Nigel Benn’s place in middleweight history

By Matt Ford - 05/10/2023 - No comments

Writing about Nigel Benn’s place in middleweight history is one of the most difficult tasks I have taken in some time. I remember following the career of “The Dark Destroyer” during the mid to late 80’s with great appreciation. He was without a doubt one of the most exciting fighters to watch during this time period. One of the hardest punchers to ever grace the 160–168lb divisions. He always had courage to spare and the ability to end a fight at any moment with one punch. Benn also had well-rounded skills and could box if he needed to. However, like most devastating hitters, he more often than not depended on his power whenever confronted with adversity. He always came in to his fights with excellent conditioning.

To begin his career, Benn ran a string of 22 consecutive victories by knock out. Nigel suffered his first defeat when he faced Michael Watson, a smooth boxer with very effective defensive maneuvers that frustrated the Brit. After the subsequent loss to Watson, Nigel moved his headquarters to the United States in search of bigger fights and larger paydays. He made his American debut by defeating Jorge Amparo, Jose Quinones & the durable Sanderline Williams to earn a shot at WBO Middleweight champion Doug DeWitt. They fought a seesaw battle which saw both men hit the canvas early, Benn in the 2nd and DeWitt in the 3rd, until finally Benn knocking DeWitt down 3 times in the 8th round to end the fight.

Nigel had taken full advantage of his opportunity, He wouldn’t sit pretty with easy defenses, Benn decided to take on the intimidating Iran Barkley. A man that had knocked out Thomas Hearn’s in 2 rounds and fought many of the best. Benn destroyed Barkley in a give and take brawl that lasted less than a round. It was impressive, by any standard.

Then, Benn fought Chris Eubanks, the enigmatic fellow islander with an awkward style and flamboyant personality. There was no love loss when these two pugilists decided to square off with one another. They were bitter rivals and in many ways each other’s nemesis. The two men exchanged heated leather on each other at such a frightening pace that there was a genuine concern for the health of both fighters during the match. Finally the referee stopped the bout in the 9th round, with Benn the loser in this one.

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Nigel continued fighting until he fought the most memorable and simultaneously most forgettable fight on one tragic night in London Arena, England on February 25th, 1995. His opponent that night was one Gerald McClellan, a fighter, who at that time was considered to be an even more formidable puncher than Benn. Gerald had twice destroyed fellow power puncher Julian “The Hawk” Jackson and had annihilated John “The Beast” Mugabi inside of one round. Most insiders favored the younger and less battle worn McClellan in the bout. I was one of them. How wrong I turned out to be. The events that would follow would echo in my memory for as long as I could take it, until eventually, like most witnesses to the tragedy that unfolded, I tucked it nicely away in a place where I keep it as far away from my conscience as possible.

McClellan began the bout by beating Benn right out of the ropes in the first round. Most reasonable people would have assumed the fight would end much like the Mugabi destruction, but Benn was a warrior. He gallantly arose and battled on. He was tagged and in serious trouble on several other occasions during the ensuing rounds and was downed once again in the 8th. Still, he hung in there. Then, out of nowhere, The Dark Destroyer launched what might be the most awesome comeback of our time. He turned the fight around in his favor and began returning thunderous fire. He some how managed to stop McClellan – who possessed a sturdy chin himself – in the 10th round.

This should have been the pinnacle of Benn’s career. It should have opened up a multi million-dollar rematch or a super fight with Roy Jones Jr. Unfortunately, storybook endings also come in horror stories and what came next was more a tragedy than a triumph of the spirit. McClellan never fully recovered from the beating. He never will. It altered his life forever, but it can be equally argued that it changed Benn’s just as much. The man that had been such an effective puncher with a heart of a lion effectively folded. His final 5 bouts following the McClellan tragedy ended with a record of 2-3 (2) with Benn being KO’d on 2 of those occasions. One could easily summarize that Nigel Benn battered two men in to retirement on that fateful night, McClellan, and sadly also himself. We’ll never know what might have been.

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In the aftermath of the bout, Benn even seemed dangerous enough to remind the great Roy Jones Jr. why it would be a good idea to avoid him. Roy was notoriously a good friend of Gerald’s and after the tragedy; Roy began changing his style to a less risky, defense first manner. He would constantly site the nightmare of February 25th, 1995 as his reason for not going head first for knockouts and why he wanted to make his money and get out of the business with his health.

Historically, the unfortunate cause and effect has been that Nigel Benn is mostly forgotten by boxing fans and enthusiasts. It’s not that Benn was a bad person or that he was ever boring. It’s because we cannot help but attribute his name with McClellan. It’s nearly impossible to think of him without remembering the tragedy. It has most likely marred his place in history and that simply is not fair. In my assessment, based on his accomplishments and style, I figure Benn for a top 30 Middleweight of all time. I would put a side note along with that mentioning that, for not the unfortunate happenings that night, he most likely would have soared higher.