Boxing regularly throws up stories of courage, persistence, triumph and tragedy, and is a sport that thrives in tough working class areas.
In Sydney, the real estate boom has gentrified boxing’s inner-city heartland, moving it to clusters in the distant outer suburbs, and 40 kilometres out west, Blacktown has become the new epicentre of Australian boxing. The Vinegar Hill Boxing Gym sits in the heart of a dusty industrial area, in the roof cavity at the back of a concrete factory wedged between exhaust muffler and scrap metal dealers. It is named after the 1798 Battle of Vinegar Hill – the last stand of the Irish Rebels against the English and its local namesake, the 1804 Battle of Vinegar Hill when the British Colonial army crushed an Irish convict rebellion nearby. The gym reeks of struggle.
The posters hanging off the cinder blocks surrounding the ring are old-school – Thomas Hearns, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston. It is a surreal yet suitable habitat for a boxing blue blood, Nigel Benn, nicknamed the Dark Destroyer and at his peak one of England’s most recognisable sporting heroes. Benn’s record as an amateur boxer was 41-1 before he turned professional in 1987. Over a nine-year career he won two world titles, at middleweight and super middleweight, and finished with a professional career record of 42-5-1 with 35 knockouts.
Trainer Rod Williams waits patiently on the ropes for Benn’s private training session to start. Williams is a wiry and wise South African who moved to Australia from the tough streets of Johannesburg at the age of 10. A champion coach, he has devoted his life to the fight game and now trains a stable of rookies and elite amateurs including Benn’s son Conor. Benn was so impressed at Williams’s work with his son that he joined the stable himself to keep learning.
Williams trains champions like Benn, but he also works with novice fighters. “They are the ones who teach me how to teach,” he says. Since taking on Benn over a year ago, Williams has been shocked at his ability to do new things. “He could easily have played the old dog you can’t teach new tricks to, but in every single session he’s done everything I’ve asked,” says Williams. “He has never put the ‘I’m the Dark Destroyer’ on me. He’s good that way. For a man over 50 his stamina and strength is amazing.”
Inside the ring, Benn explodes into action. The stereo blares while Williams calls the shots and Benn obliges. Conor leans on the ropes watching his father’s every move. Conor has now had 20 amateur fights and is planning to join the Hatton Academy in Manchester run by former world champion Ricky Hatton. “I still watch my father’s fights” Conor says with smile. “I look up to him and he’s my inspiration. I didn’t know how big he was growing up in Spain. Until we went to England and everybody wanted a photo – it was bizarre. Look at him – he’s still looking good!”
Benn Snr is in mint condition and throwing thunderclap straight rights into the pads, working feverishly through three-minute rounds with half-minute rests. Between rounds, Williams chimes in: “Conor brings a lot to the table genetically but gets no special privileges.” “He’s got the DNA!” shouts Benn, sweating profusely, but Williams continues. “Conor loves it to death but he has to be patient.”
The buzzer rings and the gruelling rounds continue. Williams has his eyes closed now as Benn machine guns short punches into the pads before exploding with a series of vicious left hooks. Williams stops Benn mid-round to explain an adjustment in angles. Benn soaks it in: “I got you, I see what you mean.” As the end of the 12th round looms, Benn finishes with a furious flurry that goes one minute over time. “That’s what an old man can do!” he yells. Towelling off the sweat, he invites my questions: “Bring it on!”
Born in 1964 in Ilford in east London to immigrant parents from Barbados, Benn was brought up in Essex before moving to Spain and then settling in Australia in 2013: “Tell you the truth my wife Carolyne suggested it,” Benn says. “I said to her ‘Australia? You must be mad, everything’s venomous’. Then I worked through it. We black men don’t surf so that ruled out sharks.” Eventually, he was convinced. Twelve years in Spain was enough, and it was easy to communicate in Australia. His first day in Sydney had a huge impact. He remembers ordering fried rice in English from a Chinese waiter. “I thought, ‘Here we are!’” he says. “I fell in love with it all – the size of the beaches, the big blue sky, the barbecues and focus on families getting together.”
Benn left painful memories back in England. At the age of eight his hero older brother Andy was killed suspiciously and violently at just 17, and a hole was created that nothing could fill. “Something severed when my brother died,” he says. “I was living but not living. Andy used to lie on the bunk bed and cuddle me – I was his lion cub. He had proper respect in Ilford. I was a scared little boy who didn’t want to die. I cried myself to sleep every night.”
After Andy’s death, Benn began smoking, hustling on the street, and eventually continuing his brother’s work fighting against the National Front racist skinheads. “The black and white communities would come to together at Ilford Town Hall to listen to soul music and they [the skinheads] would wait for us outside,” says Benn. “I was into Bruce Lee at the time and I remember knocking one skinhead out with a hop, skip and a jump through the air and my leg cracked him.” Benn remembers shouting: “I was born here mate. I’m more English than you are.”
