournament," Bennett said of his world crown. "I feel devirginized, or whatever you want to call it."
His fistic deflowering came during his fourth year in prison. "I never boxed as a kid," he says. "I was afraid my eyes would get blackened." A standout running back at Senn High on the North Side of Chicago, Bennett was the city's 190-pound wrestling champ in 1990. On summer break after his freshman year at North Park College in '91, Bennett and a high school buddy held up a Toys "R" Us with a sawed-off shotgun. A few weeks later his accomplice was arrested and fingered Bennett. "Ironically," says Bennett, "I'd been studying criminal justice."
Though he was a first-time offender, he got 26 years. "I learned criminals don't always get justice," says Bennett, whose sentence was reduced to 15 years on appeal and who was released after seven. "I'm not complaining. I made a mistake. Lots of good men have made mistakes. Some pay more than others."
He started making his payments at the maximum-security facility in Menard. "The system weeds out the weak and the meek," says Bennett. "I was at the top of the food chain, so I didn't get eaten."
His prison mates dubbed him the Toy Store Bandit, a name he detests. "One guy talked such major trash to me that I wanted to fight him," says Bennett, "though not illegally." Bennett enlisted a lifer to teach him to box. He can't remember the con's name or the crime he was in for. "If you ask too many questions, guys start thinking you're nosy," he says. "My philosophy was, the less I knew, the less I'd be able to tell."