Nigel Benn (left) exchanges punches with Gerald McClellan during their epic, ill-fated fight at New London Arena on Feb. 25, 1995 in Millwall, London. Benn won by 10th-round stoppage but McClellan, who Benn says is the best overall boxer he ever faced, suffered career-ending and life-debilitating injuries from the savage encounter.
“Doug DeWitt walked over to me in the ring and said, ‘You’re going down.’ I replied, ‘I might be going down, but you’re STAYING down!”– Nigel Benn
There was never any pretense about Nigel Benn. The magnetic two weight world champion captured the hearts of millions during arguably the most enthralling period in British middleweight history and his own heart was always splattered across his sleeve.
“The Dark Destroyer” won his first 22 fights by knockout and, during that run, was only extended beyond two rounds on three occasions. Mean and merciless, the former soldier attacked the opposition with lethal power shots and when he was hurt himself, there was no fighter more dangerous.
Talented and ill-fated middleweight, Michael Watson, sensationally upset him in May 1989 but Benn regrouped by venturing to the United States to capture the WBO middleweight crown from teak tough warrior, Doug DeWitt, in eight savage rounds.
In his first title defense the trigger happy Brit was pitched in against the equally explosive American veteran Iran Barkley. “The Blade” was installed as favorite, having recently stopped Thomas Hearns in three rounds and he had also pushed Roberto Duran and Michael Nunn to the limit in close decision losses.
Benn destroyed Barkley in the opening round and sent shockwaves through the sport.
In November 1990, Benn suffered his second defeat at the hands of enigmatic showman, Chris Eubank, and one of the most turbulent rivalries in British sporting history was born. Like Ali and Frazier, both were the polar opposites of the other but what they shared was immense fighting heart and insurmountable pride.
Shortly thereafter Benn moved to super middleweight and the drama continued. He was on the unlucky side of a draw in a rematch with Eubank and the finest victory of his career, against the rampaging Gerald McClellan, was over shadowed by the bout’s tragic aftermath.
“The Dark Destroyer” closed out with a pair of losses to Irish gladiator, Steve Collins, but the sad ending could never detract from what was an amazing success story.
RingTV.com spoke to Benn (42-5-1, 35 knockouts) about some of the men who impressed him most.
Best overall: Gerald McClellan by far. He had an incredible knockout ratio and he was a prolific puncher. There was a mile between him and anyone else. I came out of that fight with a damaged nose, a damaged jaw and I was urinating blood. I was in bed for three days afterwards and I had a shadow on my brain. That shows you how powerful a champion that man was.
Best boxer: Sugar Boy Malinga springs to mind but he wasn’t the classiest of fighters, he was just my bogeyman. Malinga was very difficult for me and even though I won the first fight I could easily have lost it. I think I got the decision because I was on home soil. In the rematch I trained so hard for him but I was knackered and just completely jaded. He is one of the only fighters to really hurt me and he did it with a punch to the mouth which split my tongue and my lip. I was over trained in the second fight but I can’t really take anything away from him. Give me a guy who stands there and wants to fight and I’ll be victorious but I knew this guy was slippery. I could see Malinga’s punches coming but I couldn’t do anything about it. Even when I knocked him down I was shattered and I knew I was in for a long night. He deserved to win the rematch and he was a lovely man so I only have good things to say about him. He met up with Richie Woodhall after me and lost the title (WBC super middleweight) straight away.
Best puncher: Gerald McClellan. As I said the gap between him and the rest, in terms of power, was huge. He was in a league of his own but I had to win that fight because everyone thought I was going to lose. What happened was I was due to fight Michael Nunn and it got back to me that I would have to take £100,000 less and I said; “Are you mad?” Michael was a slippery southpaw, his name was “Second to” Nunn and I’ve to take £100,000 less? That could have been my last fight because Michael was one of the best around at that time, so I said no chance. The answer I got was fight Nunn or we’ll bring over a mini Mike Tyson (McClellan). Now, you have to understand I was in the army and had a ton of street fights, so I’m not scared to take on anyone. I’m not made that way but once my fight with Gerald was over I should have retired.
