THE contract signing had more drama than most fights. Nigel Benn, a study in loathing, his words curling around the television studio in dark plumes. Chris Eubank, bristling with disdain and getting high on the hatred. Benn’s manager, Ambrose Mendy, quoting Shakespeare. The presenter, Nick Owen, nervously, but skilfully, stoking the ire and fuelling the antagonism. Benn and Eubank’s first public appearance was a pure distillation of what would become the greatest rivalry in British boxing. The cast played their parts to perfection and the British public got it, even if it wasn’t exactly sure what it was it was getting.
Luckily for fight fans, which meant half the country back then, it was only the first episode. For the next two months, they would be treated to almost daily instalments, doubling as lessons in what it takes to create, and market, the perfect sporting feud. Mendy and Eubank’s promoter, Barry Hearn, had plenty of material to work with. Benn was the perfect straight man, a very angry individual who once described his style as “standing toe-to-toe and having a good whack.” In Eubank, they had one of the strangest men to ever lace up gloves, who got stranger and stranger the more layers you peeled back.
Everyone remembers the first time they met Chris Eubank. Hearn recalls that Eubank swanned into a hotel in Sheffield and said, “Mr Hearn, before we get started, I am an athlete and I know my value.” Adds Hearn: “Sometimes you get a gut feeling about someone because of the way they carry themselves. He was also articulate and intelligent. Full of s**t, but that’s okay, because that’s what you need to sell to the public. I thought, ‘I can work with this bloke.’ It was love at first sight.” Eubank, who had been rejected by Mickey Duff, Frank Warren and Frank Maloney, had a believer in his corner.
While Eubank was desperately searching for a promoter, Benn was continuing to build his reputation as one of the most destructive punchers British boxing had ever seen. Having won the ABA middleweight title in 1986, Benn turned pro in January 1987 and had racked up 20 knockout victories by the end of 1988, 17 of them in the first two rounds, as well as winning the Commonwealth belt. But in May 1989, Benn came crashing back to earth in a tent in Finsbury Park. Having vowed to knock Michael Watson out, as was his wont, Benn was outboxed by his criminally underrated opponent and stopped in six rounds. Fleet Street’s finest were merciless. The Times said Benn had “surrendered”. But Benn, who was only 25, had time on his side.
‘What annoyed me most was the way he looked down his nose at everybody. He thought he was a different class to everybody’
Benn decamped to Miami and started rebuilding. And 11 months after losing to Watson, he won the WBO middleweight title with a stoppage of Doug DeWitt. Four months later, he stopped Iran Barkley, whose previous three fights had been against Michael Nunn, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns, in one round in Las Vegas. “The Dark Destroyer” was back to his dark and destructive best. There was even talk of fighting Duran, Hearns or Sugar Ray Leonard. But there was someone back in England who needed shutting up.
Since Benn’s defeat at the hands of Watson, Eubank had been cultivating a reputation as a fighter on the verge of world class, albeit a very odd one. His fights often took place in funereal atmospheres and were periodically punctuated with uproarious laughter, as Eubank showed off his various quirks: the statuesque posing; the sudden wheeling away from an opponent, like a man backpedalling on a unicycle; the creeping around the ring in an exaggerated crouch, like a cat burglar retreating from a spotlit rooftop. His sporadic, idiosyncratic fighting style, combined with his undoubted skills, meant he might have become life-time president of the Who Needs Him Club, had it not been for his mouth. Even before Benn had won his world title, Eubank was calling him out, even if he’d just stunk the place out and was being jeered. And Benn was watching, getting angrier and angrier.
Eubank once explained the difference between himself and Benn thus: “It is like two minds which are miles apart, a street brain and a society brain.” But while Eubank thought himself to be Benn’s intellectual and social superior, something that irritated Benn greatly, one of the absurdities of the Benn-Eubank rivalry was that the boxer who spoke like a toff was significantly more street than his rival, who glorified in his black, working-class roots. It was this lopsided dynamic that was central to their volatile relationship.
