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Dark Destroyer sees the light

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Ben Dirs | 07:30 UK time, Wednesday, 30 November 2011

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.

Chris Eubank (left) and Nigel Benn

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.

Chris Eubank (left) and Nigel Benn

"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.

Lee Matthews (left) and Nigel Benn

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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Good read. Good times.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great blog Ben...and nice to see a boxer come out the other end with something still between his ears!

  • Comment number 3.

    Great blog/article. I respect Nigel even more now. I'm not religious but the Mark 8:36 quote is good advice to anyone.

  • Comment number 4.

    Good read yeah. Thanks

  • Comment number 5.

    Great read.

    I was in my late teens and early twenties when these guys were around, and it was an awesome time to be a boxing fan. You could turn on the telly on a Friday or Saturday night and there seemed to be a high quality world title fight on every week.

    Sadly these days you wait months (years sometimes) for fighters to get it on, and then you have to pay through the nose to see average bouts.

  • Comment number 6.

    i remember watching the benn v eubank fights in the 90s, i was 10 in 1990 so fairly young but man oh man were they good fights, two seemingly completely different fighters and styles both at their peaks, a real shame boxing is nothing now, although i know eubank jnr is now a pro and im sure benn jnr wants to be a pro boxer too, now wouldnt that be somthing ...

  • Comment number 7.

    Thank you Benn, you're an inspiration to us all.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great read. I was a child of 90s boxing as well, it was Bruno-Tyson in '89 that got me watching. Eubank was my chosen guy in this rivalry but you just had to like Benn (and Watson too).

    Glad to see Benn in a good place these days.

    Favourite Benn in-ring story is about the Iran Berkley fight. In the ring, just after the intros, one of Benn's corner overheard the American's corner telling Berkley over and over to watch for the straight right from Benn when the fight starts, look for the right, dodge the right, remember the right, we planned for this and so on.

    Benn's corner man tells Benn "They telling him you're going to throw the straight right at the start."

    Benn goes "****ing right I'm gonna throw the straight right!", marches out there and immediately throws a huge straight right that nearly takes Berkley's head off.

    Thanks Nige, you were tremendous.

  • Comment number 9.

    Benn-Eubank. Very different men, very different fighters, linked by one shared quality: massive courage.

  • Comment number 10.

    Bruno v Tyson 89, aw poor Frank never stood a chance, cant fault his courage and determination though, bring back the good old days of boxing please!!

  • Comment number 11.

    9.
    At 11:14 30th Nov 2011, MightyQuin wrote:

    Benn-Eubank. Very different men, very different fighters, linked by one shared quality: massive courage.

    Yeah and massive something else as well!

  • Comment number 12.

    '10.
    At 11:20 30th Nov 2011, tee222111 wrote:

    Bruno v Tyson 89, aw poor Frank never stood a chance, cant fault his courage and determination though, bring back the good old days of boxing please!!'

    Ahh but he did stand a chance. He hurt Tyson, and hesitated (Tyson himself said he'd never been hit so hard before or after). Had he followed up immediately, Tyson would have been knocked out. Tyson's camp even changed his normal plan of attack by wearing down opponents with body shots so the arms would drop and leave the head exposed. They decided that because of Bruno's conditioning and 6" of muscle around his stomach that it would be a waste of energy.

  • Comment number 13.

    Great read and i'm glad that Benn has found peace and purpose in life.

  • Comment number 14.

    great article.too many weight divisions and "titles" nowadays.i remember when it was just WBA and WBC. i notice the same thing is happening with mixed martial arts now - as vinnie jones once said "never underestimate the predictability of stupidity !"
    speaking of mixed martial arts ,is ben dirs any relation to fedor emelianenko ??

  • Comment number 15.

    i might have to re-visit that fight then Murdoch, has been awhile i admit, maybe it was the re-match im thinking of, i remember staying up with mates till 4am or some rediculous time to cheer on Frank, good times, but Tyson at that time was a monster, very scary guy in his prime

  • Comment number 16.

    14 maixo - im pretty sure ufc only has one belt per weight division, they'd be mad to change that, its one of the reasons mma is so good!

  • Comment number 17.

    Great memories. The Eubank/Benn fights are really what turned me into the massive fan of boxing that I still am today and Benn was always the one I favoured - gutted by the draw in their 2nd fight, which I was convinced Benn had won.

  • Comment number 18.

    16 tee222111 maixo's probably referring to the multiple organisations like Strikeforce/Dream in addition to the UFC. Saying that, since PRIDE went defunct and the UFC snapped up most of their elite fighters, along with buying up Strikeforce, merging with WEC etc ... it seems the elite of the MMA world are as closely-knit as ever in terms of competition - which I think is great personally.

