Bennett ready for the best of British
By Andrew Mullinder (March 16, 2005) 
It would be a healthy irony if the loss of the money available to pay boxers’ fight purses caused by the scaling down and withdrawal of fight coverage by Sky Television and the BBC respectively, forced promoters and managers to make the exciting and potentially lucrative fights that Commonwealth lightweight champion Kevin Bennett craves.

In recent years, British promoters appear to have been guilty of over-protecting their most prized assets, manoeuvring their boxers away from attractive, but high risk, fights against British rivals in favour of building records against less well known foreign opponents. “It’s the business interests behind boxers that stop fights,” explained Bennett. “I don’t think fighters want to duck anyone. Look at Ricky Hatton. Hatton against [Junior] Witter is a fight that British fans would love to see, and I think that was always a fight Hatton wanted, even though some people think he ran away from it. But it’s not necessarily good business to put that fight on. Ricky’s a big ticket seller, perhaps Britain’s biggest. Is it worth risking that for less than top dollar?”

In a sport like boxing, where one punch can end years of good work, and where fans hold undefeated records in increasing esteem, it is perhaps understandable that promoters and managers take this course. But many erudite observers, including Bennett, feel that this attitude has contributed to the declining popularity of boxing.

“The public just don’t know anymore,” argued Bennett. “Take Clinton Woods. He’s worked really hard to get his title, fought at the top level to get it, and as he said ‘name me one other British fighter who has this title’. He’s right; not a single other British fighter has an IBF belt, but what credit does he get? Ask the general public who Clinton Woods is and they won’t know. Years ago he would have been a household name for winning a recognised light-heavyweight title but boxing isn’t on the A-list anymore - it’s down there with skateboarding.”

However, times change. Without as much money provided by the sale of television rights to subsidise low ticket sales, and fewer television slots to share around the same number of competing promoters, British promoters and managers might be forced to match their top prospects against each other to produce the most appealing bouts.

And apart from the boxing-watching public, it should be Britain’s excellent crop of lightweights who benefit most from this new climate. Established campaigners such as perennial contender Steve Murray, current British champion Graham Earl, former Commonwealth and WBU champion David Burke and Bennett himself appear to be reaching maturity together. They are about to be joined by exciting prospects Lee Meager and Danny Hunt, and, it is rumoured, domestic super-featherweight stars Michael Gomez and Kevin Lear.

In addition to an environment more conducive to bold matchmaking, Bennett argued that there are other factors that should ensure the lightweights won’t be kept apart. “It’s all about ‘styles make fights’,” he said. “I think all of the guys, with the exception of Burke, have similar styles and any combination would guarantee excitement.”

It looks as if in Britain, 2005 could be the year of the lightweight.

The first round of a potentially gripping series of fights is a British Boxing Board of Control arranged elimination tournament, the semi finals of which will pitch Meager against Burke and Hunt against Dave Stewart on April 29. This tournament will decide who is to be the mandatory challenger for Earl’s British title. In the meantime however, Earl must defend his title against reigning Commonwealth champion Bennett.

But it nearly didn’t happen for Bennett. He explained: “The original fight was due to be held on the 18th March, but if you ask me they never had any intention of honouring the contract. They wrote to the Board asking for a postponement, but didn’t even wait for a reply before signing up to fight against [undefeated Scottish super-featherweight prospect] Ricky Burns [over eight rounds on 25th February].

“I think they wanted a tune-up, but I thought Burns was a strange choice. For a start, Burns is a runner. For a tune-up you like somebody to stand in front of you, you don’t want to be chasing an awkward lad like that. And sure enough, Earl never really got into the fight.”

Earl struggled throughout the fight and after being all but dominated by a ten-fight novice, lost a clear-cut decision. Bennett elaborated: “I turned to my manager after the first round and said to him ‘I’ve seen enough’. But he said ‘we’ll write that one off, because he might need to get his timing and his rhythm’. But it never got any better. I think that Earl just thought he would go in and blast him out. He was swinging wildly without moving his feet. I mean, the golden rule in boxing, the first thing that you get taught when you’re coming through, is that you move your feet to get there first. But Earl was swinging with his arms and his feet were following. I think he expected Ricky Burns just not to hit him - and when he did, Earl looked shocked.”

