In the 1990s “The Celtic Warrior”, Steve Collins, defeated Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank not only once, but twice. At the age of 58, speaking with a sense of contentment at what he achieved, one of Ireland’s finest fighters revisits his rivalries with both and, as the father of another professional fighter, gives Declan Warrington his analysis of what has been labelled “Benn-Eubank III”

BN: Twenty-six years later, how do you reflect on your rivalry with Nigel Benn?

SC: At the time you think it’s personal, but you’re young and ambitious, and you’re hungry for success. You see the guys who are getting the opportunities; you see the guys who are successful, and they’re the people you aim for. It’s not actually a personal thing; it’s the position they hold, and Nigel Benn was the big name. I was established in America; I was promised title fights, and then Nigel Benn arrived on the scene and bashed everybody up and took the titles out of America, which no British fighter had ever done, and it more or less left me unemployed in America. I was over there, ranked in the top 10, and all of a sudden I had to leave and start my career all over again in Britain to get a title fight, so I blame Nigel for that [laughs].

“Resentful” is probably the word. In saying that, I’ve great respect for Nigel Benn as a fighter and as a person – he’s almost like a friend. I’m nothing but positive about him. At that time he was not so much the individual, he was in the position – an object in the way that I wanted to remove and take his mantel. I didn’t know him personally. It wasn’t personal. It was just that Nigel Benn was the name there. He came from Europe. He’d done, totally against the odds, Doug DeWitt; he smashed up Iran Barkley; Robbie Sims. These are all guys I was ready to fight. I’d been in the gym with Barkley and he refused to spar me; Robbie Sims was a sparring partner; I knew DeWitt. I was in the mix with these guys and I was going to be part of that, until Nigel Benn came over and bashed everybody up and took the titles away and left me out in the wilderness in America.

I knew how dangerous of a puncher Nigel Benn was. “He’s going to land, because I’m going to be there in front of him; he won’t have to look for me, I’m coming to take him out.” That was the best way to beat Nigel. Don’t hang around; get him out of there because he’s so dangerous. The big question was, “What happens when he hits me?”. He hit me in our first fight [in July 1996], and I recall it to this day. I absorbed it and took it – maybe I had some ability to be able to. I felt it – it really hurt. But my mind was as clear as day, and I knew, “If this is the worst, he’s landed his best shot; if he lands 10 more like this it won’t affect me, I’ll take it”. I knew that was the switching point, because my biggest concern with Nigel wasn’t his physical strength, because I could match him there; it wasn’t his boxing ability, because I could match him there. My biggest concern was his power, and once I got through it, I knew then, I could beat him, and I felt confidence, and I upped my game. I probably risked more, and stepped in more, and took more chances. I think it was a left hook. 

Big punchers are lazy. Mike McCallum [another former opponent] would put together four or five punches; because Nigel Benn had power in one hand, one or maybe two shots was all he needed to knock people out. If Nigel Benn had put together a combination of four or five shots, the first would have rattled me, the second would probably have finished me. So because of his power he was probably lazy on his power shots, which nine times out of 10 were enough to succeed.

I like Nigel. We communicated a few years ago. We have phone numbers, and were talking to each other. Nigel was adamant he wanted this comeback fight [which eventually was agreed with Sakio Bika, before, fortunately, being cancelled], and I was going for it, and I sat down with my wife, and had this discussion. I felt Nigel deserved it. He deserved a shot. He gave me a shot [their second fight was in November 1996]. Then I thought again. The difference was I’m older; Nigel’s older. His power; he’s going to land, and I can’t absorb them like I did when I was in my 20s. I was having this discussion with my wife, and it wasn’t for the money, because I don’t need money – I don’t really care for money. I’m comfortable, and that’s it. I decided, then, not to take the fight, which was at the contract stage, and felt like I let him down. He was really up for it and believed in himself – he had the fire in him. I hadn’t, really. I was just doing it as a favour. If I wanted to get hurt and get hit, I wouldn’t be able to take shots like I used to, and if I lose it undoes what I did in my career, so there was no real incentive to do it. It was great until the reality hit me when the contract was put in front of me. That was my last conversation with Nigel. “I don’t want it, Nigel. You hit too hard, and I’m too old.” He was in training and ready to fight me and I pulled out. 

Nigel’s very matter of fact. I’m very, very relaxed in his company. He has no hang-ups. He’s open-minded. If you’re a good person, he’s good company. He’s honourable to be around. I like Nigel, and I like his son Conor.

BN: What about the rivalry with Chris Eubank, which dates back to March 1995?

SC: He was great for boxing. He brought interest; crowds. He brought money into it; he brought Sky into it. He upped the game financially for us all. I was a middleweight, and I knew, “There’s no more middleweights left now – it’s the super-middleweight division where the glory and honour and money is, and it’s Chris Eubank, so now I want to move up to super-middleweight and fight Chris Eubank”. I’d been waiting for that chance for a long time.

I watched him. “He is very good, but I know I can beat him, and I want the opportunity to beat him.” And he had travelled to see me fight; I believe he came to see me fight Mike McCallum [in 1990], and I think that might have scared him a bit. That was early in my career and I thought I beat Mike McCallum – that’s how close it was – and I think when he saw that fight he decided to give me a wide berth. [But] he was the one I wanted – the big name out there for me to fight. 

