Benn, Bruno and Nicky Booth, and the lost boys of 2001

Back in 2001, British boxing had meandered into a strange, uncharted hinterland. An odyssey of greed and short-termism in the preceding five years reducing it to a role in the margins, a sporting outcast. Neglected, eroded and far removed from the roaring crowds of the preceding decades. The resurgence of stadium fights had faded to black, dissolving in to the night like the thousands who shuffled, stumbled and strode from the crumbling castles of Wembley and Loftus Road.

Images still lingered in the collective memory. Plumes of warm breath and cigarette smoke drifting on the midnight breeze, the last slurred rendition of ‘Bruno, Bruno’ absorbed by the rattle of taxis and tube trains beneath. In the crowd’s wake, plastic glasses and torn betting slips, the debris of a night, were swept from the aisles. The headaches and penitence of a thousand tomorrows still to unfold for the departing revellers and the fighters they came to see.

Big Frank and little Barry, the heroes of those 80s nights, ceded the stage to Benn and Eubank in the 1990s. The two Middleweight rivals were, by 2001, also retired. Still young men, pursuing purpose, place. Before them, Barry had tried his hand at rally driving. Applying a fighter’s reflex and a compulsion for adrenalin to an alternative world. It didn’t last. His ability to navigate the ‘troubles’ of his homeland did persist, and he turned to the politics of fellow fighter’s rights and their financial wellbeing. A fighter’s union was mooted. Honourable, but now a dormant unrequited endeavour. A tabloid column would follow in its stead. The Union is still longed for. Fighters are still abandoned.

Benn and Eubank, worn and weary from the ferocity of their more recent careers, appeared on a Gladiator show two years later (2003), they too still in search of elusive meaning in their life’s. The animosity, brooding between them, proving much easier to find, even in the absurd costume of loin cloths and shoulder pads. Facts that would’ve diminished lesser reputations.

Eubank invited analysis from TV inquisitor Louis Theroux. The need for a stage, the spot light, remained long in to 2002, and perhaps never died. His son Chris Junior, now a middleweight himself, then a 12-year old schoolboy, looked on. Absorbed by the spectacle, by his father’s persona and then emboldened, first toward bad boy scraps in car parks, and then to chasing a mantle of his own.

Benn, as he had in the ring, opted for louder and faster. DJing in Mediterranean hotspots. Seeking the same adulation he found in gloved combat. The volume, the thudding techno beat, the assault on his sensory system, all pieces of a jigsaw he couldn’t solve. In 2001, he revealed that in 1999, barely retired and in the chaos of his post fighting career, he had tried to take his own life. Depressed, disillusioned and dependent on sex.

During this period, Benn would famously state, while acting as a pundit for Audley’s early career on the BBC, “I liked it [boxing] when it was on ITV, I don’t watch it no more.” Nostalgia and disharmony still coursing through his veins. His fidgeting frame, draped in Capone pinstripe, clawed at the sedation of the studio chair beneath him and its implication of old-age. In hindsight, his demeanour was reflective of the torment within, behind the words, in his life away from the camera.

“I liked it [boxing] when it was on ITV, I don’t watch it no more.”

Nigel Benn in his role as a bbc pundit

What is evident, as it so frequently is in men of action forced from the limelight by age and damage, is how the battles that wait beyond the mountain top prove tougher than those required to reach the summit. Even wars as barbarous as those endured by Benn and Eubank. Without the surge of adrenalin, without the risk, the inherent danger of fighting, life seem incomplete and the pieces to fill the void are as destructive as the collateral damage of their careers. As recently as 2019, and with public voyages through the jungles of celebrity and Christianity behind them, the possibility of a third fight still grizzled between them. Both had sons boxing professionally, permitting the middle aged warriors opportunity to feel those sensations again at a safer distance. As much as it quietened the rumble inside, it also stirred the urge. The desire, it seems, is never entirely extinguished.

Frank was falling in to his own struggle too. Like the sport that lifted him to international fame, his problems were endured far away from the public gaze and would come to a head two years later. Divorced in 2001, sleeping beneath the ring he won the WBC title in by 2003. His mental health problems presented unkindly in the popular press, a generation too early for understanding or empathy. “Bruno goes Bonkers” the careless headline.

