Conor Benn: ‘I understand Dad and I don’t blame him for his mistakes’ | Donald McRae

The tears come from a wound deep inside Conor Benn. His eyes swim with hurt and his mouth crumples while he tries to stifle his crying. I reach out to touch the 26-year-old-fighter’s arm in sympathy as his wife, Victoria, consoles him too. Benn meets Chris Eubank Jr in the ring on Saturday night at the O2, in the most heavily hyped British fight of the year, but this is very different. Benn has been pulled back into his childhood and raw emotion tumbles through him.

“I battle things every single day,” Benn says, trying to gather himself. He wipes his eyes and looks up with a tangled smile. “As we all do.”

His voice is thick with pain. “It upsets me because I remember how I felt. I would be petrified of going to bed when I was a kid because I was always scared of the devil coming and whether I’d go to heaven or hell.

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“I remember watching Tom & Jerry and I know it’s just a kids’ show – but there is a part where he died and the escalators went to heaven or down to hell. I had nightmares for a week. I used to wake up, screaming, thinking I was going to hell.

“I had this nightmare over and over again, of me standing on this all-white floor, while I saw this thing spiral towards me from far away. It got closer and closer and I saw it was a snowball with horns and there was nowhere to run. It was terrifying.”

Benn is unbeaten after 21 bouts and he meets Eubank Jr in a lucrative fight that will return boxing briefly to mainstream sport. On Sunday it will be 29 years to the day since their fathers, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank Sr, filled Old Trafford for a bitter rematch. That contest ended in a draw, after Eubank Sr had won their brutal first battle in 1990.

The contrasting characters of Eubank Sr and Benn Sr fuelled a festering rivalry that spills over into the animosity between their sons.

Eubank Jr v Benn has been dismissed by some as a novelty fight, manufactured out of nostalgia for a glorious era in British boxing and a base desire to see two families go to war again.

There is some credence to this view for Eubank Jr has campaigned at middleweight and super-middleweight – four divisions heavier than the super-lightweight class in which Benn made his debut in 2016. Benn has since established himself as a rising force at welterweight but he will fight Eubank Jr at a catchweight 157 pounds – 10 pounds heavier than any of his previous bouts.

Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank Sr doing battle in 1990.
Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank Sr doing battle in 1990. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

There is danger for Eubank Jr too because he has often struggled to make the middleweight mark of 160 pounds. His father is sufficiently concerned to have tried to stop the fight after saying that having lost his younger son Sebastian to a heart attack in July 2021 he did not want another death in his family. Eubank Jr insists the fight will proceed and he and Benn are capable of causing terrible damage.

There will be no novelty or manufactured drama in the presence of the ambulances, paramedics and doctors primed to rescue both boxers from potentially life-threatening injury.

Benn describes the contest as “a 50-50 fight” and he has been thrust into promoting a pay-per-view contest on DAZN, which has heightened his intense emotions.

We began this interview at the end of his long day of media engagements – after a stream of brief television and social media interviews. Benn had two assignments left when we sat down together – a long interview with me and an appearance on a pre-recorded Match of the Day broadcast. The latter is a sign of how this fight resonates.

He sighs and says he is sick of the same old questions over and over again. Yet it is still a surprise when, 40 minutes later, we reach the moment where Benn cracks open. Questions about home and loneliness, his family and religion, unblock the dam and Benn is suddenly swept away by a deluge of emotion.

It has its roots in boxing and how his father, especially after his bouts with Eubank Sr, was swamped by outrageous wealth and fame. Benn Sr fell into the chaos of drugs and affairs that almost ended his marriage to Conor’s mum, Caroline.

The couple left England to live in Spain, as a way for Benn Sr to escape his past, and they became evangelical Christians. They were so besotted with their conversion that Conor was sent to a fundamentalist Christian school that ruined much of his adolescence.

“It was a private, privileged school,” Benn says before describing an outlandish establishment that declared he was a child of the devil. “It was so difficult and so mad it troubled me for a long time. My dad needed that kind of harshness because he had so many problems. But I was just a kid. It moulded me into how I am now, some things I hate about myself …”

Benn’s voice trails away. What does he hate about himself? “Just the way I think – which is changing daily. Sometimes, my thoughts are troubled. Honestly, I forgive my parents now. In the same breath I had the most privileged, luxury life. People go: ‘You’re contradicting yourself.’ But, mentally, it was really challenging.”

