- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia Heavyweight boxing creates legends in the Olympics. Think George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Teofilo Stevenson, the three-time gold medalist from Cuba.
Another legend is Felix Savon, the Cuban heavyweight trying to match Stevenson's legacy in Sydney with a third gold of his own.
An American stands in his way: Michael Bennett, who was serving time in prison for armed robbery when Savon won gold in Atlanta.
Savon and Bennett meet tomorrow in a preliminary round, but this is the fight for Olympic gold. Whoever walks out of the ring the victor at the Sydney Exhibition Centre most likely will go on to win the gold medal.
It is a highly anticipated showdown particularly after Bennett won by forfeit in the world championships in Houston in 1999. Bennett won with an official decision over Savon when the Cuban forfeited as part of his country's protest over the scoring at the championships.
This time, there will be no giveaways. It is considered not just an important fight for Savon but for the fading Cuban system as well. There have been reports in Australian newspapers that Fidel Castro will attend, although that is doubtful. It does illustrate the significance placed on this fight.
Savon, 32, feels pressure to match Stevenson's record. Bennett feels no pressure at all. Simply to have gotten this far is a remarkable victory for the 29-year-old heavyweight, who began boxing after he was released from prison in 1998.
"I've got a chance to start over and change my life," he said. "I have a chance to be an Olympic hero. I am representing my country, and after what I've been through, you don't know how much that means to me."
In a way, it is a typical boxing story. Bennett is the third straight U.S. Olympic heavyweight with a prison record. But that doesn't diminish the story's drama.
Bennett excelled at any sport he tried growing up in Chicago. But he and a friend robbed a toy store and got caught. Bennett was sentenced to 26 years and was faced with either being swallowed by the prison system or battling to get out of it.
Bennett is a fighter, so he fought. He appealed his sentence, which was reduced to 15 years, and was released after seven for good behavior. While in prison, he earned an associate degree in general education from an adult education program. And he learned to box in a prison program.
"I wanted to try it. I was a pretty good athlete, and thought I might be good at it," he said. "I grew to like it."
Bennett joined the Garfield Park Gym in Chicago after he was released. Remarkably, just six months after he got out of prison and with only a handful of fights under his belt, Bennett finished second at the U.S. Championships in 1999. Two months later he finished second again at the National Golden Gloves. Soon he would be first, winning the U.S. Challenge and earning his place on the American team that would go to the world championships.
He won his first three fights, setting up the battle against Savon. It would never come off. "I was disappointed," Bennett said. "I wanted to fight him, because he is the king of the hill. Now I get to fight a legend."
A legend indeed. The 6-foot-6 Savon captured the attention of the international amateur boxing scene when, at 19, he won the heavyweight world championships in 1986. He did not compete in the 1988 games in Seoul boycotted by Cuba. Savon won his first gold medal in 1992 in Barcelona in a hard-fought battle against another Chicago heavyweight with a prison record, Dannell Nicholson. Nicholson led Savon 8-6 after two rounds during a preliminary round bout. Savon managed to come back and win a 13-11 decision and went on to win the gold by defeating David Izonritel now fighting professional as David Izon of Nigeria.
Four years later, Savon won his second gold with ease. Savon beat a former Nigerian light middleweight who moved to Canada and gained 45 pounds to be a heavyweight and fought defensively.
Bennett won't fight defensively, and he won't be intimidated. He will have to get past Savon's long reach to win. "I need to get in there and go for short, choppy shots," Bennett said. "I don't want to take shots from a distance and open myself up to his hammer."
Savon, who claims to have turned down offers to defect and turn professional, does have a powerful right-hand hammer. He also has an enormous amount of experience, having fought for nearly 20 years as a so-called amateur, with hundreds of fights. Bennett has fought less than 50 times competitively.
But when Foreman fought Russian Jonas Cepulis in Mexico City in 1968, he had just 18 fights under his belt. He walked around the ring after winning the gold, waving an American flag a symbol of patriotism at a time when the country was being torn apart.
If Bennett can beat Savon, it could have political implications as well perhaps the final blow to the Cuban political system that used athletics for the past 30 years as a symbol of its success.

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