Fighting the demons

profile; Bob Mee traces the career of a boxer who feeds on fear despite the scars inflicted by fate
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LIFE'S tragedies have left their scars on Nigel Benn. We may discover to what extent on Saturday night when the World Boxing Council super- middleweight champion steps into the ring at the London Arena in Docklands to meet Vincenzo Nardiello, of Italy.

It is five months since Benn's last fight wrecked the life of his American opponent Gerald McClellan, and reminded the millions that witnessed it - from the ringside and live on television - of boxing's grimmest extremities. Boxing's protagonists put themselves on the line with a finality that makes the efforts of those who commit themselves to other sports seem flimsy and inconsequential. Or as the maverick Texan heavyweight of the 1980s, Tex Cobb, put it: "If you screw up in tennis, it's 15-love. If you screw up in boxing, it's your ass."

The cost for McClellan, still in hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been horribly obvious. The cost for Benn is more difficult to assess, but it is reasonable to assume that he too has been imprisoned psychologically and possibly physically by the experience. Those few who have maimed or killed an opponent with their fists share a spiritual nightmare that can probably never really be fully expressed, however successfully they claim to have dealt with it.

Now, with the images of that winter Saturday still fresh in his memory, Benn returns, not simply to the workplace he has chosen for these years of his youth, but to the very arena, and probably to the same ring, where he and McClellan fought on 25 February.

That is to some extent coincidence - he would have fought on the undercard at Wembley Stadium had Frank Bruno's planned WBC heavyweight title fight with Oliver McCall not been postponed until September. Nevertheless, this fight is about calming the demons of his soul, about getting on with a life that has been torn apart, not only by what happened to McClellan, but by the break-up of his marriage.

Ten days ago at his Tenerife training headquarters, he gave a long press conference that was a virtual monologue. He admitted that for the moment he cannot stop fighting, even though he is sticking to his plan to retire by the end of the year. He talked of being hurt in love as well as in the ring.

"I ain't shot . . . I'm punching much harder than ever . . . the buzz is still there . . . I came in fighting, I'll go out fighting . . . I'll know when to stop."

A few months ago, Benn was at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where he was holidaying with his son, daughter and girlfriend, and then the story was different.

"I'll only be able to get myself up for a fight again if somebody can put the fear into me," he said. "But I never, ever again want to be hit as hard as McClellan hit me, for the rest of my life."

He recalled how he had wanted to visit McClellan as he lay in the Royal London hospital in Whitechapel, but the knowledge that McClellan's parents were grieving at the bedside kept him away. Another of the American's relatives invited him to go when the parents were not there, but he declined. "I have a son too, and I thought how I would feel, and I just couldn't go behind their backs," he said.

After the fight, Benn and McClellan were taken to the same hospital in separate ambulances and placed in cubicles near to each other. McClellan was conscious, sustained by the oxygen that he was given in the ring. They had a brief, private moment of communication and were then taken on their separate journeys.

Benn was discharged the same night to cope with the enormity of what had happened. He took baths to relieve his pain. The next day he wanted a Sunday roast, but could not even take soup. Nevertheless, the lumps and bumps that are the hazards of any hard fight healed, the exhaustion ebbed, the normal routine of life returned.

Meanwhile, a huge blood clot was removed from McClellan's brain, he spent weeks in intensive care at Whitechapel before being transferred by air ambulance to the United States. The recovery is slow and will be severely limited.

Boxers are not fools. They know the risks they take. But when, on the rare occasion a tragedy happens, they must find a way of handling the unavoidable fact that their punches have damaged forever not just a fellow human being, but one of their own, one of the relatively few men who can understand the ferocity and intimacy of their dreams, ambitions and life- enhancing desires.

The tragedy and its implications for boxing should not be avoided, yet nor should Benn's victory be undervalued. He feels strongly that by beating McClellan he proved himself the greatest world champion Britain has ever produced.

Benn is from Ilford, in Essex, one of seven sons born to Loretta Benn and her husband, Dixon, who worked for Ford at its Dagenham car plant. After four years in the British Army, Benn won the 1986 ABA middleweight title and turned professional. He was trained by Burt McCarthy and managed by Frank Warren. Within 15 months, following a string of explosive wins, he was the Commonwealth champion.

He then switched allegiances to Ambrose Mendy, who then operated outside the British Boxing Board of Control jurisdiction and preached an unrelenting gospel of "style before substance". They were together for three frenetic years before Mendy was jailed for conspiracy to defraud.

By then Benn had lost the Commonwealth title to Michael Watson. He went to America and rebuilt his career in the care of the promoter Bob Arum, and won and lost the World Boxing Organisation middleweight title. (Eubank relieved him of that in an epic struggle at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham in November 1990.)

Defeat brought a return to Britain. He signed with Barry Hearn, moved into the 12-stone super-middleweight division and won the WBC title by defeating the Italian Mauro Galvano in October 1992.

The McClellan defence was his seventh, by which time he had rejoined Warren. He walked away from Hearn after a bitterly disputed 12-round draw against Eubank at Old Trafford in 1993. He was disappointing in his fight immediately previous to that with McClellan, a low-key points win over the Paraguayan Juan Carlos Giminez, and rumours persisted that he preferred working as a disc jockey in London clubs to fighting. His marriage also broke up.

He jettisoned his much-admired trainer, Jimmy Tibbs, and replaced him with the less costly Kevin Sanders. Finally, in the week of the McClellan fight he appeared in court to answer breach of contract claims by his former trainer Brian Lynch.

Logic suggested that he was ready for a big-money final farewell, a way out of boxing. He was already 31, had been boxing professionally for more than 10 years. But logic has little to do with what makes a man fight back after being knocked out of the ring in the first round by as dangerous a man as McClellan. In doing so, Benn became once again the Dark Destroyer of his youth, the Ilford kid who loved a tear-up, the man who survived four years and 256 days in the Royal Fusiliers. In adversity, Benn matured.

That legacy which Benn will take into the ring with him on Saturday is unlikely to be severely tested. Despite twice holding the European title, Nardiello has been stopped three times - once by Ireland's Ray Close in 10 rounds.

After that, it will be a case of who can be tempted into a fight with Benn before his targeted retirement date of the end of the year. One last fling probably still appeals to him - just as it did before he took the fight with McClellan.

The only man he says could instill the necessary fear is Roy Jones, the brilliant American who holds the International Boxing Federation version of the super-middleweight title. But at 31, Benn will soon have to let the business that has demanded so much of him, and has dealt him so many physical and emotional scars, drift into the background before it harms him in a more profound and disturbing manner.

It will not be easy, but the demons will demand it.

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