  • Comment number 19.

    18 gimpy - ah i see yeah your probably right, to me mma IS ufc though lol nothing compares really, ufc is where its at, jones v machida next omg i cant wait!

  • Comment number 20.

    They really were the days of boxing, I was only around 10 years old during Benn Eubank fight and also remember the Benn v Clelland clearly. Had a profound effect on me, how Clelland who was ripping people apart in 1st rounds became the man he is now, I jus couldn't get my head around it at the time but they were the days...fight night, terrestial tv, with the family...thanks for ruining it Sky, PPV etc!

    Looking forward to the Benn/Clelland prog on Monday night...err on itv.

  • Comment number 21.

    A massive character. Warrior in evey sense of the word. God bless you Nigel.

  • Comment number 22.

    Ryushinko, that's a great story about the Barkley fight. What theatre.

    Best one-round fight there's ever been? Wow, more action, ups and downs and drama than most 12-rounders.

  • Comment number 23.

    ZedZone, you remember the fight so well you don't even know the name of Benn's opponent that night..

    Just teasing, I make you right about that fight - for Benn to be pretty much knocked out of the ring in the first round and then come back and put on that display. Well, only 'WOW' really springs to mind, spectacles like that kind of leave you speechless. Such a shame they both had to live with the awful consequences for the rest of their lives.

    And every time I hear of Nigel Benn I smile and think of the story from 10 years or so back about some chancer trying to mug him for his watch at the airport. Candidate for the Darwin Awards or what...?

  • Comment number 24.

    Ben remains my favourite british boxer of all time. win lose or draw benn always wore his heart on his sleave. for me however, the fight with mcllelland is up there with the rumble in the jungle and hagler v hearns. people tend to shy away from the fight because of its tragic outcome. I dont think benn was ever quite the same after that night but tragedy aside, it was possibly his bravest performance

  • Comment number 25.

    Great read. Never knew Benn was stationed over here in N, Ireland.

  • Comment number 26.

    mma/ufc - oh please. if i wanted to watch two grown men roll around the floor for half an hour i'd nip into pontypridd on a saturday night. they've only flourished because boxing has imploded with 24 champs at each weight, PPV and boxers avoiding each other. i wouldnt get out of bed to watch an mma fight in my backyard

  • Comment number 27.

    mayb u wouldnt wana get out of bed because the men are already rolling around in there lol i joke,
    mma is amazing, i admit it used to be mayb 80% grappling 20% striking but those days are long gone, the fighters know that the crowds love striking and also striking is a much quicker, energy conservative way to win, one punch knock out power baby, try a couple of title fights and see what you think, you might be surprised, otherwise oh well stick to boxing, each to their own ..

  • Comment number 28.

    Will the Nigel Benn and Gerhard McManaman documentary feature input from both fighters?

  • Comment number 29.

    Thanks Benn and Ben!

  • Comment number 30.

    It continues to disappoint me that heavyweight boxing still gets all the limelight. Nigel and Chris were the very best middleweight boxers of their era, and that is no mean feat. To be a great middleweight, you need the speed and technique of the lightweights, but the chin and stamina of the big guys. Most of the heavyweights these days are freaks of nature, who 'train' to be boxers. The lightweight boxers are all speed and technique, but represent little spectacle to the casual observer. But Benn and Eubank could properly box AND had that 'one-good-punch-is-all-it-needs' threat of the heavyweights.

    Top, top boxers and way more deserving of our memory and respect that many that came after.

  • Comment number 31.

    seanmichaels

    Just seen the trailor on the itv website and it looks like there will be contributions by both Nigel Benn and indeed Gerhardt McDougall..

    Actually looks pretty good.

  • Comment number 32.

    I remember watching (was about 15?) a sports programme late on ITV the wednesday before the fight with both Benn and Eubank on it. Eubank was all 'i respect him as a boxer etc etc etc' and Benn just came out with 'i just hate the man' :) Those fights and that era generally were incredible for boxing.

    Re the McClellan fight... i remember being so gutted watching Benn crawling about in the first round after being knocked to the floor. Then watching in SHEER disbleief as he picked himself up and fought so hard - and then watchign McCellan go down on one knee .... that was the best fight ive ever seen and the most incredible lesson in courage and never giving up.

    Still ultimate respects for Nigel ... and he shows what a gent he is with his comments re Eubank Jnr last week to.

  • Comment number 33.

