“To be a man, you don’t have to be the baddest… why can’t you just be the kindest?”
Ask Conor Benn what he thinks about bad-boy boxers – the ones who brag about bling and women and gangs – and be ready for an onslaught.
“People who try to play hard and act like they’re bad boys and rudeboys? That’s all dead,” he says. Then, flipping into a gruff gangster-type accent: “‘Oh, I come from the hood and I come from nothing, then I was in gangs.’ I don’t really care because when you get in the ring [with me] I’m a ferocious little animal and I’ll have it with you all day long. I don’t care about your background. You think I care that you know gangs? I. Could. Not. Care. Less.”
It is a barrage of word-punches worthy of his nickname ‘The Destroyer’. But then he pulls back. The snarl softens into a purr. “To be a man, you don’t have to be the biggest, the baddest, with the most expensive Rolex and XYZ number of women. Why can’t you just be the kindest? The nicest? You want to be the biggest, the baddest – for what? For absolutely what?”
Conor Benn, if you haven’t heard, is the son of legendary middleweight Nigel, one of the fiercest British prizefighters ever to have danced on canvas. Truculent, primal even, the former soldier has been said to take “sadistic pleasure” from his “tear-ups”. Chris Eubank – whose bitter rivalry with Benn Sr came to define the Nineties “golden age” of British boxing – once described ‘The Dark Destroyer’ Nigel as “savage… He was strong enough to kill me and I think he desired to.”
And the bout in which Nigel left American Gerald McClellan blind and brain-damaged has gone down as one of the sport’s most brutal tragedies. “My dad was driven by something else,” says Conor. “He was driven by spite, sheer anger.”
Judge Conor by his record and you might fairly assume he has lost none of his father’s savagery: the 21-year-old has won all of his first 12 professional fights, nine by knockout – a tally he’ll be looking to add to when he takes on Cedrick Peynaud on 28 July. Then there’s the “like father like son” tattoo on his neck (Nigel has a matching one on his bicep). And yet the more that Conor talks, the more he highlights the differences between the two men.
“We come from completely different backgrounds,” he says, referring to his father’s rough-and-tumble, working-class upbringing. “But look, you ain’t got to come from nothing [to be a successful boxer]. You can come from the most luxurious, blessed, God-given life and still be a rudeboy in the ring.”
By now the “ferocious little animal [who’ll] have you all day long” appears to have handed the phone to a rather likable, self-reflective and sensitive young man who calls you “mate” in a nice way, quotes the Bible and never swears. Even their voices have a slightly different tone. “I’d say I’m a Godly man who makes wise decisions and thinks about the consequences before he makes choices,” he says. “I like to think I’ve got a wise head on young shoulders. I want to be a good role model to young men who ain’t got one.”
Here’s a question, then: how does one balance being The Destroyer in the ring with being a nice-guy role model outside it? How can you be a brutal boxer, punching faces for a living, and not let that aggression spill over into everyday life? Must loving and fighting always be mutually exclusive, or can you batter bodies and save souls at the same time?
Conor didn’t grow up like his dad. Nigel found his fighting spirit on the streets of Eighties Ilford, Essex, often with National Front racist skinheads outside the local town hall. Conor found his in his dad’s private boxing gym in the family’s six-bedroom seafront mansion in Mallorca. He freely admits to a #blessed life of opulence and opportunity. Yet his commitment to fisticuffs is no less visceral. “I don’t have to fight,” he says. “I could go home and live with my dad in his mansion, with its en suites, home theatre, swimming pool… I ain’t got to do this. I choose to fight because it’s a fire burning within me. And that’s scary [for opponents].”
He obviously worships his dad. But the Nigel Benn who brought him up wasn’t the same Nigel Benn who fought like he wished to kill Eubank in the Nineties, or the one who all but did kill McClellan, or the self-confessed womanising party animal he became. No, the Nigel that Conor knows found religion after battling addiction and mental-health issues. Conor describes him as a “loving father” who imbued him with an unbending moral code.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without [my Christian] foundation. Even if you’re not a believer, religion instils morals that used to exist but the world now tends to forget.” Such as? “Kindness, goodness, patience, self-control, respecting your elders and thinking about the future, which many people don’t seem to do. Things like that, which are quite basic, really, but are forsaken.”
Conor knows exactly how readily these values can slip, as they did for him six years ago. “I was hanging around with wrong ’uns in Spain,” he says. “My dad told me to stay away from them, but I didn’t listen. I wanted to be a man. I wanted to be the biggest, the baddest. And I thought I had to prove myself. But everything he said was proven true.”
He won’t say exactly what happened other than, “A lot of things went wrong in a short period of time” and he ended up in court. “I was scared,” he says. “When I went through my court case, my friends weren’t there. I sat down in my solicitor’s office and thought, ‘How did I get here? What am I doing with my life?’”
It was the push he needed. The family decided to move to Australia to escape corrupting influences. And for the next four years, boxing became Conor’s best friend. The pro circuit beckoned, but to follow it he knew he had to return to boxing’s heartland. And so, in 2016, he did, alone, and now lives in Brentwood, Essex, with his fiancée Victoria and two dogs. “Now when I finish training I don’t go out with mates,” he says. “I come home to my lovely fiancée, have a little cuddle, have a little cuddle with my dogs, stick on a movie and shut off.”
Conor Benn wants you to know he is far from the blood-lusting bruiser his profession, his past and his cornucopia of tattoos might have you believe. Actually, he seems quite sweet and sensible. In many ways, he represents a new breed of sportsmen, á la Anthony Joshua and The Rock: organised, forward-thinking, woke-talking and secure.
Does he think masculinity has lost its way? “Definitely,” he asserts. “Because young men believe everything they see on Instagram, Facebook: gangs, who can pull the most birds, who’s got the most expensive watch. Don’t watch that, don’t follow the crowd. It’s fake, it’s an illusion, it’ll all come to an end. Build something that’s stable. It’s how you end the race, man.”
And he’s leaving the field – the one of his past, at least – for dust. “So many people, my best friends who used to be The Man back in the day, haven’t got a pot to piss in now. That’s what all those people will become. They want to have a £30k Rolex, but they’re £20k in debt to the bank. Well, fine, you do that. I’m debt free. I don’t even wear a watch anymore.”
Conor’s vision of masculinity has changed drastically to that of his youth. “My definition of masculinity is being a man of influence, a man who walks in the room and [people] go, ‘You’ve achieved a lot.’ And not because of the Rolex on your wrist or the designer brands on your back. You could walk into a room with a Primark T-shirt on and still have presence. That’s masculinity at its finest. I may look like I’m in a Mexican cartel with my skinhead, covered in tattoos, but I’m still a loving and caring man.”
Even in the ring? “Well, no,” he laughs. “If you want to get in the ring with me, I’ll take you out. Not because I want to hurt you, but because that is my job. It’s in my blood. I’m a fighter at heart.”
Conor is the face of Reebok’s combat and training range; reebok.co.uk