‘I don’t just like Nigel… I LOVE him!’: Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn were fierce rivals when they met in two classic, brutal fights in the 1990s. Now, they are (almost) best buddies as they embark on a trip down memory lane
- Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn endured a fierce boxing rivalry during the 1990s
- Eubank defeated Benn in 1990 before their rematch was deemed a draw in 1993
- There was no love lost between the pair in a rivalry that spanned decades
- Now, Eubank and Benn are embarking on a tour to dissect their relationship
- Eubank says he ‘loves’ his old foe and believes they are both boxing ‘statesmen’
The men with the famous beef are discussing a lesser-known use for lemons. It has taken a while to reach this point, both in the bringing of old enemies to a table in a leisure centre and in the journey of this conversation.
But here we are, deep into a chat loaded with empathy and insight and impersonations. At some stage in all of that a plate of lemon slices has appeared and a surreal evening is about to take another unusual turn.
‘Trust me,’ says the fighter who became a lover.
‘But Chris,’ replies the son of God. ‘I mean… huh?’
Former arch rivals Chris Eubank (L) and Nigel Benn (R) are taking a trip down memory lane
‘This is not madness,’ says the lover. And so he undoes one of the buttons on his shirt. The shirt carrying a sheriff’s badge. He always was different, Chris Eubank. Brilliantly, dangerously different. Which is why he is now rubbing his armpits with a lemon.
‘The best deodorant you can use is a lemon,’ says Eubank. ‘If you use your brain and think about it, those roll-ons are chemicals. This is sensible and that is madness.’
‘I am not going there,’ says the other man, the one who used to hit Eubank harder than anyone else. ‘Nope.’
He always was a little bewildered by Eubank, was Nigel Benn. Brilliantly, dangerously bewildered. Which is why he is raising his eyebrows.
And it is also why the 200 or so who have come here, to the Wodson Park Leisure Centre in Hertfordshire, will soon raise theirs, when these guys leave this interview and head downstairs.
The former boxing stars captured the world’s attention with two brutal fights in the 1990s
It is because Eubank and Benn are together again, 31 years after the savagery of that first fight, 28 after the rematch, 18 after they dressed as gladiators and came to real blows for Channel 5, and 10 after talking about another trip to the ring as middle-aged men. Water under the bridge? Is there a big enough bridge in the world?
But these are strange times and this is the fourth date of 17 as Eubank, now 55, and Benn, 57, tour Britain, talking and reminiscing and confounding any sense, reasonably held, that these were two men destined to loathe each other for all of time.
‘Hate him?’ asks Eubank. ‘If you are prepared to listen to me, the truth is far more interesting.’
Rewind an hour and it is a little after 6.30pm, a Friday evening. Benn is running late but Eubank is here.
This is a talking tour and he always was a talker. He was built like a statue, still is, and goodness could he fight, but no boxer spoke quite like Eubank.
For now, Eubank wants to talk about Benn. He also wants to talk for Benn and when he arrives Benn won’t be so keen on that idea. But with Benn absent, Eubank, in his jodhpurs and that sheriff badge, has the floor.
‘What kind of interview is this?’ he asks Sportsmail. ‘Is your piece going to be frivolous? Because that is not me. If you want to ask me how I feel about Nigel Benn I will tell you. But it is not the truth people believe they know.’
Benn readily admits he ‘hated’ Eubank while the charismatic fighter insists he was indifferent
Eubank and Benn shared the ring twice, with half a billion watching their rematch in 1993
Eubank is stroking his chin; a chin no one tested quite like Benn back in the day.
That first fight in 1990 was special. Truly. Eubank almost bit through his tongue after swallowing an uppercut in the fourth before winning Benn’s middleweight world title by stoppage in the ninth.
According to some estimates, half a billion watched their rematch on television in 1993 and Benn probably edged it, but the judges gave a draw.
Benn hated Eubank back then and said as much; Eubank maintains his only feeling towards Benn was ‘indifference’, and was always pointed in saying the less eloquent half of British boxing’s greatest rivalry was too crude as a fighter to be on his level.
Through their differences in style and personality, they worked brutal and beautiful magic. For the same reason, it is sincerely baffling that they are on tour together.
‘How do I feel about Nigel Benn?’ says Eubank, and he throws in one of his theatrical pauses.
