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Losers: The Miscast Champion

by Venky

(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.”

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