Regular readers will recall that we do like to feature British Boxers in our pages: past issues have contained interviews with Amir Khan and David Haye. So, when the opportunity to visit Conor Benn arose, we leapt at the chance.
We met Conor on the extensive terrace of Matchroom Sport’s country mansion headquarters, where we delivered his new private registration plates and took the opportunity to sit in the sunshine and chat with him and his father.
“I thought that, as I have a nice car, it would just be the cherry on the top,” Conor told us. “I just had to have a nice plate, so KO Benn (KO13 ENN) is it. I remembered my dad having C Benn on his old Porsche, so I thought I should see if I could find a good plate for myself. When I saw KO Benn I thought, Yeah, that needs to be bought! I am a fighter and I do it full time, so I think KO Benn is a necessity!”
Conor obviously sees himself as a boxer above all else. He is very focused on being a fighter and being a successful one.
“With a two-time world champion as a dad I was brought up in a fighting environment. I didn’t appreciate it when I was younger but now I’m older I understand that I was raised by a world champion so I was bound to be a fighter.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be any good at boxing. It wasn’t something that was planned but about a year ago something clicked and I just became really good all of a sudden, out of nowhere. So, here I am. It feels like it’s all happened in the blink of an eye. None of this was really planned. I was meant to stay amateur for three more years but now I’m fighting on massive bills.
“I’m still a baby in the sport but I’ve got loads, thousands of supporters who are backing me and who want to watch my journey and grow with me. So, I’m blessed.”
We find it hard to imagine how it must feel to take those first few steps into the ring as a professional boxer.
“Well, it’s not just getting into the ring. It’s getting in the ring in front of 20,000 people at a sell-out at the O2! That’s massive. My last fight was a year before that and I fought in front of maybe 200 people at most, and then I didn’t fight for a whole year. All of a sudden I’m having a pro debut on the biggest heavyweight boxing bill in British history, so it was like ‘whoa, man’. It’s all just blown up. It’s happened so fast. I’ve just got to embrace it and enjoy every moment.”
In most sports, inadequate training and preparation may result in defeat and a few pulled muscles. A boxer literally risks their life every time they step onto the canvas for a professional bout. Hard work is the only way to be ready.
“Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, I train in the afternoon, maybe one or two o’clock, so I get a nice lie-in. Then at night time I go for a run. On Tuesday and Thursday I’ve got the 6am sprint, then I train at 3 o’clock and relax after that. I live a very blessed life so when I am in the gym I make sure I train extra hard because I don’t want to lose this life. People say I’m too young to have all these nice things but I lived in Spain for 12 years overlooking the sea, so I’ve lived in luxury my whole life and I don’t want to lose my nice Mercs, my nice watch, my nice house. But what really motivates me is that I want to be number one. I want to be the most ferocious fighter on earth.
“The last few weeks of training are crucial: very painful, hard, energy-draining, dieting… All the horrible things. It’s hard work: suffering, getting up in the morning knackered, tired out, getting your head bashed in at sparring by people who shouldn’t be able to bash your head in, but you’re so knackered that you can’t do anything about it. At the end of the day though, I have to do it because I love getting in the ring. I love showing what I can do and I’m young and ambitious.”
Conor must consider questions about his father to be an inevitability in every interview he gives, but he responds to them willingly and with good grace. There is no reluctance to talk about Benn Sr, and Conor is obviously proud of his father’s career and achievements.
“My dad started at 22, whereas I’m still a baby, fighting grown men. I accept that” Conor laughs. “But my dad was savage. He was just an animal. Going from that to becoming a loving, caring dad is kind of unbelievable.
“To me, growing up in a villa in Spain without my parents going to work was just normal. I didn’t know my dad was famous. He was just my dad. But then I came to the UK and he’s an icon. I think it’s only sinking in now, all these years later, how much people still respect him and how much he’s still in the public eye and is still talked about. I don’t know many fighters who are remembered 20 years later and still get that recognition.”
After Spain, Conor spent some time in Australia, where his father now lives.
“I was amateur in Sydney for two and a half years. So I was there when my career started.” Conor muses for a moment. “Sydney, Spain… I’ve lived a very nice life.”
So why the move to cool, damp England?
“Why would I want to be anywhere else when I’ve got the British supporters here? There’s nowhere else I’d want to be. I love the British supporters: they’re loyal.”
That distance between the UK and Australia does have implications for any support Conor might receive from his father.
“He comes down here and there. He gives me advice on life. Sometimes with the father and son thing it can get a little bit ‘grrr’! At the end of the day though, he’s Nigel Benn and I see him as more than just my dad – he’s a legend. Sometimes I just have to bite my tongue. I know he’s right but the fact it’s coming from him makes me… Well, it’s the same as any father and son relationship. But I take his advice. He’s been there, seen it, done it and there’s nothing he hasn’t done in the world I’m about to go into.”
Conor’s father is on a tight schedule but he stops for a chat, so we ask him about that move to Australia.
“I’ve been there nearly four years. It’s been the best move of my whole life. I love Australia. I lived in Miami, I lived in LA, 12 years in Majorca, Barbados, Jamaica – you name it. Put them all together and it doesn’t add up to Australia. I love Australia. I’m staying there now. I wouldn’t want to move. I’m going to stay there for the rest of my life.”
