NIGEL BENN: THE DARK DESTROYER — I have always had a special affinity for fighters from the United Kingdom. Maybe it has to do with their grit or maybe the drama that seems to unfold in many of the top fights. It might have started when I watched Alan Minter shock and dismantle Sugar Ray Seales in 1976. Billy Schwer and Dave “Boy” Green exemplified the qualities I admired. However, watching the likes of Carl Thompson, Chris Eubank, Michael Watson and Nigel Benn have provided unmatched thrills.
In his early days, Benn was a juvenile delinquent and then some, but a four-year tenure as a soldier in the Royal Fusiliers, which he credits as a major turning point in his life (there would be more), forced him to embrace a need for self-discipline. He was born in Liford, England, and was the son of Barbadian immigrants. As an amateur, he had a record of 41 wins and only one loss. His KO percentage, 83%, served notice as to what was to come.
Benn became known as “The Dark Destroyer.” Turning professional in 1987, he launched an eye-popping streak of 22 consecutive KO wins, a streak that extended until 1989 and included wins over such notables as Fernin Cherino and Abdul Umaru, the latter for the British Commonwealth Middleweight Title. He lost this title (and his undefeated record as well) to the remarkably talented but ill-fated Michael Watson by a 6th round knockout.
When it comes to ferocity, the Dark Destroyer defined that word. His trainers (and he had several over the course of his career) attempted to make him a more orthodox fighter, but he always resisted and reverted to form, providing uncommon excitement and entertainment for fight fans. Steve Collins described being hit by Benn as “like having your teeth broken…Yeah, sickening. That’s what it felt like, it was sickening….you feel the searing pain, then it’s gone in an instant.”
Although considered one of the hardest punchers of all time, when Nigel fought at the top level, he sometimes– inexplicably– became unglued. Still, his ferocity and velocity were unmatched and his bombs were launched with malicious intentions, the purest of rage, and often punctuated with a whirlwind of deadly hooks and uppercuts from all angles. (His compelling autobiography, “Dark Destroyer,” offers many clues and glimpses into what made him fight with such fury.)
Early on, his quality of opposition was excellent. Aside from Winston Burnett (who would finish with a 20-98-3 record), Benn fought boxers with mostly decent records, a departure from the norm. He faced men like Reggie Miller, Abdul Umaru Sanda, Darren Hobson, Nicky Piper, Jamaican Anthony Logan, Kid Milo, Canadian Dan Sherry, Puerto Rican Jose Quinones, American Sanderline Williams, Congolese Mbayo Wa Mbayo, David Noel, and Argentinean Hector Lescano– all of whom came in with winning records.
Benn then stepped up to a higher tier to fight South African Thulani “Sugar Boy” Malinga (twice), Italian and former WBC super middleweight champion Mauro Galvano (twice), former world champion Chris Eubank (twice), Juan Carlos Gimenez (46-6-3 coming in), Vincenzo Nardiello (26-3), Michael Watson (21-1-1 coming in) and, of course, defending world super middleweight champion Steve Collins (twice)–names that should resonate with aficionados. These fighters, along with Herol Graham and Robin Reid, represented the cream of the crop during a great era of fighters in the U.K. Benn also fought top Americans in Iran “The Blade” Barkley (a warrior who fought in a savage manner not unlike Benn’s) and the great Gerald “G-Man” McClellan and he beat them both by stoppage. Nigel also beat Doug DeWitt. In short, he was competitive with the world’s best.
Benn got his initial opportunity at a world championship and made the most of it when he fought for the WBO world middleweight title held by Dewitt on April 29, 1990 in Atlantic City. Benn captured the crown, knocking out the resilient and granite-chinned DeWitt who had lasted 12 rounds against Thomas Hearns.
Benn’s first defense came against former world champion Iran Barkley and after being badly rocked by the Blade, he knocked him out in round one in a furious, savage, and controversial shoot-out. However, just three months later, he lost the title when he was stopped by the flamboyant and cocky Chris “Simply the Best” Eubank in round 9 of a very close battle in Birmingham. The fight is still considered a classic to this day and is often referred to as England’s Hearns-Hagler. Referee Richard Steele called it, “the most dramatic fight I’ve ever refereed.”
The Destroyer then embarked on another undefeated streak, this time reaching sixteen. In 1991, he took out underrated Robbie Sims (half-brother of Marvin Hagler) who had beaten Roberto Duran and many other top level fighters. Reflective of Benn’s power, Robbie’s loss to Benn would be Robbie’s only career stoppage defeat.
In 1992, after beating his future conqueror Thulani “Sugar Boy” Malinga by a 10 round decision, he won the WBC’s super middleweight title with a fourth round knockout over defending world champion Mauro Galvano. Then, after two more wins including a rematch with Galvano, he fought a rematch in 1993 with Chris Eubank and retained his title with a 12 round draw before 42,000 rabid fans in Manchester. After beating rugged Henry Wharton (undefeated coming in) and Juan Carlos Gimenez, he engaged in his career defining fight with the great Gerald McClellan (31-2). Unfortunately, the brutal war ended tragically.
