Benn braves the final count

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The Independent Online
According to accepted wisdom, the last thing a fighter loses is his punch. Not true: the last thing to go is that stubborn belief in his own ability which first drew him to the ring. That can be a dangerous and destructive conviction. Too often, ageing fighters choose to ignore the evidence of their deterioration even when it is presented to them in the most forceful, public and painful way possible - in front of a packed arena and a television audience of millions.

That was Nigel Benn's experience in Newcastle in March when he lost his WBC super middleweight title to the ancient but well-preserved South African Sugarboy Malinga. Benn, once the most fearsome warrior of his generation, was soundly spanked by a smart-boxing veteran whose style he could never solve, and he immediately grabbed the ring microphone to make a tearful retirement announcement. Within hours, predictably, he was reconsidering as the excuses formed. On Saturday, having persuaded himself that the Malinga defeat was merely a bad day, he returns to challenge the Dubliner Steve Collins for the WBO version of the 12-stone title in the new Nynex Arena in Manchester.

Six months ago this would have been a prospect to savour, a rare domestic clash involving two versions of the world title and featuring men whose personal and professional styles could hardly be more different. Benn's defeat has devalued the match somewhat, but it remains an intriguing pairing. However much one wishes Benn had hee- ded his own gut feeling and stayed retired, it is impossible to begrudge him one last hurrah. For the best part of a decade he has been Britain's most consistently exciting, explosive and top-value performer. Nineteen of his 46 fights have involved titles, a length and quality of service which entitles him to make his own mistakes.

Benn is a rumbustious, swashbuckling character, a former squaddie whose love of a "tear up" in the ring is matched by his appetite for the good life outside it. He has posed nude for Playgirl, worked as a club DJ, spent his boxing earnings enthusiastically and squired a host of beautiful women, to the latest of whom he proposed marriage in the course of his emotional retirement announcement in Newcastle. Collins, a hard-working professional, could scarcely provide a starker contrast: Action Man meets Family Man. His idea of a wild night out is probably sneaking off for a quiet pint of Guinness (or, given the Manchester show's sponsorship, Beamish) after reading his children a goodnight story.

Collins is an articulate and intelligent man (and an excellent after- dinner speaker) whose fiercely independent streak has put him on a collision course with some of the sport's most power- ful promoters. These are qualities he shares with Frank Warren, who promotes Saturday's show; perhaps that is why, at almost 32, he appears finally to have found someone with whom he can work to mutual satisfaction. Benn has also done the rounds of promotional camps. The man Bob Arum once called "my English Marvin Hagler" started his career with Warren, left him for the maverick (and unlicensed) Ambrose Mendy, won five fights for Arum in the United States, and had a spell with Barry Hearn before rejoining Warren.

Collins began his professional career in the US under the management of the Petronelli brothers, who managed Hagler. While Benn (who turned pro three months later) was knocking over a string of what he called "Mexican road-sweepers", Col- lins was learning his trade against respected contenders like Kevin Watts and Tony Thornton, both of whom he outpointed in 12-rounders for the US Boxing Association middleweight title. Af- ter only 16 fights, he went the full distance with Mike McCallum, a modern legend, for the WBA title. Majority points defeats in 1992, by Reggie Johnson for the vacant WBA title and the former world champion Sumbu Kalambay for the European title, seemed to have relegated Collins to the ranks of the "nearly men", but the Irishman's self-belief never wavered and a move to the Barry Hearn camp led to victory over Chris Pyatt for the WBO middleweight title.

He never defended it: weight problems and the prospect of a big-money challenge for Chris Eubank's super-middleweight title drove him into the heavier division and, on 18 March 1995, he sparked a night of head-aching celebration by dethroning Eubank in a magnificent fight staged in an ultra- modern arena located, bizarrely, in a remote village in the wilds of County Cork. His three subsequent defences have all been in Ireland, including a repeat win over Eubank, which persuaded the Englishman to strut off the stage, but he has failed to recapture the euphoria of that first win over Eubank.

We Irish, of course, get more pleasure out of knocking down our heroes than from building them up, and Collins is merely the latest victim of this trait. His absolute faith in his own ability is interpreted there as arrogance while his much-publicised "hypnosis" - in reality no more than an elaborate and brilliantly successful mind game designed to unsettle Eubank - was seen as something not quite sporting or ethical. Collins, though, remains focused on the job in hand and unconcerned by others' perception of him.

He is only six months younger than Benn, but has had a much-less strenuous career. Whatever easy matches the challenger had in the early stages he more than compensated for when he reached championship class. Benn's two battles with Eubank (a loss and a draw) and that tragic epic against Gerald McClellan were the kind of draining contests that shorten careers, and on the evidence of the Malinga fight, even the reserve tank has now run dry. Had they met earlier, perhaps his flamboyance may have overcome Collins's perseverance. This time, though, the workman should beat the warrior.