Benn came from a loving family in Ilford, Essex, and it was the death of his brother rather than neglectful parenting that sent him off the rails. His mother having begged him to join the army, Benn completed two tours of Northern Ireland during The Troubles and discovered boxing, winning the novice, intermediate and open-class titles in his first year with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. At West Ham Amateur Boxing Club, Benn’s potential was spotted by Brian Lynch, who guided him to glory at the ABA finals. Punchers can make people believe that anything is possible, so when Benn turned pro, he wasn’t short of suitors. Quickest to draw his chequebook was Burt McCarthy, who
said after Benn’s 16-second knockout of Ian Chantler, “Nigel will need three guys to count his money – or weigh it.” McCarthy wouldn’t be one of them. After being voted 1987 Young Boxer of the Year by the Boxing Writers’ Club of Great Britain, Frank Warren took over the reins.
Eubank had an impoverished childhood in England, including a spell in care, before being sent to live with his mother in New York’s burnt-out South Bronx, which Eubank described as “a place of nightmares.” Eubank found sanctuary and salvation at Jerome Boxing Club, spending more time in the gym than at home. Eubank was unable to pay the $15-a-month fees, so co-owner Adonis Torres had him sweeping the floor instead.
“At that time, sparring was like a pro bout,” says Torres’ partner, Lenny DeJesus. “We’d bring in fighters from other gyms and the guys would have four-round fights, with people watching. And people would take particular notice of Chris Eubank, because he was a colourful individual, growing cockier all the time.”
After the death of his mentor Torres and five pro fights, Eubank decided to return home. And at some point between landing at Heathrow and meeting Hearn for the first time, Chris Eubank became the Chris Eubank we know. Eubank, while conceding that he read PG Wodehouse and listened to the BBC World Service to improve his vocabulary and diction, said that he was just trying to better himself. “I haven’t invented myself,” he said. “I’ve become proper.” Whether Eubank was real or not, he was too much for Benn to take.
“When he started calling me out on TV, my hatred for him became all-consuming,” says Benn. “What annoyed me most was the way he looked down his nose at everybody. Here was this black guy who thought he was a gentleman and different class to everybody else. All I thought about was doing a number on him. He lit the fuse real good, absolutely out-psyched me.”
Hearn couldn’t believe his luck when he found out that Benn was interested in fighting his man. “Nigel Benn was a great fighter,” says Hearn. “But bearing in mind he’d been outboxed by Michael Watson, in trouble against Sanderline Williams and always had trouble against counter-punchers, he should have thought a bit more about it. And Chris wasn’t even his mandatory challenger.”
On September 21, 1990, newspapers reported that a deal had been struck for Benn to defend his WBO middleweight title against Eubank on Sunday November 18 at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. The negotiations had been torturous, at least for Hearn. Ambrose Mendy, who had taken over the management of Benn from Warren before the Watson fight, had been holding out for £1m but eventually settled for £400,000. As the challenger, Eubank would earn £100,000, but was already talking like a champion: “Nigel Benn is the best puncher in the world but he is up against a skillster. He will be exposed.” The promotional tagline for the fight was ‘Who’s Fooling Who?’ Both men were already convinced they knew the answer.
‘I closed my eyes and roared. I’d brought Benn to his knees, but when I saw him sobbing into Steele’s shoulder, I felt sorry for him. He’s still a man, he has a mother’
Despite the hype, some in the press pack thought it was a mockery of a world title fight. In the already splintered world of professional boxing, the formation of the WBO was viewed by many as another blow to the credibility of the sport. Boxing News Editor Harry Mullan called Benn’s title “boxing’s equivalent of the Zenith Data Systems Cup.” The WBA middleweight champion was Jamaica’s Mike McCallum, who had recently administered a one-sided beating to Benn’s conqueror Michael Watson. The IBF champion was Michael Nunn, who was being groomed as American boxing’s next big thing. A week after Benn-Eubank, the vacant WBC title would be contested by Britain’s Herol Graham and Julian Jackson of the Virgin Islands. Many in the game thought Graham would have stood Benn and Eubank on their heads. Even Hearn, in an unguarded moment of honesty, declared: “It’s a paper crown.”
Still, everyone played along. Some excellent judges picked Eubank to beat Benn, including Barry McGuigan, Lloyd Honeyghan and Graham. The press was divided, with Colin Hart predicting that the “strutting, egotistical Eubank… would be rendered helpless by the third round.” Most of the public would have agreed. Benn was everything a boxer was meant to be, an all-action knockout artist, bent on entertaining the fans, with little or no thought for his own safety. Eubank, many thought, was a fraudulent buffoon, whose amusing eccentricities didn’t make up for his rather mannered boxing style.
