Senior Boxing Journalist @JamesDielhenn
Conor Benn opens up on how he was changed by his dad's attempted comeback
Last Updated: 15/05/20 3:28pm
Conor Benn looks deep within himself, and draws a huge breath when he remembers a feeling he has failed to forget, something uncomfortable that was forced upon him last year.
"This sport does something to you. It changes you."
Conor is remembering the moment that his worst fear briefly flickered into life in late-2019 and his father, the legendary Nigel Benn, announced he would fight aged 55 for the first time in 23 years.
Young Conor had never known his father as a fighter. He had followed into his father's career and hardened himself to the realities of the ring but felt vulnerable and at risk at the thought of dad doing something that his ageing body was no longer capable of.
Nigel, to Conor's relief, withdrew injured from a fight with Sakio Bika who was 15 years younger and had fought as recently as 2017. That chapter should be permanently closed now but Conor still wears the anxiety and emotion all over his face.
"Who wants to see their dad get punched? Not me, mate. By Sakio Bika? No," he told Sky Sports.
"I thought: 'Dad, you're off your nut'."
It is something that the loved ones of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and any other 50-something boxer teasing a comeback must be feeling right now.
The very real intention of Conor's father Nigel, a former world champion immortalised for his rivalry with Chris Eubank, has scarred Conor in a way that he never saw coming.
"I know when to retire," Conor said sharply. "I know to listen to people."
The Conor Benn of 2020, aged 23, was never the man that he should have evolved into. He is fearsome to make eye contact with, there is an intensity about his body language and his exterior has been crafted carefully to send a message.
A bird of prey stares back at you as it sprawls across his throat. 'No fear' is also tattooed in plain sight. He is dripping in gold chains. When his shirt is off, 'Destroyer' is tattooed across his back and 'Fear God' on his midriff. He stands in a tracksuit clenching his fists like he means business at all times.
"I have turned into…
What is scary and fascinating about Conor Benn is that, although his stare, his slang and his style would perfectly fit a gritty movie about a rags to richer boxer, he actually had a privileged upbringing in Australia with no hardship and no intention of finding trouble.
"I don't need to do it," he says about boxing. "I just… enjoy fighting. I love fighting."
His father emigrated down under when his career ended, ready to retire in the sun and use his winnings to raise a family in blissful surroundings. Conor was the beneficiary, a million miles away from where his father was known as 'the Dark Destroyer', and with absolutely no interest in those days.
"Nigel wasn't Nigel, he was just dad. He's just dad in Australia. If I was raised [in England] I would have seen things through a different lens.
"He was just dad, man.
"A guy who pulled up in a Cadillac with spinning rims and Porsches. I thought that was normal!"
There were no reminders of dad's previous life in the family home: "He sold his belts for charity. We didn't even have his world titles at home. We just went to church, we were very religious.
"I loved skateboarding, BMXing, I had a nice longboard. I used to wear surfer clothes.
"No tattoos - I wasn't that guy!
"I listened to Avenged Sevenfold, Guns 'N' Roses. I played the guitar in church.
"I used to work in retail. I did painting and decorating, a bit of scaffolding. I enjoyed painting and decorating.
"Even now, I'm thinking of starting my own business - 'Benn's Decorating'."
He would get plenty of bookings, it is suggested to him: "Turn up, sign an autograph, paint the bathroom!"
Why on earth, it is asked of him, didn't Conor remain anonymous and wealthy in the Australian sunshine?
"I don't know…"
There is a long pause. Conor gave up a life that people dream of for a lifestyle that very, very few can handle.
"I felt like I needed to carve something out myself.
"In life you have to take risks. I would have still been a painter and decorator - there's nothing wrong with that, if you enjoy it. I just wanted something… bigger.
"I have a Master's degree in fitness. I'm looking at starting my own gym. Who knows what the future holds because I didn't plan on being a fighter and I've passed what I thought I was capable of already."
Surely Conor, maybe subconsciously, is desperate for his father's macho acceptance. Nigel grew up poor in east London, joined the military then became one of Britain's best-ever boxers, feted for his aggression.
Conor has morphed into the man we see today but it was far from inevitable.
"I was never an aggressive kid. I have turned into this. I wasn't like this growing up. I was as far from a fighter as it gets.
"When I came to England I realised how big boxing is. That's crazy, my dad is Nigel Benn but I didn't know how big boxing is!"
Conor's first experience inside a ring was privately with his father and it did not endear him to a future career: "I took the gloves off. He chipped my tooth, made my nose bleed. Safe to say I was a bit concussed."
Now a 16-0 welterweight the accusation is that daddy opened doors that his ability didn't deserve. Undoubtedly his surname has made him an attraction but has also been a heavy cross to bear.
And this is at the heart of his rivalry with Josh Kelly. Their grudge is slowly becoming one of the most intriguing all-British potential fights available.
Kelly is from a council estate in the north-east but is nicknamed 'Pretty Boy' with a flashy in-ring flair. Benn grew up wealthy but is now a rugged, tattooed brawler. They have each turned preconceptions around. They each think success has been given to the other man too easily.
They each believe their path is the right path, and Benn said: "The love of being able to bang somebody grew over time. It is still growing now. When amateurs get to this stage their love has gone. I'm growing into the sport and understanding how it works."
He understands more than ever after his father failed to clamber back in the ring. It is once again, as it should be, the younger Benn who battles on their behalf.