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The Big Interview: Boxing legend Nigel Benn

Staffordshire | Sport | Published:

The road to righteousness was long and winding and littered with pitfalls before boxing legend Nigel Benn finally found his calling.

There's no doubting what 'the Dark Destroyer' brought to the ring and the legacy he left when he hung up his gloves,

writes Craig Birch.

But it's also clear now that the 51-year-old was only really enlightened after he hung his gloves, leaving his life in England behind to move overseas.

Then, of course, there was the 'call' that made him a born-again Christian, a far cry from some of the murky surroundings and situations that plagued his past. It's never too late to change.

From humble beginnings came the joint greatest WBC super middleweight champion, alongside Joe Calzaghe. His image is still enshrined onto the organisation's sixth generation 168lb belt.

He was only the third holder of the strap he won and defended nine times, although he no longer has the version he was given after selling all of his memorabilia.

There's been the good, the bad, the ugly and the almost tragic to get him where he is today. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

He was born - for the first time, he would say - on 22 January 1964 in the Ilford suburb of East London, to a tough but sporting family that also produced his cousin, footballer Paul Ince.

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His father Dixon had arrived in the country from Barbados eight years earlier, wife Mina joining him a year later. Nigel was the sixth of seven children, all boys.

Nigel Benn loved his upbringing, but a family tragedy sent him off the rails.

Older brother Andy died when he was just eight after falling out of a window, an event which sent his younger sibling off the rails.

Benn said: "My childhood was great. We never had much but we were happy. I was a handful, though, and I did some naughty things.

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"I never lost any respect for my parents, but I changed when my brother died. I carried a lot of anger from then on. Even in my 20s, I was still cut up. We don't all talk about it, even now.

"I was always fighting from a young age, in school and everywhere else. I didn't have any fear of anything like that. I could really hurt people.

"I started to go to areas where I shouldn't have been, like in Dagenham where there was a lot of support for the National Front. I didn't go looking for trouble, but I'd fight them.

"I would shoplift, brawl and end up in the police station time and again. I remember one time when I arrested for a street fight.

"I had took on an Indian guy and the colour drained out of my face when my dad came. But he told me 'I don't mind you fighting, but if you nick anything off anyone you are in big trouble.'

"I was out of control, no doubt about it. If it hadn't been for my family, I would have been holding up banks and everything.

"I had to join the army, because I knew I would be inside or dead otherwise. I needed someone to channel my anger and it worked for me. It was a wake up call and I never looked back.

"That was when I first took up boxing. If you are good at sport there, you haven't got to spend all of your time doing that soldier business.

"I did my fair share of that, too, with three years in Germany and 18 months in Northern Ireland. Proper army training taught me to be second to none. It was as always my rule in everything.

"When I was out on patrol, and it was sleeting, the rain bouncing off my chest. I thought 'I'm a warrior. This is me.' I was determined, nothing stopped me.

"It gave me that little bit extra as a boxer. It was never a case of, 'it's a bit cold out there, it's raining, I'm not going running.'

"The army taught me how to switch on and off. If I had been on Civvy Street before boxing, I would have been switched off all the time.

"I was able to go out partying and then switch back on and get back into hard training."

Our boxing correspondent Craig Birch (middle) with boxing greats Richie Woodhall and Nigel Benn in Cannock.

The new-found work hard, play harder mentality would later come back to haunt him after he called time but, when he came into the sport professionally, it could have been what made him.

He had already showed extraordinary power as an amateur, winning titles from welterweight all the way up to heavyweight while still in the forces, representing the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

After serving his term, he joined West Ham Boxing Club in 1985, the year where he would experience his only-ever unpaid loss.

One of the best-ever London ABA finals, which was screened on BBC Grandstand, saw a brave Benn battered from pillar to post by two-time winner Rod Douglas, who took a third title on points.

The beaten warrior contemplated quitting boxing and then swore revenge, coming across Douglas in the ABA area semi-finals the following year.