There followed the gripping contract signing, live on ITV’s Midweek Sport Special, which everyone involved feared might spill over into a dress rehearsal for the actual fight. “It was just so volatile between me and him,” says Benn. “All he had to do was come and get in my face and I would have gone BOOM!”
“Chris claimed he didn’t hate Nigel,” says Hearn. “But Eubank would be disdainful, pompous and patronising in his verbal assaults, so Nigel got slaughtered. Eubank came out with one line at the Café Royal which was horrible. He looked at Nigel and said, ‘Nigel, we both know, when this is all over, you’re going to end up working on the door of a nightclub.’”
As with the contract signing, that press conference at the Café Royal, which was to officially announce the fight, almost ended in blows. Says Mendy: “Eubank walked into a room where Nigel and I were sat with Barry Hearn, and Nigel leapt over the table and went at Eubank. Somehow somebody got between them, but Eubank was totally shocked and unnerved. I saw then, and Eubank did too, how much Nigel wanted to kill him.”
When Eubank arrived at the NEC on the night of the fight, his trainer, Ronnie Davies, set about soothing his man by singing Irish rebel songs. Meanwhile, in Benn’s dressing room down the corridor, Mendy was wrestling with his charge’s demonic fury: “Right before a fight, Nigel would morph into a frightening character. This brooding intensity was incredible to witness. But this time the intensity was so great that Nigel wasn’t listening to anything. I looked into his eyes and I could almost see inside him. Nigel was already in the fight. When he looked at me, it was as if he paralysed me. I couldn’t move.”
Mendy’s application for a second’s licence had been rejected, meaning he was unable to be in Benn’s corner for the fight. However, this allowed Mendy to concentrate on causing as much mischief as possible. “I knew I had to unhinge Eubank somehow,” says Mendy. “And when I walked into Eubank’s changing room, he went absolutely nuts and attacked me. Chris was screaming, ‘Get him out of my changing room, I don’t want him involved!’ In hindsight, I should have left it at that, walked out and said no one from our camp was going in there, until he was demoralised. Instead, he calmed down immediately – as if someone had flicked a switch – smiled at me and said, ‘Thmart move. Thmart move. Okay, fine.’ I picked up the pen and calmly wrote on his gloves, ‘Dopey c**t’, before walking out of the changing room.”
However, Mendy had one last trick up his sleeve. Just after Eubank had entered the arena, to the strains of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best, the DJ pulled the record off, as instructed. Hearn rushed up to the DJ’s booth, only to be turned away by two “gorillas” Mendy had stationed outside. “I came back down after having this steaming row,” says Hearn, “and said, ‘Chris, dressing room, now!’ But Eubank just looked at me and said, ‘Bazza, they gave me s**tty towels, they gave me a s**tty dressing room, they’ve messed up my music. Just keep calm and let me punish this man.’ Before that, I wanted to chin everyone. Now I was like, ‘Okay, Chris, I trust you, off you go.’”
When Eubank finally vaulted over the ropes, it was to mostly boos and catcalls rather than the moans of Tina Turner. Then came Benn, led to the ring by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers band and what looked like half his old battalion. And the whole time, Eubank remained rooted to the spot, not moving a muscle. “You could say that British fight fans are more savage than fight fans in the States,” says Richard Steele, the third man in the ring that night. “You could feel the hatred in the air. But Chris Eubank was so arrogant in the way he carried himself, he really shoved that hatred down their throats.”
When the canvas finally cleared, what was left was a curiously lonely threesome: Benn, Eubank, Steele, like three insects under a microscope. Craning for a view were 12,000 pairs of eyes in the NEC and millions more in living rooms across Britain, as well as gentlemen’s and working men’s clubs, wine bars and spit and sawdust pubs. Dinner parties stalled, weddings ground to a halt and children pleaded to stay up late despite school in the morning.
Eubank got the better of round one, stiffening Benn with a couple of juddering right hands, before Eubank demonstrated that he could take one of Benn’s best shots in round two. Two rounds down and barely a jab had been thrown. After a ferocious third, Jim McDonnell, on co-commentary duties, was already talking about who wanted it most, a topic usually held back for the championship rounds. Early in the fourth, Eubank landed with a booming right cross that had Benn staggering backwards on fag-ash legs and covering up on the ropes. By the end of the fourth, Benn’s left eye was purple and swollen. “I couldn’t see anything,” says Benn. “And every time he hit me it was like someone was pricking me with a needle and the pain was going up to my brain. And all the time I was thinking, ‘I’m doing everything in my power not to lose to this man.’”
