He is dressed in black, a colour synonymous with his days as The Dark Destroyer, but apposite, too, for his new vocation as a preacher. By the front door of his six-bedroom mansion, high above the Mediterranean on Majorca’s Costa de la Calma (Calm Coast), an open book made out of stone and resting on a plinth bears the inscription: ‘In heaven is rest and endless peace’.
Serenely, he leads the way, through the door and up a marble staircase into the living room where a dozen people or more will soon be congregated to listen to him spreading the Word of God. “I believe that the Lord has called me to do this,” he announces. Stretching out a hand, Nigel Benn then invites you to take a seat in his church. It is nine years since Benn last appeared in a boxing ring, but the passage of time does not dull the memory of his ferocity. Pugnacious, almost primeval, he took sadistic pleasure out of his “tear-ups”, engaging in fights that might have been born in the street. His was the personality of a delinquent youth hardened by a four-year career in the First Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, completing two tours of Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles. “ Once you’ve been in a situation like that,” he once declared, “you’re scared of nobody.”
In 1990 he won the WBO middleweight title from American Doug De Witt, “bashing the granny out of him” in eight rounds before he pummelled Iran Barkley to the canvas three times in a single round in “a do-or-die, hell-for-leather fight”. This was how he fought, “taking punishment, dishing it out”. In a fiercely fluctuating battle in Birmingham he lost to his nemesis, Chris Eubank, but lost nothing of his gung-ho reputation, Eubank describing him as “savage … he was strong enough to kill me and I think he desired to”.
Five years later, in his fifth defence of the WBC super middleweight title, which he had seized from Mauro Galvano, he left the American Gerald McClellan near death. Writing in this newspaper, Hugh McIlvanney described the “relentless, mutually destructive aggression from the principals” as “one of the most brutal fights any of us at ringside had ever witnessed”.
Yet here he is, “repentant for a sinful life”, a man who cooks Shepherd’s Pie, chicken dishes and Christmas dinner for pensioners in his new neighbourhood and whose stated mission is to establish his own church so that he can “do the work of the Lord”. In August he will travel to Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya, where the population is threatened by the highest poverty rate in the country. Malnutrition, poor sanitation, the spread of Aids and large, ill-fed families have culminated in upwards of 20,000 children having to live on the streets or arrive in from slum areas daily in search of food. Benn intends to help his friends and fellow Christian pastors, Kerry and Penny Cook, build a children’s home and ultimately a place of worship in one of Kisumu’s most destitute outlying districts. “My flesh has achieved,” he says of past conquests. “But what have I done spiritually?”
That he even poses the question emphasises the metamorphosis he has undergone. Once he battered bodies, now he wants to save souls. A self-confessed womaniser (“I’ve had untold affairs; a lapdancer gave birth to my baby four days before Connor and India, my twins, were born”), he has become an avowed family man, faithful to his wife, Carolyne, a loving father to five children. Responsibility and temperance have displaced the malevolent recklessness of old.
“I wasn’t like Paul on the road to Damascus,” he says. “I was more like Jonah, disobedient and reliant on the Lord’s mercy. I lived with Satan so long that the enemy won’t allow me to walk away easily. But by transforming my life — and I have a long way still to go — I know I can transform other people’s lives. All I need is this.” He picks up a leather-bound Bible, opens it to Romans, Chapter 12, and begins to read: “ Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service.” He looks up and smiles, his new life vindicated. But what made The Dark Destroyer see the light?
Nigel Benn Biography Part II
Nigel Benn Biography Part III