School was a blur as he roamed the streets until the early hours of the morning. Even though he went wild fighting on the streets, Benn’s staunch father was there for him with some tough love Bajan style. Benn smiles. “I would get in some trouble, my father would hear about it and when I got back home he would bellow in a thick Bajan accent ‘If you can’t hear you can feel’, followed by a clip. He gave it to me but I still respect him today.”
The value of his father’s discipline became apparent later in life. “I didn’t understand at the time but later he explained it to me. He said by hook or crook, you’re not going to end up like your brother.” Benn’s father insisted he join his older brother in the British Army and he took to “squaddie” life with relish, kicking off his boxing career and surviving some harrowing times in Northern Ireland including losing friends in the Ballykelly bombing. “I was just a brother wanting to do my time and get out,” he says. After almost five years Benn left the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers with an exemplary record, tried security but was lured into professional boxing, skyrocketing to a 22-0 record and building a reputation as an exciting puncher with a growing fanbase.
It all came crashing down when he was “rope-a-doped” brilliantly by fellow Brit Michael Watson and having punched himself out, was knocked out himself. “I had some friends who disappeared to hang out with Michael,” says Benn, who sat alone in the change room after the fight. “I didn’t want to leave the house and decided to go to America.” The experience was an epiphany and defeat can be instructive. “I’d been lying to myself about how good I was.”
Boxing was different in America. “It’s the land of truth over there,” says Benn. “Guys off the street can give you a tough spar. Reputations mean nothing.” But the move paid off. He won the world middleweight title against Doug De Witt in New Jersey in 1990. In his first defence he brutalised fearsome Iran “the Blade” Barkley in a famous one round war that made him an international star. When Barkley looked away from him at the weigh-in, Benn knew he had his man.
Confidence restored, Benn returned to England, thrilling crowds with his power and aggression propelling him to a string of wins including a second world title – the WBC super middleweight belt and two fierce wars with Chris Eubank, losing one and drawing the second in front of 47,000 fans at Old Trafford and over 18 million people on free-to-air television.
A contract dispute led to Benn being “thrown to the wolves” against Don King’s undefeated American Gerald “Mini Mike Tyson” McClellan for the seventh defence of his WBC super middleweight title in 1995. It was a violent, brutal fight, the British Bulldog versus the American Pitbull, and Benn was bludgeoned near unconscious and out of the ring in the first round before getting himself back into the contest, roared on by a partisan crowd. McClellan eventually retired on one knee in the 10th round, dehydrated, confused and blinking.
British fight writer Hugh Mcilvanney described the fight as “relentless, mutually destructive aggression…one of the most brutal fights any of us at ringside had witnessed.” McClellan was rushed to hospital cutting Benn’s celebrations short. He had scored one of the bravest, most dramatic victories in English sporting history – a titanic struggle and the devil took the hindmost. Benn had a damaged nose and jaw, urinated blood for three days and had a shadow on the brain. The fight left McClellan blind, 80% deaf and paralysed in a wheelchair, in the care of his sisters.
This year marks 20 years since McClellan was paralysed. Eight years ago Benn returned to England to raise $250,000 to assist McClellan’s care. In an emotional reunion, Benn was granted forgiveness by McClellan’s sister, who once told the media “We want Benn dead, we want his money”, and, “How does a man who almost killed a man sleep at night?” To see Benn and McClellan embrace is one of the most moving moments in boxing history with the latter in his wheelchair asking: “Am I handsome?”
“It’s my greatest moment in the ring but I can’t celebrate it,” says Benn. “I’ve done what I can and I’m grateful it’s been laid to rest. It’s a cross I have to bear but ultimately I’m here to support my family.” Benn was never the same again and his career soon ended. Without the discipline of boxing his life descended into a path well trodden of chaos featuring drugs, cheating, fast women and slow horses. Famously, Benn was once quoted as saying: “I was Satan’s right hand man.” He suffered depression and attempted suicide one lonely night in the car. Rock bottom is a good foundation and Benn found salvation in religion joining a long line of religious boxers including Evander Holyfield and George Foreman.
In an attempt to expel his demons Benn left his marital home and went to live with his pastor who assigned him to a 63-year-old woman. “She broke me down slowly,” he says with a wince. “She made me deal with my unresolved issues with drugs, sex addiction and the anger at the loss of my brother. No more spliffs, no more cheating, no more swearing. Get this. I was only allowed to watch Little House on the Prairie and loved it. I’ve got all 11 seasons on DVD!”
Benn interrupts the memories, checking his watch. “We’re late for Blacktown PCYC, let’s go,” he says. Blacktown Police Youth Citizens Club is one of the most diverse sports clubs in Australia, a kaleidoscope of cultures blending together daily. Presiding over operations at her front office desk is community veteran club manager Jo Tau, a Samoan Dutch Kiwi who has one eye on her computer and the other keeping track of movement in the centre. She has no doubt of the importance of the PCYC. “More than once community tensions have calmed down when the different groups have met here or know each other from here,” she says. “Most recently we had some tension between the South Sudanese and Pacific Communities and leaders from our club helped return things to normal.”