It is because he is chewing over some deep thoughts about the Windrush generation and the shared ground of being born to parents from the Caribbean — Eubank to a Jamaican in Dulwich in 1966, Benn to a Barbadian in Ilford two years earlier. He will go from there to Winston Churchill, racial equality, Don King, tragedy and, finally, a declaration that is really rather touching.
Eubank was knocked down early on in their first fight but came back to secure a knockout win
‘Think about the building blocks of each individual, what they’ve had to go through,’ Eubank says. ‘Look at the Windrush generation. The Government, Churchill, didn’t tell the people that we are decent and honest people. Our mothers comforted this country and our fathers helped rebuild it from the Second World War.
‘What must it have been to mould these two individuals, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank? What is it that fortified them as men? What did they have to go through, to become that resilient, that hard, that prideful? That is the real story. When I think what has happened in life to Nigel, I see what he overcame. You know his brother was killed by racists when Nigel was eight years old. This isn’t luck that we ended up together in our lives. We are men like you or anyone else. But do you want to do this for a living, to take yourself out of the rat race and stand at the top? We are the guys who were the fiercest. Those are the truths.
‘Time gives us the ability to look at what one has to go through. I wouldn’t have beaten him in that first fight had I not respected him, and you’re talking now to a man who sees himself as a doctor in this craft.
‘What were the building blocks of us as fighters, as warriors? I use words like valour, commitment, integrity, grit, fortitude, confidence. It is knowing that to win against him, I can only do that by going through pain barriers that you wouldn’t dream of going through. That is how I look at Nigel.’
Eubank appears almost emotional as he heads for a tangent to develop his point. He wants to talk about Benn’s fight in 1995 against Gerald McClellan, a wrecking ball of a fighter who was expected to destroy Benn.
The pair could not be separated in their rematch with the judges deeming the contest a draw
The American hit Benn out of the ring in the first but was counted out on one knee in the 10th, afflicted by brain injuries that have had awful consequences.
For McClellan’s difficulties, read Michael Watson and his. For Benn, read Eubank, beaten around for 10 and a half rounds by Watson.
‘They brought over this man, the mini-Mike Tyson,’ Eubank says. ‘I watched the fight again earlier today. Nigel is knocked out of the ring but he gets back in and runs towards the fire. What is it in you that allows you to do that because most men cannot?
‘McClellan was brought here by Don King to beat Nigel in a dog fight, but the dog recognised the handler. He ran towards the fire. A warrior. I would like you to see something.’
Eubank takes his phone out and scrolls to a picture. It shows a tear running down his left cheek. ‘I watched that fight today and I cried for an hour. I want to show this to Nigel tonight. Nigel and I understand that there is maybe only a handful of people like this on the planet.
‘Because I understand him, I do not just like Nigel Benn. I love him.’
Eubank rewatched Benn’s huge victory over Gerald McClellan and admits to shedding tears
Benn has finally arrived. He approaches Eubank with an apology and an outstretched fist, but the friendly sort. Eubank doesn’t wish to accept it just yet.
‘Before we touch, I must talk to you about something,’ and for a couple of minutes they disappear to clear up whatever it is that needs resolving. Logistics of the tour or some such.
‘I’ve got to be honest,’ says Benn. ‘I enjoy his company. We have just bonded. He likes to talk more than me and I am fine with that.’
By their estimation, it had been close to a decade since they previously met, long before these speaking gigs. The circumstances then were truer to what we have always known about Eubank and Benn, given they almost became the prototype for the sort of ghoulish bout between veterans that is now so popular.
Benn told Sportsmail a few years back that the bidding was around £5million each for a third fight, possibly in Dubai, with Benn then 47 and Eubank 45. It collapsed after three years of talks because ‘Chris is impossible’, Benn told me in 2015. Today they are recalling a meeting around that project. ‘We met in secret in Manchester in a lawyer’s office,’ Benn says.
‘We weren’t the same then,’ Eubank replies. ‘You still had the earthly spirit.’
Benn interjects: ‘Hold it. We both had a bit of pride.’
The pair’s relationship has been prickly since those two fights, until a very recent twist
With that, a pattern is set. For close to the next 15 minutes of this interview, the back-and-forth will be relentless.
‘You know I would never look him in the eye before a fight — if I did, he would hit me,’ says Eubank.
‘He just had to do his swagger,’ Benn says, and he starts mimicking that old glare Eubank used to do over his shoulder.