    I used to get goosebumps when i heard the Big Benn chimes when Nigel entered the Arena!!!! He was an absolute ENTERTAINER and I loved him!!!! He fought the fights others wouldn't take!

    Thanks for the memories Nigel!

  • Comment number 34.

    Benn, Eubank & Watson a triumverate of true boxing gladiators taking on all-comers.

    When they stepped in the ring they delivered!

    What we get nowadays is a poor imitation and has undermined the sport.

  • Comment number 35.

    I like Nigel Benn. I loved watching the intense rivalry between him, Eubanks and the great Michael Watson. Indeed I grew up watching all of his fights. But I cant help but think that hes jumping on the religious band wagon when he refers to the Gospel of Mark 8:36 'What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit your own soul?' Nigel is refering to greed here and the neglect of basic human feeling. Unfortunately humans are made to be selfish and most of us dont give a hoot for anything but themselves. We dont have to quote the Gospels to realise that. Treat your neighbour as you would yourself and lets leave religion out of it.

  • Comment number 36.

    Not sure where the religion came from and Mr Benn is one of the last people in the world who you would expect to embrace it, but if it helped to sort his life out and put him on the right track, then i for one can't knock it.
    Just a shame that given the current state of boxing these days, there isn't any characters like the afore mentioned Mr Benn and Eubank etc to give the sport the lift it needs, none the less it's nice to hear that guys like Benn can find a bit of peace and contentment after a life in the ring which would leave it's mark on most people.

  • Comment number 37.

    My big bad....Of course I meant McClellan (wtf Zed wake up!!!) Have to say Gerhardt McDougall and Gerhard McManaman had me in stitches....even at my own expense, will blame it on being very busy at work cos everyone else is striking...knew I would find an excuse to blame something on the lazy lot!

  • Comment number 38.

    He must be the most mis-spelt boxer in history.....

    Heard Nigel Benn on Talksport last week. His speech was very slurred and he struggled to remember the odd name or two. I guess the wars he was involved in take their toll.

  • Comment number 39.

    Benn v mcllelan - still the best fight i have ever seen.

  • Comment number 40.

    All-time dream fight...
    Benn v Hearns!

    Good on ya Nige!

  • Comment number 41.

    40.At 18:51 30th Nov 2011, RealitysVoice wrote:
    All-time dream fight...
    Benn v Hearns!

    Good on ya Nige!
    ----------------------------------------
    It was going to happen but I think Hearns/Benn lost the warm up. Had a few so can't remember right now. Maybe Dirs will enlighten us?

  • Comment number 42.

    #35 "Treat your neighbour as you would yourself and lets leave religion out of it."

    Lol - and where did that come from.

    Nice article. There are youths out there who more than ever need to hear a man who has been through what the dark destroyer has been through. Great times, also sad with what happened to McClellan and Watson.

  • Comment number 43.

    misspelt seanmichaels.

    all i need to remember is the itv theme tune to saturday night boxing.

    daaah daah dah, do do do.

    man you knew you were in for a treat.

    last great one with that music - if my memory serves me correctly - was froch vs pascal.

    or am i just dreaming of the glory days?

    nige will make the hall of fame, which might sound like a 'for what it's worth', but it means a lot in terms of recognition and respect from and for boxers.

    the word 'legend' is becoming cliched.

    legend.

  • Comment number 44.

    These two guys were genuine gladiators. Benn v Eubank part one was a classic British fight. You could see and feel the pain that these two were inflicting on each other, toe to toe, pride vs pride, ego vs ego, neither wanting to show weakness. Awesome stuff, bring back the 90's prize fighter!!!

  • Comment number 45.

    Hello, and thanks for all your comments. First, yeh, you're right, McClellan might be the most difficult name to spell in the history of boxing!

    I knew Nigel's mention of religion might get a couple of people's backs up. I'm not a believer myself, but if it's what saved Benn, then it's churlish to complain. He seemed very content and happy indeed and that hasn't always been the case.

    To the person who said they heard Nigel on the radio and he sounded a bit slurry/doddery, that wasn't the impression I got at all. He always had a slight lisp, he seemed sharp as a button and I watched him working out with the students for two solid hours, so he's obviously still very fit.

    As I understand it, Benn was due to fight Hearns in 1990, but he decided to stay at middleweight instead of moving up. He also told me he was all set to fight Roy Jones, but Steve Collins put paid to that - probably mercifully.

  • Comment number 46.

    Nice call on the 'slurs' Ben. Last time I heard Nigel speak he sounded much more articulate than at least three-quarters of the UK.

