Fire and ice: Eubank-Benn I – 25 years later
Eubank-Benn I was a fight so brutal, a conflict so engaging, that it inspired an entire generation of fight fans and sparked a golden era for British boxing.
This was a battle pitting fire against ice – the brutal punching and raw warrior spirit of Nigel Benn against the outlandish impudence and impenetrable chin of Chris Eubank.
It’s unusual in boxing and life for an event to fulfill hype and anticipation – yet this bout between bitter rivals and disparate personalities surpassed its lofty pre-fight expectations. The two principals traded bombs for nine, astonishing give-and-take rounds before referee Richard Steele intervened with Benn’s left eye swollen shut and the WBO middleweight champion no longer able to slip Eubank’s accurate punches.
This 18 November 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of arguably the greatest fight to grace a British ring in the modern era and an acrimonious rivalry that captured the imagination of the millions watching live on ITV. The bruises and emotional scars have long since healed from that breathless night in Birmingham, but the wonderful memories remain.
“It was only when someone recently uploaded a video taken in the changing room after the fight that I remembered how painful, hurtful and exhausting that contest was – because time somehow makes you forget what you went through,” Eubank (then 24-0, 14 KOs) told Boxing Monthly in London recently. “And I am really glad I saw that because I had kind of forgotten. Benn was mad, [pauses] mad. And he would have had to been mad to do what he did. It is probably a little bit strange that beating him kind of makes me madder! But only I am not mad. I had to fight, it’s not that I wanted to fight. Benn was born to fight.”
“I look back on it with a great deal of pride,” remembered Benn’s manager at the time Ambrose Mendy. “We could have sold out the venue two or three times over. I had an agreement for a minimum $5 million for Nigel to fight Sugar Ray Leonard. But all Nigel was fixated on was Eubank, ‘I just want to do him. I’ve just got to do that Eubank.’ It was amazing the way the public picked it up. Two second generation immigrants fighting on mainstream television and shattering all viewing audience figures on a Sunday evening. Here we are almost three decades on and this rivalry is held in reverence.”
After months of rising tension with Eubank relentlessly baiting WBO champion Benn at every opportunity, contracts for the fight were finally signed live on ITV in front of visibly worried presenter Nick Owen. Ever the psychologist, Eubank riled the snarling Benn further by refusing to meet his gaze until they met in the ring.
“Nick Owen shit himself. He just did not know what to do,” Mendy told BM. “I could not have stopped Nigel chinning Eubank – the anger in Nigel was unreal. In fact, the next morning at Café De Paris where we had the formal press conference – Eubank walked into the room as pompous as you like, ‘The facts speak for themselves and the fact is I am the man’and Nigel roared up to get him and we had this whole melee - it was unbelievable.”
“The build-up was phenomenal. Everything about it was. I knew it was going to be electric,” Eubank’s long-time trainer and confidante Ronnie Davies told BM. “[At the gloves inspection before the fight] Eubank grabbed Mendy by the throat, but Mendy grabbed Eubank back! He wasn’t frightened of Eubank. I will give him his due. I started putting the bandages on Eubank and Chris went, ‘Your hands are shaking, Davies. What’s up?’ It didn’t faze him at all, but it fazed me obviously!”
While utterly convinced of victory, at that point unaware of the sturdiness of Eubank’s chin and force of will, Benn’s preparations had undergone a dramatic setback on the morning of the fight (in the era of same day weigh-ins).
“I felt I had it in the bag. But I had a bit of doubt – to tell you the truth – because when I got on the [check] scales, I was almost 12 stone and had to go in a steam bath, three times,” Benn told BM on a recent visit to the UK from his new home in Australia (an ill-advised bottle of pre-fight champagne was allegedly the culprit, according to Mendy, disputed by Benn). “I had to run on the treadmill and lost five and three quarter pounds in two hours. That weight loss was playing on my mind.”
On fight night, the atmosphere had reached fever pitch with a sell-out, almost entirely pro-Benn crowd baying for the Brighton man’s blood. As Eubank left his dressing room his entrance music was sabotaged on Mendy’s instruction and, instead, he strode to the ring accompanied by a chorus of boos.
“I got to the outskirts of the arena and felt the atmosphere of intimidation and felt the pressure, as you say the cauldron, to feel that boiling in there,” remembered Eubank. “I was living that right the way through my childhood. I thought, ‘Again they are trying to intimidate me. I’ve got you. I am relaxed around you. Now watch me strut my way out of this.’
“So I am standing in front of Benn – Richard Steele has pulled us together - and the little boy in me, who is always trying to be a man, says: ‘You idiot! You’ve gone and done it now, you have blagged it so well you are looking at Nigel Benn and he is going to knock your head into the sixth row.’ Then the man who has done all the work, says, ‘No, hold on a minute, you have done the work, you have paid the price, you have lived the solitude, you stayed away from the girls, you stayed away from the nightclubs, you stayed away from the holidays, you have been in the gym six-and-a-half days a week for seven years – this you can do.’”
