CONOR BENN sent out an old-fashioned message during a night when legitimacy was a backdrop to the action.
Benn left Samuel Vargas helpless and hopeless on the ropes, forcing the referee, Michael Alexander, to intervene after just 80 seconds of the first round. It was the end nobody predicted, not even the gushing patriots in the Benn business.
Vargas was separated from his senses, trying to fight, looking for an answer and trying not to walk like a drunk. He had no complaints about the stoppage and was a short hook away from being dropped for more than the global rites of 10.
Benn put punches together in a blur once he sensed Vargas was hurt and there was simply no chance of the veteran surviving; it was a genuine shock and no secret rumours from the east-end bubble in fight week even hinted at the ending. Vargas had no excuses.
“My dad told me to pounce if I got the chance,” Benn told the BBC’s Mike Costello, his voice still charged with adrenaline. “I had the chance and I pounced – I did as he said.” He certainly did, but that only tells part of the story of the 80-second fight.
And there is a need for a little story: The fight that finished in the converted Copper Box, at about 10:15pm on Saturday night, started in 2015 when Nigel Benn was looking to get his son a boxing career. He asked if there was any chance Conor would make the GB team for Rio: “No chance,” he was told. So, father and son flew in from Australia with one thing on their mind: Fighting.
His first professional fight was exactly five years ago; the fights were often easy, the opponents had no chance, but the quality of opposition increased and Conor improved. He started Saturday night as a leading prospect and finished as a legitimate contender; it was a performance to back the claims and hype. In short, Benn crossed over.
Vargas moved well in the opening minute, looked bigger, confident and connected cleanly with a smart right at one point. Benn saw a tiny gap, then another, then Vargas had his head turned both ways by two punches and he fell back to the ropes, guided by Benn’s fists. He was out on his feet.
“I never expected that,” said Lawrence Okolie, part of Five Live’s team. As I said, nobody did.
It was Benn’s 18th win, the 12th by stoppage and the first of the next phase of his career. Vargas lost for the seventh time, his quickest loss and he deserves better than to become a punch-bag with a passport.
Benn is not the best welterweight in Britain, but he is the biggest attraction; in the old boxing world, Saturday’s fight would have sold-out a big venue. He is cash, make no mistake, and the other welterweights have to form an orderly queue behind him. Kell Brook and Amir Khan, assuming they can still make the weight, will consider the offers; Chris Jenkins, Josh Kelly, Michael McKinson, Lewis Crocker and Ekow Essuman will have to be happy telling everybody in the gym how easily they would beat him. I would be stunned if Carl Greaves gets a call for a fight with David Avanesyan for the European title. There is no history in boxing of a fight like that, trust me.
On Saturday night the notoriously soulless venue was full of talk, whispers and murmurs, so many names being mentioned, so many versions of the ending. I can’t remember in lockdown-boxing any fight or night generating so much debate. There was a buzz, the empty venue had feeling.
It was a very lively night at the end of a very lively week. A woman of 44 was found to save Savannah Marshall’s fight and the lingerie debate between Shannon Courtenay and Ebanie Bridges raised the show’s profile. Or, lowered it. Take your pick. Both incidents would be too easy to condemn, but that does not tell even part of the story. And, somewhere in the mix, somewhere below the radar of Ebanie’s disfigured face and Marshall’s clinic, Kash Farooq was in a 10-round classic.
Marshall was brutal in dropping and stopping Maria Lindberg in round three. Lindberg was 44, a veteran’s veteran on the women’s circuit, but never stood a chance. Lindberg was a late replacement and had never been stopped in six defeats in 28 fights; Marshall dropped her heavily and cleanly, leaving poor Lindberg in a bloody heap. Referee Bob Williams completed the count at 1-11 of the third. It was the only acceptable ending. It was the first defence of Marshall’s WBO middleweight title.
Bridges is not the best bantamweight in Australia, but she negotiated her way to a fight with Courtenay, who is not the best bantamweight in Britain, for the vacant WBA bantamweight title. Bridges threatened to wear some type of apocalyptic kecks at the weigh-in. It was the main bubble buzz. She wore a g-string on the scales in the end. And then it was the fight and, trust me, they delivered.
In round five, Bridges was nearly dropped by a short right, her left eye was starting to close, Courtenay got a second wind, Bridges had just one eye by the eighth and round nine was savage. It was furious. In our commentary hut, Okolie stood and clapped at the final bell. The scores were too wide in Courtenay’s favour (98-92 twice and 97-94) but she deserved the decision. It was a fight of opportunities and that is boxing’s oldest story.
Farooq and Nicaragua’s Alexander Espinoza went 10 rounds of quality, beautiful at times to watch and it was never easy for either boxer. Farooq is one of the best stylists in our business; smooth, full of tiny gems in the ring, moves that are sweet to observe. And he is brave. The scores were tight and right in Farooq’s favour (97-93, 97-94 and 97-95 with Ian John-Lewis refereeing). The WBC had a belt to give away in a fight that never needed jewellery.
It was one of those odd nights of boxing where opinions are deeply, deeply divided; a fighter can be a bum and contender in one conversation, a poseur and a threat in another; a fight can be a test and a travesty, mean everything and mean nothing. It was a night of extremes and a delight to witness.
The Verdict Benn suddenly the hottest property in the welterweight division.
ALSO ON THE BILL
NICK CAMPBELL left rugby union four years ago to follow his fighting dreams and while bludgeoning the experienced Czech Petr Frohlic he made his first steps as a professional boxer. The 31-year-old Scottish heavyweight, part of Mark Dunlop’s growing stable, considered trying out for the 2022 Commonwealth Games but with the pandemic restricting his education, he opted to ditch the vest after winning 10 of his 15 amateur bouts.
Campbell spitefully bullied Frohlic, his short chopping blows couldn’t miss. After being decked by a crisp right hand in the second, and not offering much in the way of return when he got up, referee Bob Williams rescued the overmatched Frohlic after 41 seconds of the second round.
Light-heavyweight starlet John Hedges cruised to 2-0 with a four-round whitewash of Croatian Stanko Jermelic. The 18-year-old, nicknamed “The Gentleman” and measuring six-feet-five, controlled from range to box his way to a 40-36 points win. Williams was again the referee.