Bennett, present at ringside, cut a forlorn figure in the aftermath of the fight because many, including Earl himself, felt the British title would be declared vacant. “All my plans were coming crashing down,” he recalled. But last week, the BBB of C agreed to sanction the fight between Earl and Bennett for a date no later than the 14th May.

Understandably, Bennett feels that he has the tools to beat Earl when they eventually meet. “He doesn’t bang really hard, and he’s certainly not a dancer,” claimed the Hartlepool fighter. “I’m not sure he brings anything to the table that would frighten me, really.”

There is also an understanding from the Commonwealth champion that Earl prefers fighters with Bennett’s come forward, aggressive style. As Bennett pointed out: “Earl likes a man to stand in front of him, but not just that, he likes a man to come in at the pace he wants him to come in at. I think against Earl, I would play to my game but do it at a pace that would push him back and hurry him. Plus, I can fight off the back foot. I’m not saying that I want to start that way, but I can do it.”

Bennett also feels that his difficult ring experiences should provide him with the inner toughness to prevail. He believes he has been left stronger after the almost terrifying conclusion to his successful 2003 challenge for the Commonwealth title then held by Michael Muya. A dramatic and disturbing loss of all energy caused an almost delirious Bennett to literally hang on to Muya’s shorts for the last two rounds of a fight which he had dominated.

He explained the cause of this sudden loss of energy. “About a week before the fight, I had my nose broken in sparring by Young Mutley. I remember thinking that come the fight it would really hurt the first few times I got hit on the nose, but then I’d get used to it. I didn’t think of how much blood I could swallow. During the fight blood congealed in my throat and at the back of my nose, which meant I couldn’t breathe properly or take on any liquid. I was conscious that I couldn’t take on any liquid but I remember staying confident because I could do almost anything I wanted [to Muya]. But then things go blurred and later in the fight I can’t remember a thing. I suppose it was a combination of dehydration and exhaustion really.”

It was in the ambulance that rushed him to hospital after the fight that the full extent of Bennett’s condition became apparent. “I spewed up five kidney bowls worth of blood in the ambulance on the way to hospital,” he recalled. “My blood sugar was also really high and I’d partially poisoned my system because of all the blood I’d swallowed. They couldn’t believe how I could complete the course of the fight.”

In addition to outrageous bravery, Bennett has benefited from a kind learning process that he feels may not be available to some of his more protected contemporaries. “You used to be put in with a man and if you lost it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because defeats were seen as part of the learning process. I’ve learned from all of my defeats and they’ve all been against quality operators. Gary Ryder went on to become IBO champion at light-welter, Glenn McClarnon went on to challenge for world and British titles at welterweight, Colin Lynes is IBO light-welterweight champion, and Jason Cook has been IBO and European lightweight champion.”

And while Bennett’s commitment to a more traditional form of ring education is refreshing, just as surprising is his attitude to his defeats. Where some boxers make excuses and lay blame, Bennett offers considered assessments and praise.

“At the end of the fight against Jason Cook, I thought that the decision was a travesty. But after watching the fight I realised it was me. I didn’t do enough. But I think because it was the first 12-rounder after the Muya fight, I was pacing myself too much.”

He continued: “Colin Lynes was the best boxer I’ve ever faced. On the night I fought him he just had all of the answers. I didn’t have my best fight, but Colin was just too sharp and I think it was him who made me have the off night. I have to give Colin the credit for that.”

It’s this honesty that makes his quietly confident prediction for his fight against Earl all the more believable. And it adds credence to his claims that he could comfortably operate at European level. “I’ve been sparring with Martin Kristjansen [who recently challenged for Stefano Zoff’s European lightweight title] and without trying to sound arrogant, I really feel I would more than hold my own at that level. And I’d be confident of beating Zoff. I mean, he’s done really well, but he’s been vulnerable for a while.”

Bennett needn’t worry about sounding arrogant. His voice carry’s none of the boorishness or braggadocio of some boxers. His assessments are logical and based on a sound and deep knowledge of his sport.

Bennett believes that: “When I lose I like to move on and get better. I always think ‘that was my old career.’” Hopefully, his fight against Earl will be the start of the most successful part of his career, rather than the end on an old one
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