This tears come from a deep wound inside Conor Benn. His eyes water with pain and his mouth twitches as he tries to stifle a cry. I reach out to the 26-year-old fighter for sympathy as his wife, Victoria, consoles him. Benn faced Chris Eubank Jr. in the ring Saturday night at O2, The most hyped British fight of the year, but this is very different. Benn is taken back to his childhood and raw emotions run through him.
“I fight things every day,” Benn says, trying to collect himself. He wipes his eyes and looks up with a confused smile. “As we all do.”
His voice is thick with pain. “It makes me sad because I remember how I felt. I was afraid to go to bed as a child because I was always afraid that the devil would come and I would go to heaven or hell.
“I remember watching Tom & Jerry and I know it’s just a kids show – but there’s a part where they die and the escalators go to heaven or hell. I had nightmares for a week. I’d wake up, scream, I thought I was going to hell.
“I had this nightmare over and over again, where I was standing on this all white floor when I saw this thing coming towards me in the distance. It got closer and closer and I saw it was a squiggly snowball. and there was nowhere to run. It was terrifying.”
Benn is undefeated after 21 fights and he faces Eubank Jr in a successful fight that will briefly return boxing to the mainstream. On Sunday it will be 29 years since their fathers, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank Sr, filled Old Trafford. a bitter rematch. After Eubank Sr. won his first grudge fight in 1990, that streak ended in the money.
The contrasting characters of Eubank Sr and Benn Sr develop a fierce rivalry that culminates in animosity between their sons.
Eubank Jr v Benn has been dismissed by some as a novelty fight, born out of nostalgia for a glorious era in British boxing and an underlying desire for two families to go to war again.
There is some credence to this view as Eubank Jr has campaigned at welterweight and welterweight – four divisions heavier than the super-lightweight class that Benn entered in 2016. Benn has since established himself as a rising power in the heavyweight division, but he will fight Eubank Jr. at 157 pounds – 10 pounds heavier than any of his previous fights.
There is also a risk for Eubank Jr. as he has often struggled to make the 160-pound middleweight mark. His father is concerned enough to try to stop the fight after saying that after losing his youngest son Sebastian to a heart attack in July 2021, he didn’t want another death in his family. Eubank Jr. insists that the fight will continue and that he and Benn could cause terrible damage.
There will be no innovation or artificial drama in the presence of ambulances, paramedics and doctors ready to save both boxers from potentially life-threatening injury.
Benn describes the competition as “a 50-50 fight” and has been hired to promote a pay-per-view competition on DAZN, which has fueled his strong feelings.
We started this interview at the end of his long day of media involvement – after a short flurry of television and social media interviews. Benn had two assignments left when we sat down – a long interview with me and an appearance on a pre-recorded episode of Match of the Day. The last one is an indication of how this war will turn out.
He sighs and says he’s sick of the same old questions over and over. Yet it’s still a surprise when, 40 minutes later, we get to the moment Benn breaks open. Questions about home and loneliness, his family and religion, open the floodgates and Benn is suddenly overwhelmed by a flood of emotions.
Its roots lie in boxing and how his father, especially after his feud with Eubank Sr, was surrounded by outrageous wealth and fame. Benn Sr fell into a chaos of drugs and affairs that almost ended his marriage to Conor’s mother, 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 upset with their conversion that Conor was sent to a fundamentalist Christian school that ruined much of his youth.
“It was a private, privileged school,” Benn says before explaining a strange facility that declared him a child of the devil. “It was so hard and so crazy that I was upset for a long time. My dad needed that kind of strictness because he had a lot of problems. But I was just a kid. It made me who I am now, some things i hate about myself…”
Benn’s voice drifts away. What does he hate about himself? “It’s just the way I think – that changes every day. Sometimes, my thoughts get sad. Actually, I forgive my parents now. In the same breath I had the most privileged, luxurious life. People say: ‘You you do the opposite.’ But mentally it was really hard.”