Eubank gets to his feet. ‘You always impersonate me like I was a sissy,’ he says, demonstrating the correct positioning.
They are laughing again.
‘We spent a long time filled with this rivalry,’ says Benn. ‘I actually quite like talking to him. We are gentlemen now, grown-ups. How can I not look back and thank God for having Chris Eubank? I am so grateful he was there. Without him would I even be here now?
‘My goal in boxing was to be Southern Area champion, might have a shot at the British, might own my own terraced house like my dad. That was my vision. It went from the terraced house to the mansion, waking up and thinking, “Do I live here?” That doesn’t happen without Chris. We are men, fathers, reaching the clouds because of each other.’
There is huge admiration shared between the pair and Eubank readily admits he ‘loves’ Benn
Conversation turns to their sons. Conor Benn, 25, is 19-0 and moving towards a world title shot at welterweight; Chris Eubank Jnr, 32, has held the WBA’s interim middleweight world title and lost only twice in 33 fights.
‘Chris should be world champ,’ says Benn.
‘I love watching Conor,’ says Eubank. ‘I look at some heralded fighters and they are toddlers. Conor is different. Is he coming here tonight?’ He is, as it happens. ‘Good,’ says Eubank. ‘I have information for him.’
Benn cuts in. ‘I was watching Conor sparring earlier and I said, “You look like Eubank!” It was his movement. He was pivoting, shimmying, something new. He punches hard as well.’
Eubank gets back in: ‘So did his father. Very few fighters have that ability to take someone out in one like you could. I know what your dynamite feels like.’
At that point, Eubank wants to focus on the show that they will be performing downstairs shortly.
Eubank eulogises over Benn’s son, Conor, and reveals that the youngster reminds him of Nigel
‘If I get into a form of conversation, leave me to speak tonight,’ Eubank tells Benn. His hope, he says, is to explain why Benn is the way he is.
Eubank: ‘I am here to make people understand how society is built, what they did to him.’
Benn isn’t having it. He’s long been open about the struggles in his life — the depression, the addictions to sex and recreational drugs during his career, the infidelities his wife, Carolyne, forgave, and the suicide attempt.
He turned to God 20-odd years ago and is a very different man these days, but he isn’t keen to share Eubank’s view that his problems were an inevitability of his environment.
Benn: ‘Chris, no. I disagree. It was me.’
Eubank: ‘On stage, do you see, Nigel, I am fighting for you because they have no idea what you have been through.’
Benn says that Eubank’s son, Chris Jr, should be a world champion by now, such is his talent
Benn: ‘I have to shut you down. My dad was faithful to my mother. I had a good role model.’
Eubank: ‘Your dad was a man. You were a boy.’
They never were destined to agree on everything.
The old fighters are downstairs and putting on a show. It’s not like the ones we have seen before. It isn’t 1990, it isn’t 1993, and it isn’t that Gladiator series, when they really were ready to go.
But it is good. Eubank is holding court, loving the limelight now as then, and Benn chips in with a few one-liners, always good for the big, single shot.
Earlier, they were slightly differing in their view of whether they would get in the ring together again. Eubank was unequivocal, saying: ‘We are statesmen now. We used to throw bullseyes at the board, and now maybe it would be a 25 at best. So why do it? We have wisdom now.’
During an event in Hertfordshire, Eubank implores Conor to ‘pick your father’s brains’
Benn seems to be more open. ‘I know my fitness is still the same. We would hit bullseyes.’
Before this audience, they bounce off one another for an hour. At one stage, Eubank addresses Conor Benn in the crowd and says: ‘Pick your father’s brains. No one knows what he knows.’
Benn Snr chimes in: ‘You hear that, son.’
On they go, disputing low blows in the second fight, giving some patter and sharing some praise. Eubank has his say on Benn; Benn still requires no exoneration. It’s good stuff.
‘On Gladiator,’ Eubank says, ‘this man even tried to kill me with a wooden sword. He was frothing at the mouth.’
They laugh, the crowd laughs. We could have seen these guys fighting again. We still might. Boxing and its legends are too often selling themselves now in that sordid way, and doubtless there would be a huge market to see these old boys at it a third time.
But it’s so much better to see them like this.
For details of the Eubank-Benn Trilogy Tour, visit goldstarpromotions.co.uk
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