    Benn's constant drive, and desire to fight Jones, evident from - perhaps - the moment Jones put paid to Toney's IBF middleweight reign, showed quite clearly that he was a man who wanted the best not only in the division but in the world. I'm not sure if Nigel in his most honest moment thought he would really win that fight, back then, but he would have taken it in an instant had Jones not been on another ascending plane.

    Nice blog. Would be great to get Eubank on here. Been reading a few of his comments of late and they're anything but boring.

    Big-time respect and good luck to Carl Froch and Amir Khan (not to mention Murray on Saturday), but the but's the but: hard to replicate this era of excitement in UK arenas. Not a big nationalist but the Brits made the super-middleweight division, and had a big hand at middleweight in the 90s. And those nights, which Naz deserves a mention for contributing to also, as well as many others, were...what is now the X Factor. Respect to all.

  • Comment number 47.

    Hear Hear, about the 90's totally the best time for live boxing it was like a fight a week, then Sky took this from us. Benn was an awesome fighter and true warrior wearing his heart on his sleeve.

  • Comment number 48.

    Eubank and Benn..........British Boxing in the 90's was so good. Nasim also had his part to play. Thanks you all for the great times......

  • Comment number 49.

    Nigel Benn is my all time boxing hero and a legend. Im in Australia working for a year and actually bumped into Nigel Benn a few months ago out here, I was hungover and completely shocked to see him in a random suburb called Norwest on his way to church. He was very nice to talk to and I even got a photo with him which made my day. Boxing is just not the sales without the likes of Benn, Eubank, Watson etc.

  • Comment number 50.

    Benn's victory over Doug DeWitt in Vegas to win the WBO Middleweight championship was one of the best displays of boxing by a Brit for two decades and one he's never recognized for. He came over here won the title then rounded it off with an annihilation of Iran Barkley who was a quality fighter back in the day.

    The middleweight and super middleweight division in Benn's time was incredible - as well as Benn, Watson and Eubank you also had Mike the Bodysnatcher McCallum and a young Roy Jones Jnr. Would have loved to see these guys fight. But Benn's fight with Gerald McClellan was the single most brutal, vicious, heroic fight I've ever seen, it wasn't surprising Benn was spent after that.

  • Comment number 51.

    Benn was always at his best when tested to the limit. In a fight where he was "on the ropes" and seemingly beaten he would always seem to draw upon some magical reserve of endurance and will to fight.

    It is, therefore, perhaps less of a surprise that he has bounced back in his personal life to overcome any obstacles placed in his path. A true boxing great good luck to him!

  • Comment number 52.

    Good blog, thank you.

  • Comment number 53.

    Great read, made my morning.

  • Comment number 54.

    Great article. Certainly took me back a better times for the armchair boxing fan. From the 70s when I was a teenager through to the mid nineties. The great Reg Gutteridge & Jim Watt and "Arry" on the Beeb...the best of times.

  • Comment number 55.

    Even with the tragedies of Gerald McClellan and Michael Thomas, that was an exceptional era for boxing, and the memories of that excitement are still strong. Someone just asked the question "best fight ever" on a football forum, and I couldn't pick one - just think of the fantastic series of middleweight/super middleweight fights with the likes of Benn and Eubank.

    The weak matches, the constant talk and one fight a year for the top boys, the multiple non-champions etc., are all a big turn-off now. But I still have hope that there are a few fighters around who really want to have a go at anybody and give it their all: we've had the oustanding Joe Calzaghe since, now Froch, Cleverley? The Brits might not be able to clean up boxing, but I think they might yet provide quite a few more memorable fights!

  • Comment number 56.

    amazing article. benn and eubank two of only a few real sporting hero,s i have. tyson and bruno being another two.
    i was at the second benn v eubank fight at old trafford.i still get goosebumps when i watch it on youtube.very rarely does something get me like that. i dont think we will see the like again.society has changed, celebrity has changed. too many sportspersons only care about being celebrity rather than successful.too easily rewarded for so little effort thats the problem.

    btw..good look froch.spark ward right out please..

  • Comment number 57.

    *good luck froch

  • Comment number 58.

    its great to see nigel goin so good and wat a fighter he was and great fights with eubank but wat about the the great steve collins who put both nigel and chris to the sword great time in boxing good luck to all and thank you for the memorys

  • Comment number 59.

    @sydneyleeds Benn and Eubank were both done by the time Steve Collins came on the scene, they'd both been involved in some incredible wars, Benn was never the same fighter after McClellan, Eubank was done after Michael Watson. Collins was an ace fighter but never fought anyone in the same class as Benn and Eubank.

 

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