Tau remembers how Benn built the relationship with her and her husband, coming over to their house and cooking for the pair. “A world champion, in our little shack!” she says excitedly. “Nigel is a very humble man and has a presence about him that brings people in. I’ve had clients in my office who have nearly dropped to the floor like screaming schoolgirls when they’ve seen him. We’ve got a world champ interacting with our kids and adults, in of all places, Blacktown!” Pointing upstairs to the thudding boxing gym, she says: “His culture up there is all about family. We see the power of boxing here to engage youth. It’s not just something anyone can do and Nigel doesn’t sugarcoat, he gives it to them big time.”
Benn has also helped out with at-risk youth and Tau is thrilled with the results. She says 30 disengaged kids who stopped going to school were spellbound by Benn’s presence after seeing highlights of his career. “Every time they are quiet, no fidgeting,” she says. “He shares his stories from the heart, then has a big laugh with all of them at the sausage sizzle afterwards. And sure enough some of them go back to school. He’s here to make a difference and he has been changing lives here for more than two years.”
The upstairs boxing gym is bristling with feverish hustle, the windows foggy and the air larded with the aroma of toil. Around the ring fighters are lined up to do one round on the pads with Benn, whilst some are skipping and others thudding the heavy bags monotonously – the echoes of aspiration. A grandmother in a hijab looks on and smiles as her two grandsons wrestle a big punching bag.
Legen Hale arrived in Australia in January 2015, a proud Maori from Hamilton, New Zealand, and overweight at 150 kilograms. By his own admission he had no discipline and focus and came to Australia to turn his life around. Five months after first arriving at Blacktown PCYC, Hale has lost 45 kilograms under the tough love of the Dark Destroyer. “Nigel pushed me to the limit and stood by me on a hard journey. Every day he was on me,” says Hale. “My clothes are loose, I’ve got a great job, my own car, I’m moving faster, concentrating more. At the weekly weigh-in Nigel would look me in the eye and say – ‘You can’t lie to me, you’re just lying to yourself’.” Eventually Hale broke: “Finally I got discipline and accountability and I have a platform,” he says. “I’m now mentoring some youth myself and hope to have my first fight in five months. Crazy stuff.”
Suddenly the gym lights up as one of the serious fighters does a round of padwork in the ring with Benn. The blows are loud and crisp and the children stop to watch. Gavin Smith has Brazil 2016 Olympic dreams. He has had 18 amateur fights for Blacktown PCYC and is the current ABL junior welterweight champion. “Nigel has been in my corner for at least 10 fights,” says Smith. “We rock up to a small town in the middle of nowhere and I walk in to the ring with his hand on my shoulder. By the time I reach the ring I’m 10 foot tall.”
Some of the fights involve road trips of hundreds of kilometres during which Benn shares his wisdom. “He never talks about my opponent,” says Smith. “He says, ‘Relax, you’ve done the hard work. This is the easy part’. He is so enthusiastic, so passionate and encourages you to give everything. Go home, eat right, stay out of trouble. Discipline and focus. He makes us believe in ourselves.” When Smith won the state title, Benn jumped in the ring and hoisted him up on his shoulders to celebrate. “I’m the NSW champ, I’m sitting on Nigel Benn’s shoulders having just executed his game plan using some tricks he taught me,” says Smith. “It’s unbelievable.”
As the session draws to a close, Benn is once again caked in sweat. He towels off and says goodbye to each fighter with a hug and shoulder bump and a “God bless you man.” Everyone has left the gym except for the Benn family; Conor is unwrapping his hands after a torrid session and Nigel’s youngest son and two girls are telling stories and laughing. “My new drug is serving people whether its through boxing or in my role for Hillsong as a volunteer assisting people with their marriages or helping those less fortunate,” Benn says. “I’m great friends with an 80-year-old woman whose lawn I cut and do odd jobs for. It’s a required part of the service.”
Behind every redemption story is a rock. In this case it’s Benn’s wife Carolyne. “I look at women differently now,” he says. “More respectful. And I just love my wife, man.” Despite his past, Benn is optimistic for the future. “Boxing has helped millions around the world as a trigger for self belief, identity and connecting. It is therapy for rage,” he says.
Religion has helped Benn overcome the sadness and anger of losing his brother. “The man upstairs has filled the hole left by my brother’s death,” he says.
Life seems good. “I won two world titles and filled Old Trafford, owned a Bentley and a mansion, had tea at Buckingham Palace, DJ’d at Ministry of Sound, served proudly in the British Army and here I am cutting the grass of an 80-year-old woman,” he says.
“And lovin’ it. I look at my life now and I feel blessed, no more drugs or smoking, I’m fittest I’ve ever been. Look at my family. I can’t ask for more.”
This article was written by Patrick Skene, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 9th June 2015 22.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010