In one respect, it was heartening to hear Conor Benn talk about his professional debut in London this Saturday night – 20 years after his father retired – as if it were no more than a prologue to greatness, because boxing is not a business for the timid of heart.
But the 19-year-old light-welterweight, who had a mere 22 bouts as an amateur in Australia, where Nigel Benn now lives, enters the most dangerous of sports at a time when the abolitionists are gathering again.
Two weekends ago the Benns saw Nick Blackwell lose his British middleweight title to Chris Eubank Jr and collapse in the ring after a steady beating over nearly 10 rounds. He emerged from an induced coma only on Saturday, the result of the punishment he took so bravely.
The winner’s father, of course, shared a similarly brutal time in the ring with Benn Sr in their first fight, in 1990, winning by ninth-round stoppage, then they drew the rematch three years later. Did Conor wonder about the dangers of his late-chosen sport, then? “Not at all,” he says in a quiet, confident voice.
“In the end, all fighters know the risks involved. I know the risks every time I get in the ring. At the end of the day, there’s something in you. There really is. You can’t take that away from a fighter. We’re today’s gladiators. We just live fighting, live and breathe it. That’s it. Simple.”
Some of those present at Trinity House by the Thames on Tuesday only knew about Conor’s father, Nigel, through videos of his 48 fights, the last of them in 1996, when he lost for the second time to Steve Collins.
The fight video Conor watches most is the one that was the most horrific for his father to endure, even though it was his greatest performance: stopping Gerald McClellan in the 10th round in London in 1995. The American was left half-blind and deaf, but Benn suffered damage too, to his soul and spirit. There was heartfelt bitterness among some members of McClellan’s family, but they were eventually reconciled after many years.
In Mallorca, where Conor has spent 12 years of his life, he had everything a young man could dream of – but, at his father’s insistence, he worked from 7am to 7pm, painting and decorating, for €20 a day. “He had a couple of street fights, and got bashed up,” Benn Sr recalled. “I was searching all around Mallorca looking for this guy. Then he told me, ‘Dad I lied to you. It was me who bashed him up. I won.’ And I said, ‘That’s all right then!’ If you get knocked on the floor, you get up again. He’s got the fighting instinct.
“He can box, he can bang. I’ve got videotape of me and my son sparring, just about to come back to England – and we sparred hard. I banged him, chipped his tooth, busted his nose, claret everywhere. That was when he was 15. I threw the kitchen sink at him, and he said, ‘Yeah, you have the kitchen sink back – with interest.’ I’m, like 20 kilos bigger, and he gave it to me. I wanted to see if he’d go in the trenches, and he did, with no problem at all. In two years’ time, I’d put him in with Kell Brook. By the time he’s 30, he’ll be a multimillionaire and out of the game.”
Conor is not a street kid like his father, though. “Mallorca is really where I consider home,” he said.
“I speak Cockney with my parents and fluent Spanish with my mates, that’s my first language. It was lovely. I lived a luxury lifestyle, in a six-bedroom mansion overlooking the ocean. My dad never went to work, my mum never went to work. They were driving Porsches and Cadillacs.
“I thought that was a normal way of living. It wasn’t until I reached a certain age that I realised my dad was a celebrity. He had all those wars, and now we could relax. I didn’t understand before. It’s only really now, here in front of the media, that I realise what a legend my dad really is.”
Given the connection between his father and Chris Eubank Sr – there is lingering talk of a rubber match, although it seems unlikely – Conor has watched Junior’s career with some interest. “He’s world class. Could I grow big enough to fight him? Of course I could, but we’re on two completely different paths at the minute. Eubank is up there; if I started my career a few years earlier, it would be different.
“Let me focus on getting over these first few hurdles, and I will be there. I wouldn’t be in boxing if I didn’t think I could be a three-time world champion – one more than my dad. If I don’t win three world titles, I’ll forever be in my dad’s shadow.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010