George Benton dies at 78

Updated: September 22, 2011, 12:01 AM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Philadelphia boxing legend George Benton, who was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001, died Monday after a battle with pneumonia. He was 78.

Benton was a top middleweight contender in the 1950s and '60s. He defeated future Hall of Famer Joey Giardello in 1962 and is regarded by many as the best middleweight never to win a world title. Benton fought at a time when there was only one champion per division and never got the opportunity to vie for a title, in part because he was avoided and also because he was derailed by a 1963 split decision loss to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

Philadelphia promoter Russell Peltz, a Hall of Famer who became a close friend of Benton's, said the real reason Benton never got a title shot was because his manager, Herman Diamond, was unwilling to give up a piece of his contract to make it happen. And yet Benton remained loyal to Diamond.

Although Benton (61-13-1, 36 KOs) fought from 1949 to 1970, his career was cut short when he was shot on a Philadelphia street by a man who had a beef with one of his brothers, according to the International Boxing Hall of Fame's record book.

Benton is a member of the Hall of Fame because of his work as a trainer. After he retired from fighting, he eventually was hired to work in Joe Frazier's Philadelphia gym, where Benton worked with the great Eddie Futch and was in the corner as an assistant trainer when Frazier lost the rubber match -- "The Thrilla in Manila" -- to Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship.

But Benton, known by many as "The Professor," gained a measure of revenge. He helmed the corner as the trainer for Leon Spinks when Spinks pulled a huge upset to take the title from Ali in 1978.

Benton trained Evander Holyfield for Holyfield's knockout victory of James "Buster" Douglas to win the undisputed heavyweight championship in 1990. Benton also trained Mike McCallum, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Rocky Lockridge and Johnny Bumphus.

Many of the fighters he worked with were in a partnership with trainer/manager Lou Duva. They were officially labeled "co-trainers," although it was Benton who handled most of the boxing duties on a daily basis in the gym. They worked together for 17 years training fighters, mainly for Main Events, the Duva family promotional company, before a falling out occurred.

Benton won trainer of the year honors from the Boxing Writers Association of America in 1989 and 1990. He was inducted in the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame in 1986 and the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007.

Benton had a close relationship with Peltz, who put Benton on a couple of his cards near the end of his career.

"The first time he boxed for me was against David Beckles (in 1970)," Peltz recalled. "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 up nearly 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, babycakes.' That's what he always called me.

"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, babycakes, he started firing on me,' he said."

Benton, whose boxing career was interrupted by a stint in the Army, is survived by his wife, Mildred, and several children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for Monday at the Christlike PG Faith Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

Dan Rafael covers boxing for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.