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'I would have bitten him' - Benn-Eubank and the bitterest fight ever

Ben Dirs
October 23, 2013
Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank during their epic fight in November 1990. "Absolutely he outpsyched me," admits Benn now. "I just wanted to fight him all the time." © PA Photos
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In an exclusive extract from Ben Dirs' new book The Hate Game: Benn vs Eubank - Boxing's Bitterest Rivalry, we head back to 1990, the build-up to the fight and the televised signing of the contract that left the show's host in a sweat and Nigel Benn ready to tear his opponent limb from limb...

The press conference to announce the fight at London's Café Royal was relatively non-eventful. Relative to what happened when the cameras were off. "Eubank walked into a room where Nigel and I were sat with Barry Hearn and the head of security for the fight," says Benn's manager Ambrose Mendy, "and Nigel leapt over the table and went at Eubank. Somehow they got somebody between them but Eubank was totally shocked and unnerved. Nigel wanted to iron him out there and then. I was like, 'Calm down, Nige, for f***'s sake'. I saw it then, and Eubank did too, how much Nigel wanted to kill him. And it was me who had to deal with all this rage, over and over again."

"I was faced with a monumentally important situation," says Eubank. "If Benn had won this little skirmish in that room, in doing so he would have sealed the fight. However, all Benn was trying to do was trick me, but I wasn't going to be intimidated by him and his hostile antics."

Benn's fuse had been lit the previous evening, when both men signed the contract for the fight live on ITV. "I remember the enormous tension between the two men, they genuinely did seem to loathe each other," says Nick Owen, presenter of Midweek Sport Special. "The hatred was almost tangible, which was what made it compulsive viewing. We all know these guys put on an act to a certain extent but if there was ever a genuine antipathy between two fighters, that's as close as you'd get to it. It was a fraught evening, there was a very real fear it might boil over. Chris wouldn't even face Nigel and without question that got under Nigel's skin. The menace in Nigel Benn's eyes was incendiary. It was all calculated and it made for great television. Boxing is about entertainment and television is about entertainment and they both really delivered that day."

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"Nick Owen had to drink gallons of water and God knows what else, he was terrified," says Mendy. "Me and Nigel had gone to Hugo Boss earlier that day and picked out green jackets because I'd had some research done and knew that was a colour Eubank professed to dislike. But when Eubank decided to turn away from Nigel, it wasn't that he was frightened of Nigel, it was just a ploy. The man was absolutely off his head. There he was saying: 'Nigel Benn hath no clath, the man hath no thtyle'. He knew that Nigel didn't have the greatest verbal skills or the greatest confidence. And you've also got to remember that while they were both second-generation immigrants, Nigel's parents came from Barbados and Chris's parents came from Jamaica - and the Bajans and the Jamaicans are about as friendly as the Scots and the English.

"It was all real, none of it was pretend. After the altercation on Midweek Sport Special, Eubank decided he didn't want to do any more media sessions. But instead of that being a negative we turned that into a positive: 'These two guys hate each other so much they can't even be in the same room as each other'."

"It was just so volatile between me and him, it really was," says Benn. "He was a big, strapping lad, bigger than me, but I knew I could still have him on the cobbles. I would have bitten him and everything. All he had to do was come and get in my face, get in my space and I would have gone "BOOM!" With Chris it could have kicked off at any moment, it was that close. During that interview he had his back towards me, he never faced me, because he knew I would have gone for him. I'm not saying he was scared of me but he had to keep it cool because he knew I was right on the edge and about to jump on him. What annoyed me most was the way he looked down his nose at everybody. He thought he was an eloquent man, but really he needed elocution lessons. He was this black guy who thought he was different class to everybody else. The way he used to carry on was as if he should have been living in Buckingham Palace and the Queen should have been living in Hove. Chris tried to conduct himself as a gentleman, saying stuff like 'he's a wild man, I'm different to him, he should be in the jungle'. He lit the fuse real good, absolutely he outpsyched me. I just wanted to fight him all the time."

Eubank steadfastly denies he ever harboured any real hatred towards Benn. And his trainer Ronnie Davies contends that his charge's inflammatory rhetoric was merely gamesmanship. "The hatred was real on Nigel's side but not on Chris's," says Davies. "Eubank was a very passionate man but also a very nice person and he didn't have a bad word about anybody. All that stuff about Benn being uncouth and wild and ungentlemanly, that was just Eubank trying to wind him up." Others lucky enough to have a ringside seat for the rivalry are not so sure. "There was actual dislike between the two of them, no question," says Eubank's manager Barry Hearn. "Eubank would be disdainful, pompous and patronising in his verbal assaults. So poor old Nigel, whilst a very good fighter, got slaughtered at press conferences. Chris claimed he didn't hate Nigel, but if he didn't he was brutal. As far as I could see the hatred was real, it wasn't to sell tickets.

"He came out with one line at the Café Royal which was horrible. He looked at Nigel and said: 'Nigel, we both know, when this is all over, you're going to end up working on the door of a nightclub'. This is a bloke who was a great world champion, had gone to America and bashed up Doug DeWitt and Iran Barkley. It was a vicious, vicious line. I compare it to Ali-Frazier: Ali slaughtered Frazier at press conferences and called him all the names under the sun and Frazier never forgave him for the rest of his life. But Nigel's plan was the same as Frazier's: 'That's OK, son, say what you like, when we get in the ring I'll f****** kill you'. Nigel's found God, he's a really nice human being and the two of them would embrace in the street now. But at the time Nigel had this fire burning inside him and he really, really hated Chris. Nigel was a festering volcano, he wanted to tear Eubank's head off."

As the fight drew nearer, Eubank's rhetoric took an even more spiteful twist. "Benn proved to me he was a coward when he lost to Michael Watson," said the challenger at a press conference five days before the fight. "But I don't want him to be a coward against me. I want him to come out and face reality. Then we'll see how much of the coward is still there."

"He is a loudmouth who cannot fight and has made a good living by criticising me," countered Benn. "I want to shut Eubank's mouth forever." 'Who's Fooling Who?' went the promotional tagline. A nation was about to find out. Or so it thought.

Ben Dirs will be discussing the Benn vs Eubank rivalry at the Sports Book Festival, University of Liverpool, Saturday November 16, 1-2pm. Details at www.sportsbookfestival.com.

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Ben Dirs writes for the BBC Sports Website and covers all sport from darts to football, boxing to cricket. In 2007, he blogged his way around the Rugby World Cup in a camper van with a colleague, and together they wrote about their experiences. The Hate Game is his fourth book.

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