It is almost inconceivable how big the rivalry between Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn was. ‘Simply The Best’ and the ‘Dark Destroyer’ defined not only each other’s careers, but an era of the sport. The 1990s saw British boxing enjoy its own iteration of the iconic Four Kings days of Leonard, Hagler, Duran and Hearns. The protagonists were Benn, Eubank, Michael Watson and Steve Collins. But Benn and Eubank were the headliners, the two fighters so inextricably linked that their combined names roll off the tongue. Gatti-Ward. Ali-Frazier. Benn-Eubank. This brand name familiarity is so ingrained, promoters keep using it to try and sell an ill-fated clash between their sons three decades later.
The first fight between the pair took place on 18th November 1990 at Birmingham NEC Arena. Benn came in as the reigning WBO middleweight champion, having knocked out Doug Dewitt to claim the belt. His most recent outing was a chaotic first-round stoppage of top-class American Iran Barkley. While his reputation in the sport was soaring, a cocky young upstart simply couldn’t keep his name out of his mouth.
Chris Eubank had never lacked self-belief. Anyone whose ring moniker is ‘Simply The Best’ has a certain air of arrogance around them. But Eubank’s was justified. He had gleefully defeated 24 opponents without defeat on the road to his date with destiny and, from his 10th fight onwards, would make constant jibes and challenges to the more accomplished Benn. The clamour eventually extended from the brash prospect’s mouth and into the stands, as fans began to crave the contest as much as Eubank did. Finally the fighter and the fans got their wish.
Eubanks’ big night got off to an inauspicious start. His trademark entrance to Tina Turner’s Simply The Best stalled when the music suddenly stopped. Reportedly this was the work of Benn’s entourage trying to play some last-minute mind games on the confident challenger. Undaunted, the Dulwich-born boxer barely blinked. He vaulted over the ropes in his customary fashion. The showman had arrived, and he was about to put on the show of his life.
Benn wasn’t interested in putting on a show. For a man who pounded his first 22 victims into savage knockout defeats, destruction was the only thing on his mind. But when he went looking for it he found not a showy gamecock who “didn’t like it up him” but a ferocious warrior who was to prove more than his equal.
Eubank tried to knock Benn out from the first bell, echoing the wild 2:57 that the ‘Destroyer’ had just shared with Barkley. But unlike the decorated ‘Blade’, Eubank did not relent and he did not fold when Benn’s trademark bombs came over the trenches. In a disarmingly brutal series of exchanges, jabs, movement and defence were largely abandoned. The NEC arena was reduced to a telephone box. It might as well have been the TARDIS, considering the throwback action on show.
The action undulated. An uppercut rattled Eubank’s jaw in the fourth. Benn’s eye swelled shut in the fifth. Then finally, one of our combatant’s blinked. An overhand right sent Eubank to the canvas in the eighth round. He rose, insisting the fall was from a slip but the decision was made and a mandatory eight count was dispensed. Between rounds, Eubank made a show of how okay he was. Preening and posturing in the same style he is wont to do even now, his display was seen in the moment as over-compensating for his pain. But Eubank was doing better than okay, a fact Benn would soon be made all too aware of.
Eubank would hit the canvas again, this time from a slip when a stray Benn punch caught his rear. But the combinations he landed upon rising are what turned the tide. After rocking the champion’s head back with left-right salvos, a straight right sent Benn into the ropes. Eubank unleashed every ounce of fury, spite and enmity he felt for his foe in one cathartic burst, causing the referee to step in and award the TKO victory to Eubank. ‘Simply The Best’ now had the world title to back up his claim. But for these two warriors it was about so much more.
The two would go their separate ways for three years, but were never far from each other’s thoughts. The blistering hatred was always clear when interviewers dared ask one about the other. Both travelled up to super middleweight in the intervening years. Benn defeated Mauro Galvano to capture the WBC title at that weight. Eubank defended thrice and then relinquished his WBO midddleweight belt, before winning the super middleweight equivalent on a horrifying and tragic night against Michael Watson.
Finally the magnet pull of the rivalry once again drew Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank to each other. Reflecting the national obsession with the feud, the venue for their rematch would be Old Trafford. A worldwide television audience of half a billion people reportedly tuned in to watch the unification clash emanate from Manchester.
The bout could not compete with the savagery of the first. After the brutal war that had left Michael Watson confined to a wheelchair, Eubank never again displayed the same ferocity. Benn’s own date with the cruel hand of fate against Gerard McClellan was still two years away. But the action was enthralling, particularly late in rounds, with each man trying to catch the judges’ eyes with late flurries of activity.
The final round was the most evocative of the NEC brutality. Both men were instructed by their corners that winning it would be a vital factor in taking the fight. Renowned as perhaps the best three minutes to take place in a British ring, it was a perfect encapsulation of what Benn-Eubank meant to people. At the conclusion the bout was ruled a split draw. Both would keep their belts and their pride. A stalemate is always disappointing but it was also weirdly appropriate. The two eternal rivals would enter the annals of boxing history together. Two warriors who would wear the other’s name like a badge of honour for the rest of their days.