In God’s hands: Conor Benn interview
As his father’s career was touched by tragedy, Conor Benn knows more than most the risks he takes when he steps into the ring. He tells Andrew Harrison why he does it...
At roughly the same age his father was smoking and scrapping on the streets of Ilford, east London, Conor Benn was playing at being a boxer. On the driveway of the family’s former mansion in Santa Ponsa, overlooking Costa de la Calma (“the calm coast”) in southwest Majorca, the eight-year-old son of a once-ferocious fighter, then too small to fill his sky-blue T-shirt and shorts, or his oversized black gloves, throws combinations at his father beneath a warm sun and an audience of palm trees and a gleaming white Porsche.
“Four, come on, quick! Four! Come on son!” the father exhorts. Utterly absorbed, the child obliges before dissolving into laughter. Yet beneath this innocuous-looking bonding session, the pad man, former two-weight world champion Nigel Benn, worried about Conor pursuing him into a life he didn’t need.
Fast-forward 14 years and the boy is now a 21-year-old welterweight prospect. Unbeaten in 12 professional fights (9 KOs), Benn Jr trains in Essex, where this story first began.
Benn Sr was arguably the UK’s most exciting boxer of all. His iconic rivalry with nemesis Chris Eubank Sr in the early ’90s remains a cornerstone of British boxing. A dark angel with a “No Fear” motto, Nigel was a fireball of naked aggression. An ex-squaddie and second-generation Barbadian immigrant, he was fuelled by a volcanic rage emanating from the suspicious death of his beloved older brother Andy in 1972. He fought like a savage, yet was vulnerable, stylish and endearing with it.
Dark eyes, black shorts, a sullen look — Conor is a chip off the old block. Smothered in tattoos, he bears a mix of family portraits and religious iconography. The words “Fear God” are etched across his abdomen. Boxing has left its mark, too. He was side-lined for seven months after injuring his jaw in sparring last year. After his eleventh pro fight, in December - a wild six-round tussle with Frenchman Cedrick Peynaud (who has a deceptive record of 5-5-3, 3 KOs) - his eyes were grotesquely swollen shut.
“The sport only gets harder but I didn’t know what I was in for,” Conor admitted to Boxing Monthly a few days after returning from a training stint in Los Angeles. “I’m telling you that now. I did not know what I was in for. Boy, was it a shock how hard this sport is.”
After going to the wire against former kick-boxing world champ Peynaud (Benn was dropped twice officially in the opening round, before scoring two knockdowns himself on his way to a points verdict), Benn trained in southern California ahead of his return on 21 April, which saw him stop Chris Truman via TKO in round four.
He toiled at Robert Garcia’s joint in Oxnard and the Wild Card gym in Hollywood, sparring with Golden Boy prospect Jonathan Navarro (13-0, 7 KOs) and Australian Lenny Zappavigna (37-3, 27 KOs). The warm climate suited Benn. He’d love to live there, train there full time, but his loyalties to his unassuming coach Tony Sims preclude it (“I’m a strong believer that the people who started me off should be the people who see me through my career”).
As shown with the likes of Marvis Frazier, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr and more recently Chris Eubank Jr, the weight of carrying a famous name can be burdensome. So, why does Conor fight, if he doesn’t need to?
“Why do I fight?” Benn considered. “I ask myself that every day. I dunno. I honestly don’t have to fight. You know people say ‘silver spoon’? Personally, I’ve got a big silver spoon in Sydney right now: a nice eight-bedroom mansion that my dad’s building, you know, living in the sun and not having to worry.
“I choose to fight because … I don’t know... I enjoy fighting. I think it’s a way of life. I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it.”
Facially, Conor resembles his mother, Caroline. In the ring, he mirrors his father. He stalks his opponents with a familiar, crouching stance. Yet here’s the rub: Conor wasn’t blessed with his father’s payoff punch.
