By Richard Hubbard
Even though he carries one of the most famous names in sporting circles, it wasn’t a case of love at first fight for young Harley Benn when he gloved up and had a bash at the boxing business.
It was actually more of a dabble, with the 20-year-old trying his hand on the white collar circuit and beating two opponents into a first round submission.
The success in the unlicensed code didn’t particularly ignite any cravings to do it for real in a sport where his mostly estranged father Nigel excelled and became one of Britain’s foremost punching personalities.
It was a pilgrimage to the Old Ford Road in Bethnal Green to witness, first hand, his first professional show and, after an audience with respected trainer Dominic Negus, that Benn finally declared love for the gloves.
Fast forward roughly a year and Benn is preparing to make his professional entrance at the Brentwood Centre on November 25, having been signed up by Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren.
“My route was doing some white collar unlicensed fights, then I stopped boxing for a little while, before coming into contact with Dom Negus and working with him in the gym for about a year training for this moment.
“I am learning on the job and me and Ben (stablemate Boy Jones Jnr) are following similar paths because neither of us had an amateur career. Boxing is about experience, but I don’t think not having an amateur background will hold me back because I am coming into the pro game and learning about being a professional.”
Benn reveals he did not have a great affinity with the game during his formative years, despite the pugilistic genes carried by one half of his immediate family tree. Football was more his thing until his bubble burst and the dream of forging a career with West Ham was thwarted by injury.
“Obviously with my dad being who he is, it was in my face quite a lot, with him being a world champion,” he recalled. “I used to play a lot of football when I was younger and was actually with West Ham before I broke my leg and stopped.
“I thought then that it might be time to do a bit of boxing and I started when I was about 16 or 17. I did some white collar fights and liked it, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t fall in love with it then. I don’t know why.
“As soon as I started training with Dom and the boys, it clicked, I fell in love with it. I think you need to fall in love with boxing because I would say it is the hardest sport out there. I know I have come into it late but I know some people who have boxed from the age of ten but, at the same time, I know others who started at 18 or 20.
“Ben, for example, hasn’t boxed all his life and he has taken me under his wing and was the first one I started training with. I heard his story and thought ‘you know what, this is what I want to do’ and I have fallen in love with it. I will give it my best shot.
“I was doing some training at a gym in Ongar for the white collar fights, but I didn’t make it my life as boxing wasn’t my life then. I had two and I won both of them in the first round, but I still didn’t fall in love with it and it was weird. Don’t get wrong I was buzzing at the time, but it was only when I met Dom and was showed the sport properly, the ins and outs, the emotional side of it.
“When I was doing white collar I just went there for a tear-up. I never took a punch, but now from sparring I know boxing can hurt, it’s a big difference.
“I have now been sparring hard for nine or ten months in preparation for this day, the 25th of November,” he reminded, the date etched in his thoughts, before turning his mind back to the visit to the home of London boxing.
“I went to watch a show at York Hall that Ben and Sanj Sahota were fighting on and got talking to Dom. I said I would love to start some boxing in the professional ranks. Maybe I was jumping the gun a little bit, but that was when I started to fall in love with it, being at the York Hall for the first professional fights I had seen.
“From then I wanted to put my life into it, I wanted it to be my job and didn’t want to do anything else. So I spoke to Dom and after a few sessions on the pads he said he would train me.
“I started training with professionals and that is where I saw the difference, from training with white collar boys who probably had a cigarette and a pint after – and maybe even before – it was a lot different.
“I knew that sparring would be make or break for me and I loved it.”
Although now completely committed to his craft, Benn admits that without boxing in his life he wasn’t following such a disciplined path.
“If I’m honest with you, between the ages of 16 and 18, I was doing all the things that teenagers shouldn’t do really,” he readily confessed. “I was drinking, smoking, smoking cannabis. I was being a naughty boy and, if I hadn’t have found boxing, really and truly I don’t know what I would be doing now.”
Having a largely absent famous father perhaps had an impact, although Benn insists his longing or need for a father figure had evaporated by the time he reached his later teens.
“My dad has been in and out of my life, he has come and gone as he has pleased. It affected me more when I was younger and the reason for that is I feel that younger boys – probably between 6-16 – need their dad the most in my experience.
“When I got to 15, 16, 17, I thought, you know what, I’ve gone past the stage of needing a dad. If I wanted a dad it is a different story, but I had gone past the stage of needing one.
“I remember going to school and people would tell me things about my dad that I didn’t even know. They would say ‘your dad is going on I’m a Celebrity next week’ and I would be like ‘oh yeah, he told me that’. He didn’t.”