While his fight with the great bomber McClellan has already received voluminous treatment, it will not be ignored here. As Boxing Monthly contributor Ian McNeilly poignantly said, the fight, which left McClellan needing around-the-clock care for the rest of his life, ‘’was one of the best and worst to ever take place …. a triumphant and tragic microcosm of boxing.” Clearly, it would be another turning point in Nigel Benn’s life.
Quoting McNeilly again, “The story of Gerald McClellan is a painful one, one that fighters, boxing writers and fans seem to find it easy not to discuss…………This is because he is a living embodiment of the risks fighters take every time they step through the ropes, a reminder of the dangers that are ignored at peril. To dwell on cases like Gerald McClellan would destroy the sport. To ignore him is to debase ourselves.”
Hopefully, true boxing fans will never ignore Gerald McClellan.
After the McClellan fight, 1995 would prove to be a very bad year for Nigel Benn. Even though he beat G-Man, it was clear that his fighting spirit had been erased by the tragedy.
Some say that Nigel Benn, now 52, is mostly a “forgotten warrior,” perhaps because he will forever be linked to Gerald McClellan and it is admittedly painful to think of him without remembering their tragic fight. But if so, his designation is clearly unfair. Any assessment of Benn must be based on his entertaining style and accomplishments in the ring. Again, to quote McNeilly, “…the many who watched saw a man [Benn] reach down into his inner being and summon something to destroy a force (McClellan) supposedly greater than himself (Gerald McClellan was a 4-1 favorite). And as we looked on, amazed and enthralled, we cheered as life slipped away from a fellow man slumped, defeated, in his corner.”
The “Dark Destroyer” would go on to beat future world 168-pound titlist Vincenzo Nardiello and game Danny Perez before losing his WBC title to Sugar Boy Malinga by a 12 round decision in 1996. Shortly thereafter, he was given another chance at a world title, this time the WBO’s version of the 168-pound title, but he lost to Steve Collins by 4th round knockout in Manchester (a fight in which controversy arose over an injury to Benn’s ankle). After losing a rematch to Collins in his very next fight, Nigel had come to the end of his glorious career. The electricity had disappeared.
A NEW CHAPTER
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”– Friedrich Nietzsche
During his heyday, Nigel was an accessible and friendly staple at such popular London nightclubs as the Ministry of Sound where he enjoyed the good life to the fullest. But unlike Carlos Monzon who was a favorite of the Jet Set, Nigel could be seen at play with some underworld characters with whom he shared a wild lifestyle. Now he took to partying even harder with nothing to keep him on the rails. He became addicted to drink, drugs and sex and was headed for a bad landing that would include a severe case of depression and finally a suicide attempt. But then, after hitting bottom, still another turning point occurred.
About nine years ago he spent a lengthy time, a year, alone with his thoughts, reflecting on where his life was going. In the process, he confessed to his wife Carolyne his womanizing over the years. Renewed, he got the call and became a deeply devout born-again Christian and, after many years in Spain, moved to Australia where the only things that would matter to him were his faith and his family.
As he puts it, “I think it was like a sign. I was sitting in my car, crying my eyes out. Two-time world champion, but it isn’t happening. Something just told me ‘this simply isn’t going to happen like thi’s’ and I just drove home. You’re not in your right frame of mind when you start doing things like that. You’re not thinking right. You’re not stable. You’re all over the place. God just had other plans….did I want to die or did I just want someone to help me? God heard my cry.” He and Carolyne are now involved in a great variety of Christian–based activities.
Many interviews track the Dark Destroyer’s life to this point and offer clarity as to the origins of his early persona and attendant rage, his need for self-discipline, his ability to party widely and then get back to training without missing a beat, his marvelous boxing career, his almost fatal depression, and finally his path to righteousness. One titled “The Big Interview: Boxing Legend Nigel Benn,” published on June 21, 1915 in the Express & Star and conducted by Craig Birch is one of the best.
In 2007, after a 12-year gap, he met Gerald McClellan and his sister Lisa when $250,000 was collected at a fundraiser in London. Nigel said, “It was so difficult, because I had to shout in Gerald’s ear so he could hear what I was saying, but he told me it was an accident, that it wasn’t my fault. I was so happy to see him but my emotions were up and down, up and down. I didn’t know whether to be happy, cry, or be sick. I’ve never experienced so many emotions at one time in my life. I held Gerald’s hand and his sister, Lisa, told me all the stories about his after-care. I always felt the American people (boxing fraternity) should have looked after him better than they did. If he’d been British, his house would have been paid for and he’d be getting the best of care.” It is difficult for Nigel to discuss this subject without coming to tears.
Benn entered the World Boxing Council (WBC) Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013 and was honored alongside Joe Calzaghe as the WBC’s greatest super middleweight champion in the organization’s history. Whether he gets into the International Boxing Hall of Fame remains to be seen, but if he fails, it will not be because he didn’t provide incredible excitement and create indelible memories for boxing fans throughout the world.
Nigel Benn was and is a complex, emotional and extremely soulful man who fought the best of UK competition at a time when that competition was as keen as any in the world. Leonard, Duran, Hagler and Hearns were doing their thing in the U.S, but Watson, Eubank, and Benn were matching them in the UK.
Nigel Benn was a one of a kind.
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Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records in the Grand Master class. A member of Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, he enjoys writing about boxing.