Born in the three-month gap between Benn Sr’s final, mournful defeats to Steve Collins in 1996, Conor and twin sister India were raised in Beckenham until the family emigrated to Spain in 2002. At home, he’d speak English, yet otherwise conversed in fluent Spanish.
“The best thing my dad ever did was move to Spain,” Conor said on his idyllic childhood. “It took me away from everything. I kept my innocence a lot longer. Does that make sense?
“I didn’t know about all this Moncler or Valentino until I came to England two or three years ago. I didn’t know about all these [clothing] brands. I know nothing about London. I don’t follow no football team.
“I didn’t know about all this Cockney talk. One of the boys in the gym [was talking about a girl and] said: ‘Oh yeah, that bird,’ and I’m thinking he was talking about an actual bird. I didn’t understand all this talk.”
In 2012, the Benns moved on to Sydney. Conor boxed as an amateur (“just muckin’ around”) surmising he won around 22 bouts from 24, though he didn’t keep score (“I don’t even know what weight I was at”). After deciding to get serious in 2015, he moved to Manchester to learn from former champ Ricky Hatton.
Conor struggled with the cold weather and the accents but, above all else, the isolation. On a training trip to London, he flattened a sparring partner and things snowballed. He abandoned thoughts of boxing for Barbados in the 2016 Olympics to sign a professional contract with promoter Eddie Hearn. Kid Benn was an easy sell. His pro debut took place on the undercard of Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title bout against Charles Martin at London's sold-out O2 Arena.
“I couldn’t wait,” he admitted. “I wanted to turn over and I thought it was all fun and games until my second fight, when I fought Luke Keleher and I went back to my changing room and cried about how badly I performed.”
Nineteen months and nine fights on from that ordeal, Conor was in the same position — sobbing in the bowels of London’s York Hall after struggling with Peynaud. Though he’d proven his mettle, he’d underperformed. On reflection, he realises he can’t allow himself to feed off a crowd in such a wild and reckless manner — yet seemed torn over it regardless.
“The crowd was entertained but I think now I need to fight smarter — maybe even more boring,” he said. “I see some fighters boxing and they’re boring. I know when I fight, I’m either going to be in a war or someone’s getting knocked out — and I like it like that. But I need to think of my longevity by not having wars now. I’m not afraid to say: ‘Yeah come on, let’s have it.’ That’s the fighter in me. If I didn’t do boxing, I’d end up having punch-ups on roads probably every single minute.”
Though his surname has opened doors, it has also heightened expectations.
“There’s pressure that comes with it,” he said. “Yes, there is. People expect me to not have fights like I had [against Peynaud], for example. But the reality is, I’ve been through tough wars simply due to me just learning and growing. People forget the fights my dad had along the way that made him the champion he was. He was just some boy who could fight from Ilford. Never did anyone think my dad was going to be a two-time world champion, or a legend.
“Sometimes I feel people expect so much of me. I’m just this young man, who’s just come into the game and is learning the game. It is what it is. It’s been a blessing. I can’t really say it’s been a curse — it’s my dad’s legacy. I pray to God I fulfil it even more.”
In his father’s day, fighters were allowed to develop away from the limelight. Today, fighters grow up in public. While this helps with marketing, there have been hiccups along the way. Conor was involved in an online spat with former journeyman Robin Deakin last year, after which he publicly apologised for uncharacteristically mocking Deakin’s childhood disability.
“My intentions were not to cause harm or offence to anybody whatsoever but it was an incredibly naïve and ignorant thing to say,” Conor admitted. It was a harsh lesson in the perils of modern media.
“You know, people expect me to be fighting the likes of Kell Brook or Eubank Jr as people on social media wanna talk rubbish,” he said. “Do you know what I mean? I mean, what rubbish are you talking about?
“I’ve been off social media for like three months. Social media — it’s all rubbish. It’s fake. It’s an illusion. I read a lot and when I used to be on social media it stopped my reading time. It stops socialisation with people. It’s good for PR and to interact with the public but apart from that it’s no good. You’re allowing someone to walk in your living room and slap you in the face and you can’t do nothing about it. I’d rather come off it.”
