Conor Benn, the gatekeeper and the history at his shoulder

On Saturday night a British Welterweight, Conor Benn, will face a Colombian out of Canada called Samuel Vargas. Sufficiently endowed with a past, a sliver of remaining future to sustain belief in his motivations and the keys to the top 20 in the division, Vargas is the perennial nearly man and now 31-years-old. He retains respect for the toughness he’s demonstrated in a 10-year career and for being competitive with those Benn aspires to meet. In this weekend’s contest he will be playing the part of the gatekeeper.

For fans of a certain age Conor Benn continues to be a touch stone for memories of a youth long since passed. His swagger, his instinctive, spiky words transport many viewers back to the halcyon days of the early 1990s. Specifically, the time of Conor’s father, Nigel, and his nemesis Chris Eubank, their mutual rival Michael Watson and the five battles they shared between 1989 and 1993. All of which are seared into the consciousness of those of us who witnessed them.

This is the legacy Conor Benn carries. It opens doors but it cannot sustain him. Against Vargas, Benn will continue his quest to establish a place of his own in the Welterweight landscape. One rich in opportunity and decorated by some of the sport’s most gifted fighters.

The Benn and Eubank rivalry was unforgettable, the white hot core to which Watson, and Collins, Wharton and others were in orbit. They were our fighters. The world tuned in when Ali and Frazier fought but both were long retired when our teenage years arrived. The Four Kings had climbed down from their highest mountains and Tyson’s scorched earth passage through the heavyweight division was largely played out. All of which happened far from the British time zone and without the access of today. It felt distant. Untouchable.

Benn and Eubank belonged to us. They weren’t as lavishly gifted as Jones or Toney, or maybe McCallum or Nunn either, but it was hard to be educated to that truth back in 1990, and what mattered most was their equality and the genuine animosity they held for each other. Benn and Eubank were accessible and, therefore, entirely more real, their fights were ferocious and offered an experience that could be felt, touched and lived. Pubs filled when they fought, families watched on in their millions, tickets sold. It was a special rivalry and defined boxing for British fans at that time and proved transcendent too, forcing boxing onto the front page of the newspapers and into the national conversation.

In Conor Benn’s last contest, there was a graduation of sorts. A rare example of a fighter improving through inactivity. He appeared more polished, more poised and entirely more serious about his craft. Boxing to a wide and disciplined verdict over Sebastian Formella with a fizzing jab and precise and hurtful left hook he earned the plaudits he received. Comparisons with Shawn Porter who had laboured to a unanimous decision over Formella in the German’s preceding contest were favourable. A lot of credibility was accrued in beating Formella in the manner he did. On another night, with another referee, the fight could have been stopped. Benn’s career, first forged in opportunism and as an indulgent whimsy by Eddie Hearn, was now entirely more serious.

Against Vargas, the improvement will need to continue and comparison with the Colombian’s previous conquerers will form a key measure of Benn’s performance. Vargas has shared a ring with Errol Spence, Amir Khan, Danny Garcia and most recently Vergil Ortiz Jr., four defeats accumulated and only Khan needed to travel the distance.

The questions will therefore be; can Benn win, can he stop Vargas and can he stop him quicker than Ortiz Jr. did?

Benn is of course, accustomed to comparison, it is a device he has deployed and embraced. It is the nature of his progress and ability that he is now being judged against his contemporaries and not the rose tinted view of his father. That said, when he appears from stage left, the swell of memories will remain hard to suppress for the thousands of middle aged nostalgics tuning in.

I know, because I’m one of them.

Boxing opinion and insight by David Payne

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