EXCLUSIVE: ‘I was 12 when teachers told me I had demons and was going to hell’: Conor Benn – son of boxing legend Nigel – opens up on the horror of being sent to a ‘cult’ religious school
- Conor Benn is gearing up to fight against Chris Algieri in Liverpool this weekend
- The 25-year-old welterweight is the son of the legendary fighter Nigel Benn
- But Benn has not always had the smoothest relationship with his father
Tis a season of longing and loathing for Conor Benn. This deep into the fight build-up, certain festivities don’t bear thinking about.
‘Loads of food is what Christmas consists of for me,’ Benn says. ‘Salted caramel mince pies… mmm, I can’t be thinking about this now. I’m not even going to entertain that thought.’
Unfortunately, other wintry traditions cannot be shut from his mind. Other harsher habits are etched on to the boxer’s soul.
For Conor Benn, the festive season hasn’t always represented a time of joy and celebration
Benn has opened up to Sportsmail about life as a youngster growing up at a religious school
‘At New Year’s I’m on my hands and knees in the church — repenting, saying we need to be forgiven for our sins or we’re going to hell,’ Benn recalls. ‘I’m like 12, 13 years old, they thought I had demons in me.’
This weekend, darkness will again envelop this welterweight destroyer when he faces Chris Algieri in Liverpool. Now 25, Benn is still honing his craft — 19 wins have not come without the odd scrape and bruise. So far, however, his boxing education has left fewer scars than his years in the classroom.
As a teenager in Mallorca, growing up outside the shadow of his father Nigel, Conor was sent to a strict religious school made up of only 30 children but no little torment.
‘It was horrible — like a cult,’ he says. ‘I had things programmed into me which no kid should have. Or no kid should have to go through, but obviously it was all I knew.’
Benn was no stranger to being shut off. He grew up in a gated mansion. All the family lacked at home? Relics of one of British boxing’s most pulsating careers. Nigel left London to ‘outrun’ a life of hedonism that drove him to the brink of suicide. He was born again, a Christian and member of an evangelical church community that frowned on his ring exploits — and punished his son.
‘Schools like that — which I don’t believe are very common — can’t do anything good for young kids,’ Benn says. ‘I’ve had to do a lot of work with myself just to see things in a different light.’
Therapy and counselling helped repair the pain of that half-decade. ‘It probably took about two years of un-programming, rewinding to realise this is not how it’s supposed to be,’ Benn says.
‘It definitely had an impact on me. Even into my relationship, the way I was, the way I disliked my parents — me and dad had a rocky relationship until I was 18.’
At present, Benn is gearing up to fight against Chris Algieri in Liverpool this weekend
Benn is the son of boxing legend Nigel Benn but their relationship hasn’t always been smooth
Pupils were warned about the impending arrival of an antichrist. They prepared for the end of the world. He believed God peered down ‘with a magnifying glass and a whip’.
‘I’d get detention all the time. I got suspended for writing a love note to a girl,’ he remembers.
‘That may have been why they thought I had demons. I never even kissed her, mate. I threw a love note over to her desk.’
A normal day began with hands on hearts as students pledged allegiance to the school and their country. As for lessons?
‘You’d sit down and put your flag up and the teacher would come to you if you needed any assistance,’ Benn recalls. ‘It’s like home-schooling. But the school had about 30 kids. I’m still working on forgiving the teachers.’
So what convinced them he needed rescuing? ‘I was an energetic kid. I didn’t do my school work, and that was it. For them to go, “We think your son needs deliverance…” what are you talking about?’ Benn snaps. ‘It was nothing for them to say: “Oh, you have demons in you”.’
They dished out punishment aplenty — ‘You know what it says in the Bible about discipline.’
The greatest damage came between his ears. ‘Thinking there was always something wrong with me. Or why I was a certain way, and why all the other kids weren’t,’ he explains. ‘Being told I’m this, I’m that, the world is coming to an end, on New Year’s we were repenting on our hands and knees — the antichrist is coming and the world is coming to an end. I’m a kid, what rubbish are you lot talking about? You’ve ruined so many lives.’
It was a seven-day operation. Monday to Friday in school, Friday in the youth club, Sunday school. Benn played the guitar in church, his parents volunteered. Repercussions for any misstep would continue at home.
‘Obviously when you go home and tell your dad, “I’ve just been suspended”, it doesn’t sound good. They said I pushed over a teacher,’ the boxer continues. ‘Never, ever would I push over a teacher, she was an old lady!’
Upstairs at a farmhouse gym in Essex, Benn’s wife Victoria stands nearby. Together they will soon celebrate a first Christmas with their own son, Eli Clay. Benn is already preparing to dress up as Santa. The pain of his own schooling has forced him to consider Eli’s education, too.
‘I will put him in a religious school but I will be heavily keeping an eye out,’ he says.
‘Religion applies good, old school morals — manners and respect are qualities I love so I’ve dedicated my son’s life to God but it’s about relationship, not religion. You ain’t got to get down on your hands and knees and pray on New Year’s.’
These days, the father-son relationship has been a huge plus point in his life and career
Benn pictured going through his paces in the gym ahead of his impending Algieri showdown
Not that Benn bears resentment towards his own parents. It remains a sore subject, however.
Benn says: ‘Now my mum would cry if she speaks about it, “Son I’m so, so sorry”. I say, “Mum, you thought it was the right thing, you can’t put that on yourself”.
‘I’m just glad my parents see it for what it is. I love my parents.’
Benn has grown to be a thoughtful, charming fighter with a ferocious streak. He is a man of God, too. Within the tapestry of ink that weaves across Benn’s torso, down his arms and up around his neck, the words ‘Fear God’ are etched across his midriff.
Even all that hurt could not shake his faith. ‘It hasn’t at all because I found God for myself,’ he explains. Each morning, en route to the gym, Benn stops to pray. To find this peace, however, required a trip off the rails.
‘You completely rebel and go against everything (school) say,’ he says. ‘That isn’t what faith is about, it isn’t what religion is about. It’s about relationship over religion.’
Benn pictured celebrating alongside his father in 2016 after defeating Luke Keleher
Fortunately, those overseeing Benn’s boxing education strike a more compassionate balance. Tony Sims has been in his corner since day one; together they now plot deliverance for Algieri and Co.
‘Exactly,’ Benn laughs. ‘I don’t listen to many people — you could have anyone come in and try to tell me what to do. I wouldn’t listen. If someone else was in my corner, I wouldn’t fight.’
Benn’s boxing still needs refining as he climbs the sport’s slippery slope. His work ethic less so.
‘I get up at 3am, I train hard. My whole life is about discipline and structure,’ Benn adds.
‘My childhood has moulded me into the man I am… disciplined at school, disciplined at home. Just the way I am — discipline is a key quality I have.’ Benn pauses. ‘Borderline punishment.’
Conor Benn is an Everlast ambassador. To shop the collection, visit sportsdirect.com. ‘Everlast, in terms of the brand, is legendary. When you think of Everlast, you think of Ali, you think of these great fighters. For me to part of the Everlast family is such a blessing,’ Benn said.
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