Benn’s main social network these days comes courtesy of the Matchroom Elite Boxing Gym, tucked away in the leafy Essex countryside.
“My family’s all in Australia, so for me the boys and the atmosphere in the gym is key,” he said. “It’s beneficial to have good fighters around you, people more experienced than you, who’ve been there, seen it, done it.
“We had Kevin Mitchell in the stable — he was sorta just heading off as I came in. Ricky Burns, John Ryder — who’s a great fighter who hasn’t achieved what he will achieve, or should have achieved — so many fighters around you who are experienced, you know? Martin Ward, who was a former Team GB member. For me, coming along as a novice — a young lion cub into the lion’s den — it’s what I really need.”
John Jeremiah Sullivan noted in his book Blood Horses that “sons often wander like sleepwalkers into their fathers’ defeats”. Boxing brought Benn Sr titles and riches. Fame, though, robbed him of his soul. Money, drugs and infidelity brought him to the edge of suicide. If it seems incongruous he’d allow his son to negotiate the same celebrity pitfalls that engulfed him, it follows a pattern of Nigel allowing Conor to figure things out for himself (though the father’s frankness in discussing his own transgressions serves as a warning).
“When I was younger I didn’t understand why my dad did the things he did,” Conor said. “You could say I hated him, maybe, as a young kid. As I’ve got older, I realise everything makes sense. I understand where he was coming from because I have a daily struggle every single day. And it’s early on in my career.
“I respect my dad for confessing all his mistakes. He’s a changed man. He went from the Dark Destroyer, the baddest man on the planet, to being a loving, caring dad who wants the best for his kids. You can’t fault a man like that.”
Conor’s parents became born-again Christians in Spain. It salvaged their marriage and Nigel later became an ordained minister. Conor, meanwhile, attends church every Sunday. He falls back on his faith when asked whether he’s discussed boxing’s dangers with his father (Benn Sr’s greatest win, over Gerald McClellan in 1995, can never be celebrated due to the catastrophic injuries McClellan suffered in defeat, while close friend Michael Watson, who handed Benn his first defeat in 1989, suffered brain damage after a bout with Chris Eubank in 1990).
“My life’s in God’s hands,” Conor said. “Every time I get in the ring I pray that both me and my opponent come out healthy. I pray that His hands are upon us. At the end of the day we’re sportsmen and we both know the risks.
“I don’t need to talk to my dad about it. It is what it is. It’s a brutal sport and all I can do is pray me and my opponent come out all right. When I’m in the fight I don’t really worry about that. I’m a fighter at heart.
“In my last fight, I could not have cared less about what was going on. All I wanted to do was win and I’d do anything, by all means, to win. The first thing I thought was: ‘I’m going to get back up and hit you harder than you hit me.’ My attitude was: ‘I’ll take one to give one.’ You’re thriving off adrenaline, you’re thriving on fear.”
Most unbeaten prospects will tell you they’ll win a world title. Benn, though, is more prudent. Contrary to the assured image he projects, the most he’ll offer is: “I can actually, maybe, do something good in this sport.”
In order for that to happen, he knows he’ll need to create his own style, his own identity.
“The reason why I can change is because I’m humble and I’m willing to learn,” he explained. “Truth be told, I know nothing about this sport. I’ve been in this sport two minutes. Yeah, my dad was a two-time world champion but I’m finding out about this sport for myself. I put my tail between my legs and I listen.
“That’s why you’ve seen the change from my debut to the fighter I am now. The change is drastic. And now, after my last hard fight, watch this change. Watch this year. Watch how much I’ve progressed.
“I came into this game a little boy, a little novice with some mad thick haircut that I had at the time. I’m turning into a man and the public are growing with me. They’re seeing the change, and that’s why this journey is so exciting.”