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Why is Nigel Benn returning to the ring at 55 years of age?

Nigel Benn
Action Images/John Sibley
Nigel Benn, his son, Conor, and Professor Michael Graham explain to Elliot Worsell why a 55-year-old boxer retired for 23 years needs to fight again

NIGEL BENN is boxing again not for money or attention but closure and the thought of finding it was enough to have him welling up at a press conference on Thursday (September 26).

With once-fierce eyes filled with tears it became hard not to relate to him on a human level and easier to understand why, at 55 years of age, Benn wants to box Sakio Bika in a bout licenced by the British and Irish Boxing Authority (BIBA) on November 23.

No longer the ‘Dark Destroyer’, Benn is instead calling himself ‘Benjamin Button’ and insists he needs to return to a sport he sadly only associates with low points in his life. Explaining why, he alluded to a career blighted by marital strife, affairs, drug-taking and depression and was honest to a fault, honest in a way that highlighted how rare honesty is in boxing these days.

“I never really had closure,” he said. “All through my career I have been in a dark place from eight (years of age), spliffing, smoking, doing everything till I was 41. Jesus then came into my life and my life changed. There was no spliffing, no sexing, no ecstasy, no cigarettes. Everything changed. But I just need that one more fight.”

His life, his brain, it’s not Benn who should be criticised for wanting to box again 23 years after his last fight. Instead, if looking to apportion blame, we should focus on the enablers and opportunist governing bodies who sniff out opportunities like this before they have even manifested in the minds of former fighters.

Because if for fighters boxing is the drug, governing bodies eager to cater for destructive habits are the dealers. They know one-time customers are just one moment of weakness away from going back to their old ways and they know waiting around the corner, pssst-ing, waving, trying to get their attention, will at some point pay off.

It’s why relapse remains an option.

“They (the British Boxing Board of Control) knocked me back but there is more than one governing body,” said Benn. “It’s like when (Dereck) Chisora fought (David) Haye.

“They are stringent, BIBA, and it wasn’t easy. I had a brain scan, a neck scan, lungs, everything. It’s not about age. I’m in training all the time.”

Chris Eubank
Benn originally wanted a third fight against Chris Eubank

Representing BIBA at the press conference was Gianluca Di Caro, their CEO and founding vice president, who said he was “truly honoured” to sanction the fight and, in doing so, sounded more like a wedding photographer asked to cover a Royal wedding than the head of an organisation responsible for governing one of the world’s most dangerous sports.

Professor Michael Graham, meanwhile, BIBA’s chief medical officer, reckoned the tests he had done on Benn indicated his physiological age is 15 years younger than his chronological age and claimed he is the fittest 55-year-old boxer on the planet.

As beneficial as it was to have a professor on hand for reassurance, the sheer fact he shared the stage with Benn said all that needed to be said.

“I think it was important I was there because it’s quite unusual for someone to come back after 23 years away,” Graham told Boxing News. “But as all his tests indicate he has been training rigorously and it’s his desire to want to fight. What do you say to someone of Nigel’s physique and stature and standing in the game?

“We did the standard scientific blood test, the standard test any sanctioning body would do, and a cognitive function test. We also did an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan and blood pressure monitoring and VO2 maxes, which is a measure of your maximal oxygen uptake in litres per minute.

“I haven’t had any concerns to date. That remains to be seen when he enters the ring.”

Although Benn’s VO2 max results make for encouraging reading, Graham revealed that from the age of 20 a human being will produce 14 percent less growth hormone per decade, which explains why boxing is known as a young man’s game and why fighters like Bernard Hopkins are considered the exception not the rule.

“I think Nigel’s much fitter than Roy Jones Jnr was towards the end of his career,” Graham said. “After seeing his fight against Enzo Maccarinelli (in 2015), I would not have allowed Jones to fight again. But he had four more fights and won them all.

“Look, I’ve been involved as one of the principle researchers in contact sports in the UK. We’ve been published in international journals and I’ve presented in Valenica on head injuries in contact sports. I’d like to think we’re going above and beyond but, at the end of the day, it isn’t a safe sport. We’re just trying to make it as safe as possible.”

To truly make boxing as safe as possible there would need to be an age cap on boxers, like Benn, looking to compete professionally. Yet that isn’t the case and it won’t be the case for as long as big names grab attention and we are told age is just a number.

“If you look at Sergey Kovalev against Anthony Yarde,” Graham continued, “Kovalev was just seconds away from being stopped and he looked like a 55-year-old man. I’m surprised they let him go out for the next round. But he won the round and then won the fight. That was with one minute’s rest.

“I’m 58 and fitter now than I was in my twenties. Why? Because I understand diet and training. When you’re young you’re like a bull. You think you can lift everything. But you don’t have the correct form.

“Nigel’s training has obviously changed and, at the end of the day, it’s his perception. He will know if he feels fitter than he was in his twenties and thirties.”

“I feel three times fitter than I was when fighting (Gerald) McClellan (in 1995),” Benn later confirmed. “My fitness levels are through the roof. I do Zwift (an online videogame), riding the bike like the Tour de France. I couldn’t believe how fit I am. I live in the gym.”