While these personal journeys continued, boxing rattled around SKY television, marginalised by the satellite broadcaster’s partial penetration, hidden away from a public that once clutched its heroes to its bosom. From Grandma to grandchild, Cooper to Conteh, boxing, if its stories were told well, always drew a crowd. Benn v Eubank was a television phenomenon. McGuigan v Pedroza in 1985 a seminal night in British sport, not just in boxing. Both drew UK audiences of close to 20 million.

Crucially, it was Bruno’s rematch with Tyson in 1996, the first pay per view for the British audience, that represented the rubicon. The bridge to the anonymity of the late 90s and early 2000s. Terrestrial television, BBC, ITV, the traditional home of boxing, troubled by the fates of McClellan and Watson in wars with Benn and Eubank, stepped back and SKY television stepped forward.

In the wilderness of those years, as the millennium bug came and went and 2001 broke, weekend, and weakened, British shows existed in a peculiar, low rent obscurity. It was on the other side of its 80s and 90s mountain top. While the excesses of Prince Naseem superstardom were not yet exposed, though his denouement at the hands of Marco Antonio Barrera was imminent, and statesman Lennox grew close to his own nadir against Hasim Rahman in Nelson Mandela’s back yard. They were detached from the British fight scene. Those two commercial colossi fought in America, in South Africa, far from the maddening crowd of Brentwood Leisure Centre or Ponds Forge in Sheffield.

This was a time before a wedge of pale-skinned menace emerged from Manchester and scrapped his way to the top, before first, Audley and then Amir proved to boxing’s old friends at the BBC and ITV that people could still love its stars. Within this neglected period, struggling in the all consuming shadow of Premier League Football, a wandering band of anonymous fighters were, for better or worse, the face of British boxing.

Counterfeit belts were the currency of the day. Or ‘boot leg’ world titles as someone once described them. British boxing was first infiltrated and then swamped by the WBF, whether Foundation or Federation matters little to their meaning, by the IBU, IBC, WBU and most ‘prestigious’ among them the IBO. Sky Television dizzied the unwitting with screen graphics that listed Oscar DeLaHoya, Shane Mosley and Vernon Forrest, the champions of the major bodies, alongside Jawaid Khaliq (IBO). Saturday nights meant Steve Roberts, Colin Dunne, Johnny Armour and the Booth brothers. All game, capable men but none a world champion of the type chased by Our ‘Enry, Herol or Minter.

In truth the custodians of these ambiguities were, broadly, British title level fighters, perhaps capable of a European Championship or a courageous but forlorn attempt at the real, bona fide, kings. This doesn’t make them unimportant, it doesn’t mean they weren’t respected in their own modest way, but they were active beneath paper crowns in one of British Boxing most peculiar periods.

The Light-Middleweights were most prominent among them. A crop of varied but evenly matched prizefighters. Conceivably, they could have generated interest to match that of their Super-Middleweight predecessors had the inclination, foresight and platform coincided or coerced them toward each other. It rarely did. Few of the potential round robin fights materialised. The absence of these preferred match-ups stunted their growth as fighters and as attractions. Their ambition was subverted by the slew of nonsense belts too easily available.

Steve Roberts was the WBF’s champion, making a stream of defences without ever venturing in to the consensus top 10 for an opponent. Boxing at the Elephant and Castle Leisure Centre. Wayne Alexander held the European title. Richard Williams, perhaps the most rounded and gifted of the group, held the IBO belt, his losses to an emerging Sergio Martinez his solitary venture into world class. And that was accidental. Martinez was hugely under estimated at the time.

Beyond that trio, Takaloo held the WBU belt and in one of the few contests of the myriad available, blew away Anthony Farnell, the WBO International Champion, in the Mancunian’s hometown. A fight which generated a buzz akin to that of its more famous forefathers; Watson v Benn. The electricity, the opportunity, was allowed to slip away. Farnell’s loss encouraged those vested in the ticket sellers among the pack to be cautious. Promoters, fighters, they withdrew to their bunkers. Shrinking back from the challenge of filling the void left by the departed greats and so, continued in to relative anonymity.

