The Beltline: Despite his newfound infamy, Conor Benn remains a work in progress in need of patience and protection

By Elliot Worsell

MUCH like the substitute who becomes a better footballer in the eyes of fans the longer he goes without playing, there is a suspicion with Conor Benn, a welterweight boxer with a 23-0 (14) professional record, that inactivity for him has had a similar effect.

After all, having not appeared in a ring for 17 months, it was easy to forget the level at which Benn was previously competing, particularly when a lot of the talk surrounding him was forever about other things. It was about two failed performance-enhancing drug tests, for instance. It was about Chris Eubank Jnr. It was about the big American names he hoped to fight when allowed to return.

In other words, inactivity for Benn not only enhanced his profile – due to the very reason for it – but also lulled us all into a false belief that he was perhaps further down the road to world title glory than, in reality, he actually is.

Now back in the ring, this realisation thudded home during the fifth round of Saturday’s fight against the unknown Pete Dobson at lunchtime in Las Vegas. By then, Benn had hit Dobson with everything he could think to throw for four rounds and was now not just stuck for ideas but watching Dobson slowly – very slowly – warm into the contest and land shots of his own. Three right hands, for example, were delivered at snail’s pace yet found a home somewhere on Benn’s head, each time forcing Benn to either pretend the punch didn’t hurt or regain his balance following a brief stagger. Either way, while not enough to turn the fight in Dobson’s favour, these moments, and this round, acted as a timely reminder of both Benn’s limitations and how these limitations have remained regardless of the boost in profile he has experienced and regardless of him constantly goading big-name welterweights on Twitter.

Conor Benn (Ian Walton Matchroom Boxing)

Indeed, the concern now is that the fighter, as usual, will be the last to understand and accept this, so great is the ego. The concern is that rather than take lessons from the Dobson fight, and also the one before that (another decision win against Rodolfo Orozco), Benn will merely see these victories as warm-ups for bigger fights against bigger names, encouraged no doubt by anyone who stands to make money from his progress.

And yet, if it wasn’t clear before Saturday’s fight, it should be clear as day now that Benn is not ready to take on the best welterweights in the world. In fact, whether he likes it or not, the 27-year-old is still very much learning as a pro and therefore susceptible to making all the same mistakes, both in the ring and on social media, made by other fledgling pros with ideas above their station. This was no better exemplified than the next morning when Benn, clearly stung by criticism regarding his performance against Dobson, lashed out at several boxers online, chief among them Gervonta Davis and Josh Kelly. Fuelled, of course, by emotion, which has been Benn’s fuel for some time now, these outbursts were indicative of somebody who knows the (monetary) value of creating a rivalry but is considerably less aware of his own failings and rate of development.

Because if that were the case, and if Benn truly understood his current standing, names like Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney would be nowhere near his lips. He would also see Josh Kelly as someone not beneath him – by virtue, it seems, of him being a countryman who boxes in small venues – but as an equal and a serious threat to his unbeaten record. For there’s no doubt, based on Benn’s last two outings, Kelly would – and should – represent exactly that in 2024. He is a test for Benn and he is an opponent many will now pick to defeat Benn should that fight ever get made.

And it should, too. It should get made soon, if not next, and it should continue to be built at the expense of frankly ludicrous fights like Benn vs. Haney or Benn vs. Davis. Those fights would signify several leaps in class for Benn at this stage, whereas an opponent like Kelly would be more in keeping with his natural progression.

Which is to say, as tempting as it is to now cash in on his recent infamy and boost in profile, his progression should be neither ignored nor forgotten. Indeed, since 2016, the year he turned pro, there has always been a feeling that Benn’s progression would be slow and that it would probably have to be on account of his lack of top-class amateur pedigree and all-round rawness. This feeling was then confirmed when he struggled badly in a six-rounder against unheralded Frenchman Cedrick Peynaud in 2017. Dropped twice that night, Benn had to rally late to edge Peynaud on the cards, with the fight going a way to prove why he would have to take things slowly as a pro and learn on the job.

This he did, too, beating Peynaud in a rematch seven months later and showing signs of improvement in subsequent years. By 2021, in fact, Benn had physically matured, grown a lot stronger, and was making the kind of impact with his shots that had many calling him a power-puncher to fear at 147 pounds. Stoppages of Samuel Vargas and the two Chrises, Algieri and van Heerden, apparently put the welterweight division on notice and had plenty of the world’s best running scared, or so they say.

It also had Benn believing so much in his power that he saw no problem agreeing to fight Chris Eubank Jnr, a natural middleweight, all in the name of daddy nostalgia in 2022. Again, this seemed an opponent and a task beyond Benn’s skillset at that stage, yet such was the Londoner’s drive and ability to talk the talk, you would have been forgiven for picking him to win or at the very least giving him a chance due to his power, intensity and momentum.

Only when it came to a halt, this momentum, did people start to reassess their view of Benn, both in the context of that ill-fated Eubank Jnr fight and in more general terms. Now they looked upon his recent upturn in form through different eyes, whether fairly or unfairly. Now they wondered what kind of Conor Benn would return once he was again cleared to set foot inside the ring and fight.

Benn lands a left hook on Pete Dobson (Ian Maule/Getty Images)

Well, now we know. On the evidence of two wins, and 22 completed rounds, we know exactly the kind of Conor Benn we are probably going to get in 2024. As before, we will get an all-action boxer who remains very much a work in progress; moreover, a boxer who, by his own admission, remains somewhat hamstrung by the controversy and uncertainty that surrounds him. “This is about me getting back to where I was mentally,” he said following the Dobson win. “Once all this is cleared up, I’ll feel brand new. It’s still lingering in the back of my head and I just want to get back to destroying people.”

Whether Benn’s sudden inability to stop opponents is a byproduct of his recent controversies or not is up for debate, but one thing’s certain: he will not have been helped by such a cloud hanging over him for two training camps and two fights. Call it motivation or fuel as much as you want, but for a boxer like Benn, someone who needs to relax and flow, there can surely be no worse driving force than the idea of Me vs. The World and the feeling of having to prove a point every time he wears gloves in a ring.

Angry enough as it is, Benn is usually at his best when he is calm, settled, and confident. He is also at his best when competing at a level so far beneath world-class he is able to take control and thrive, concealing in the process the many rough edges in his game yet to be smoothed. It’s not too late, of course, for the gradual smoothing of these edges to be continued, but one can’t help but question whether this job – no doubt arduous and time-consuming – has now been superseded by a greater and more immediate goal: getting Conor Benn in the biggest fights possible and making loads of money.

That’s the problem with this type of fame, or infamy, you see. It comes prematurely to a fighter like Benn and is often unwarranted and unearned. What is more, it gives a fighter both an elevated view of themselves and a leg-up as far as securing fights beyond their means; fights against hawks just waiting to swoop down and capture what they doubtless consider easy prey. To make matters worse, the last person to recognise this is what’s happening is typically the prey, that is, the boxer so obsessed with the end destination that in all their ignorance they forget about the skills they must develop along the way.

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