The distance involved makes it impractical for Nigel to come to the UK for all of Conor’s fights.
“I only came back because I was working and it just happened to fall on the day of his fight. Otherwise, no, I won’t be back until October. Conor’s on the way up. He’s got a great career; he’s got great people around him.”
In recent years the sport has experienced something of a dynastic makeover. One generation of greats has retired, and their progeny are stepping into the ring to take their place. It is no surprise that a great deal of buzz and excitement accompanied the arrival of young fighters such as Conor and the slightly older Chris Eubank Jr. These two men – the sons of British boxing superstars – have their work cut out if they want to step out of their fathers’ shadows. When we visited Conor and his father, the elder Benn had no doubt that Conor would emerge as his own man.
“It’s just in him. He was always fit from when he was young. He’s excelled. I think he’s going to be better than me. For sure, 100 per cent. I predict that and I want that. As Kirk Franklin said, ‘One more thing, Lord: let my son be a better man than me’ [The quoted line is from Franklin’s song ‘Let It Go’]. I echo that and I think Conor can do it. He’s got the talent, he’s got the power, he’s got the strength, he’s got the determination and the will to win.”
From the interplay before us, it is clear that Nigel and Conor enjoy winding each other up. Nigel teases Conor repeatedly, while Conor bides his time before responding with unexpected one-liners that pop out as suddenly as punches. They have also traded blows in the more literal sense.
“I’ve sparred with him already,” says Nigel “and I’m trying to knock him out, I’m trying to spark him! You remember on Tom and Jerry with the birds flying round the head? I was looking to do that.”
“Yeah, that’s our father and son relationship!” Conor quips.
“To let him know that this is what boxing’s all about,” Nigel explains. “The first time I did it I chipped his tooth and busted up his nose when he was 15, and I said ‘Right, this is what it’s all about.’ Then when he became 18 I tried to do it but the tables were turning. He didn’t bust my nose but he did let me know, ‘Right, I’ve got you, Dad…’
“I caught him with a meaty left hook.” says Conor with some satisfaction. The comment sets off one of their tongue-in-cheek exchanges.
“I wasn’t going to talk about that. I was just going to slide past it.”
“Well, since you said you chipped my tooth…”
“Yeah, yeah. All right, all right. And he keeps on replaying that. [Nigel smacks a fist into his palm to illustrate the infamous left hook] … He’s like ‘Ooh, do you hear that? Do you hear that?’. I’m like, OK, you got me. But I wasn’t training; I hadn’t trained for 20 years. I’ve got to get that in there. He did let me know that I didn’t train for 20 years. So I went back down the gym and sorted myself out.
“But he’s going to excel. If he can take my punches – a guy 20 kilos heavier than him – and try to bang him out… And you know, I can punch a bit. I threw the kitchen sink at him and he threw the kitchen sink back with interest. So, I know he’s got it. But I’m not going to be here for all his fights. Me and my wife we work for the Hillsong Church in Australia: we do pastoral care, help out people who are suffering. That’s where my joy is. This, here, is Conor’s joy, so I’m happy to let him do what he has to do.
“He’s very mature… BUT – the big but – that’s very mature for 19. What happens – it’s just the way we are, father and son – we clash. That’s about it. All I want to do is keep his feet firmly on the ground. That’s it. Nothing else. I just believe that he can be a three-time world champion. I prophesy that he’s going to be better than me.
“And now [deadpan], it’s not just about him, I’ve got other kids as well: I’ve got Reene; I’ve got Sade; I’ve got Dominic… I’ve got other kids to see so, bye bye, son!”
When Nigel also mentions that he has grandchildren, we express surprise that he is a grandfather.
“Yeah,” Conor says quickly, “he’s an old man.” The comment earns a sigh from Nigel, to Conor’s satisfaction.
“Well, I’m nearly 53,” Nigel admits. “You know with grandkids it’s nice because when… waaaah! [Nigel mimes passing back a crying child], you hand them back. Bye bye. I’m gone! [Laughs]. But with this one here [indicates Conor sitting beside him], he’s a good boy. I do love him. We clash but we have a good, strong relationship. He knows I love him.”
How does Conor receive advice from his father?
“He can take my advice, put all of it in a sieve, shake out the goodness. What he doesn’t want he throws away.”
Conor breaks into a grin. “Which is the majority, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I was going to say, but keep it in there. That’s good, son. That’s good, don’t throw that away. Get it back in there. That’s it, shake it out, son!” They laugh. “Listen. I don’t want him to come back and say, ‘You were right, Dad,’ and I don’t want to go, ‘Hmm. Told you!’. We have a good relationship.
“And I’m happy with the team we’ve got around him, with Eddie Hearn and Tony Sims. I mean, wow, he’s got everything here. When I was fighting – I know I said I had to go, but I have to get my bit in [deadpan again] – I had to pay. I had to work hard.
“You laid the foundations,” says Conor in mock deference.
“Wha…? Did you hear that? Have you got that on camera? Tapping his cheek, Nigel turns to Conor “Can I have a kiss then?”
“You’re pushing it now,” says Conor.
Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger
Photography: Stan Thompson
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