If there is a single moment that defined George Benton's genius as a boxing trainer, it came in the third round of Evander Holyfield's Oct. 25, 1990, heavyweight championship bout with undisputed titlist James "Buster" Douglas at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Douglas, fresh off his shocking upset of Mike Tyson in Tokyo and outweighing Holyfield by 38 pounds, was standing tall when he attempted to throw an uppercut from the outside. Holyfield leaned back before stepping in with a right cross, then landed flush on Douglas' chin, sending him crashing to the canvas where he was counted out 1 minute, 10 seconds into the round by referee Mills Lane.
It was the realization of a vision that Benton, who was 78 when he died yesterday morning at St. Joseph's Hospital in North Philadelphia, had played out in his mind countless times as he prepared Holyfield for one of the Atlanta resident's many special nights in the ring.
"George worked with Evander on that," said Benton's longtime associate, Lou Duva, who was officially designated as Holyfield's co-trainer, although Benton did most of the actual strategizing. "If Buster dipped to throw the uppercut, Evander would step back and throw the hook. If Buster tried to throw it from an upright position, Evander would rock back and come in with the right hand.
"Was it a good strategy? Hey, look what happened."
Benton's gift for anticipating such opportunities, and getting his fighters ready to capitalize on them, is the reason he was enshrined as a "non-participant" in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001 and World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007. He also was selected by the Boxing Writers Association of America as Trainer of the Year for his work with Holyfield and others in 1989 and '90.
But Benton was not just an astute teacher of the sport he loved; he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame in 1986, before his greatest successes as a chief second, on the basis of a sterling 21-year professional career that ended in 1970 because of a gunshot wound, the bullet meant for someone else.
It is cruelly ironic that Benton, a master of defense who was so adept at slipping punches that opponents were trying so hard to hit him with, was forced to retire as an active fighter because of a wild shot for which he was not the intended target.
Those familiar with Benton, who posted a 61-13-1 record with 36 knockout victories, will tell you that the fact he never got the opportunity to fight for the world title -- despite victories over such notable opponents as Joey Giardello, Freddie Little, Holly Mims, Jesse Smith and Slim Jim Robinson, among others -- is one of boxing's greatest injustices. But it was a wrong that Benton might have made right were it not for his own outsized sense of loyalty.
"George fought for me twice," recalled Philadelphia-based Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz. "The middleweight title changed hands 22 times during his career. He would have gotten a title shot, and maybe more than one, but his manager, Herman Diamond, was unwilling to give up a piece of George's contract to make it happen. George might have forced the issue, but he was very loyal. Whatever Diamond wanted to do, George went along with it."
But as the door on Benton's own boxing career closed, another opened as a trainer. Most of his deserved acclaim came during his 17-year association with Main Events and Duva, which allowed him to mold Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Rocky Lockridge and Johnny Bumphus into champions. Benton was hailed as "The Professor," the consummate teacher of the sweet science, a man who could always wring maximum results from his students.
Not that there weren't problems along the way. Benton chafed at Duva's insistence on being labeled as co-trainer of the deep Main Events stable, which likely played a part in the dissolution of their relationship in the fall of 1994. He also occasionally feuded with Holyfield over the fighter's penchant for non-traditional experimentation, which included the hiring of ballet instructor Marya Kennett as his "flexibility coach," as well as bodybuilder Chasee Jordan as his "weight trainer." Those members of Holyfield's expanding retinue stole time from Benton, a situation to which he strenuously objected.
A miffed Benton blamed Duva for "throwing a monkey wrench" into what he believed was a verbal agreement to train future heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, a gig that went to Emanuel Steward. He also volunteered to train Tyson for his first fight with his former protege, Holyfield, in 1996. Tyson went in another direction and lost both of his matchups with Holyfield.
Benton might have held grudges against those he believed to have mistreated him in some way, but he stuck by those who stuck by him. His work in the corner was unassailable, and his passing -- possibly from complications from pneumonia, which led to his most recent hospitalization, although a cause of death was not immediately attributed -- widens a void in the Philadelphia boxing scene caused by the deaths this year of two other respected trainers, Jimmy Arthur and Bouie Fisher.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Benton is survived by his wife, Mildred, and a large number of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and all those who appreciated his contributions to boxing.
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