Benn admits he was playing out a charade of pretending to be up to speed on his father’s lifestyle and movements, but his friends seemed to be more in the know than he was.
It took an emotional toll on the youngster, which resulted in his education being affected and his grandmother resorting to a resourceful white lie in a bid to calm a turbulent period in his life.
“Exactly, I first started seeing my dad when I was four or five years old at his house in Beckenham, then he moved to Majorca and I didn’t see him for years, maybe even eight or nine years, but then my Nan on my mum’s side felt I was going off the rails because I was getting in trouble in school, getting expelled, and they thought it may be down to me not seeing my dad.
“It wasn’t a massively talked about thing, I would go to dinner at one of my friends houses and they would tell me stuff about my dad and it would get my back up.
“My Nan said I had to help her one day pick up a package from Stansted Airport. They knew if they said we were going to meet my dad I would have said ‘no we’re bloody not’ and I wouldn’t have gone because I had this guard up against him.
“Naive as I was, I went to get this package that wasn’t real at all and there he is standing at the airport, my dad. To be honest, as I remember the moment, I was either going to turn around and walk out or just front it out and have a chat with him, which I did.
“We were chatting for a couple of hours, it is hard to remember because it was about seven years ago now. He was asking about my life but then we went our separate ways again for about another two years.
“The last time I was with my dad was last year at ‘A night with Nigel Benn’, I was there with him as he invited me as one of his guests for the night. We did get along and I really enjoyed it, it was the first time I had seen his famous life first hand – people wanting autographs, pictures.
“I was quite amazed by it, quite proud. Then we had another argument and we haven’t seen each other since!
“He does message me on Twitter and wishes me luck. He said he wants watch my career from afar because, at the minute, I have said to him that this is my thing. He did try worm his way in, but I saw the game and said, for now, I am doing it on my own.
“My mum has been supportive with everything in my life and if it wasn’t for her I don’t know where I would be or what I’d be doing.”
Benn possesses a name that will make people sit up and take notice even before he thrown his first jab in professional combat. It does provide him with a leg-up in terms of profile, but it also gives him a reputation to uphold and questions on his back-story – like in this interview – that he could probably do without, but knows it goes with the territory.
“It is a good thing and it does give you a head start, I won’t lie. It would be like being a footballer and having the surname Beckham. Sometimes it can be a bit of pressure as well because of how good my dad was as a boxer, with his knockout power and aggression.
“People probably expect that from me straight away, but I am not Nigel Benn, although there are definitely similarities in the way we box. We’re the same weight and I’ve been told I hit hard.
“I’ve been taught how to box, I haven’t been told to go in there and try and take the geezer’s head off, although no-one gets told that! If I do get drawn into a tear-up then I can more than hold my own, but I will try my hardest to box how I’ve been taught and there is no better way.
“If I was to sum up the way I fight, I am a middleweight and I hit quite hard, I like to use my jab a lot. The jab is the most important punch in boxing, if you are tired you can keep someone away with it, if you want to get inside you can create an opening with one.
“I am a very green professional boxer and after my debut I will be straight back in the gym. I cannot work any harder though.”
Of course, there is more than one Benn attempting to make strides in the fight game, with Conor Benn having clocked up five wins after turning professional earlier this year, also without an extensive amateur pedigree.
For now, the pair aren’t exactly half brothers in arms and don’t expect to see them in each other’s corner on fight night, but there is no ill-feeling on the part of the older sibling, by four days.
“Me and Conor don’t get on. I don’t have a bad word to say about him, but we just don’t see eye to eye. Obviously he is a boxer moving up the professional ranks, I’m not going to talk badly about him and I wish him all the luck.
“His birthday was on the 28th September, mine was on the 24th September, we’re both 20 – so you can work out what happened there!
“He has done what he’s needed to do in all of his fights,” added Harley of Conor, who fights under the Matchroom banner, but for the new Benn on the block there was only one place to be.
“Frank Warren has been my favourite promoter since I knew what boxing was. I’ve always liked him. From when my mum was with my dad, she’s told me stories and I always thought in my head that if I was a boxer I would want to be with Frank Warren.
“Conor is with Matchroom, but I definitely always wanted to be with Frank.
“I have a very long journey ahead of me hopefully, but right now I am a very green boxer at the start of my career who is learning every day.”
The journey begins at the Brentwood Centre next Friday and, if it runs true to family form, it should be an eventful one.