IN a misguided effort to endear himself to fans seemingly all out of trust and sympathy, welterweight contender Conor Benn has targeted two men he believes people want to watch him beat up this summer, thinking only of the money he can make in the process (lots) and not the message it sends (a bad one).
The first of these men, and apparently the frontrunner, is Manny Pacquiao. He is 44 years of age now and was last seen losing a 12-round decision against Yordenis Ugás in August 2021. It was following that punishing defeat Pacquiao, a man who began his career in 1995 and at 106 pounds, was captured on video being fed food by his wife, Jinkee, in their hotel room, with his face disfigured and Father Time waiting outside.
The other option for Benn, meanwhile, is Kell Brook, a fellow Brit who stopped long-time rival Amir Khan in six rounds last February. That was meant to be the 36-year-old’s final ring appearance, and the best possible note on which to go out, yet the Sheffield man, like so many, has in recent weeks been tempted by a return and was captured on video the other day hitting a heavy bag in a boxing gym. That video, while divisive, was considerably better than the other Brook video leaked by The Sun newspaper not long ago (which highlighted the extent of his issues in retirement), but it is still hard to argue that a return to boxing will somehow exorcise all his demons.
Indeed, with both Pacquiao and Brook, you can’t help feeling there is a certain vulnerability being exploited by anyone who chooses to pursue a fight with them in 2023. In the case of Pacquaio, you are unashamedly exploiting his name and his star power and, moreover, his inability to say “no” when offered the chance to make the kind of payday he has come to expect will hit his bank account on an annual basis. With Brook, on the other hand, his psychological vulnerability is more explicit and more widely known. He too carries some star power, albeit not a fraction of Pacquiao’s, but, regardless of that, never should marketability supersede the need for a fighter to look after himself and come to terms with the fact a life after boxing is going to always be an opponent they must someday face.
If a return to the sport is something Brook himself wants, and something he feels is necessary, so be it. It’s his career, it’s his brain, and it’s his life. However, if a return to boxing is merely being considered because Brook has one eye on Conor Benn and the sort of money a freakshow fight could attract, it would be a shame if nobody around Brook thought to pull him to one side and explain to him why circuses are sometimes not conducive to great mental health.
Similarly, there’s a feeling Pacquiao needs protecting from himself. He will be less aware of the furore surrounding Benn, one suspects, but will be no less enticed by the numbers that appear on a contract for a fight in the Middle East (with Abu Dhabi on June 3 the rumour). And let’s not kid ourselves: in the end, money trumps damage nine times out of ten.
As for Benn, he is perhaps the biggest and ugliest problem here. After all, whereas Pacquiao and Brook, for all their faults, are both free to fight and free of Benn-level controversy, Benn is electing to stubbornly persevere with his career in spite of an ongoing performance-enhancing drug issue.
Which is to say, whether cleared to fight (outside the UK) or not, the optics – something Benn’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, spoke about in detail when he met the press in December – are not exactly good here. Sensitive, of course, to the fact he needs to do something with his life and try to continue with his career, it nevertheless feels like a slap in the face of just about everybody in the sport for Benn to proceed with a fight in the Middle East as if nothing happened in the first place; even worse, to proceed with a fight against men whose damage is far greater than merely reputational.
Still, in the eyes of those who have seen this before, this was the fear from the very beginning. Time. The passing of it. The more of it that passed, of course, the looser the grip became and the easier it became for the man once suffocated to wriggle free.
That this has happened is a failure of the sport as opposed to just one person, and Benn, the one most impacted by it, should not be blamed for wanting to fight again and simply acting within a set of rules already established. He is, in theory, doing nothing wrong by plotting a fight in the Middle East in June. Nor is he doing anything wrong by hounding old men like Pacquiao and Brook in an effort to essentially sportswash his own issues.
It’s only morally, in fact, that one could accuse Benn and his team of negligence. It’s only in that context – morals, principles, doing what feels right – you could look upon this move as something sinister or conceited or just plain tone-deaf.
Yet, equally, if you expected those involved to have all of a sudden seen the light in the six months that have elapsed since Benn’s fight with Chris Eubank Jnr was cancelled, you probably deserve the shock you felt when discovering you were wide of the mark. For this latest plan of action is, if nothing else, admirably consistent. It is consistent with the characters involved and it is consistent with the paths of many boxers who have, whether deliberately or not, come into contact with a performance-enhancing drug and relied upon both the short memories of the jury and the incompetence of the judge to ultimately absolve them.
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