By J. Russell Peltz
When I was 15 years old, I read in the newspaper that George Benton knew 48 different ways to avoid getting hit with a left jab. I had learned how to box a couple of years earlier and I was trying to figure out all the ways this could be done but I gave up after about a dozen. At the time in 1962, George was in the middle of one of his many comebacks. This one would lead him back into the Top 10 and onto the doorstep of the title shot he would never get. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride!
My dad took me to Convention Hall that May to see George fight cross-town rival Jesse “Crazy Horse” Smith. We sat ringside and watched George play defense, then pick Smith apart (right) en route to a unanimous decision. Among other monikers, George was known as the Mayor of North Philadelphia and that’s the one I liked best.
“He just sets there and waits for you to do something,” Smith said afterward. “And when you do, you’re sorry you did.”
I was away that summer when George and Joey Giardello packed the 12,000-seat Convention Hall for their all-Philly showdown. I got a copy of the Philadelphia Daily News the day after the fight and I never forgot Jack McKinney’s opening paragraph:
“George Benton, the man, finally caught up with George Benton, the legend, and the two walked out of Convention Hall together last night. After 13 years of frustration and unfulfilled promise, the gifted North Philadelphia middleweight finally tore loose from his personal treadmill to win the biggest fight of his career with a solid decision over veteran contender Joey Giardello.” (Why don’t they make writers like that anymore?)
People say George blew a title shot when he lost a split decision to Hurricane Carter the following June (below) in his first-ever fight at Madison Square Garden. Forget-about-it! George could have knocked Carter dead and he still would have been on the outside looking in. As it was, Carter was the perfect foil for George but George tried to look spectacular and got off his game plan and blew the duke, even though I still thought he won, but he wasn’t going to get the decision in New York.
The sports editor of the Daily News, a young fellow named Larry Merchant, covered the Benton-Carter fight:
“Maybe George Benton is blood brother to the jazz artist destined to blow soulfully in obscure cafes forever.
“The night the Decca executive decides to hear him out, he tries to come on bigger than big, tries to make an impression by giving the man what he thinks he wants, which he cannot believe is the pure him because they never wanted the pure him before. What pours out is a distorted wailing that is a parody of all the commercial claptrap he despises.
‘The executive, in a midnight cab, sighs to a flunkey, ‘You know, you can get scat guys anyplace these days. A dime a dozen! What I’m really looking for is someone who can blow soulfully.’
“This is what happened Saturday, in a scene heavy with irony, thick with pathos and sad with the personal tragedy of a decent fellow. George Benton had his chance to blow his soulful music—and he blew up.”
Benton’s real problem was his loyalty to manager Herman Diamond, who refused to do business with certain mob people and that’s why Benton never got a chance at Dick Tiger’s middleweight crown. In fact, the 160-pound title changed hands 22 times during Benton’s 21-year career and he never got a shot.
He boxed twice for me in 1970 at the Blue Horizon and they were his last two fights in Philadelphia. He had one more that year in New York, then got shot in the back during a neighborhood confrontation and never fought again.
The first time he boxed for me was against David Beckles, an ordinary guy from Trinidad, BWI. Beckles was coming to Philadelphia by train from New York and he was late for the weigh-in, very late. Benton had been disappointed numerous times by fighters canceling out on him and he began pacing the floor. Then he sat down on a bench near the front door of the commission offices, chain-smoking and stamping out butts on the floor, one after another. Back then the weigh-ins were at noon the day of the fight and here was Benton finishing off a pack of cigarettes.
Beckles showed nearly up two hours late but George finally got to relax. That night, there were four prelims. Two ended in the first round, one in the second and one went four rounds to a decision. We had intermission 30 minutes after the first bell and I was in a panic. I went to the dressing room and I asked George if he would carry Beckles for a few rounds so the crowd could get their money’s worth.
“No problem, baby cakes (that’s what he always called me),” Benton said.
Needless to say, George knocked Beckles out in one round. When he got back to the dressing room, I was there, listening to his lame excuse.
“I couldn’t help it, baby cakes, he started firing on me,” he said.
Benton worked hard to earn a 10-round decision over Eddie “Red Top” Owens, of Hartford, CT, two months later in the same ring. After the shooting incident later that year, he was finished as a pro with a record of 62-13-1, 27 K0s. He had boxed in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
A few years later George began training fighters. It’s ironic that he got into the Hall of Fame (right) as a trainer after missing out as a fighter. He backed up Eddie Futch with Joe Frazier after Yank Durham died in 1973, but his first head- training job came with Bennie Briscoe late in 1974.
Briscoe had looked all washed up after a lackluster 10-round decision loss to Emile Griffith that October. Long-time trainer Quenzell McCall and Briscoe had a falling out and Briscoe wanted George to train him. Ironically, Briscoe had beaten George almost a decade earlier in Philadelphia.
George worked magic. Briscoe didn’t lose a fight for nearly four years and he got another world title fight and made more money than at any other time in his 20-year career.
I remember going to Nice, France, with Briscoe late in 1976 to fight Willie Warren for the second time. Imagine traveling with George Benton, Bennie Briscoe and legendary Philadelphia cut man Milt Bailey! What great times we had! I was like a kid in a candy store. You never realize how wonderful those times are until they are in your rearview mirror.
One day in Nice, George saw this beautiful three-piece black-and-white checkered suit in a store window. He wanted to buy it but he didn’t want to spend the money.
“Tell you what,” I said. “If Bennie beats Willie Warren again, I’ll buy the suit for you.”
Briscoe fought poorly, but still did more than enough to win. The official decision, however, was a draw.
The next day, George tells me we’re going to the store to get the suit.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Bennie didn’t win the fight.”
“Now, baby cakes,” he said, “you know well as I do that Bennie won that motherf***ing fight.”
I paid for the suit.
Through it all, George always liked to show me new things he was teaching Briscoe. So he’d have me hold my hands up and then he’d start showing me the punches. But George had a problem pulling his punches so I was always taking hard shots to the kidneys and the rib cage.
“Yo, George, don’t hurt the promoter!” I would yell.
“No problem, baby cakes!”