“Fighting Chris was just phenomenal,” Benn told BM (then 27-1, 25 KOs). “And hitting him – he didn’t even move! My fists were shattered on his chin. He was one of those kind of guys…I just couldn’t stand him. He was really tough. But when he fought me he was like a top boy. It was his night. He was strong and he was ripped. To me really, he was like a light-heavy. Look at his physique. I was in the zone. I think when I got a thumb in the eye in the third or fourth round I couldn’t really see. The punches were coming and it was just really hard, what I had to deal with in there.”
Eubank underwent a torrid examination of his character as the explosive Benn sought to destroy and humiliate him for his pre-fight proclamations of superiority. The two rivals discarded boxing’s fundamentals and caught each other time and time again with sledgehammer blows that would have dismissed lesser men. Their war wounds were soon influencing the flow of the contest with Benn’s swollen left eye offset by Eubank’s split tongue that was causing him to swallow mouthfuls of his own blood.
“How close did I feel to defeat? At the end of the third round, I said to myself, ‘If he continues with this pace – I will not be able to continue – he is going to stop me’,” reflected Eubank. “And then I went into auto-pilot. That auto-pilot is not thinking but surviving. I was surviving. Perhaps what helped me a great deal is the fact I listened to the elders. There is a saying which I heard long before the fight, ‘When you are in a fight and you feel exhausted, you are battered. You feel you are beaten and you want to quit, remember your opponent feels exactly the same way. Hold on.’”
“I always knew Eubank had a cast-iron jaw, but no-one knows until you’ve proved it at the highest possible level,” recalled trainer Davies. “Benn was a phenomenal puncher and when he hit Eubank with that right hand in the third round, I thought, ‘How he has taken that?’ He never told me about the split tongue. I wouldn’t have pulled him out because he would never have forgiven me. He was swallowing blood, but he never told me at the time. I remember sitting down with him afterwards and offering him crisps and he didn’t want to know!”
With the fight slipping from his grasp due to his hideously swollen eye, Benn scored a flash knockdown in the eighth which Eubank vehemently protested was the result of a slip. Yet the fight was ebbing away from the champion and, in the ninth, referee Steele stepped in after the partially blind Benn was drilled to the ropes by another sickening right hand. Eubank dropped to his knees, screaming in euphoria and in the post-fight interview proposed to his first wife Karron [mother of a one-year-old Chris Eubank Jr], but for Benn the emotions were rather different.
“[Losing to him] was the worst!” smiled Benn wistfully. “The respect was always there, but I knew he was going to be walking around with his monocle and his cane. ‘I can’t have lost to him’. I knew he’d be saying, ‘that man is beneath me’ - I had all that to deal with! That was what he was like!”
“I went over to Nigel when Richard Steele stopped the fight and remember I was so proud of the way he fought, knowing that he had this weight issue,” recalled Mendy. “I said, ‘Listen Nigel, you’ve got no reason not to hold your head up. In a minute, Gary Newbon is going to stick a microphone in front of you and I don’t want you to say any crap. Just don’t say you are quitting. Of course, when Gary asked that question Nigel said he wanted to quit ‘but my manager won’t let me’ and a roar went up from the crowd. And I think that’s where he came back. In the aftermath, Eubank showed so much humility, which I didn’t know he possessed. I am glad those two guys are as revered as they are today – Eubank went on to prove that he was the bravest of the brave.”
The best was yet to come for Benn. Eubank would remain unbeaten for over four years and 18 world title fights en route to becoming WBO super-middleweight champion, but Benn followed him to 168lbs and enjoyed his glory years as a thrilling WBC champion. The two drew a cagey rematch in October 1993, but common sense dictated that their breathless war in 1990 could never be replicated.
Benn has now found a genuine peace through his faith in God. His life has swung full pendulum from the darkness to the light. “If it weren’t for my saviour, I would be dead six foot under or in a mental hospital now,” Benn told BM with trademark honesty. “I went through a painful experience to change who I was. The faith became a big part of my life. It kept my marriage together. When I confessed all my sins, I should have been divorced. She should have took me for everything. But my lovely wife and kids stood by me and loved me through it.
“I’m fitter now than when I was world champion. I am not spliffing, I am not taking the little fellas [drugs], I am not chasing women, I am not clubbing, none of that. I am running about 14km-15km every other day. There is no negativity. God has set me free. So I am content,” he continued. “I smoked from the age of eight. I stopped at 41! All through my career! I would have been happy being a Southern Area champion or maybe a shot at the British title. I’ve achieved beyond my wildest dreams. I am doing the right things now and I feel blessed.”
The last word, as usual, falls to the loquacious Eubank. “The rivalry was pure. It was real. It was tangible,” the former two-weight world champion told BM. “You could feel the antagonism, the negative energy between us. We were opposites who don’t attract. For people in the inner city, if you can’t fight you don’t get respect. I had to get it, so I was willing to put up with everything and anything to get it. On one hand, there was pain and respect. I’ll take the pain because I need that respect.”