With three wins under his belt after surrendering his Commonwealth middleweight title to Michael Watson, Nigel Benn stayed in America and challenged Doug 'Cobra' DeWitt, the inaugural WBO middleweight champion. DeWitt proved his durability by taking Thomas Hearns the full twelve rounds in an unsuccessful bid for the North American Boxing Federation middleweight crown in October 1986.
DeWitt was born in Youngstown, Ohio on 13th August 1961 and later moved to Yonkers, New York. He started boxing at fifteen and three years later turned professional, outscoring Peter Pennello in March 1980.
The Hearns defeat was the seventh blemish on his record of 27-4-3 (17 KO's), with Ben Serrano, Robbie Sims and Milton McCrory all outscoring him. He also lost his next contest, a third round TKO to Jose Quinones in February 1987 (Benn took care of Quinones in the first round in December 1989).
Three wins and a draw later got him a shot at Sumbu Kalambay for the WBA middleweight crown. The champion was making the third defence of his belt and the fight took place in Manaco on 08th November 1988. DeWitt was rated number five by the WBA and the champion hit him at will, until knocking him out with a left hook to the jaw in the fifth round.
In his next fight, DeWitt squared off again with Robbie Sims, who outpointed him back in August 1985. At stake was the newly formed World Boxing Organisation middleweight title. After twelve rounds, two of the three judges favoured DeWitt to become the new world champion. He made his first defence against Matthew Hilton, winning at the end of round eleven, with the ringside doctor pulling Hilton out because of his injured right eye.
The hard punching 'Dark Destroyer' was next and the battle scarred DeWitt was the favourite to keep hold of his championship. The bout took place at Atlantic City's Caesars Casino and Hotel on 29th April 1990. Things didn't start well for the defending champion. Benn was accurate with his right hand over the top of DeWitt's lowered left and within 60 seconds of the maiden round he found himself cut. A hard left towards the end of the round shook the 'Cobra' to his boots.
Round two was pretty much more of the same. The unfancied challenger would steamroll his way through the champion's leaky guard, landing his bombs, leaving DeWitt with little option but to absorb the shots. As the end of the round was approaching they both landed left hooks. The champion went back on his heels and Benn's vulnerability came back to haunt him as his legs cut away from under him.
The challenger showed a great deal of maturity as he took the eight count on his knees instead of jumping to his feet in an act of bravado. The action resumed and the Brit won the exchange of crunching hooks as the bell rang to stop the action.
The champion changed tactics in the third, moving into Benn, throwing quick but weightless punches. The challenger landed a crunching right cross that put DeWitt on the canvas. The 'Cobra' was getting hammered around the ring with the bell saving him from a knockout.
Benn's dominance continued in rounds four, five and six, with DeWitt absorbing some sickening head shots, without the ability to avoid them. Now and again he would land some quick jabs and right crosses and he would tie his man up in close, but the challenger was piling up a big points lead.
The fight was becoming one-sided in the seventh, as Benn continued to land some huge, withering blows. The pace was starting to get to the challenger, then, as they tangled in a mid-ring exchange, Benn tripped over the champion's foot and stumbled into the ropes. In a strange act of bravado, the Brit threw himself back into the ropes and appeared to shout out in pain.
The champion was too astonished to act on the open target in front of him. Shortly afterwards the bell rang to allow the challenger time to recover. It was later revealed that Benn had actually twisted his ankle at that moment, but he refused to let any disadvantage get in his way.
Benn started the eighth by crunching a left hook on DeWitt's jaw. The champion slumped to the canvas on his side, then flopped to his face, burying it in the canvas. He barely beat the count and was quickly floored again.
The World Boxing Organisation had the three knockdown rule in effect and Benn tore into DeWitt, backing him into the ropes. The fading champion was knocked sideways by another crunching right hand. As he fell, Benn landed a left full in the face. DeWitt sprawled on the canvas as referee Randy Neuman waved it off 44 seconds into the round.
Benn had become the first British middleweight to have won a world title since Alan Minter in 1980. All three judges had him in front, 67-64, 66-64 and 70-63. As well as the twisted ankle in round seven, he also broke two bones in his wrist and suffered a cut right eye.
DeWitt announced his retirement by saying "I've never been hit that hard and I don't want to be hit like that again. It's just not there anymore."
