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Conor Benn and the long shadow of his famous father

Conor Benn
Action Images/Andrew Boyers
Conor Benn speaks to John Dennen about his roller coaster ride through boxing

THE name matters. Without it a boxer who’d had a handful of amateur contests in Australia wouldn’t have been ushered into a pro debut immediately before Anthony Joshua’s first world title fight. Without it he wouldn’t have had that kind opportunity, or the kind of scrutiny and criticism that duly followed. Being Nigel Benn’s son and embarking on a career as a prizefighter has been a wild ride. And the 22 year old is only 15 fights in.

“I was boxing in sheds, out in the sticks in Oz. Where we have all the Huntsmen [spiders] and the funnel-web [spiders] and the brown belly snake, the blue belly snake, all of them. So coming here and having my first fight when I moved back to England, I’d had no amateur fights here, my first fight was at the O2 Arena, right before AJ, so it was overwhelming. My whole career’s like that. I have to pinch myself sometimes,” Conor Benn reflected.

But it is nerve-wracking. “When I get in the ring, I’m fine. The ringwalk’s fine. It’s just when I’m in the changing room and it’s all quiet and five minutes [to go] and I’m saying my last prayers. Then I go out and then that’s it,” he says. “You ain’t got no choice. You got to. It either makes you or you crumble. That’s who I am as a person, giving it a crack, what have I got to lose?

Conor Benn
Conor Benn has gone straight into a pressurised professional career Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

“I tell myself what have I got to lose. Say I get sparked out my next fight, I’m not one of these delusional fighters that go I’m going to be the greatest. What if I do get sparked out in my next fight? I’ve hit the canvas before. All I know is I give it everything I’ve got in training. I work as hard as I can, harder than most, when push comes to shove I know what I’m doing.”

It has been an eventful experience so far. “People didn’t fill me in too much as to what life as a pro actually means,” he said with a smile. “I’ve torn a tendon in my hand twice, I’ve had to fight with the injury once. I’ve broken my jaw in sparring. I’ve been put on the canvas twice by someone I shouldn’t have. I’ve had to rematch him, which had nerves with it as itself and [it was] on a big show. I’ve had harder fights than I should have had. I’ve knocked out people that I shouldn’t have. It’s like at heavyweight. It’s like the heavyweight division: ‘Is he going to knock him out, is he not? Is he going to get put down? Is he?’ Do you know what I mean? So a dramatic career.”

The challenge him is to be seen as Conor Benn a fighter himself, not solely as the son of a once great star. “For Britain to be backing me and seeing me becoming my own man, it’s nice,” he says, “it’s good to have them backing me.

Conor Benn
Benn rematched Cedrick Peynaud after a tough fight Action Images/Peter Cziborra

“That’s me in there. When I’m doing these interviews and these press conference I ain’t got no one holding my hand and I say it how I see it. I ain’t going to let nobody dictate the person I should be or the person I am becoming.”

Whether he deserves the chances he’s had, how he’ll develop as boxer, are all questions that will be answered in time. But observers have already seen him suffer for his profession. He has been dropped, he has been hurt, he’s also got up and put in real effort to overcome the problems he’s faced. Those struggles have been public, as well as his missteps. “I’ve suffered more than most but I wouldn’t say I’ve suffered a lot. I mean if I was suffering a lot I’d go, ‘You know there’s easier ways to make money.’ I’ve had one or two hard fights. That was hard, I’ve left and I’ve been sore for days, like can’t even move. But I need those fights. I need them,” he said.

But he continued, “I like who I’m becoming. I like the man I’m becoming. If you do appeal to everyone you’ve got to question what sort of person you are. You’ve got to question yourself. I know I’m going to get people who don’t like me, people who say I’m flashy, I’m cocky, I’m arrogant, I’m this, I’m that. But the reality is I’ve got the time of day for absolutely anybody. Even people who told me they don’t like my hair. People come up to me and go to me: ‘I prefer your hair short.’ ‘Yeah, you’re a lot shorter in real life.’ And even then I still have a photo with them… I have that on the daily [basis]. I have HGV drivers telling me how to box. I have people working in Burger King telling me to slip a jab. Not that that’s any problem but how do you know how to box? [You reply,] ‘Yeah alright, thanks mate.’ But when you’ve had it six times in one day… It is what it is.”

