Losers: The Miscast Champion

LOSERS

(Image Credit: Netflix)

Eight minutes into Episode 1 of the documentary series on Netflix, titled “Losers”, and directed by Michael Duzyj, former WBO Heavyweight champion Michael Bentt, makes the shape of a pistol using his index and middle fingers before shoving them into his mouth. There is a pregnant pause for a few seconds before Bentt removes his fingers. Whatever relief the viewer experiences turns out to be premature as Bentt mimics the suicide act once again. Silence. Gun in mouth. Goosebumps. Fear. Bone chilling tension. Bentt finally reverts to his original repose with both hands calmly resting by his sides.

Michael Bentt’s destiny was cast by a man who was more a brute than a benevolent individual. That barbarian unfortunately also happened to be his father. Born to Jamaican parents, Bentt narrates in the documentary about the earliest memory he had as a child – sitting squeezed between his parents and watching two people box one another. A massive Muhammad Ali fan, Bentt Sr, was given to just two primal forms of expression – raw rage and stony silence. He also nursed a frenzied ambition for his son to be the next Ali. Michael Bentt had no choice but to box. The barbarian even plucked out the antennae from the TV and walloped young Bentt with it when the boy confessed his distaste for the sport. In an essay titled, “Of Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice”, American best-selling author, Joan Didion writes, “…whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s chances. What makes me uneasy is the sense that they are merging their children’s chances with their own, demanding of a child that he make good not only for himself, but for the greater glory of his father and mother.”

Michael Bentt narrates in a matter-of-fact manner how he went onto win the New York City Golden Gloves Championship 4 times and the National Championship 5 times. “The reason why I turned pro was to get under my father’s roof” admits Bentt. But his pro debut turns out to be an absolute horror show. A first round knockout at the hands of Jerry Jones and the earth gives way under Bentt’s legs. “My father who was present, went ballistic. ‘How my fucking son lose the fucking fight?’” This humiliation almost became too much to take for Bentt and he even contemplated suicide in his brother’s apartment. Hence the mimicking of the suicide act as set out in the preceding paragraphs.

A chance call from Evander Holyfield results in Bentt becoming his sparring partner. George Benton, the legendary trainer spots a mercurial talent in Bentt and thus begins Chapter II in the reserved boxer’s reticent dream. A string of victories, and the next thing Bentt knows is that he is up against the ferocious Tommy Morrison for the WBO Championships. Against all odds, the underdog knocks out the reigning champion, and Michael Bentt arguably becomes the world’s most hesitant boxing champion. “I never wanted to be a professional in the first place.”  Whatever joy Bentt may have nursed in bagging the title is short lived as his very first title defense turns out to be an unmitigated disaster. A lesser known boxer Herbie Hide demolishes a haggard, and zombified Bentt, knocking the stuffing out of him. Hide, involuntarily, also did a bit more than just knock Bentt out. The blow to his head lead to a swelling in the brain to reduce which Bentt is forced into an induced coma. Bentt remains in that state for four full days. “My father was living in Florida then. And I heard that he said, after he watched the fight… ‘yeah, let the bloodclaat boy dead’. That’s Jamaican patois for him saying, ‘let the fucking guy die.’” Bentt’s professional boxing career thus comes to a careening halt. But when the neurosurgeon pronounces his career done, a sense of relief engulfs Bentt. It is a new beginning to a new phase in life.

Always nursing a penchant for writing, Bentt decides to give wings to his passion. After enrolling himself in writing classes, Bentt meets legendary sportswriter Bert Sugar at an HBO event. Sugar asks him to pen a piece for his magazine. The result – “Anatomy of a Knockout – How it feels to be KO’d”. This piece leads to a casting when writer/Director Ron Shelton, homes in on Bentt to play the role of Sonny Liston in his film on Ali.

As the documentary effervescently reveals, Bentt is leading a contended life training entertainers and actors in preparing them for their roles. Working with stars such as Mickey Rourke, Bentt is the proud recipient of respect, trust, care and affection, valuable gifts which his father never even bothered showering on his vulnerable son. The A-list of celebrities looking for Bentt’s expertise and advise are legion. From Clint Eastwood, to Michael Mann, and everyone in between the list seems to be bottomless. “Getting knocked out by Herbie Hunt was the best thing that ever happened to me” says Bentt as the episode slowly winds down. “It was painful. But if I had not gotten knocked out by Herbie Hide, I would still be playing the role, the “role” of the boxer guy wearing that mask. Quoting Miles Davis, Bentt signs off in style, “sometimes it takes a long time to learn how to play like yourself.” “I am always chasing, like, you know, “Who am I?”. “And that’s Ok.”

Ron Shelton however has the last word. “I think we get it wrong a lot, especially in this country. It’s all about winning. People who are considered “winners”, are, in. my mind, some of the greatest losers of all time, and people who are called “losers”, are to me some of the great winners of all time.”

Thus, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that the title of this episode is “The Miscast Champion.”

Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts: Rebekah Modrak & Jamie Vander Broek

Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts: Amazon.co.uk: Modrak, Rebekah, Vander  Broek, Jamie Lausch, Ahuvia, Aaron, Belk, Russell, Blow, Charles, Boothman,  Richard C, Brown, Ruth Nicole, Buss, Sarah, Callard, Agnes, Clemetson,  Lynette, Danienta,

“Radical Humility” edited by artist and writer, Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek, art librarian at the University of Michigan, is a “feel good” assemblage of essays penned by an eclectic agglomeration of authors. One common theme unifying these contributions is the notion of humility. Thus we have, among others, philosophers evoking the Socratic principle of humility in acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge, scholars extolling as “making failure”, the unfortunate efforts in 3D printing endeavours, and film makers reminding their viewers about the contributions made by “losers”, which at times even tower over the virtues of winners. Unlike the run of the mill self help books that specialise in flogging dead horses, yet professing the discovery of an earth shattering piece of wisdom or principle, “Radical Humility” leaves it all to the reader, preferring to just inform her on the advantages of being humble, by taking recourse to real life examples.  

The book kicks off with an inspirational essay titled “Free yourself by choosing the plain crackers“ by Rebekah Modrak. Fleeing a stifling university culture in Ann Arbor, Modrak spends five weeks in the nondescript town of Aurora in Nebraska. Antithetical to the ubiquity of materialism, Aurora seems to be an exercise in minimalism. While the buzzword in the Ann Arbor was “visibility”, Aurora seems to revel in the concept of “anonymity.” Armed with a University Grant, Modrak embarks on a 5 week residency on a farm, as a part of which she conducts a series of interviews with the townsfolk. Carpenters, custodians, construction workers, senators and mayors alike patiently set out their views and silently glide out of the room with no care or concern for titles or epithets. Leading a life of absolute frugality, the people of Aurora value one tenet of human nature over all else, humility.

Philosopher Agnes Callard and poet Troy Jollimore, both draw parallels – in different essays – to Socrates and his mode of contemplating life to drive home the power of humility. History’s premier philosopher adopted a singularly unique method of passive interrogation, to supplement, and supplant both his as well as his interlocutor’s understanding on various aspects of human knowledge. The unfortunate yet privileged subjects of Socrates often found themselves in a state of “aporia”, or confusion, from which there was no retreat. And yet, after each episode, they all left the scene that much wiser. Jollimore in particular, highlights the perils that would emanate from harbouring a misguided notion that one’s opinion, even on complex matters trumps that of those around them. In fact, in a 2015 poll conducted in the United States, more than thirty percent of Republican Primary voters and almost twenty percent of their Democratic counterparts confidently reiterated their support for a bombing of Agrabah. Agrabah, by the way is the fictional nation that is the creation of Disney in their animated film, Aladdin.

In a profoundly moving piece, Richard C. Boothman, former trial lawyer and current Chief Risk Officer for the University of Michigan Health System, explains the importance of and pre-requisite for humility in the healthcare system on the part of both care givers and patients. Highlighting two tragic cases, Boothman underscores the invaluable power and potential of humility to not just forgive, but to heal as well. Lamenting the “deny and defend” culture that has permeated the world of medical care, Boothman bemoans the fact that healthcare has constructed a fortress with its own waiting rooms, its own language and an inimitable social system that encourages usage of buzz words such as “patient engagement.” Ushering in a radical change, Boothman and the University of Michigan decided to bare their hearts and souls to the patients and admit to inadvertent human errors that had calamitous consequences to not just the patients, but their families as well. This astonishingly benevolent decision however created immense backlash, as Boothman informs his reader. While the President of the American Medical Association lampooned Boothman’s actions as “reckless”, a group of famous scholars called the approach, “an improbable risk management strategy.” Monumental testimony to the altruistic strides which healthcare yet has to take.

Lynette Clemetson, Director of Wallace House, University of Michigan, in her essay, “Journalism in an era of likes, follows, and shares” underscores the need for unobtrusiveness in a reporter that would lend an element of humility and dignity to his/her work. Drawing inspiration from legends in the business such as Steven Strasser, David Fahrenthold, Gwen Ifil, Michele Norris, Robin Toner and Michel Martin, Clemetson emphasizes the need to be humble and yet hold on to what one values in an uncompromising manner. “Don’t get in the way of your story”, “Hold onto what you value”, and “check the small details” are her key takeaways.

In a shot, albeit powerful contribution, Mickey Duzyj, the creator of the Netflix documentary series, ‘Losers’, highlights the precocious contributions that are made by athletes who in their own sporting career suffered meltdowns at various stages that ensured that success forever eluded them. French golfer Jean Van De Velde, made a capital meal of his chances at the 1999 Open, thereby covering himself in perpetual infamy. However, banishing this bitter memory away, he championed a more noble cause, and in the process raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for impoverished children in the capacity of a UNICEF Ambassador. Similarly, Surya Bonaly, a black figure skater became an outcast following her tantrums after finishing second in the 1994 World Championships. Now a paragon of humility, Bonaly dons the mantle of a mentor by taking charge of young athletes of colour. She always warns her students that an “obsession towards medals can destroy them.”

“Radical Humiliation” is a modest, unpretentious and honest collection of simple thoughts all of which converge towards one overarching principle. Inculcating and implementing the quality of humility. As Russell Belk, the Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing, and York University Distinguished Research Professor, says in his essay, “humility is largely voluntary; humiliation is largely involuntary. Humility is a choice made with dignity. Humiliation is imposed from without as a result of callousness and prejudice.”

We agree!

(Radical Humility will be released by Belt Publishing on the 16th of March, 2021)