His mother, in particular, admits that the decision to force him into fire-and-stone fundamentalism was a mistake. “They cry their eyes out every time it’s talked about, don’t they?” she tells Victoria, who nods in agreement, “She had a very difficult time with your father.”
Still feel like he’s encountered a cult? “Exactly,” Benn replies. “How can your son be saved from the devil?” It was traumatic. I was told that the world is coming to an end. We repented on our hands and knees, asking God to forgive our sins.
“In Christmas, Santa Claus was blasphemy, it was a crime against Jesus. I said: ‘Friend, I am a child.’ But I fear that the world will end, and the antichrist will come. I would go to bed and wake up from my nightmares. How is it normal?
“It’s been years since I stopped like that. I sang in the church choir and played the guitar. I had no scars, I looked like a normal kid and I was trying to be a good kid. But I was bad. Then my father confessed to my mother that when they moved to Mallorca, his jobs didn’t stop. He went to live with pastors for a year. And then my mother took him back and I was very angry.”
The family moved to Australia and Conor, as a teenager, incurred the wrath of his father – for forcing him to attend such a bad Christian school when he had not repented of his sins. He got into trouble and was arrested by Sydney police, who took him to his father’s house on a night that changed their lives forever. “How do you know all this?” Benn asks. “I don’t ever remember talking about it.”
I also interviewed his father and that makes Benn smile. “OK. I was in a lot of trouble when I was 18 and I was hoping my dad would think about the years of hatred I had for him. But that night he hugged me and said, ‘Son, I love you. I love it. We can get through this.’ Immediately our relationship changed.”
Now, Benn says, “Life is about being the best person I can be. My achievements don’t matter. What matters is that I’m a good father. [to his one-year-old son Eli]. My family wants me to be a better man, not the best fighter in the world, but still corrupt and confused. My father was my hero, not because of what he accomplished in sports, but because of the man he was. [when Conor idolised him].
“He’s that man again now because, as I’ve grown up, I understand dad and I don’t blame him for his mistakes. He fought his demons so I love and adore him more than ever. That ‘Nigel Benn, Destroyer of Darkness’ never mattered to me. I just needed my dad to be a good dad and he is now. I can do my old job as a painter and decorator, work in stores, do scaffolding, and my dad will still be proud of me. It’s more about my real life than my boxing. So this will be just another fight for him – and me.
Eubank Sr and Jr seem to have a more complicated relationship? “It looks like it. They don’t seem to be the same. They’re dysfunctional.”
Eubank Jr., to Benn, “is a huge walking controversy. Every time he opens his mouth he’s either saying ‘This is the biggest fight of my career and if I lose I’m going to retire’ or talking about eating burgers and pie. He Seems a bit silly, doesn’t it? And unprofessional. Maybe he’s just hiding his ass.”
Benn insists that “it’s definitely 50-50 because of his weight advantage. If he was my weight in terms of playing, I’d be very happy. But we’re doing something I’ve never done before so it “There is uncertainty. I still think I can beat him but it would be foolish of me to say weight is not a factor. It presents different problems.”
Benn chimes in again and I wonder if our exploration of his past is so close to war? “No, because I pretended to be me and I got through it. I dealt with it. I used to be able to go to dark places sometimes but I found my safety net which is my son and my family.”
Did he help with counseling? “Sure. There were stages before that where I didn’t know I was going to get through. But when you think about it, my whole life has been a little crazy.”
As he headed to the ring to face Eubank Jr. “You get butterflies in your stomach,” says Benn, “but the difference between good fighters and great fighters is the only difference between good fighters and great fighters. And for me he’s just another guy that I have to beat.
“People always talk about the greatness of this war, but you either fall or you rise.” I got up 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 many of the predictable questions. “Yeah, that was good and I just have Match of The Day now.”
When I tell him with a straight face that I will also interview him for the BBC, he suddenly gets a look of alarm. Then he laughs when he realizes I’m joking. “We’re going to have another interview, guys,” Benn says. “Just don’t make me cry again.”