The pain game, the hurt business, the dark trade; make no mistake – boxing is a sordid and fearful sport. Sometimes I actually wish I didn’t love it as much I do. Setting aside the corruption, greed and contempt for young lives shown by those pulling the purse strings, the simple attraction of watching two men trying to brain-damage each other can be a difficult thing to justify. In 1983 the Journal of the American Medical Association described boxing as an “obscenity that should not be sanctioned by any civilised society.” Many in the modern world share their disgust. But it is a part of me and I cannot let it go.
All of us who have been smitten by the glamour of violence have our reasons, or perhaps excuses. For my part, I grew up with it. My Dad had been an amateur and generations of my family were involved in the game. My earliest boxing memories go right back to early childhood, watching fights on Grandstand or Midweek Sports Special, sitting in the lounge with the old man as he shouted encouragements and protestations at the TV. I sat through the full ten rounds of a 38 year old, already punchy Muhammad Ali, laying on the ropes being pummelled by Larry Holmes when I was 7. It was a grim and pitiless spectacle, but I couldn’t look away.
So parental influence clearly played a part – but there are other, deeper reasons for my lifelong love-affair with the pugilistic art. Some are very personal, while others stem from the impact of one particular boxer. And in many ways, the two intertwine.
The fighter in question turned 51 last Thursday. Tomorrow marks the 28th anniversary of his debut, which took place at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, a five minute drive from where I grew up. That night he easily dispatched Graeme Ahmed, a North Eastern scrapper seeing out his career boxing for paydays, in round two. At the time I was 14 – a skinny and disaffected suburban youth.
I wouldn’t say I was an especially violent kid, but I had my share of street scraps as a youngster. On one occasion when I was 10 or 11, I chased a boy into his own back garden and knocked him out with a cricket bat. His mum was most unhappy. On another I broke two of his mate’s teeth with a flurry of punches. One particularly fond memory is of fighting a lad who would grow up to become a notorious local hard-case. I was getting the better of him too, until his older brother decided to help him out. I still remember all my old enemies’ names and sometimes I wonder what they’re up to now, but by my teenage years I was already turning my back on all that.
I found that adolescence changed our youthful relationship with violence. As boys we had fought with fists and feet and maybe the odd blunt instrument. Nothing seemed particularly serious. There were black eyes and fat lips, cuts and scrapes, but no-one ever got badly hurt, yet slowly, as the years rolled by, it all became increasingly vicious. Weapons came into play. A friend of mine was hospitalised after having a bottle smashed on his forehead. Another was stabbed. As the stakes of violent participation grew, I backed away. The risk of serious injury or death did not seem worth it.
Added to that was the fact that my teenage self would have been a soft target for many. While puberty added vertical inches to my frame, bringing me almost up to my present height of just over 6ft, in terms of width and depth I was still a child. Gangly, awkward, unco-ordinated, uncomfortable in my own skin, the prospect of continuing to mix it with guys who could clearly out-strength me didn’t seem sensible. That’s all OK – it was a probably a wise decision, looking back, but the trouble was that I still had a great deal of internal anger. Something happened to me as a toddler which I didn’t recover from, or at least learn to deal with, until my late twenties. I didn’t like myself very much and I needed a conduit for my pent-up rage. Enter Nigel Gregory Benn, The Dark Destroyer.
He first crashed into my hormone-addled consciousness when he boxed a guy called Ian Chantler in Cambridgeshire on my 15th birthday. It was Nigel’s eleventh pro fight.
Benn landed the knockout blow exactly 6 seconds after the bell rang for round one. I had never seen anything like it. As Chantler was helped to his feet and across the canvas by the ref, the Dark Destroyer gazed back across the ring, lips curled in a sneer. There was contempt, maybe even a dose of hate in those eyes that burned from the screen. In some ways it seemed like a reflection. He looked at the world the same way I did.
Up to that point the big name British boxers I had known – Barry McGuigan, Frank Bruno, Herol Graham, Colin Jones, while quality performers in the ring, all seemed like nice guys. That was well and good, but I didn’t feel like a nice guy. I didn’t want to be likeable and well regarded. I wanted to vent aggression and shake things up. It was easy for me to identify with Benn.
From then on on my general interest in boxing remained, but I became a Dark Destroyer fan. I soon discovered the Chantler win had not been a one-off. With his strange, slightly pigeon-toed stance, Nigel would advance towards opponents quickly, bending this way and that from the waist to create leverage for the most vicious ambidextrous hooks I had seen. He was a wrecking machine, winning his first 22 fights by stoppage or KO. Eleven of those opponents did not make the end of round one.
