Boxing: Benn's spirit is shattered

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The Independent Online
There was a night in February 1995 when Nigel Benn pushed himself so far beyond of what the rest of us would regard as the pain threshold. But he finished up in the next hospital bed to Gerald McClellan, the man with whom he had just shared the most savage 10 rounds I have ever seen. Benn recovered, but McClellan will spend the rest of his life in a twilight world where he thinks he is still preparing to defend his championship.

That is the real cost of boxing and it is not a price which Benn - once the most relentlessly combative boxer of his generation - is any longer prepared to pay. We should not blame him for that, but the 20,000 armchair warriors who packed the Nynex Arena in Manchester on Saturday were not disposed to consider past services when Benn decided, after six punishing rounds against Ireland's Steve Collins, that it was time to move self-preservation a notch higher on his list of priorities.

In a fighter of less heroic reputation, his decision to quit might have been applauded as a sensible recognition of the inevitable, but Benn had set his own impossibly high standards of courage in unforgettable battles with McClellan, Chris Eubank, Iran Barkley and the rest and the fans expected him to meet those standards regardless of the obvious deterioration in his skills and power.

When he failed to deliver yet another epic, their reaction was ugly and shaming. A man who has charged the cannons as often as Benn did not deserve to have his farewell speech drowned by a cacophony of boos, whistles and jeers from the kind of audience who have never faced anything more life- threatening than a chicken vindaloo after 10 pints of lager. It was too much for Collins, a likeable and sensitive man whose granite-hard ring persona belies his true nature. The Dubliner snatched the ring microphone from his rival and demanded they show Benn some respect.

Later, there was a backstage moment of silent eloquence when Eubank, who fought Benn for 22 violent rounds in two confrontations, put a hand on Benn's shoulder and looked into his eyes. No words were needed between men, who, regardless of the press-driven hype had forged mutual respect in a place which those who jeered Benn's exit from boxing could only experience in their dreams, or their nightmares.

Certainly, there is an argument that those who had paid for vastly expensive tickets were entitled to express their opinion on Benn's performance in the only way open to them, and sympathy for Benn must be tempered by the overheard words of his manager, Peter DeFreitas, at the end of the fifth round when he told the fighter "we're giving you one more round".

Benn, at that stage, had not taken an excessive amount of punishment. It was his spirit that was damaged, not his body, and the suggestion must be that the Benn team had decided before the event to pull him out as soon as it became apparent that he could make no impression on Collins.

Some might view that as a case of taking money under false pretences, since Benn was being well paid to box 12 rounds, not six. But I was reminded of Max Baer's response to the fans who, like their Manchester blood brothers on Saturday night, jeered him from the ring after a decidedly unheroic performance against Joe Louis.

"Sure I quit. He hit me 18 times while I was in the act of falling. Anybody who wants to watch Max Baer's public execution is going to have to pay a lot more than $25 for a ringside ticket."

The admission prices have rocketed, but the point was as valid in Manchester on Saturday night as it was in New York 61 years ago.