Wherever Nigel Benn went in the 1980s, chaos followed. Five years in the military and eighteen months in Northern Ireland had prepared him poorly for post-institutional life. That he was already angry, confused, powerful, and unhappy only confounded things. His was always an overdetermined life: “a disappointment” to his parents before he first drew breath, Benn was the sixth son of seven, when all his parents wanted was a girl. Bereft at eight after the loss of an elder brother, Benn suffered mourning without cessation from then on. Later he would add despair, self-destruction, drugs into the mix—internal correlatives for the dark destruction he would wreak in the ring. Always there was violence: the one certainty in a life that guaranteed none.
On turning professional in 1987, “Big Bad” Benn was critical in helping to shake off, once and for all, British boxing’s reputation as fusty and outdated. Sportswriters struggled to warm to him, but then warmth was hardly in his nature. The feelings Benn elicited were more extreme: spending freely, talking wildly, blowing hot and cold, Benn chilled and thrilled in equal measure. The first eighteen months of his career saw him blow through eighteen opponents all by knockout. His nineteenth fight, against Anthony Logan, infamously led to trainer Brian Lynch almost leaving him, after Benn exposed himself time and again to Logan’s fists as if he were an untrained street fighter. Yet Benn relished such exposure: afterward, he insisted that he was indeed just that. Whether or not he was the “brash product of black anger,” the “ghetto blaster of the ring” that The Guardian once called him, Benn’s USP was devastatingly simple: he came to put on the hurt.
Yet after signing with Ambrose Mendy in 1988, Benn’s career was suddenly railroaded on May 21, 1989, when he lost by TKO to Michael Watson in Finsbury Park, London. A steep favorite, Benn had started furiously in expectation of a twenty-third straight stoppage. But the patient Watson soon showed why he was favored in advance by the cannier sportswriters in town. Having punched himself out, Benn felt his powers wane almost in direct proportion to Watson’s steady increase in strength. Growing more and more ragged by the minute, Benn felt expectation turn to hope and hope turn to fear as Watson started pounding away on him with increasing abandon. Battered and spent, he would be put away by the merest of shots—when Watson collapsed him to the canvas with a jab’s sweet kiss.
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Already headed to celebrity, a different future now flashed suddenly before him: a future in obscurity. That was the future foreseen by the boxing commentariat, now vindicated in their skepticism after a loss that Benn would describe later as “complete devastation.” And no wonder: for what could have hurt more for a fighter like Benn than to be unmanned in such devastatingly gentle fashion? Never mind a bang—Benn went out barely with a whimper.
Having glimpsed the possibility of an alternative future, Benn chose to recommit himself to the present. Days after the Watson fight he would split with Lynch, whose reticence toward sparring had long been a source of contention in the press. Ambrose Mendy had already announced that Benn would be moving to America, if not in search of reinvention then at least in search of better schooling. Turning up at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami, Benn would be trained by Vic Andretti, a former British champion extracted from the East End. Soon he would find himself swimming in deeper water than he had ever done before. “After a few days in the gym here I would wake up and hope that the sparring partners would not turn up,” Benn told The Guardian. “It was hard and they hurt, but you soon learn to accept it and respect them as they do you. All that tap, tap work in England was no good; there I was always the governor, now I’m learning all the time, nicking moves from everyone.”
Benn’s fighting days in America would begin in labored fashion, with a tedious ten-round decision over Jorge Amparo. Signs of improvement would be more evident against Jose Quinones, whom Benn dispatched in forty seconds of violence in which lethal intentions were for once allied to defensive nous. That would lead promoter Bob Arum to start parading his new charge as “The British Marvin Hagler,” a title that better reflected the vicissitudes of promotion than it did the style of Benn. His subsequent struggles in winning a decision against Sanderline Williams in January 1990 only further underlined this. Benn’s performance epitomized the paradox of his situation—in trying to channel his fury, he risked losing what made him so thrilling in the past.
Yet Williams was a high-caliber journeyman, as Benn knew. Although he would never win another fight, the Cleveland middleweight would remain a challenging opponent, at least in the short term. Williams would even eke out a draw against James Toney in six months’ time. Despite suspicions about his move abroad, Benn felt confident in the technical changes his performances had only intermittently displayed. “My home is in England, but the business of boxing will be here,” he confirmed.
His next fight would bear out the wisdom of his decision. Stepping into the ring against Doug DeWitt on April 29, 1990, Benn had seen his old rival Michael Watson perish by eleventh-round knockout against Mike McCallum just a fortnight before. Now Watson would be forced to watch on as Benn took center stage before a transatlantic audience. DeWitt was a rugged middleweight whose career had been punctuated mostly by bruising defeats to the era’s good (and occasionally its great). In 1989, he returned from a thrashing by Sumbu Kalambay to beat Marvin Hagler’s half-brother Robbie Sims to the inaugural WBO middleweight title. On the slide after a career’s hard graft, DeWitt saw his new-fangled belt—however laughable it may have seemed—open up the possibility of one first and last big money fight. After Benn, he expected to fight either Leonard, Duran, or Hearns.
That expectation would recede hastily when Benn pounded the American back along the ropes in the first seconds of the fight. Cut on a head clash in the first, blood started pouring down DeWitt’s face almost immediately. DeWitt would drop Benn in the second with a left hook, at the end of a round in which the latter mostly had used his measured aggression to hit the champion seemingly at will. That aberration would be DeWitt’s best moment all night. Moving straight in for the kill, Benn would quickly prove to DeWitt that his legs were unshaken when he surged back at the champion, rocking him in the last seconds of the round with an emphatic right hand. With twenty seconds to go in the third, Benn would collapse a defenseless DeWitt to the canvas on another sequence of rights. Several more vicious knockdowns would finally end his reign in the eighth. “I’m on cloud nine and I just hope England is proud of me,” Benn would later declare.
Yet English pride was not easily forthcoming. Against DeWitt, Benn had proved the virtue of his sharper schooling in providing a medium through which his fury could better be expressed. DeWitt may have been a blank canvas yet Benn’s aesthetic remained impulsive and violent. The Guardian considered his performance “spectacular.” Still, the vexed question of the WBO title lingered in the air. Only a few short years before Frank Warren’s fighters would make the organization their home, the British Boxing Board of Control refused to endorse its validity. The British press was even more taciturn, disregarding Benn’s championship as a meaningless gewgaw whose relation to the middleweight title of Turpin and Minter was a fanciful sham.
If Benn was hurt by such skepticism—which may have been dour and bitter, but was also certainly well-grounded—his mood only darkened when the BBBC blocked his next scheduled defense against Iran Barkley on account of the latter’s recent surgery for a detached retina. “Nigel has had his last four fights in America and as far as we are concerned the Board’s decision means he will never box in Britain again,” Ambrose Mendy told The Guardian, before shortly threatening to sue for loss of earnings of up to £1 million.
Bitterness, anger, resentment—these were just some of the feelings with which Benn entered the ring on August 18, 1990. It hardly mattered that his opponent was nearly blind in one eye, after a fight with Michael Nunn had left him forever after blinking in the light. No, Iran Barkley was just another opponent to crumble before Nigel Benn took himself off into the long dark night of the future. In three months’ time, he will face Chris Eubank, in a fight that will forever change British sport. In five years, Gerald McClellan—the cost of which will be almost McClellan’s life. Little wonder that in future he will search for answers in drugs, alcohol, evangelism, God. Until then there is Iran Barkley, the ex-Black-Spade gang member, in red trunks waiting across the ring. The bell sounds. Benn leaps.