My Dad didn’t like Nigel much. He preferred the older generation guys like Henry Cooper or John H Stracy – tough-nuts with manners, who spoke with respect and traditional working class deference for authority. Benn wasn’t like that at all. He glowered, oozing venom and spite. He fell out with the Board. He simmered with hostility in interviews. He had attitude.
I didn’t know it at the time, but like myself Nigel was battling inner demons. While I dabbled, as a teenager, in various forms of anti-social silliness, Nigel was doing things that would later cause him to self-refer as ‘the devil’s right hand man.’ After beating Mbayo Mbayo of Zaire in Glasgow in March 1989, for example, he celebrated with a cocaine fuelled orgy with twenty prostitutes. One of his entourage caught VD. Like all those at war with themselves, the possibility of self-destruction was never far away.
By the time Benn fought Michael Watson in 1989, in defence of the Commonwealth title, I was 16 and my relationship with my father had become strained. The police had recently arrived at our house on a Sunday morning to take a statement regarding a coach being vandalised. I was eventually charged for that one. Dad also had to settle out of court with a neighbour who had nicked my mate’s football. As a reprisal we broke into his garage and smashed his car up. There had been other incidents too. A steamroller had been set on fire. A few bikes went missing. Naturally the old man wasn’t happy with my tendency to stay out late or withdraw into a shell in my room. The truth, which he couldn’t know, was that I’d started habitually taking a variety of drugs. Because I still did pretty well at school, I got away with it. I lived a sort of double-life.
Back then I was convinced the Dark Destroyer could walk through anyone. I think Nigel thought that too. Against Jamaican Anthony Logan the previous year, he had left himself open, got tagged and found himself backed against the ropes, caught repeatedly and in all sorts of trouble, yet still pulled a highlight reel KO out of the bag, halfway through round two.
That power was Nigel’s ‘get out of jail’ card. It didn’t matter if he was hurt, all he had to was land clean and he could close the show.
The Watson fight was huge. There were posters for it on every street corner and it was all over TV and radio. I looked forward to it for weeks. All the talk beforehand was of the winner going to the USA to challenge for a world title. Colin Hart wrote in The Sun and appeared on telly backing Watson. I thought he was a tedious old twat.
I watched it with Dad, tension in the air, both of us cheering for different fighters. Watson was known to be a tidy boxer and big at the weight but I didn’t believe for one moment he would be able to take Benn’s power. Dad said Nigel was chinny and a bully. He would crumble if someone stood up to him. I shook my head at his foolishness.
When Watson knocked Benn out with a jab in the fifth, Dad was jubilant. Of course, I was distraught. Nigel had exhausted himself with five rounds of non-stop attack that Watson soaked up on his arms. By the time of the ending, he simply had nothing left. I skulked off, resentful and sullen, and smoked a bong out of my bedroom window in protest.
The defeat didn’t dampen my ardour though. If anything, Benn’s sudden vulnerability made him more rounded, adding a new edge of tension to his bouts. Four fights and less than a year after the Watson defeat he won the WBO Middleweight Title, surviving a knockdown and a couple of scares to stop the super-tough, flat-nosed New Yorker Doug DeWitt in the 8th round in Atlantic City. Colin Hart, of course, had picked Nigel to lose again. How satisfying to see him eat his words! The result in itself was an unusual thing – back then, British world title challengers virtually never won in the States. Lloyd Honeyghan had battered Don Curry for the Welterweight crown in 1986 but top Brits like Bruno, Sibson and Jones had all been over there and got taken apart. On the night Nigel didn’t just beat DeWitt. He hammered him. At the finish both the American’s eyes were split and one of his ears had swollen like a balloon. Job done.
Despite his short WBO reign, DeWitt wasn’t regarded as one of the very top yanks, so just to emphasise a point, Nigel stayed on that side of the Atlantic for his first defence. He took on the fearsome Iran ‘the blade’ Barkley who had KO’d ring legend Thomas Hearns in 1988. The fight took place in August ‘90 in Las Vegas. England had just lost on penalties to Germany in the World Cup semi-final and I was on holiday with a couple of mates in Majorca. We watched the fight in a bar.
After handing Barkley his arse in less than a round, The Dark Destroyer was riding high, probably the biggest name in British boxing. I started a degree course at the University of Manchester. Predictably I didn’t have the maturity to handle it yet. Nigel was here and there with dolly birds and fair-weather friends. I spent my first year off my head in nightclubs. The rave era was in full swing and that was all a bit too tempting for a kid like me. In November a weight-drained Nigel lost his title to Chris Eubank in Birmingham and spoke despairingly of retirement. A few months later I got kicked out of Uni and signed on the dole.