Conor Benn
Benn still struggles with elements of his upbringing. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

His mum, in particular, accepts that the decision to force him into the fire-and-brimstone of fundamentalist Christianity was a mistake. “Every time it’s spoken about she sobs her eyes out, doesn’t she?” he says to Victoria who nods in confirmation and says: “She was going through a really hard time with your dad.”

It still sounds as if he was exposed to a cult? “Exactly,” Benn replies. “How can your son need deliverance from the devil? It was traumatic. I was told the world was coming to an end. We was repenting on our hands and knees, asking God to forgive our sins.

“At Christmas Santa Claus was blasphemy, an offence to Jesus. I was like: ‘Mate, I’m a kid.’ But I’m worrying about the world ending, and the antichrist coming. I used to go to bed and be petrified of my nightmares. How is that normal?

“It has taken me so many years to get over being stuck in that way. I used to sing in the church choir and play the guitar. I had no tattoos, I looked like a normal kid and I was trying to be a good kid. But I was hurting bad. And then my dad confessed to my mum that his affairs had not stopped when they moved to Mallorca. He went to live with the pastors for a year. And then my mum took him back and I was so angry.”

The family moved to Australia and Conor, as a teenager, harboured resentment towards his father – for forcing him to go to such a terrible Christian school while not repenting of his own sins. He fell into trouble and was arrested by the Sydney police who took him home to his dad on a night that changed their lives for ever. “How do you know all this?” Benn asks. “I don’t ever remember speaking about this.”

I have also interviewed his dad and so Benn smiles. “OK. I was in a lot of trouble at 18 and expected my dad to think of all them years of hatred I had towards him. But that night he hugged me and said: ‘Son, I love you. We can get through this.’ Instantly, our relationship changed.”

Now, Benn says, “Life is about being the best man I can be. It doesn’t matter about my achievements. It matters about me being a good dad [to his one-year-old son Eli]. My family want me to be a better man, rather than me becoming the best fighter in the world but still corrupt and disturbed. My dad was my hero, not because of what he achieved in sport but because of the man he was [when Conor idolised him].

“He is that man again now because, as I’ve got older, I understand Dad and I don’t blame him for his mistakes. He battled his own demons so I admire and love him more than ever. Him being ‘Nigel Benn, the Dark Destroyer’ never mattered to me. I just needed my dad to be a good dad and he is now. I could be doing my old job, painter and decorator, work in retail, do scaffolding, and my dad would still be proud of me. He cares more about my real life than my boxing. So this will just be another fight for him – and me.”

Eubank Sr and Jr seem to have a more complicated relationship? “It appears so. It appears that they’re not united. They’re dysfunctional.”

Chris Eubank Jr and Conor Benn go head to head after the press conference in August 2022.
Eubank Jr and Benn face off after their August 2022 press conference. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images/Reuters

Eubank Jr, to Benn, “is a big walking contradiction. Every time he opens his mouth he either says ‘This is the biggest fight of my career and I’m going to retire if I lose’ or he talks about eating burgers and cake. It looks a bit silly, doesn’t it? And unprofessional. Maybe he’s just covering his arse.”

Benn stresses “it’s definitely 50-50 because of his weight advantage. If it was a level playing field in terms of him being my weight, I’d be heavily favoured. But we’re doing something I’ve never done before so there’s that uncertainty. I still think I can knock him out but it would be silly for me to say the weight ain’t a factor. It presents different challenges.”

Benn sounds composed again and I ask if our probing of his past is distressing so close to the fight? “No, because it made me who I am and I overcame it. I dealt with it. Before there were times when I could spiral down into dark places but I’ve found my safety net which is my son and my family.”

Did it help to have counselling? “Definitely. Before then there were stages when I didn’t know if I was going to tip over the edge. But my whole life’s been a bit mad when you think about it.”

That madness will carry a fresh edge in front of a fevered crowd when he walks to the ring to face Eubank Jr. “You get butterflies in your belly,” Benn says, “but the only difference between good fighters and great fighters is the ability to perform under pressure. And to me he’s just another man that I’ve got to beat up.

“People keep talking about the magnitude of this fight but you either fold or you rise to it. I’ve risen to him. I know it’s all eyes on me but I feel like it’s always been that way.”

The tears are long gone and Benn smiles when I say that at least we avoided too many predictable questions. “Yeah, it was good and I’ve just Match of The Day now.”

When I tell him, with a straight face, that I’ll be interviewing him for the BBC too, a sudden look of alarm crosses his face. He then breaks into a laugh when he realises I am joking. “We will do another interview, mate,” Benn says. “Just don’t make me cry next time.”

source: theguardian.com