Conor Benn puncher
Conor Benn’s career is under scrutiny Action Images/Andrew Boyers

Being known brings its own difficulties. “It is hard in regards to I don’t want to make a mistake. Because it’s magnified by 10, but then at the end of the day I am human. I can’t be perfect all the time. I can’t live a perfect life. There will be some points in my career where I will have issues, I will have problems just like every other person does. I’m able to deal with that because my dad’s told me about it from his career and things he’s had to deal with and go through that were public. But the reality is everyone’s going through it, they’re just not exposed,” Conor said.

His father’s reputation still looms over him. Nigel Benn was one of the great British fighters but now at the advanced age of 55, 20 years since he last boxed, he has announced an ill-advised comeback. He’ll fight Sakio Bika in a bout that will not be sanctioned by the British Boxing Board of Control.

“It’s crazy. But you’ve got KSI and Logan Paul fighting and they aren’t even boxers. It’s just a crazy time for boxing,” Conor said. “If he was doing it for money, I’d say, ‘Listen, that’s really selfish. There are easier ways to make money.’ He’s not doing it for fame. He’s as far away from fame as he can possibly be, he’s in Australia. He’s doing this for himself. You’ve got to let him do what he’s got to do.

“Boxing has changed from what it used to be. I think my dad fancies a bit of the pie now. He never really did have proper closure because he was burning the candle at both ends. Did I want him fighting? No, not at all. Did I tell that? One hundred percent. But he still chose to fight, so I made my peace with that. I’ve said what I had to say and now I’m going to get behind him and support him.

Nigel Benn
Nigel Benn, Conor’s father, is launching an ill judged comeback Action Images/John Sibley

“Who am I to take that away from a man? Who am I to not support my dad? Do I approve of his decision? No. But I am going to support him in anything he chooses to do. I’m his son and I love him to bits. Do I want to see him get punched in the face? No, not at all. But he’s my dad and I love him no matter what.”

He added, “It is worrying [fighting Sakio Bika], but my dad’s my dad. He’s not a living legend for nothing. He’s got to do what he’s got to do. He’s obsessed. I believe when he puts his mind to something, he comes out on top. He trains like a lunatic. Honestly, I think he’s off his swede sometimes.”

His father was long retired as he was growing up. Now Conor has to face seeing him as a fighter. Before, he points out, “I didn’t know my dad to be Nigel Benn the Dark Destroyer. He was my dad to me.”

But he has to plot a course of his own through the sport. Skilled Olympian Josh Kelly would relish a bout with young Benn. “I get asked about fights all the time,” Conor said. “Fights get made when fights get made.”

“I’m focusing on my career,” he insisted. “I think that’s just a way of him getting out of the [Ray] Robinson fight, saying he fancies it with me. If I was you, and if I was the fighter that I am, I’d want to correct my wrong. That’s the fighter I am. Even though I got the W [over Cedrick Peynaud], whether it’s questionable or not, I still wanted the rematch. That showed what sort of fighter I am. Was I scared, yes. This guy almost knocked me out, twice [but] I’m not looking for no way outs.”

Conor’s coach Tony Sims sees no need to rush his charge. “He will be on a collision course eventually if Kelly holds welterweight but not at the minute. Because he’s only 22, he’s very young and he’s inexperienced as well. He’s had 15 fights as a pro, he’s very inexperienced,” Sims said.

“I’ll build his development. The opponent will get a little bit better than the last one,” the trainer continued. “That’s how I’ll develop him. In a couple of years’ time, when he’s 24 and he’s developed into a proper pro, his build and his stature and he’s got everything together, his defence that he’s working on all the time, his jab that he’s working on. Because he can certainly punch. He’s got his dad’s firepower, he’s just got things that he’s got to develop. When that’s developed then I’ll let him fight the Josh Kellys of the world.”

There are other appealing fights, a bout with former British champion John Garton has been discussed and, if an echo of Benn vs Eubank was required, there is Harlem Eubank in the pros, a cousin of Chris Eubank Jnr and roughly near Conor’s weight. “Listen he can’t bang in his division, lightweight. Matchroom took him off shows after his second fight because he was pants,” Conor declared. “Yeah he does all that slick move style and looks all slick and that but when push comes to shove, can he? When boxing ain’t going his way can he have it? Sometimes that’s what it’s going to come down to. Will it be a good fight down the line? If he makes it that far, I’d love that fight. Benn-Eubank again, I’d love that fight.”

It will  be some time before Conor Benn escapes from beneath his father’s long shadow. But whatever happens, the ride for him surely will continue to be action-packed.

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