Nigel didn’t retire. He took six months off and came back at super-middleweight. It soon became clear that the devastating one-punch power he had possessed at 11st 6 hadn’t travelled up to 12st. He still hit hard, but the ability to switch a guy’s lights off at a moment’s notice just wasn’t there anymore. Benn spent a couple of years building a record in his new division against relatively undistinguished opposition, learning to take a more measured approach.
I bummed around in Manchester, living in my girlfriend’s flat, selling a bit of weed here and there, not really knowing what I was doing. When Nigel travelled to Italy to challenge Mauro Galvano for the WBC Super Middleweight crown in October ’92 I had just started again with a new university place in Leeds. Nigel won and embarked on a run of seven successful defences.
I eventually split up with that girlfriend because I walked out in the middle of a row to watch Benn defend against Lou Gent in my local pub. Gent was a soft defence really, a domestic level cruiserweight who had made it down to super-middle in one go, bypassing light-heavy, presumably by cutting down on chocolate biscuits. Regardless, it seemed far more important than my domestic issues at the time. I remember standing there, Guinness in hand, in a room full of bemused, disinterested Yorkshireman, shouting “Get on him Nigel, get on him… be first!” Followed by the customary “he’s done him, he’s fucking done him!” when the game Gent finally succumbed to Benn’s assault in round four. When I came back, my girlfriend had left and that was that. Good riddance. I felt, like Nigel, I was on an upward curve and it seemed a minor setback.
By the time of The Dark Destroyer’s greatest and most consequential fight, the 20th anniversary of which falls next month, I was still a bit all over the place, but things were improving. I watched the tragic battle against Gerald McLellan in my flat in Leeds with a couple of mates, a fridge full of booze and several small plastic pouches full of various forms of contraband. McLellan was the real deal. Not just any yank, the top yank. No-one gave Benn a chance and the atmosphere beforehand was funereal. Of course the fight, once it started was extraordinary, even more so after our class A’s kicked in. When McLellan finally went down, blinking in the tenth round, never to recover, one friend was on the floor, head on the carpet, jabbering away, almost in tears. Another stood silently on the sofa, eyes and mouth wide open, arms stretched to the ceiling, holding his socks in his hands. The image is indelibly burned onto my brain.
That night was basically the end of the line for Nigel. He continued fighting but was never the same really. The physical and emotional strain of everything that happened in those ten rounds must have been extraordinary and three fights later he lost his title to an unremarkable guy who just seemed to have his number in Thulani ‘Sugarboy’ Malinga.
I graduated, had a few different jobs, moved around, but continued watching him whenever he stepped in the ring. I just had to. While travelling the Middle East I spent an entire afternoon walking around Tel Aviv in Israel just to find a bar that was showing his rematch with Steve Collins in 1996. But by then you could see the fire had left his belly. He stopped glaring. He smiled a lot in interviews and seemed to be enjoying his position as a British sportsman of repute. He had started to become comfortable with himself. As the inner rage ebbed away, his fighting edge was blunted.
Nigel has continued to have his ups and down, as have I. I was saddened to read he even attempted suicide in 1999 because of ongoing issues with women. At the time I had returned to London, was meeting my first wife and starting to leave my more foolish days behind.
Impossible as it seems, I’m 42 now, married again, with a couple of kids. I still watch fights with my Dad occasionally. He’s in his 80s and like an old mate. These days I rarely indulge in anything more intoxicating than a few ales. It seems a very long time indeed since my boyhood tussles or my last night in the cells. When I think about things like that, it’s like thinking of a different person. Ironically, I now work with troubled youngsters, many of whom use drugs and get into silly crap in their community in much the same way I did. I even write books and things as well. It all worked itself out in the end.
The Dark Destroyer has come out of his tunnel too. He has moved to Australia and found peace through Christianity. That’s not my thing and never will be, but its pleasing to see that middle age has brought him contentment, however it was arrived at. I’m not a kid any more and I’m too old for heroes, but a part of me will always want Nigel to win.
Obviously I still watch boxing keenly. But these days I tend to observe with dispassion. I am aware of the negative aspects of the game in a way I wasn’t as a lad. No-one has come along since to stir me to rabid partisanship in the way that Benn did. But I think the bond that I felt with him all that time ago is a big part of why I still follow the sport. We’ve never met and probably never will. Nigel Benn doesn’t have a clue who I am, but in my mind and heart our journeys will always be linked.