He's back on track, with eyes on the prize


SYDNEY, Australia - Michael Bennett has been an amateur boxer for two years. He spent seven years in prison, doing time for armed robbery.

Dragged down by charges of brutality and bogus officiating, boxing wants to rehabilitate its image at the Olympics. The sport couldn't ask for a better symbol of rebirth than Bennett, a 29-year-old from Chicago who overcame a stupid choice to offer the heavyweight division the prospect of a marvelous gold-medal bout.

In one corner is Felix Savon, the Cuban who owned the division in Barcelona and Atlanta. In the other is Bennett, who won the world championship in Houston last year after Savon and the Cubans withdrew in protest of what Fidel Castro's nation felt was biased officiating.

Both want to match the accomplishments of legendary countrymen. Will Savon win his third gold medal, and stand alongside Teofilo Stevenson, who ruled in 1972, '76 and '80? Can Savon stand atop a division taken by Joe Frazier in 1964 and George Foreman in '68?

Bennett does not recall watching Savon walk through the division to either of his golds. There wasn't much TV time for the residents of "The Pit," the nickname given to Menard (Ill.) Federal Prison, which was Bennett's home from 1991 to '98. He was sent there for his part in an armed robbery, and what stands out about his fall and rise is that he was not just another punk whose life revolved around violence.

"The turning point for me was when I came home [from college] one summer," Bennett said yesterday about his path from college to prison to the Olympics. "I was lying to my mother, insisting that I wasn't hanging out with this person that I was.

"When they tell you to meditate good thoughts [in prison], I didn't visualize this. I just envisioned going home and being a good son, starting a family. . . . You find yourself walking a circle in your cell, saying what did I get myself into?"

Yvonne Bennett did not raise a bad boy. A multi-sport athlete in high school, Michael went on to Northpark College, played linebacker for the football team and worked part-time for UPS.

He wasn't immune to bad judgment, however, and one summer Bennett joined a high school acquaintance during a hold-up. According to USA Boxing, his bail initially was set at $475,000 and he was sentenced to 26 years. An appeal reduced his time to 15 years, and he served seven.

As a kid, Bennett dreamed of playing for the Chicago Bears. As a con, he made his way through assorted team sports offered by the prison's Leisure Time Services, and found boxing in 1995.

"There's a different style of fighting in prison," Bennett said. "In there, people fight with their heart, their ego. It gave a lot of people like myself peace of mind, something to do. I don't know what I would have done with my idle time."

Bennett left Menard with a college degree and the plaque he received for winning his first boxing tournament. He is the oldest member of the American team, and the most inexperienced.

"I don't know much about boxing. A lot of these men have been boxing since they were little boys, but that wasn't my dream or aspiration when I started," said Bennett, who was asked if he had designs on competing in the Olympics when he was in prison. That was a little fuzzy at first, but it became clearer as time went on and I learned how to box."

Paroled from prison, Bennett went to the Garfield Park Gym in Chicago and began earnest lessons in the sweet science. He worked a graveyard shift in order to have afternoons free to train, entered the 1999 nationals with nine bouts under his belt and won. He lost the final of the Golden Gloves tournament to DaVarryl Williamson, but beat him in the U.S. Challenge for the right to go to the world championships.

Bennett has been living life at a quickened pace the past two years, and said that he hasn't had time to see the film "Hurricane," which was based on the life of Rubin Carter, a fighter who was falsely imprisoned in the 1960s and '70s. He trains, learns and speaks to boys about making the most of second chances.

"I'm living testimony to that," Bennett said. "As long as you shoot for the stars, anything can happen."

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