Once again, they went toe-to-toe in a compelling war but, this time, Benn had his hand raised on points. Big puncher Mark Edwards went the same way in the London final.

All of a sudden, he was in there with Johnny Melfah at Wembley Arena to decide the national title. He bashed him around with aplomb to become champion.

His ferocious performance attracted offers to turn pro, but the 22-year-old dreamed of representing his country at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

The murky side of amateur politics reared its ugly head again as they picked Douglas ahead of him, caring little for Benn's 'do-or-die' style.

That told the then 22-year-old all he needed to know. He turned in the vest, took Burt McCarthy his manager and trainer and became a pro. With that, 'the Dark Destroyer' was born.

He said: "I think it was down to favouritism. There were fighters who seemed to be ahead of me, no matter what I did.

"I came to the conclusion that I was better off as a pro because, first and foremost, they get paid for getting into the ring. That was the decider!

"I just wanted to earn a good living through boxing, I didn't really think about where it would take me. I thought I might get a shot at the British title eventually.

"I started knocking people out left, right and centre but, even then, all I thought was the old adage 'you don't paid for overtime.'

"That was more down to aggression, because I was a very angry boy back then. I didn't want the attention, it was all about making money."

By the time he landed his first title shot, at the vacant Commonwealth middleweight title, in 1988 he was stopping opponents for fun.

All of his previous 16 contests had ended by knockout, with only three taking him past two rounds. Co-challenger Abdul Umaru Sanda was no different, decked twice and halted in the second.

His next five fights - including two title defences - didn't pass that time period, either. Like Anthony Joshua today, most reasoned there was just no living with his punches.

Nigel Benn drops to the canvas against Michael Watson with Wolverhampton's John Coyle starting the count.

Michael Watson had other ideas. He came with a game-plan when they met for the Commonwealth crown in 1989 and it worked to perfection.

A fired-up Benn burned himself out throwing hooks, which were absorbed by a tight guard, with Watson picking his shots when firing back.

A simple jab in the sixth left Benn on the unfamiliar territory of the mat and he was counted out by Wolverhampton referee John Coyle's swift rise to 10, having misjudged rising to his feet.

Benn recalls: "I came across Michael Watson in my 23rd fight and, after 22 KOs, I thought I was the best thing since sliced bread.

"I went out all guns blazing, expecting him to go, but it just didn't happen. I came back to my corner at the end of the fifth round and I was exhausted.

"I remember trying to catch my breath and I saw Michael look over and wink as if to say 'I've got you now boy.'

"His punches didn't hurt, but Michael was a good fighter who knew what he had to do to beat me."

Rather than back to the drawing board, it was off to the United States from there for Benn, who would respond in the same devastating fashion as the Douglas defeat.

American promoter Bob Arum had already hailed him "as the most exciting fighter in the world" and couldn't wait to get him on his shows.

His first fight stateside actually went the distance, a one-sided 10-rounder with the too hard for his own good Jorge Amparo. He was later retired by the state commission.

Cannon fodder Jose Quinones then folded in a round before a real test with the experienced Sanderline Williams, who used his guile as Benn again went Benn the full 10.

He was considered ready for what they had brought him over there for, his first world title shot. WBO champion Doug DeWitt was the favourite, but beatable. Benn also had chinks in his armour.

Arum imagined fireworks when they clashed and the two contestants duly delivered, with thrills and spills on the way.

Nigel Benn dethorned Doug DeWitt in America to become a world champion for the first time.

Benn was dropped to his knees from a looping left hook to the jaw, with the bell to end the second round bailing him out.

It would become a less than endearing trait in the big fights but he recovered swiftly, clubbing DeWitt to the floor in the third with a right hook.

He exploded on him in the eighth, DeWitt waved off on the floor after being dropped three times by right hands in one round. It showed just what Benn could do and, with that, he had arrived.

