Having healed old wounds and grown closer over time, the father-son duo now have one of the most compelling relationships in boxing
Conor Benn is ruminating on the stand-out welterweights in his division a few days after reaching 20 fights undefeated with a brutal knockout of former light-welterweight world champion Chris Algieri in Liverpool.
“I’m ready for any of the world champions,” says Benn, in ultra-confident mode. Then his father Nigel, the British boxing legend, interrupts.
Benn Snr, who first won a world title in his 27th fight in the United States, discloses that his instinct was not to let his son become a professional boxer, to steer him away from the rough trade, the dark underbelly of sport, as he calls it. Not now, though, as they open up on their extraordinary relationship.
“I saw a lot of my traits in Conor that I didn’t like,” explains Nigel, now 57. “He was trying to live my old life from a very young age and I didn’t like it. I had to be firm with it. I saw where he was going.
“He is where he is today because I kept my eye on him. We sent him back to England and the rest is history. We have a better relationship now than we ever had. A lot of things I’ve done wrong I apologised for. The kind of life I led really affected my family. He said: ‘I’ll never be like you’. When you hear that from your son, you think: ‘Thank you Lord that he’s not like me.’”
They then strike up some banter that is endearing and suffused with love, issuing faux threats to each other. “You have gone soft, dad, but you were hard on me growing up,” says Conor, rapidly becoming a box-office star in the UK.
“I had to, you needed it…” responds Nigel. They both shake their heads. “What he saw at a young age… he knew he didn’t want to be like me,” explains Nigel, the former two-weight world champion who has come from his home in Australia to spend a month with his “blood”.
“He knows about the drugs and partying. But that’s not who he is. His mum never brought him up that way. He saw the pain he would cause if he did what I’d done.
“He knows how it affected him growing up. What really affected him was when I left the house for one year. He remembers the pain he had in his heart. He was only young. His hero had to leave and live with somebody else. It was traumatic for him.”
But he adds, with pride: “Inside the ring, though, he’s doing better than I did. It was outside the ring, the party life, that brought a lot of tension in the house when he was growing up. It was what he heard. Stories in the papers, sleeping with this woman, doing this, doing that, seeing his mum broken and all things like that. It made him have a hard exterior towards me.
“He didn’t even like me to tell you the truth. He couldn’t stand me and I understood that. My whole life changed – the drug use, the sex – when I apologised to my whole family.”
Conor looks down. And away. And then responds. “It’s flattering and overwhelming to hear what he thinks of my boxing, but he is my dad. To him, I’ve achieved more than he has, but there will always be this argument between us. Me saying I’m in his shadow and him saying I’m not. I think I’ll always be in my dad’s shadow, which ain’t a problem to me.
“It wasn’t my fault that I had issues. Any kid that went through what I did would have found it traumatic. That’s why I turned out the way I did.
“It was a hard period. I was old enough to understand, which was the worst part. Isn’t it mad how now I wish I was half the man he was? It’s so funny, isn’t it?
“Dad’s staying until New Year, which is lovely because it’s [my son] Eli’s first Christmas. We’ll still be training together to keep the weight down. I’ve already had a mince pie this morning with a couple of chocolate biscuits and it’s only early.”
Then Conor opens up again on plans for next year and greater challenges which lie ahead. “If you offered me the [Yordenis] Ugas [World Boxing Association world champion] fight tomorrow I’d take it. I know what I’m capable of and I’m forever evolving.”
A world title challenge, insists the 25-year-old, is on the horizon. “It could come in the next two fights. I reckon I have one more fight, as Ugas has his mandatory, early part of next year, then bring me the world title. I’ve defended my WBA continental six times now, so it’s only right they make me mandatory for that.
“I believe that Eddie Hearn is making the Adrien Broner fight so I’ll leave that to them at the end of the day. My job’s to beat the geezer up in the other corner. So whoever they put in front of me, I’ll take out. They’re all supposed to be tough. Each fight at this level’s a hard fight.”
Nigel feels his son’s career deeply, as if he is reliving battles past. “I’ve got confidence in Conor because I’ve seen what he’s done in the gym. What I saw over this period of two to three months, I wouldn’t care to see him fighting [world champions] Terence Crawford or Errol Spence.
“One day there will come a time when he meets a good fighter and I wouldn’t care. I’d throw him in there. When he starts moving up the ladder he’s only going to perform better. If he doesn’t, he’s going to get clumped.
“I see him going all the way. They say he’s living in his father’s footsteps but he’s not. The only thing I’d like to see him have is a nice high guard. He’s got the shots. I know he’s got an engine but he’s not even been out of first gear yet. He’s not really been challenged.
“You’ve only seen a little bit of him, you haven’t seen the full Conor Benn.”