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FIGHTLAND

The Cult: Nigel Benn

Nicknamed "The Dark Destroyer," Nigel Benn was a popular and gutsy British boxer famous for his fights with Chris Eubank. But the darkness inside Benn sometimes threatened to destroy more than just his opponents.

by Jim Weeks
19 April 2016, 11:07pm

Illustration by Dan Evans

The latest inductee to The Cult was a popular and gutsy British boxer whose bouts with Chris Eubank attracted huge TV audiences. You can (in fact you must) read our previous entries here.

Cult Grade: From Darkness into Light

Nicknames in sport sometimes come across as forced, but when Nigel Benn stalked into a boxing ring as "The Dark Destroyer" it felt like a natural fit. During his heyday in the 1990s, there were times when Benn went to a dark place within himself – where years of anger lay buried – and became capable of destroying anything that lay in his path. Even his own life seemed to teeter over the abyss.

The man whose fights with Chris Eubank became the stuff of British sporting legend was shaped by an emotionally fraught journey to the top. Born to Barbadian immigrants, the sixth of seven boys, Benn grew up in Ilford, north-east London. He first experienced tragedy when his elder brother and hero, Andy, died in suspicious and violent circumstances. Nigel was just eight, and he later talked of carrying the anger and confusion over his brother's death deep into his adult life.

He quickly grew into a tough kid who wasn't afraid to express himself with his fists. Nigel shoplifted and fought with local National Front skinheads, hustled and smoked, and seemed to be heading towards a fate similar to that of his lost sibling. Aware of this, his father Dixon pushed him towards joining the army, another elder brother having already done the same.

It was in the forces that Benn took up boxing, finding an immense aptitude for the sport, as well as a new sense of purpose and direction. He not only dominated in the ring, but began coaching others, too.

READ MORE: The Cult – Chris Eubank

When asked in interviews, Benn can recall the exact time he spent in the army: "Four years, 256 days". For 18 months of that stretch he was stationed in Northern Ireland, a country still gripped by its long-running ethno-nationalist struggle. And, while the service had positives, the experience of being a young black squaddie in a conflict zone left another mark on Benn's soul.

Boxing success followed as an amateur and a pro, but there was no fairtytale element to Benn's career. He lost his Commonwealth title to Michael Watson in 1989, lost to his bitter rival Eubank in 1990, and was then denied what he felt should have been his redemptive moment when their rematch was scored a draw in 1993.

Even what could have been his greatest achievement – defeating the much-hyped Gerald McClellan in a brutal encounter in 1995 – was marred by tragedy. After being written off by the bookies and knocked out of the ring in the first round, Benn fought back with typical heart to beat his opponent. It should have been one for the ages, but a blood clot on the brain left McClellan permanently disabled, blind, and requiring round the clock care to this day. That fight is only remembered for its dreadful aftermath, for leaving McClellan in darkness.

Try as he might, not all of Benn's demons could be exorcised in a boxing ring. Throughout his years as a top-draw fighter he battled drink and drug addiction, had numerous affairs, and attempted suicide in 1999. He was a man who seemed always on the brink of being enveloped by the darkness, forever battling to stay just the right side of an evil force that could only sometimes be harnessed.

It would have been little surprise if Benn had allowed the darkness to destroy him entirely, but today, as a born-again Christian, he seems to have found peace within himself. Perhaps some old scars remain, but it would seem that the Dark Destroyer cherishes his new life in the light.

Point of Entry: Medium

After leaving the army Benn took work as a security guard while climbing the amateur ranks, eventually making his professional debut shortly after his 23rd birthday, in January 1987. By the following April he had become Commonwealth middleweight champion, but lost the belt to the talented Watson.

Benn picked himself up and fought on, a theme of his career and life. Contesting his next five fights in the United States, in April 1990 he earned the WBO middleweight title by defeating American Doug DeWitt, then made a successful defence against Iran Barkley. Benn was now a world champion and his star had grown back home. His life was about to become inextricably linked with the man who he would face next: Chris Eubank.

The build up to their fight in November 1990 was as bitter as any in British boxing. There is a TV clip from the pre-fight contract signing in which Eubank refuses to look at Benn in an effort to psyche his opponent out; all Benn can do is stare menacingly at the back of his rival's head. Eubank is asked if he hates Benn and replies that he does not; asked the same question, Benn replies, "I do personally hate him." And you sense that, in the moment, he really bloody means it.

In hindsight, this long-running feud between the broadly disliked Eubank and the considerably more popular Benn was a fantastic box office draw and made both men very wealthy, a fact Benn now acknowledges with a smile. 18 million watched their second fight in 1993, roughly one in every four people in Britain. Like all good foes, they desperately needed each other.

Naturally, Benn would have preferred to be on the winning side of at least one of those bouts. The first was a dramatic contest, Benn knocking Eubank down in the ninth only for his opponent to rise and land a left hook, then a flurry of blows that ended the fight. Afterwards, Eubank called Benn the hardest puncher he had ever faced.

READ MORE: The Cult – Muhammad Ali

Again, Benn picked himself up and found new success. After the Eubank defeat he went on a 10-fight winning streak that included claiming the WBC super middleweight title in October 1992 and defending it three times. Soon enough, Eubank was calling again.

But, by the second contest, Eubank had been forever changed by his bout with Watson, who suffered permanent neurological damage after their fight in 1991. Eubank seemed to have lost his finishing instinct, and was fighting opponents of questionable quality.

Of course, he was always going to be up for the Benn fight. Though it did not hit the same high notes as the first it was nevertheless unmissable and, with the scorecards level late on, the final round saw both men go to war to secure the win. The bout was declared a draw; Benn retained his WBC belt, Eubank his WBO championship.

For Benn, two more successful defences followed before the McClellan fight. Though he retained his title twice more after that dark night in London, he was not the same afterwards. He surrendered his super-middleweight title to "Sugar Boy" Malinga in March 1996 with a display that did not resemble the Nigel Benn of old. The heart had gone; two more defeats to Steve Collins signalled an overdue end.

Like Eubank, Benn could not claim to have been the best in the world – Roy Jones Jr held that mantle in the middleweight divisions during this period, and neither fought the American. But he was a brave, hugely determined man who would always fight to the bitter end. Benn at his best was like a wounded animal, one that attacked with most ferocity when he'd been hurt emotionally or physically. Take him to a dark place and Nigel Benn could destroy almost anything.

The Moment: Coming back for more, vs Gerald McClellan

The McClellan fight epitomised Benn: to be knocked clean out of the ring in the first round (at 3 minutes in the video below), then return with a flurry of blows in the second, was his life in microcosm. What happened later in the bout was a tragedy, but in that moment of recovery Benn had shown himself to be the gutsiest of fighters.

Closing Statement

"I can't say [Gerald McClellan] was my best fight, though, because he came out in a wheelchair, blind and 80 per cent deaf. Not that I cared at the time because I wasn't a Christian at the time and thought everybody had to be knocked over."––Nigel Benn