Benn said: "Lloyd Honeyghan did it first when he beat Don Curry there in 1986, a Brit upsetting an American favourite.

"It's still my No 1 fight. I went over to Atlantic City on the Boardwalk in 1990 and won my first world title. No-one had given me a hope.

"Doug DeWitt walked over to me in the ring and said 'you're going down.' I replied 'I might be going down, but you're staying down!

"We both threw hooks at the same time and, next thing I know, I'm on the floor.

"I got up and I was really mad then. I could have walked through anything after that."

If winning the title had not established him as a star, what Benn did to Iran Barkley in his maiden title defence certainly did.

'The Blade' was a former WBC world champion, albeit through a lucky punch, that took out an in-his-prime Thomas Hearns inside three rounds.

But Barkley had also gone the distance with Roberto Duran for the IBF crown, too. On this night in Las Vegas, though, he was clearly running scared.

He was on the floor in seconds from a right hand and clearly didn't want to know as he went down again twice before the first round was out, the three-knockdown rule ending the bout.

Barkley had beaten himself, Benn reckoned, saying: "Iran was a lovely kid, but he never should have been in the ring with me that night.

"I went to stare into his eyes when we touched gloves and he looked away. From then, I knew what was going to happen.

"I ran across the ring as soon as the bell went and floored him with a right hand. Twice again he went after that. Had it not been for the rule, it would have been worse for him."

Now established with the title, Benn wanted to come home for a title defence, with Barry Hearn to promote. As they looked for a contender, the new kid on the block was one Chris Eubank.

The fellow Londoner had burst onto the scene with 24 straight wins, with 13 stoppages. He had meat in his gloves, but it was a "granite" chin what would prove his signature.

He'd been calling Benn out since his 10th bout and his motor mouth made it mind games. Both men swore they would knock the other out, as the British public started to demand the fight.

They finally touched gloves at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre in November 1990, but not after Benn and his entourage had sabotaged Eubank's entrance.

Tina Turner's 'Simply the Best' suddenly stopped playing, but Eubank ignored the absence of his theme music and vaulted over the rope as usual.

Benn was like a bull at a gate from the moment he emerged and didn't change much after the bell went, throwing haymakers akin to the Watson fight.

This time, one got through as Eubank was shuddered by a loaded right uppercut to the chin as they came away from a clench.

The impact of the blow was so painful that Eubank bit his tongue so badly he caused a huge gash, which he hid from the corner as not to get the ring doctor involved.

This was now a war. Back came Eubank with a ferocious attack that swelled Benn's eye shut by the fifth. Both warriors laid it all on the line.

Benn was just ahead on the cards and looking for the finish in the eighth, Eubank vigorously protesting a slip after going down in the corner from an overhand right to the top of the head.

Another dubious blow, this time a left hook to the backside, felled Eubank again in the ninth. He wasn't penalised, but Benn was smelling blood.

And once again he walked onto a shot, a left hook staggering him and inviting Eubank to put his punches together as Benn grimly clung on.

A stiff right with the corners preparing for the end of the round put him into the ropes, where an exhausted Eubank followed up with hooks.

Richard Steele stepped in for the stoppage, leaving a devastated Benn with his head in the referee's chest. He only had five seconds left to survive of the ninth.

He said: "It was just so volatile between me and him, it really was. He was a big, strapping lad, bigger than me, but I knew I could still have him on the cobbles.

"It could have kicked off at any moment, it was that close. I'm not saying he was scared of me but he had to keep it cool, because he knew I was right on the edge and about to jump on him.

"What annoyed me most was the way he looked down his nose at everybody. He thought he was an eloquent man, but really he needed elocution lessons.

"I have to admit now that he won that fight fair and square, though. When he fought me, he was a tough cookie. More power to him.

"He was tougher than I expected. He caught me in the eye with a thumb and I couldn't see a thing out of it. What a tremendous fighter he was. I can't knock him for the way he worked.