The new champion wanted to be a busy one. "I know that everyone was tipping me to lose. The American media gave me less chance than the British, but I'm proud that I've proved them wrong. It's what I've worked so hard for all my life, and I hope the people at home are as proud as I am to win the title for Britain."
On 18th August 1990, Benn was in Las Vegas making the first defence of his middleweight belt against ex WBC champion Iran Barkley, who shocked the boxing world when he defeated Thomas Hearns in the third round to take the title, after taking a pounding from the 'Hit Man.'
Barkley was then outpointed in February 1989 when he faced another living legend Roberto Duran. The Panamanian became the first Latino to win four world titles in different weight categories. In August 1989 he challenged IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn losing out by a majority decision and didn't box again until his challenge for the WBO middleweight crown.
The champion walked into the ring to 'Land of Hope and Glory' and when the bell rang flew out of his corner. The challenger was perceived to be over the hill and 'The Dark Destroyer' added fuel to that speculation when he staggered his man with the first right of the contest.
The war-torn Barkley's warrior surfaced and swapped leather with the oncoming Brit, who sent him to the ropes. A left hook put 'The Blade' down on the bottom rope, the elasticity bouncing Barkley back to his feet. Carlos Padilla, the third man in the ring, issued a mandatory eight count.
Benn stormed into the Bronx man as the action continued and had to take a left hook that staggered him back to the ropes. They slugged it out and both men forgot about their defences. the champion tucked his chin in well as he bobbed and weaved on the ropes and fired in his own punches.
The slugfest continued in the centre of the ring and Benn momentarily paused, swayed back and landed a huge right to Barkley's chin. The challenger staggered and took another right. As he tottered backwards he was caught by a left and hit the canvas.
Being over eager, Benn hit his man when he was on his hands and knees. There wasn't much in the punch, but that didn't detract from the fact that a foul had been committed and had the contest been in Britain, then Benn faced a disqualification.
Barkley quickly got up as the onlookers voiced their disgust at the defending champion, with Padilla administrating another eight-count. The challenger was still game and came forward, gloves high. A two-fisted assault from the champion had Barkley down again and with the three-knockdown rule in effect, Benn kept a hold of his belt after two-minutes and 57 seconds of mayhem.
The WBO champion returned to the British Isles when he faced Chris Eubank at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre on 18th November 1990. The contest was billed as 'Who's Fooling Who' and the two men were polar opposites.
The champion was all about the glitz, glamour, designer clothes, expensive cars and all the trappings that came with a high-living lifestyle; Eubank was a family man with modest tastes. His 'stockbrokers' voice was out of place in the boxing world and he branded the sport as a 'mug's game,' bringing scorn from his contemporaries.
The only things they had in common were their weight, boxing and a genuine dislike for the other. "What we have here, is a competent, intellectual boxer against the shallow minded puncher," said Eubank. "The objective will be to overcome the man and prove that he's a fraud. I may just stand back and play with him before I maul him."
"I want to humiliate him, because I detest him," Benn retaliated. "I want to shut his mouth forever. I really do detest him."
Though many people believed Eubank was just full of hot air and wanted Benn to put this upstart in his place, Eubank came into the ring with a perfect 24-0 record and picked up the WBC International middleweight title along the way.
Barry Hearn, Eubank's promoter, along with his charge, believed his boxer had the style to defeat the defending champion and made an offer Benn and his colourful manager, Ambrose Mendy, an offer they couldn't refuse. With the TV and press jumping all over the grudge angle of the contest, the tickets for the huge NEC virtually sold themselves.
The fighters also played on it. Eubank refused to look at Benn in any of the press conferences or camera interviews, saying he would face his man in the ring. They traded insults, with Benn being the more threatening as Eubank would subtly get under the champion's skin.
The champion entered the arena to a chorus of boos. His usual ring walk music, 'Simply the Best' by Tina Turner was sabotaged by Team Benn. With Hearn refusing to go out unless the music was played, it was Eubank who showed calmness and went out anyway to get the job done.
The challenger stood motionless in his corner, waiting for the extravagant entrance of the champion. He climbed through the ropes, looking mean, throwing punches with intent, as Ambrose Mendy spoke reassuring and calming words into his ear.
At the bell Benn came rushing out, looking to end matters quickly but Eubank, who reportedly backed himself with a grand to win in the opening round, came out side-on in a crab-like stance. His right hand was accurate and caused Benn some problems, managing to slow the Londoner down when he fired back with his own punches. In an act of bravado, the champion hoisted Eubank off his feet and almost over his shoulder as they clinched. The challenger scored again at the bell and paraded around the ring for a good 15 seconds before his trainer, Ronnie Davis, could offer his instructions.