I’d put together a cunning plan to take away his psychological advantage, which was that he’s the man in control. It’s his show. It’s all about him. I planned to fight him with the help of a great, great coach, Freddie King. He’s probably one of the best coaches I had, and I had good coaches. His preparation was a big part of it. It was his brashness and his confidence. I thought, “I’ve got to take this away from him, because it is his show; it’s all about him; everybody rotates around him; [when] he walks into the room he’s the beacon and everyone concentrates and looks at him; I’ve got to take this away and undermine his confidence and his security and control of the whole show”. I told him I’d been hypnotised and had a psychological advantage and gave him the whole spiel about [not feeling any] pain; the energy; the power; the punches and everything else. I was a robot, basically. It totally freaked him out, and made him giddy, and I got great satisfaction out of that. To the point I’d won the fight before I was in the ring. He landed a combination and I thought, “Bloody hell, this guy hits really hard – I do feel the pain”. But the thing that won me that fight was the mind games. The mind games stand out most in that, because he did try to pull out of the fight. He was totally freaked. If he had pulled out he’d have been sued, because he didn’t have a legitimate reason to pull out. Everything about it was a nightmare for him.

When the bell rang he was the strongest and toughest guy I ever boxed. I get the impression I’d have had about as much effect on punching a tree as I had on Chris Eubank. He was really, really solid – he could take a good shot. That’s why I had to drop him with a body shot, because I knew when I was hitting him in the head it wasn’t affecting him. He was very dangerous. He didn’t have Nigel Benn’s power, but he had a lot of strength in his punches. 

In the second fight [in September 1995] I did everything wrong. But there was a reason – a method to my madness. It was a style that was adapted to upset Eubank. The way I boxed him in the first fight – I outboxed him, outsmarted him and outmanoeuvred him, and I knew if I repeated it he’d be ready for that, so in the second fight I did something totally different, and that was attack, attack, attack, attack. I was so fit, and had trained so hard, that I could do it for 12 rounds, and by the time he realised what was going on the fight was over.

BN: Who was better?

SC: They were both good in their own ways, and at the same level. I was more scared of Nigel Benn though. I was more afraid going into the fight with him than I was Chris Eubank, believe it or not. I was scared of his power. I wondered what’d happen when he hits me because I’d always taken good shots, and always absorbed good shots, but none of them hit me with Nigel Benn’s punching power, and that was my fear going in there. Once they hit me, I won’t quit – I’ll go through the pain and keep fighting – and that worried me, what the outcome would be.

Collins against Eubank in 1995 (Holly Stein/ALLSPORT)

BN: How do you view the size and weight difference between Conor Benn and Chris Eubank Jnr?

SC: It’s a big disadvantage [for Eubank Jnr]. It’s almost unnatural. If he’s trying to drop weight by training and dieting, he’s going to be weak and vulnerable, so it’s how he drops the weight – it’s a lot of weight to drop – and he will not be himself. It’s the day before you weigh-in now; you can rest and hydrate again, but I’d prefer [to be] going in putting on a bit of weight than losing a lot of weight. It gives Nigel Benn’s son an advantage there. 

My son [Steve Jnr] was with my brother [Packie, a trainer and manager] for a while and he was a cruiserweight, and then he moved camp, and went down to super-middleweight, and he was a shell. I think he wanted to get involved with the Eubanks, and he weakened his body by doing it and it might have ended his career. I fought at middleweight, and I struggled to make middleweight for years, but to go down to 157lbs, for Eubank it’s a big disadvantage, and something Conor could use to his advantage. 

Of course it would [concern me if it were my son]. My son never listened to me [laughs]. But I’d give him an opinion, and I’d say, “Your frame is too big to drop this weight; I’d advise against it”. No [it wouldn’t concern me if my son were the smaller fighter]. When you put on weight you bulk up; you also strengthen up. If I put 10lbs on, I’m 10lbs stronger. If I lose 10lbs, I’m 10lbs weaker. It’s a big disadvantage.

Like his dad, he’s got power, and he throws them uppercuts, which is something the smaller guy’s got to watch out for. He’s a good fighter; he’s a tough kid and he comes to fight. It’s a big step up for Conor. I admire him for it. He’s taking on a really good fighter.

BN: The cliche dictates that the hungriest fighters emerge from poverty, but their fathers’ success meant Benn and Eubank Jnr mostly grew up with a sense of financial security…

SC: That’s the biggest load of baloney I’ve ever heard. I certainly didn’t grow up in poverty. That’s just something people say when they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. Hunger, desire and ambition – yes, there are fighters who have a way out through sport, and it does produce great ones because the competition’s there, but when you become a fighter and start getting hit in the head and start sacrificing hard, if you come from a comfortable background then you’ve obviously got desire, and desire and hunger doesn’t come from a poor background. Desire and hunger is something you have; if football players have a desire and hunger to play for their country and be successful they don’t need [poverty].

BN: Benn has consistently worked under Tony Sims. Eubank Jr, much like you, has repeatedly changed trainers…

SC: Obviously Eubank [Snr] listens to me. The reason I was successful was because I had knowledge, and I got knowledge from many great trainers. A trainer can only tell you what he knows, so you learn from that trainer what you can and then you move on to another trainer and you learn something different. No two trainers are the same, and all trainers have got knowledge. So all of the trainers he’s been with, he’s picked up a lot of knowledge, and styles. Every trainer [Ronnie Davies, Maximo Pierret, Adam Booth, Nate Vasquez and Roy Jones Jr are among those Eubank Jr has worked with] is a new education for him. So that’s something else Eubank’s taken from my career. That’s what Eubank [Sr] does – he copies me. 

It’s a great fight. The interest is there from people who are not necessarily boxing fans, but who know of their fathers’ success. I hope they both get a really good payday out of it, because they’re bringing attention to boxing, and it’s very hard for them to fight in the shadows of their fathers but they are doing that and they’re producing the goods. They’re both good kids. They’re not villains. Both want to win – it’s genuine competition.

Benn and Collins share a ring in 1996 (John Gichigi/Allsport)