"Let me tell you, he had a jaw like granite. He felt like any other fighter to the body, but you just couldn't hurt him to the head.

"I was in trouble, that's why I got stopped. Chris was simply the better man that day."

If the British public demanding they meet the first time was clamour, the momentum that called for a rematch was something else. Still, it took three years to happen.

Benn put together a six-fight winning streak to get himself back into world title contention, this time up at super middleweight.

He halted Marvin Hagler's half-brother Robbie Sims in seven and flattened Eubank victim Dan Sherry with one punch inside three rounds, also scoring a close points win over new rival Thulani Malinga.

That got him a shot at WBC ruler Mauro Galvano in October 1992 with one rather large catch - it was take place in the champion's homeland of Italy.

A focused Benn went into the lion's den to be pelted by coins and was determined not to let the fight go the distance, remarking he would "have to knock him out to get a draw."

Would could have given him that idea? Only two Brits had ever won a world title fight on points in Italy, to that point in history, and they were both flyweights.

It didn't get any less hostile after the bell rung, with the home corner and their fighter responsible for some heinous acts.

Galvano pushed him out of the ring in round three, while the Italian's trainers also called for a doctor to inspect a cut to his right eye at the end of the fourth.

They wanted their man out of there on a technical decision, despite the wound being caused by a punch. It back-fired spectacularly when Benn was awarded the win.

Hearn came over to inform his delighted challenger he was the victor, after they had "tried to pull a fast one." Benn stick his head straight out of the ring to speak to someone else.

Eubank was at ringside. They shook hands with Benn telling him "now we can do business!" The war to settle the score was on.

Benn still defended his title against Brits Nicky Piper and Lou Gent, as well as seeing off Galvano for good in a rematch on British soil.

They finally got it on again in October 1993 at Manchester United's Old Trafford ground, which 47,000 people crammed into, as 18.5million watched at home on ITV.

The bout failed to reach the brutal heights of their first encounter, with both fighters perhaps paying too much respect after the pain they had inflicted on each other before.

Both fighters had boxed, for the most part, rather than brawled and it seemed as if Benn had come out on top, the judges called into play after 12 rounds.

The final session had been thrilling, with both told they needed to take it for the victory. The bout ended on a high and there would be more controversy.

One judge had it 114-113 Benn, another 115-113 Eubank. The third had it a draw, which proved the result. All had to take a point off 'the Dark Destroyer' for low blows.

A third clash, which would have been a Wembley Stadium blockbuster, never came off. The sport was the worst for it.

Benn said: "I just walked straight out of the ring, people came up to talk to me me and I told them to 'go away.'

"Looking back now, we brought England together. It was the British public, in fact the boxing world, wanted to see.

"I remember walking to the ring and the crowd were chanting my name, it sent tingles down my body. I thought 'this is it, you dare not lose.'

"And I didn't, but even Chris has said since that I won that fight. The most disappointing thing for me was I thought I had him."

When the dust settled, Benn went back on his tear up as the WBC champion, free from the shackles of Don King.

The wild-haired American had brokered a deal where he would pick up the contracts of both the winner and loser of the fight. He hadn't banked on a draw.

However, Benn lacked the spark of his grudge matches with Eubank in his next two title defences, outpointing another Brit in Henry Wharton and Juan Carlos Gimenez.

But then he agreed to take on American Gerald McClellan in what would prove a life-changing fight, nearly four years after Eubank had put Watson in a coma.

Watson's claim for damages nearly bankrupted the British Boxing Board of Control and McClellan would prove another sad case of a boxer becoming seriously injured.

It wasn't expected to happen, by anybody. Indeed, most of the critics had given Benn little chance against the huge-punching Yank, despite him being the champion.

It was nearly 'I told you so' time when Benn was knocked through the ropes in the first round and again in the eighth, before a stunning comeback to stop him in the 10th.

McClellan was uncharacteristically blinking before he sunk to his knees, from a fairly innocuous right hand. He even answered the count.