Benn tucked up and cracked Eubank with a right to start off the second round well. They tested each other's chins. The challenger missed with a right uppercut as Benn countered with a great shot of his own. The champion started to work his man's body but Eubank nailed him with two chopping rights. Benn was hurt and had to bob and weave on the ropes to keep from harms way as the bell sounded to end the round.
Eubank had gained confidence and verbally taunted the champion. Benn was coming underneath the Brighton man's long punches to sink in some hurtful body shots. Although the challenger was starting to look a bit tired, he did manage to hurt the champion again. Benn responded with a bone jarring punch to the jaw and referee Richard Steele had to part them at the bell. It was a war and the man who wanted it the most would surely come out on top.
Benn's left eye had reddened and in the opening seconds of the fourth he was quite content to stay on the ropes and let the challenger expend energy. His tactics seemed to be working as Eubank looked very tired as he took more punishing shots to his body. Eubank was working in short bursts, using his jab to damage the champion's eye even further.
In the fifth it was Eubank's turn to show damage. His left cheek was cut and there was blood coming from his lips, but Benn, with his left eye nearly shut, looked in a worse state. The challenger used his jabs and counter punches to exploit the injury, picking off the champion when he came at him with hooks. Benn taunted him, but Eubank refused the bait and got on with his boxing.
The sixth was going the same way, Eubank would would draw the champion's lead and counter. Benn dipped low and sank a left into Eubank's groin. He sank to his knees as he doubled over in pain. He got up, but was in obvious distress. WBO rules clearly stated that no fighter could be disqualified if a foul was committed and Steele gave Eubank ample time to recover.
As they resumed, Benn fired everything at his stricken challenger. This time he scored a legal body punch. With Eubank trying to complain, he had no choice but to cover up as his nemesis reigned everything down on him. The 12,000 crowd were now baying for the challenger's blood, but he did manage to hurt Benn with his right to end the round.
The Brighton eccentric was still feeling the effects of the low blow in the seventh, as Benn continued his body assault. The champion was shaken by a one-two but he fired back immediately, with the spectators showing their approval as the bell tolled.
In the eighth round Benn's left eye was now tightly closed, meaning he wouldn't be able to see the challenger's right hands coming his way. He did manage to score a knockdown as he landed a clubbing right behind Eubank's ear. He protested vehemently that he had slipped on the wet canvas. Steel ignored him as he continued with the mandatory eight count and maturely accepted the referee's decision.
Both men were now standing still outside of punching range waiting for the other to make their move, who would commit to a mistake first. The crowd were now chanting 'Nigel, Nigel' in a chant found on the football terraces. Eubank complained again late in the round, and it looked like his resolve had finally evaporated.
Eubank resurfaced in the ninth, his long rights landed on Benn's blindside and he countered the champion's advances. Suddenly, two big rights from the challenger sent Benn to the ropes. The defending champion usually fired back like a wounded, cornered animal when hurt, but on this occasion he had nothing left and Eubank went in for the finish.
The challenger opened up, as Benn flailed to a neutral corner. He could only take leather as Richard Steele came to the stricken champion's rescue with only 4 seconds of the round remaining. Eubank had proved the doubters wrong and enhanced his reputation as tough nut to crack as he became the new WBO champion and inflicted the second defeat on Benn's resume.
"It was one of the most dramatic fights I've ever refereed," said Steele afterwards. "Benn wanted to carry on, he's a gallant fighter, but I said 'No, you've had enough.' He couldn't see out of his (left) eye."
The tearful new champion, who praised his adversary and complained of severe pain, proposed to his girlfriend after the dramatic victory. "Marry me Karen," said Eubank, who was behind on the judges cards. "That man humbled me. I had to keep telling myself not to be denied. This is a dangerous business and I can't tell you how hard it was in there. I'll never fight Nigel Benn again. He nearly killed me... Two things in life are certain - you live and you die. I came close to dying . Benn is a phenomenal puncher. If all boxers were as powerful as him, I would quit," concluded Eubank.
"I still detest Eubank as a person," conceded the now former champion. "But as a fighter he now has my upmost respect. He's some guy. I never thought he could take my punches and remain standing, but I was wrong. Eubank, like Watson, whipped my backside good."
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