Of the possibilities, only Takaloo v Farnell, Alexander v Samuels and belatedly, Takaloo v Alexander and Williams v Samuels were ever made. A sourness exists among some of these forgotten fighters at the opportunities and purses missed. All had pursued independent, parallel paths, a fact that reflects poorly on promoters, platforms and the fighters themselves.

Conversations with all of these men decade ago suggested little was done to negotiate match ups. Token efforts were made and SKY coalesced to the charade. Their respective purses were significant if not luxurious, and for those most active and sensible, enough to improve their life long term. “I knew I wasn’t a real world champion, I knew the score. But I can’t ever knock that belt. I earned well, it meant I’d always be alright for money.” Roberts would tell me in a rare interview in 2011.

Once Ricky Hatton gathered an army beneath his Blue Moon, a journey that also began with a WBU title, and he stepped out from the shadow of Farnell and Gomez, once Calzaghe had overcome Jeff Lacy, and Audley and Amir opened the doors for Froch, Williams and Witter, things began to change. Leaping to full Arenas again, boxing returned to terrestrial television and in to the consciousness of a wider public once more, it was fleeting, but it was progress. The crescendo of Hatton v Tsyzu in 2005 proved those heady nights of the 80s and 90s could be recaptured, that Benn, Eubank and Big Frank were not irreplaceable.

It was a restorative journey that led boxing to even greater zeniths in the past decade.

The passing of Nicky Booth last month, aged just 40, a one time challenger for an IBO belt, and the younger of the two Booth brothers, diminutive rascals who were part of this marginalised era, brought these comparisons back in to view. Nicky wasn’t a British great, nor was his brother, Jason, or his Nottingham contemporary Khaliq, but to be at the Harvey Hadden Leisure Centre in his home town, a couple of thousand fans making a din, a multi-cultural crowd embracing and supporting their own, was to be party to a great night.

Like his more famous boxing forefathers, Nicky struggled beyond boxing. In truth his struggles surrounded him as an active fighter and before ever he donned gloves for the first time. They were not merely the craving for lost youth and attention that haunts so many ex-fighters. But with the anchor that boxing represented and its demands removed, as his 20s gave way to his 30s, Nicky faced a much more difficult battle. There was no pundit’s chair for Nicky or banked millions to comfort. He merely returned to the life boxing had plucked him from. To the chaos. The Grandmas who loved McGuigan, the grandkids who stayed up for the Dark Destroyer and the lisping Eubank won’t remember his name. Nicky, Jason and their contemporaries remained unseen, hidden away. Nicky, with his toothy grin, cheap tattoos and wispy moustache was not a made for TV star, neither a brand or sponsor’s dream.

What he was, was a fighter. A cheeky, wiry, unapologetic scrapper. One who loved a ‘tear up’, just as Benn before him had done. His speed, natural ability and reach, he was always tall for Bantamweight, often meant he didn’t need to mix it in the way that he chose to. But he fed off those modest crowds and the buzz of the battle. He had an individualism that is remembered by those who saw him but his deeds did not transcend to those that hadn’t. A tough foe in the ring, rapier fists, often a grinning man child when plunging body shots into opponents, thirsty for the combat, to feel pain and to dispense it, to prove himself better than that that he was beyond boxing.

Nicky Booth was a willowy kid from a Radford who dared to try, and for a while succeed, in raising himself from the problems of his environment and the demons that eventually engulfed him.

A lost soul among British boxing’s lost boys of 2001.

There was little surprise, but no little sadness, that in life he couldn’t make it to the championship rounds. Boxing is, alas, not a panacea for all ills, with or without boxing Nicky may always have followed the same path. But for the many hours, months and years that he gave himself to boxing, it paid him back with highlights and meaning, however fleeting those feelings proved.

For this ringside observer, fresh to reporting at the time, those nights spent trying to capture his bouts, and the atmosphere he created at the humble Harvey Hadden Leisure Centre, will be remembered just as fondly as any of the bigger, more historic stadium nights that followed.

RIP Nicky Booth.

Boxing opinion and insight by David Payne

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