Benn's twist of fate

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Boxing is the cruellest game. Nigel Benn, the most consistently exciting fighter of his generation, was forced into retirement with a damaged right ankle after 2min 40sec of the fourth round of a gripping WBO super middleweight title challege against Dubliner Steve Collins in front of a capacity 21,000 crowd at the Nynex Arena in Manchester last night, and then had to endure the boos of unsympathetic fans.

Benn twisted his ankle as he fell awkwardly against the ropes in the face of yet another surging attack by the crew-cut Irishman, and there was a confused spell as the challenger knelt on the canvas while referee Gino Rodriguez of Puerto Rico hovered uncertainly. Rodriguez did not take up a count, but allowed Collins to resume his attack as Benn limped his way to a neutral corner in obvious distress. He tried to punch back as Collins opened up with both hands, but the cause was lost. Benn sensibly acknowledged the inevitable by turning away in surrender.

The official ruling was that referee Rodriguez had stopped the fight, but the decision had already been made by the fighter himself. Afterwards, he acknowledged the obvious when he said: "That's it for me now." But within 10 minutes, he had changed his mind yet again when he was told that the WBO had promised him a rematch in view of the unsatisfactory nature of the finish. "I'm sure I can beat Steve next time," he said, with an old fighter's incurable optimism.

He had retired before, when he lost his WBC title to Thulane Malinga in March, only to change his mind before the sweat had dried.

Benn at least went down to defeat in typical slam-bang style. There was scarcely a jab thrown in a fierce opening round, fought almost exclusively at close quarters where Collins' solid hooks to the ribs gave him the edge.

Benn's power put him back on level terms in the second, a round punctuated by furious exchanges of hooks followed by prolonged mauls. Benn hurt Collins with a right late in the round, but then fell face first in his eagerness to follow up.

The third was full of unrelenting action as first one and then the other landed with blistering hooks to the head. Significanlty, it was always Collins who landed the final blows in each exchange, and whose work looked cleaner and crisper.

We civilians are usually permitted to grow old gradually, if not gracefully. Ageing fighters are denied that luxury. Sometimes the years hit them with the sudden violence and brutality of a backstreet mugging, as the timing and reflexes they exploited in their prime slow by the crucial milliseconds which separate champions from has-beens.

That is what happened to Benn last night as Collins acknowledged when he said afterwards: "This isn't the Nigel Benn of four years ago, but he's still a great warrior. I'd just like to thank him for giving me such a good payday."

Collins, making his fourth defence of the title he took last year from Chris Eubank, was in front on all three judges' cards, twice by scores of 29-28 and 30-27.

It was a bad night for the veterans as Malinga, the 36-year-old South African who dethroned Benn, could not defy the years again and was outpointed by Italian Vincenzo Nardiello. The scoring was eccentric, with Mexican judge Miguel Acuna contriving to make Malinga the winner by an astonishing 116-111, but he was overruled by the other two officials.

The temperamental Nardiello can trouble the best when he is in the mood, and happily this was one of his more ambitious evenings. He has little to offer apart from a degree of southpaw awkwardness whichshould not have been enough to inconvenience and old pro like Malinga.

Yet the champion fought as if he had never faced a left-hander before and it took him eight rounds before he began to solve the Italians' style. A right to the body dropped Nardiello in the ninth, but Malinga immediately negated that good work by hitting the challenger low, which cost him one point.

The future of former WBO middleweight champion Chris Pyatt looks bleak after he lost his Commonwealth light-middleweight title to local favourite Steve Foster in a fierce 12 rounder earlier in the evening. Foster also retained his IBF Inter-Continental title and put himself in line for one of the four versions of the world title at 35.

The verdict seemed a harsh on Pyatt, who did the cleaner punching, but could never quite subdue Foster's aggression.

Former WBO heavyweight champion Herbie Hide made a successful return to action of a 15-month lay-off when he stopped another local favourite, Michael Murray, who was pulled out by his seconds after taking two counts in the sixth round. Hide had beaten Murray a couple of years ago to become British champion and he will surely need some more ambitious matches than this if he is to regain his place in the top flight.