Nigel Benn
Nigel Benn in his prime

Asked how he expects to feel once sparring begins, Benn snapped into a fighting stance and brushed it off, bobbing and weaving in blazer and jeans, cutting shapes of old. “My timing is good, man,” he said. “But when I was fighting, when I was world champion, I only did about 20 or 30 rounds in camp. I never sparred; all I want to do is get my distance.”

By admitting his last sparring session took place 23 years ago, Benn more or less confirmed his comeback has been triggered by impressive results in fitness tests rather than evidence he can still perform where it matters – in the ring. And though this hardly seemed to bother him, he will know it’s during sparring an older, inactive fighter comes to understand there’s a difference between hitting bags and pads and trying to repeat forgotten moves in the presence of an object – a human being – hitting back.

“With sparring, if you look at Floyd Mayweather and Andre Ward, two of the best boxers on Earth, most of their training was with the speedball,” Graham said. “It’s not good to spar too many rounds. That’s a precursor to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).”

Nigel’s son, Conor, a pro boxer in his own right, had a different reaction when the subject of sparring was brought up.

“Time will tell,” he told BN. “It’s soon to be discovered whether it’s a problem or not. The thing is he can bang and all it takes is for one to land and it’s lights out.

“If he gets me sparring with him, I will give it to him. I really will. I’m not saying that because I want to hurt him. I’d put it on him because I know he needs to do this properly. I know Sakio Bika is going to come out swinging, all guns blazing, and he’s a light-heavy.”

Bika, comparatively fresh at 40, is a former WBC super-middleweight champion whose last fight was in October 2017. That one went the full 12 rounds, as did many of Bika’s fights, and he finished his pro career with a record of 34-7-3 (22). He has never been stopped and nobody has ever claimed to have enjoyed fighting him.

“I could have gone to anyone and said, ‘You look like a fighter, I will have you,’” Benn said.

“I’ll go in there with the same power and will to win. He’s going to come out sore, I promise you. He will come out knowing he has been in with Nigel ‘Benjamin Button’ Benn.

“I know he’s strong but I’m strong as well. Everyone is worried about him coming at me. What about me going at him? I have got more power now.”

During the press conference, Conor, sitting stern-faced among journalists, waited patiently for his moment to ask his father a question. When it arrived, his expression remained serious and his question simple: “If you win, Dad, will this really be your last fight?”

Nigel assured him it would be.

“Now it’s on record,” Conor said afterwards. “But the thing is, if he bangs Bika out in a few rounds it will prove he’s still got it. So I would have less concern for a second fight. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Conor had prepared plenty of questions for his father when he first learned he was planning a return to the ring. They were asked once his initial disbelief made way for apprehension.

“It’s madness, isn’t it?” he said. “But you’ve got KSI and Logan Paul fighting, and they aren’t even boxers. It’s just a crazy time for boxing.

“If he was doing it for money, I’d say, ‘Listen, that’s really selfish. There are easier ways to make money.’ But he’s not. And he’s not doing it for fame, either. Being in Australia, he’s as far away from fame as possible. He’s doing this for himself.

“Do I want him fighting? No, not at all. Did I tell him 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 support him.

“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. Do I want to see him get punched in the face? Not at all. But he’s my dad and I love him no matter what.”

Conor Benn
Conor Benn doesn’t want his father to fight again but will support him (Steve Welsh/Matchroom

It would be naïve to believe Conor’s emergence as a professional boxer hasn’t affected Nigel’s decision to return to a scene he once did all he could to escape. At the very least Conor’s career brought the ‘Dark Destroyer’ back towards the light, back from Down Under, and reunited him with all he had left behind. As a key part of the story, he mixed with people who remembered and admired him. He was in the ring again. He heard the noise of the crowd again.

Sometimes proximity is all it takes.

“Boxing has changed from what it used to be,” Conor said, “and I think my dad fancies a bit of the pie now.”

His father, though, disagreed.

“No,” Nigel said, “it was already going by then. It was already lit. I don’t look at Conor and go, ‘Wow.’”

Conor labelled him a “living legend” and “obsessed” and said he has been training like a “lunatic” for some time now. This helps soothe his concern but also has him worried a so-called finale on November 23 will in fact be the start of something bigger.

“You have to know a fighter’s mentality,” he said. “A fighter will fight until he’s in the grave. Speaking to other fighters, it just seems like it’s a bug that never seems to leave. Hopefully not, though. We’ll see.”

Nigel Benn’s eyes filled with tears when he imagined how he would feel once this fight, his 49th and last, was over, and in that moment he could have been any age and anybody, legend or civilian. In that moment you could question the authenticity of his next fight but not the authenticity of a reformed yet restless 55-year-old who still equates punches to peace.

“I was thinking about retirement,” Benn offered as explanation for getting emotional, “because I know it’s coming.

“The reason I’m thinking like that is because I know I can spend time with my wife and kids. I miss a lot of time with my wife and kids because I’m in the gym.

“At the moment I’m still thinking about fighting. But I have this lovely woman that has stood by me for 28 years, through my affairs for 16 years, my drug addiction, my depression. She’s my knight in shining armour.

“I’m looking forward to the peace I’ll get after this fight. I think that’s what everyone really wants, peace in their life.”

Nigel Benn
The Dark Destroyer (Action Images)

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