Two right hands returned him to the deck and he effectively quit, not trying this time to rise back to his feet. Strange, as he was winning on the cards. But no one knew how seriously he was hurt.

It was difficult to tell what was the killer blow, but McClellan was scarred for life. He's almost completely blind and uses a wheelchair. A blood clot on his brain, like Watson, did the damage.

On a sobering night for boxing, both had collapsed after the fight and were taken to London Royal Hospital. Benn made a full recovery, McClellan didn't and still needs around-the-clock care.

An emotional Benn said: "It was 2007 before I saw him again. We raised $250,000 for Gerald and that was such a joy. The benefit night was a complete sell-out in London.

"It was so difficult, because I had to shout in Gerald's ear so he could hear what I was saying, but he told me it was an accident, that it wasn't my fault.

"I was so happy to see him but my emotions were up and down, up and down. I didn't know whether to be happy, cry, or be sick.

"I've never experienced so many emotions at one time in my life. I held Gerald's hand and his sister, Lisa, told me all the stories about his after-care.

"I always felt the American people (boxing fraternity) should have looked after him better than they did. If he'd been British, his house would have been paid for and he'd be getting the best of care."

Benn was never the same when the pressure was on after that, which wasn't the case when he TKOd Vincenzo Nardiello and Daniel Perez in his next two title defences.

Malinga came back to haunt him as 'the Sugar Boy' became the first man to outpoint Benn, who had put in a lacklustre performance, in 1996. It ended a four-year reign.

He retired in the ring after the fight, but not before proposing to his girlfriend Carolyne. It looked as if he would then ride off into the sunset.

But, like Eubank, he came back to take on the division's new driving force in Steve Collins, who made them both regret it.

Benn had two goes at dethroning the Irishman and quit on his stool both times. The first time was with an ankle injury, the second he had simply had enough. With that, he was proper finished.

That was where the problems really started. Benn took up DJing, partied hard and lived the high times, but there was no boxing now to keep him on the straight and narrow.

He was an addict, too, not to drink or drugs but to sex. His problems drove him to a suicide attempt, before he was saved by religion.

From there, the only thing that mattered to him was his faith and his family. He left this country behind and moved to Spain, before settling in Australia.

He passes his experiences onto young people at risk, individuals suffering from addiction and, with now-wife Carolyne, counsel couples who are facing marriage issues.

The most important thing of all is that he's, arguably for the first time in his life, truly happy. And that's the biggest victory he's ever known.

Age: 51

From: London

Fights: 48

Wins: 42 (35 KOs)

Losses: 5 (4 KO)

Draws: 1

He said: "I have achieved way beyond my dreams of what I set out to do. To become a two-time world champion was a dream come true, but that's a part of my life that has finished now.

"I got the call eight years ago and my life changed forever. I am not unique, other boxers have as well. There's Evander Holyfield and Andre Ward, to name just two.

"I spent 12 years in Spain, but God has moved me on to Australia and it's a lovely, lovely country. I have been there two-and-a-half years there now and it's been the best experience.

"I wouldn't come back to England ever! I live in Sydney, but I am about 45 minutes away from the city. It's the quiet life and no one really knows me, which I like.

"It's peaceful and different to how things have been, so I am enjoying it. I have my family time with my wife and kids and work for the lord, that's about it.

"I'm not chasing nothing any more. My Porsche has gone, my Cadillac's gone, I've got rid of everything, but what I have is contentment.

"It's only through Jesus that I'm still happily married. If it wasn't for her, I guarantee you I'd be six feet under or in a mental hospital.

"I was one of the biggest sinners. Now any lie is something I could not live with."

So here's to the future of a man who gave so much to boxing and now attacks the good life with similar gusto. From 'the Dark Destroyer' came light.

Nigel Benn was talking to Craig Birch during a sportsman's dinner, hosted by Scott Murray, at Bar Sport's Premier Suite in Cannock Town Centre.

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