The Beltline: Conor Benn and the rage of “innocence”

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USED so often it has now become the wronged athletes’ “Live, Laugh, Love”, the Insta-mantra “let the apology be as loud as the disrespect” has been trotted out plenty in the 10 weeks since Conor Benn’s annulled fight against Chris Eubank Jnr back in October. And yet, as things currently stand, we – that is, the boxing world – remain without either the answers or explanation required to issue the apology Benn feels he deserves.

Indeed, all we have as the year comes to a close is a promise that the truth will out and that Benn’s name will in the end be cleared (a promise reiterated in the latest statement Benn released on social media on Monday, December 12). How this happens is anyone’s guess, but if the eventual apology needs to be as loud as the disrespect, we, the soon apologetic, ideally need the explanation Benn and his team provide to be as shocking as the initial news report (by the Daily Mail) in October. Which is to say, no basic, wishy-washy excuse will in this instance suffice: no claim of a tainted supplement, no mention of trace amounts, no mention of bad luck. The excuse needs to instead be a good one. The best one. The kind that comes as a shock to everyone: think Haley Joel Osment seeing dead people, Kevin Spacey straightening out his limp, or Anthony Perkins removing his wig.

If it’s not, we have a problem – still. We have a problem, firstly, in terms of how we, as a sport, move forward, and Benn, too, may have a problem in terms of how popular and marketable he is both next year and beyond. Right now, with him certain of his innocence, he will no doubt believe he can simply continue as before next year – if and when his name is cleared – yet the reality of that plan could be quite different from the fantasy.

If, after all, his excuse does not carry weight, the trust in the eyes of the British public, this public that once rallied behind Benn during his exciting rise up the rankings, could be gone – gone for good. His only hope at that stage is that they prove to be a fickle bunch, which typically they are, and that his in-ring exploits, plus time, will ultimately smooth things over and he will, in time, be allowed to get on with his business in a sport hardly known for its morals or principles.

The fight that never was: Eubank Jnr and Benn during happier times Leigh Dawney/Getty Images)

Should that happen, Benn would not be the first, of course. There have, in fact, been many fighters over the years, particularly of late, who have fallen foul of the drug testers only to have the transgression all but forgotten on account of their subsequent exploits in the ring. Tyson Fury, for one, is a man who has had a murky history with the testers dating back to his breakout win against Wladimir Klitschko in 2015, yet he is nevertheless celebrated by some as not only the best heavyweight in the world but an inspiration. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, too, is a man who served a six-month ban in 2018 – after receiving a dodgy draw against Gennady Golovkin – only to return from that ban to beat Golovkin in their rematch and proceed to win many more fights and bank many more multi-million-dollar paydays.

As those two have shown, then, it can be done. You can make a mistake in boxing and be forgiven fairly quickly, something that owes to both the sport’s own loose morals and its audience’s care-not approach to drug-taking. To them, the audience, so long as there is a fight worth watching taking place inside the ring, they couldn’t care less how either fighter has gone about preparing to partake in said fight. At the end of the day, they just want to see punches exchanged, heads roll, and someone eventually left unconscious on the floor.

In the case of Fury and also Alvarez, what helped was the fact neither of those stories ever really exploded the way Benn’s did in October (when, rather than Benn-Eubank III, it became the story). Fury’s, in particular, was hush-hush for a long time and even now, some seven years on, people still don’t know exactly what happened, nor what they are permitted to say about that two-year period post-Klitschko. It is perhaps why he is rarely asked about it and also why, in the eyes of his disciples, he is a man who can do – and has done – no wrong.

Alvarez, likewise, was someone whose ban was so short it effectively only covered the time he would take off between fights anyway. This meant his absence was never missed and, unless paying attention to his story, hardly ever mentioned, either.

Worse than that, we had people within the sport doing all they could to preserve his reputation rather than condemn him for all he had done wrong. WBA President Gilberto Mendoza, for example, was happy to tell me that March, “It’s like if something happened to Anthony (Joshua). These guys carry the torch for the sport. They are the reason we exist. Fans, sanctioning bodies and the rest of the fighters owe it to them. If you look at their careers, they have been clean all the time. But sometimes, at some point, I understand, things can happen.

“What really bothers me is that the test was in February and I have at least three tests in my records where Canelo was negative. So why are you going to stop the fight (the rematch with Golovkin) happening? Is it to do with marketing the fight? I don’t understand it.

“I consulted specialists in that field and the percentage of clenbuterol he had gives you reason to doubt. I just don’t see it. I stand by Canelo 100 per cent. This is a fighter who has never had a negative (drug test) in the past.”

By Mendoza’s reckoning, just because Alvarez had never tested positive before – or, in other words, been caught – there was absolutely no way he could be guilty of the crime of which he had been accused that year. Not just that, so small was the amount of clenbuterol found in his system, the sensible thing, according to Mendoza, would be to just ignore it altogether.

Sound familiar? It should.

Indeed, this concept of “innocent even if proven guilty” is one we have seen explored a lot in boxing in recent times. It has its roots in the idea that even if a boxer fails a performance-enhancing drug test they should be given a fair chance to explain away the misdemeanour and, in turn, clear their name. That, of course, seems only right, but the problem we have then is that boxers are being granted ample time – maybe too much time – to gather their evidence, get their story straight, confer, and assess various loopholes to exploit in order to eventually deliver something loosely resembling an explanation, which, they hope, will absolve them from either the crime or the heaviest punishment. This, in my opinion, is not good for the sport and the alternative – essentially, a failed test is a sign of guilt, regardless of whether there was intention to cheat or not – has to be the preferable option, even more so when you consider the inherent danger of the sport and the potential for damage.

Conor Benn, the latest to sadly fall under the microscope, will be fine, I’m sure. He will, at some point, be cleared to fight again and that’s what he will then do: fight again. Yet what will be interesting to see in the meantime is how the British public, whose sentimentality Benn and Eubank Jnr targeted so desperately in 2022, react to whatever explanation Benn offers them in 2023.

Three months ago, he needed them to remember – chiefly, two fights in the nineties – and he needed their money. Now, though, both today and going forward, he will need their sympathy, their understanding, and their willingness to forget.

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