Boxing: Benn clings to his crown: Wharton works British champion hard while Nunn runs into a Little problem

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The Independent Online
NIGEL BENN retained his World Boxing Council super- middleweight title here last night when he outpointed Henry Wharton over 12 rounds in a torrid struggle.

The three judges scored the bout for Benn by margins of two, five and three rounds, but most ringsiders had the bout much closer - in my case, a one-round margin to Wharton.

The challenger, despite his inexperience, showed unsuspected reserves of strength and durability. Benn seemed off-key until the last round, which was one of the most exciting seen in a British ring for some time. Benn summoned up his old spirit to go toe-to-toe with the willing Wharton and everything except sparks were flying as the fatigued pair traded blows, staring up at the arc lights through hooded eyes.

Benn, 30, was appearing in his fifth title defence and his 10th world title fight in all. He was a 3-1 on favourite. Wharton, 26, from a York fairground family, has little experience against world-class foes despite holding the British and Commonwealth titles and being the WBC's No 1 contender.

However, many speculative judges thought that Wharton represented excellent value for an upset and that Benn was ready for the taking, his appetite for the game gone. Wharton encouraged them by entering the ring, if a little apprehensively, in a robe emblazoned with the legend 'The Champ'.

Benn had been expected to wage a more reserved campaign than normal because of Wharton's vaunted left hook, but it was Benn who took the initiative by trying to force Wharton back. The early moments were an inconclusive battle of wills as they came together like two stags warily locking horns.

Wharton tried to unleash his left in the second but Benn was covered up. Benn was the first to land telling blows as he speared Wharton with jabs and half caught him with a right-hand bomb. Wharton's cornermen remained calm but so, to Benn's advantage, did the Yorkshireman's 3,000-strong support as Benn continued the stalking. A blistering exchange ended the third as both men sought to unload the heavy artillery.

Wharton, known as an all- action slugger, did not seem to have the time to put his punches together in the face of an opponent with Benn's speed and ferocity. But Wharton landed a right hand to the top of Benn's head that sent him down without a count at the end of the fifth.

Benn did not seem hurt but Wharton continued to have success with right hands thrown over the top of Benn's jab as the bout entered the middle rounds. With neither prepared to give ground it became a question of stamina. Benn was already trying his old trick of luring opponents on to the ropes under the delusion that he was hurt. But Wharton had been well briefed and would not be drawn.

Benn had his first real success when he caught Wharton in the eighth with a left hook that sent the challenger's gumshield across the ring. Wharton took it well, but was also afforded the respite of having the mouthpiece cleaned by his corner while he gulped in air.

As in his re-match against Chris Eubank, though, Benn was not fighting with his old fury. With the championship rounds looming, there was little between them and both corners massaged their men anxiously as the tension rose.

Wharton finally caught Benn with the left hook in the 10th and smiled over Benn's shoulder at his manager, Mickey Duff. Duff responded by gesturing at the crowd to urge Wharton on. When Benn once again slipped to the canvas from a glancing right hand in the 11th, the fight was turning Wharton's way. But Benn, his jaw swelling, did not seem able to respond.

Michael Nunn, the World Boxing Association super-middleweight champion who was hoping to meet Benn in a unification bout, crashed to defeat against his fellow-American Steve Little, earlier on.

Little, who had not fought for 13 months and had a poor record of 21 victories from 36 fights, ruined Nunn's plans with his split-decision win. The 28- year-old from Philadelphia took the verdict by scores of 115-112, 116-114 and 113-115.