Best defense: Michael Watson. When we fought in 1989 I was like a bull in a china shop and my trainer at the time said; “Nigel, just go out there and steam him.” I’ve read a lot of boxing books in my time but I have no idea what steam him means. I’ve yet to find an explanation of that term anywhere but that was the type of corner I had at the time. I’d thrown everything at Watson over the first five rounds and I couldn’t damage him and I also found out later that Michael gave a wink to my corner as if to say “I’ve got your boy!” Michael had Mickey Duff and a good team in his corner and they had a lot of experience. It was my first loss and I was devastated and all that was left in the changing room was me and my jockstrap. Everyone deserted me.
Fastest hands:I can’t recall who excelled in that area to be honest. They probably beat me and I’ve did my best to forget (laughs). I can’t even say there was anyone in sparring because I didn’t do a lot of fighting in the gym. I maybe did twenty or thirty rounds in training because I only wanted to establish my distance. A lot fighters like to have wars in the gym but that wasn’t for me because I would just burn myself out. That changed when I went to the Fifth St. Gym in Miami and I was forced to do more sparring. I worked with a guy called Adolpho Washington who was a cruiserweight and the double of Mike Tyson when he put on the head gear. I found myself trying to be friends with him so he wouldn’t want to spar with me anymore (laughs).
Fastest feet: Dan Sherry had good feet. He ran right into an awesome right hand but he had good feet (laughs). He could switch hit, chop and change and his hands were fast so he was able to keep me turning.
Best chin: Chris Eubank and you don’t even need to ask me that (laughs). I could hit Chris’ chin with anything and it wouldn’t even move. It was like hitting a lump of granite but to be honest I enjoyed pummeling that chin (laughs hysterically). Look, I love Chris and we’re old men now so I can laugh and joke about it. I needed him as much he needed me.
Best jab: Nicky Piper kept leaning back and picking me off with the left hand, until I caught up with him. Sugar Boy Malinga was very effective with the jab and another American by the name of Lindsay Morgan was tall and used that punch pretty well.
Strongest: Robbie Sims was good inside but I would say Juan Carlos Gimenez. He also fought Eubank and Calzaghe and only Joe managed to put a dent in him. He was always banging his hands together wanting more and he was so strong. I’m talking as strong as an ox. As soon as I hit him I knew I wasn’t stopping him – he was going nowhere.
Smartest: (Long Pause) Reggie Miller. He was the first fighter to almost take me the distance but I finally stopped him. It was my twelfth fight and I was on my last legs just prior to the knockout. He was a really good fighter and an effective switch hitter. He was cute defensively but he thought he had me and left himself open.
Nigel Benn has been to the dark side, in the ring and out, but re-invented himself when his professional career came to an end in 1996. “The Dark Destroyer” is a born again Christian who has spent years preaching and he credits both his faith and a strong family unit for overcoming some stark personal problems.
The former champion still exudes a charismatic and likeable quality but that fierce humanity, which he carried in his fighting years, has been replaced by a warm and gentle nature. That said he still keeps a keen eye on the sport which brought him fame and fortune and his interest has been peaked by two pending British super fights.
“George Groves isn’t going to be easy for Carl Froch,” said the ex-champion. “Even James DeGale could present problems for Carl because he’s a good mover. Anyone with good lateral movement will create problems for The Cobra in my opinion.”
Benn continued; “Tyson Fury will have a go against Haye. He might get knocked down but he’ll get back up, although he hasn’t mixed with anyone who punches as hard as David. I won’t pick a winner but I can’t see this one going the distance.”
Benn now resides in Sydney and sounds completely at peace.
“I absolutely love Australia,” said the former champion. “To be honest we’ve lived in Miami, L.A., Barbados, Jamaica and we were 11 years in Spain. Australia is fantastic and it’s a great place to bring up my kids.”
See also: Best I’ve Faced: Steve Collins
Photos / THE RING
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and contributes to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing