What? Steve Collins v Nigel Benn I
When? July 6th 1996
Where? Manchester Arena, Manchester
The 1990’s was a golden era for the middleweight and super-middleweight divisions on this side of the Atlantic. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Nigel Benn went to America and took on the top Americans in the 160 pound division. Having blown away guys like Doug DeWitt and Iran Barkley, he came back to the UK where world-class fighters like Michael Watson and Chris Eubank had dominated the domestic scene.
Around this time, a young Irish middleweight was trying to make a name for himself across the Atlantic. Fighting mainly out of Boston, Steve Collins had established himself as a fringe contender in the middleweight division. However, with Benn and Eubank based in the UK, in 1992 he decided that the time was right for him to return to this side of the pond.
Nigel Benn had already faced both Watson and Eubank. In 1989 Watson stopped him in the 6th round of a war and in 1993 Eubank had beaten him in 9th round. Benn had a reputation as a fearsome puncher. Known as “The Dark Destroyer”, he was a hugely entertaining fighter. His punching was a little wild but incredibly powerful. However his crude style coupled with his occasionally vulnerable chin made him a fan favourite. Of his 48 professional fights, only 9 went the scheduled distance.
Steve Collins on the other hand had a much lower profile in the UK and Ireland when he first returned from America. He was also a little bit of a late bloomer. When he lost to Sumbu Kalambay for the European middleweight title in 1992, the 28-year-old Collins’ record stood at a less-than-stellar 21-3. However, that defeat would prove to be the final loss of his career.
Part of the reason for Collins’ late bloom in the sport was that he lacked any natural advantages. He was average in a number of aspects but did have an incredible ability to take a punch. As he became more experienced, he developed a greater tactical knowledge. Collins himself credits a lot of his success to his ability to analyse his opponent, isolate their weaknesses and formulate a game plan to exploit those weaknesses.
Collins bounced back from the Kalambay loss with a string of victories that saw him claim the WBO middleweight title in 1994. But he knew the money lay in showdowns with Eubank and Benn, both of whom had moved up in weight to 168 pounds by that point. Collins soon followed.
His first fight at 168 pounds was the epic title fight against Chris Eubank at the Green Glens Arena in Millstreet. Collins would defeat Eubank, and beat him again in the rematch. With Michael Watson having retired due to tragic injury in 1991, Benn was the last of the great names on this side of the Atlantic for Collins to face.
Unfortunately, Benn was not quite the force he once was. His stoppage victory over Gerald McClellan in February 1995 should have been one of the high points of Benn’s career. McClellan was highly rated in America and many expected him to comfortably beat the British fighter. Benn upset the pre-fight predictions by stopping McClellan in the 10th round. However, McClellan would suffer a tragic and devastating brain injury as a result of the fight. The tragic outcome naturally had a negative effect on Benn’s psyche, although he masked it in the months that followed.
Nevertheless, Benn and Collins remained two of the biggest names in the division. Their meeting in July of 1996 would be Collins’ 4th defence of the WBO super-middleweight crown he won in his first meeting with Eubank.
The Manchester Arena was packed with vocal fans from both sides of the Irish Sea. Irish fans were expecting Collins to continue his impressive reign, while British fans were hoping that Benn could roll back the years.
From the opening round, neither fighter was willing to take a step back. This was not going to be a boxing match for the purists; this was going to be a brawl. Collins got the better of the opening round but Benn fought back in the second.
Collins was also struggling at the beginning of the third round. Benn was having success winging in hooks but as so many of Collins’ previous opponents discovered, it was one thing to catch Collins, it was something else entirely to actually hurt him. Collins took the punches well and came back with some heavy shots of his own.
In the 4th round the wild action continued. Neither man was fighting with great style or composure. Benn would be the one to pay the price for the ungainly nature of the fight. With just over a minute to go in the round, Benn launched another wild and awkward assault. As he threw his body-weight forward into a punch, he twisted awkwardly on his ankle and tumbled to the canvas.
Benn got back to his feet but the damage was done. Collins pounced but Benn was unfortunately in no condition to continue. He turned away from Collins, towards his corner, and the referee accepted this as an indication that Benn could not continue.
The ending of the fight proved unsatisfactory for both men. Collins, despite the win on his record, would not get full credit due to the manner of the victory. Benn understandably was upset with how the fight ended. A rematch would be needed to settle the questions posed by the first meeting.
The rematch took place 4 months later and thankfully answered the questions left hanging by the ending of the first bout. Benn emptied what was left in his tank, but found that Collins was an immovable object. Collins took everything Benn had to offer and by the 4th round was beginning to dominate the fading former champion. By the end of the sixth round, Benn’s corner had seen enough and stopped the fight.
That fight would prove to be the last of Nigel Benn’s career. Benn would undergo a major transformation in his retirement. Throughout his career Benn cultivated a fearsome reputation both inside and outside the ring. He was often referred to in those days as “Satan’s right hand man”. His lifestyle outside the ring was one of excess and as he retired from boxing it seemed his life was spiralling out of control. Fortunately for the one time “Dark Destroyer”, he discovered the Bible and became a born again Christian. He was ordained as a minister and has since emigrated to Sydney, Australia.
Collins on the other hand would fight on after his meetings with Benn. He would make two more successful title defences. But the fight he longed for eluded him. Collins had long sought a showdown with American pound-for-pound superstar, Roy Jones Junior, a fight that ultimately would never materialize. Collins’ seventh title defence against Craig Cummings would prove to be his final competitive action in the ring (unless his threatened comeback materializes). He retired from the sport citing a lack of motivation, the showdown with Roy Jones was the only thing that kept him in the sport and when it became apparent that it was not going to happen, he simply had no desire to fight on.
Jones has since become the “white whale” of Collins’ career and he continues to publicly seek a showdown with Jones despite the fact that Collins is now almost 50 years old and has been retired from boxing for 17 years. He is fondly remembered in Ireland both for his impressive reign and for the fact that he brought big time boxing back to Ireland, with his bouts against Chris Eubank in Millstreet and Pairc Ui Chaoimh being particular highlights.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.