Eubank, meanwhile, was bleeding from the mouth, the result of a Benn uppercut that almost split his tongue down the middle.
After a relatively calm fifth, Benn was all over Eubank in the sixth, softening him up with a left below the belt before hammering away at his body. Eubank spent the last 30 seconds of the round in an exaggerated crouch, gloves drawn towards his chin, forearms shielding his body, looking like a man protecting his modesty with a towel.
Benn was also in the ascendancy for most of the seventh, before Eubank located his chin with a left-right combination, leaving Benn, who was about to release some shots of his own, flailing. Benn shook his head and waved Eubank back in, before Eubank rammed down the accelerator and ran Benn over again, landing with a huge right cross on the bell. By the end of the seventh, Benn was effectively a one-eyed fighter.
In round eight, the champion sent Eubank to the canvas with a right to the top of head. All through Steele’s mandatory eight-count, Eubank protested that it was a slip, although when he continued complaining about low blows and whacks to the back of the head, the suspicion was that his resolve had been broken. Until, that is, the bell sounded for the end of the round and Eubank broke into his muscleman pose, before going for a seemingly casual stroll.
Benn was still crackling at the start of the ninth, skewering Eubank with a left to the kidney that had the challenger grimacing and twisting sideways, as if being assailed by flames. And then Eubank stepped in, planted his feet and landed with a sickening right to the side of Benn’s jaw. Benn was momentarily mummified – legs straightened, arms out in front of him – before his survival instincts kicked in. Benn fought his way back into the middle of the ring, only for Eubank to deliver the coupe de grâce, a right hand that broke Benn’s spirit.
“Only when Richard Steele stepped in and stopped that fight did I think I was going to lose,” says Benn. “And that was it. Over. I would have rather lost to anyone else but him.”
“I closed my eyes and roared,” said Eubank after the fight. “Then the pain came. I was broken, but I wasn’t beaten. I’d brought Benn to his knees, but when I saw him sobbing into Steele’s shoulder, I felt sorry for him. He’s still a man, he has a mother.”
The only man who hadn’t forgotten it was all just showbusiness was Barry Hearn, who waded through the gore in his tuxedo and suggested to Eubank that perhaps now was the perfect time to propose to his girlfriend Karron. Eubank obliged. “It was one of the greatest fights ever seen in a British ring,” says Hearn. “But that was the showbiz part.”
Who had been fooling who? Certainly not Benn or Eubank. And boxing writers who had previously been eager to point out that neither Benn nor Eubank had proved themselves the best middleweights in the Southern Area, never mind the world (Michael Watson, who fought on the undercard for £15,000, was still thought to be the best in Britain), were suddenly falling over themselves to heap praise on the two brave warriors.
It was left to The Independent’s Ken Jones to strike a note of cynicism: “We are left with irony, the knowledge that Eubank, who believes boxing to be unworthy of his intellect, defeated the one British fighter guaranteed to draw a crowd.”
Benn’s world had crumbled again but he had no plans to retire. And given the thrilling nature of his fight against Eubank, he thought a rematch was a natural. But a natural rematch is one that makes most money and Eubank and Hearn were more than happy to wait. It would be three years before they did it again. Second time around would be in a stadium, a rarity back then, and watched by 16.5m viewers in the UK. But while it was a decent fight, the old rivals understandably decided they didn’t fancy repeating the pain. As is usually the case in boxing, the savagery couldn’t be reheated.
There have been great domestic fights since Benn-Eubank I, but the ingredients for great domestic fights that captivate the nation are scarcer now than 30 years ago. Even before they fought, everyone knew who Benn and Eubank were. More than just sportsmen, they were part of the fabric of showbusiness, two cartoon opposites who hogged our screens and newspapers, before the days of satellite TV and the Premier League. And because people knew them, they had to have an opinion. The public didn’t care that Benn and Eubank were fighting for some discredited belt, or that there were better middleweights across the pond. Most people probably didn’t even know they were middleweights. They just saw two men who repulsed and desperately needed each other. It was the perfect rivalry, greater than the sum of its parts. The fact that they had a bloody good fight was almost a bonus.
Ben Dirs is a former BBC journalist and successful author. His book, The Hate Game: Benn, Eubank and Boxing’s Bitterest Rivalry, was published in 2013.