Dark Destroyer sees the light
Nigel Benn strolls into the room, fixes me with a mischievous grin and embraces me so hard I hear my spine go 'pop'. Not so much the Dark Destroyer nowadays as the Cuddly Chiropractor. Prior to Benn's prescription, my back had been giving me gip for weeks.
For the next 30 minutes, Benn takes me on a break-neck tour of his life - him at the wheel, me the passenger - so that events flash by in vivid detail: sex, drugs, soldiering and DJing, infidelity and depression, the true meaning of happiness and the recuperative word of God.
At one point, he apologises for veering off-road - "you only came down here to talk about boxing" - but I tell him not to worry. This chat is why people are still drawn to the fight game. It may have lost its way since Benn's 1990s heyday, but boxers still have all the best tales. And when a boxer has taken you to places you find almost impossible to imagine, a footballer's yarn about his passion for R&B and Xbox is rather lacking in zing.
Benn's rematch with Eubank at Old Trafford was watched by 18.5m on television Photo: Getty
First thing to report is that the 47-year-old Benn seems fit and content - and that is largely down to God. This statement will no doubt cause eyes to roll - Britons, unlike our American cousins, tend to be cynical when it comes to sportspeople extolling religion - but whether it is crocheting, calligraphy or Christianity that acts as the salve, it is just heartening to see an old fighter healthy in body and mind, happy with his lot.
"I thought I was the best thing since sliced bread but it was a very shallow life," says Benn, a former two-weight world champion who had two era-defining fights with Chris Eubank in the early 1990s as well as one of the most heart-rending fights of any era, his clash with Gerald McClellan, which left the American blind, deaf and wheelchair-bound.
"People were telling me, 'Nigel, you're the best', and I was loving the adulation. I couldn't break that addiction to sex, drugs and rock and roll for love nor money, I was addicted to that for almost all my career. I had everything, but I lost sight of things. You have an affair and you say, 'sorry darlin', here's a new watch; sorry darlin', here's a new mansion'.
"I was hurting the woman I loved and didn't know why. I suffered depression, nervous breakdowns, I just wanted to end it all. It reminds me of Robbie Williams when he said on telly, 'I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams!' And yet he was still suffering from depression. Hello?! You've got £80m and you're suffering from depression?! But that was the same as me - all that money but there was something missing.
"There were two places I was going to end up: a mental hospital or six feet under. And then I read the word of God, Mark 8:36: 'What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit your own soul?' Now I'm not chasing anything and my life is splendid."
I catch up with Benn in a Tardis-like gym on an industrial estate in Telford. He is over from his home in Mallorca as an ambassador for British Military Martial Arts, a venture set up by former paratrooper Lee Matthews, a man with so many black belts in so many different disciplines they should nickname him the Swiss Army Knife of Pain.
"I thank God for Chris - how can you not like him for enabling us to do what we did?" Photo: Getty
The project, which retrains ex-servicemen as martial arts instructors so that they can in turn instruct members of the general public, is close to Benn's heart. Indeed, Benn started out as a kickboxer back in his Ilford days, while the ex-Fusilier, who can still reel off his service number and exactly how long he spent in the army ("fours years and 256 days"), is as eloquent on the treatment of our ex-soldiers as he is on the Man Upstairs.
"After my 18 months in Northern Ireland, it was very hard to adapt to Civvy Street," says Benn. "You're checking under your car, looking for booby traps, you're all over the place. Now all these trained soldiers, trained killers, are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They've seen some gruesome things and all of a sudden it's 'here you go mate, here's your P45'. They're left to deal with what they've seen.
"The government doesn't do enough for them, society doesn't look after them. The people who fought for our freedom in the Second World War, they should be treated like kings and queens, but some of them can't even pay their electric bills."
The image of Benn, the spartan soldier, is difficult to marry with that of Benn, the wild man of the British ring, but it was the army that gave him the steel to excel in his new career. "When I was on the streets of Northern Ireland during The Troubles, the rain and snow would just bounce off my chest," says Benn, "I was determined, nothing stopped me.
"It gave me that little bit extra as a boxer - it was never a case of, 'oh, 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, but I was able to go out partying and then switch back on and get back into hard training."
At the risk of sounding like one of the Four Yorkshiremen in the eponymous sketch ("And you try and tell the young people of today that... they won't believe you"), it is difficult to relate to those too young to have witnessed it exactly how large Benn - and boxing in general - loomed on Britain's sporting landscape in the 1990s.
Benn is an ambassador for British Military Martial Arts, the brainchild of Lee Matthews (left)
His ascent through the professional ranks was as thrilling to Brits as Mike Tyson's was to Americans, each vanquished opponent another kill for the public to notch on his impressive fuselage. But 22 straight knockouts in 26 months led him to the door of the wily Michael Watson, who shot the jet down, stopping Benn inside six rounds.
Benn packed himself off to the United States and promptly won the WBO middleweight crown, defending it with a shocking first-round knockout of Iran Barkley, who had been in with Michael Nunn, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns in his previous three fights. And then came Eubank - and perhaps the greatest rivalry British boxing has ever seen.
"With Chris it was a case of 'I can lose to anyone else but him'," says Benn. "He'd walk in wearing his jodhpurs and monocle and twirling his cane and look down his nose at me. That was it, I'd want to fight him - 'don't you dare look at me like that!' But you know what? I thank God for Chris. How can you not like him for enabling us to do what we did?"
Benn seems genuinely awe-struck when I remind him how big his two bouts with Eubank were. "We had 18.5m watching the second fight on terrestrial TV," he recalls, "47,000 people at Old Trafford. Wow. Crazy. Unbelievable. Thank you Chris..." That Benn lost the first match and drew the second seems almost incidental now. As Benn puts it: "You can't get better than that." British boxing never has and probably never will.
There followed the fateful fight with McClellan before two defeats to Steve Collins convinced Benn the game was up. "When I fought Steve I knew I was kind of gone," says Benn, "but I still bet £100,000 I'd beat him, because I wanted to convince myself."
And now here he stands, an avuncular figure in martial arts silks - hellraiser and womaniser turned Evangelical preacher and marriage counselor; from the mean streets of Belfast to the peak of boxing; from behind the decks to the pit of hell to "just training some kids in Telford - and having a great time doing it".
Out in front of his class, Benn claps his hands and barks: "I'm gonna take you to a place you've never been..." The menace is fake, but the undercurrent is chilling: Watson, Eubank, Barkley, McClellan, Collins - they all went there with Benn, and it wasn't a nice place to be.