Conor Benn is riding the crest of a wave, but as he takes a moment during the build-up to next week’s fight against South African Chris Van Heerden the bravado slips and the fighting talk dims.

Instead, the 25-year-old husband, father and son of a British boxing icon gets very real. There are no soundbites about training hard, no smack talk about what might happen when he tops the bill in Manchester next week and certainly no outlandish threats.

No, the young ‘Destroyer’ has a different game face and it is serious. Benn has had a few tough fights on his way to 20-0 but his father, Nigel, made his name from them and one bout in particular left an indelible mark on boxing history.

When Benn Sr shocked America’s heavy punching favourite Gerald McClellan on a shocking night on London’s Docklands 27 years ago, McClellan finally emerged with serious life-altering injuries.

The following days were as dark as any boxing has experienced on these shores. 

As Benn Jr’s hard façade momentarily slips, he stops to consider that war, glorious in its violent majesty, tragic with the consequences that irreparably changed both men, one from the inside out and the other from the outside in.

“It’s not really pleasant talking about it before I have a fight coming up,” says Benn, gently taken aback by the line of question, then professionally taking time to carry on with his response. “But you know, I think we all know the risks when we get in there. Boxing is so much more advanced today. I know there’s been tragedies in boxing, often I believe with a weight cut. It’s so important in terms of coming down safely. I feel there’s a massive difference with someone who makes the weight properly and someone who doesn’t, and in terms of bad knockouts and knockouts when people aren’t getting back up, the weight cut is just as important as the fighting. I can’t stress it enough to fighters, that weight cut is such an issue. You rarely see it with the heavyweights getting damaged because they don’t do the weight cut as drastic as the lighter weights trying to get down. I make sure I leave 6-7lbs three weeks or two weeks out from the fight. People say, ‘Well why don’t you drop down in weight?’ ‘Because it ain’t comfy.’ It ain’t good for your body and if you don’t do the diet right and you’ve got to cut 18lbs on fight week – which you hear some fighters do – it’s unprofessional. It’s not the way to do things and you shouldn’t do that to your body. Of course there are risks, but I don’t go into a fight thinking about it.”

Benn has faith in the standards and practises employed by the British Boxing Board of Control, often seen as a standard bearer the sport but one must also realise how laissez faire other jurisdictions are internationally. Benn has the utmost faith in his team, too, including trainer Tony Sims, who he’s pledged to stay with until he throws his last professional punch. Benn also knows not to cut corners 

“I make sure I do my weight cut properly,” he continues. “I don’t need no one telling me what to do or when I’ve got to do it because I make sure I do it myself. Because if I rely on Tony, or if I rely on [strength and conditioning coach] Dan [Lawrence] or other parts of my team to remind me to do something then it ain’t going to work because you shouldn’t have to rely on nobody but yourself and do things the right way.”

Benn lives the life to the extent that he’s become a meme. He must be asked whether ‘he’s crushing it in the gym’ dozens of times each day. Sims is an advocate for Conor’s work ethic, too. But Benn is driven by victory, glory and providing for his family. It’s not about the war, the reputation or the brutality, even though he makes a brutal living. It’s a matter of working to live rather than living to work. Real life always comes first.  

“If there was a risk of me coming out, touch wood, damaged if there’s any chance of me coming out 10 per cent damaged or losing a fight, I’d lose a fight every day of the week – I’d lose a fight twice on Sunday,” Conor states, again when asked about the risks he chooses to confront. “Your health comes first. At the end of the day, I’d rather see my kids grow up. I want to be able to see my grandson or granddaughter... I want to be able to live life with my family. There’s more to life than just boxing. There really is.”

Benn has also clearly learned from the age-old stereotypes, fighters who don’t know when to quit, who carry on too long with their skills diminished and their reputation even more so. 

“Listen, I don’t know how long I’ve got left in this game, but it ain’t going to be in this game…” He stops short of giving a headline about how long he’s got left. There are no false promises. This interview is different. It’s not about the last fight, the next one, the end goal. It’s about stuff that really matters. In many ways, it’s about life and death. “I’ve done six years already. Where’s that time gone?” he shakes his head in disbelief, then steals himself to go again. “It’s almost seven years and it’s not been of pitter-pattering around, I’ve crunched down for those seven years. The training is brutal, on your hands, elbows, back… I’m pushing myself to the brink and I sometimes tell Tony, ‘I didn’t think I could do half of what I’ve done.’ ‘I don’t think your body can do it.’ From just the training, I pour everything out into it and when you start having [aching] elbows and hands from punching through people… Last camp I flew in an undefeated super-middleweight for sparring. It all just has its toll.” 

All of it. Throwing punches, taking punches. Tough fights, easy fights. Long camps, short camps. The odometer ticks each day regardless, on the knees, the shoulders, hands, arms and the brain. Then what? That’s also something Conor thinks about today.

“What happens when boxing’s gone and you’re battered and bruised and now no one cares about you?” he asks. Then, clearly going back to family, Tony and probably a handful of others, he qualifies the statement… “I can’t say no one cares about you but you’re all battered and bruised and you’re not Conor Benn anymore. I’ve got to think of the dad I am to my son, the husband I am to my wife, or the grandparent I want to be. There’s so much more to life.”

This he knows all too well. He’s seen the scars of boxing first-hand, the real cost of the glamour of violence. He’s seen his dad spend more years trying to cope with what happened against McClellan than he spent in boxing. You’re a long-time retired, there’s a long time without crowds cheering, your back being slapped and without the adrenaline surge from the thrill of the fight. Benn Sr has dealt with the silence, the down time, the time with his thoughts and his memories, including those memories of the fallen American.

“Obviously I see my dad still dealing with it now,” Conor adds, taking a moment but without the emotion his dad would have felt answering a similar question concerning the aftermath of one of the most bitter grudge matches of the 1990s. “Do you know what I mean? He’s genuinely still dealing with it now. If there’s anything you can make him cry about when he’s doing Q and As or after-dinner speaking, it’s often about McClellan. He’ll always cry about it. I feel as you get older you realise that’s another human being, that’s someone’s life, irrelevant of how it was at the time. So you always pray both parties come out uninjured.”

For Conor, behind every punch thrown at his own shadow, with each step on those long, lonely morning runs, there’s the image of wife Victoria and son Eli pushing and inspiring him to punch harder, run faster, be better.

His son, Eli Clay Benn, is only a toddler. Naturally Benn had that initial parent’s recoil of not wanting his son to box, but even as these early days go by, he’s not so sure.

“It’s only been recent,” Benn admits, again pausing to provide context and thought to his answer. “I didn’t think so, but I think there might be [another fighting Benn in the family]. My son… I never really thought about it until I saw him in the gym and he’s trying to hit the bag now and he’s one-and-a-half… Who knows? I won’t force him into it. If he decides to stick on a pair of gloves and have a go, be my guest. But what I will do is stress how hard it is, which is what my dad didn’t do with me. If he told me how hard this game was I would have been a painter and decorator to be honest!”

Benn laughs softly, perhaps there’s a touch of regret, but you can’t shake the ambition from his eyes no matter how serious or dark the subject matter becomes.

Too easily people say this sport is hurt or be hurt, kill or be killed. Benn is in a considerate and pensive mood. It’s not about that for him, it’s a sport. It’s about giving his young family the things so many families don’t have, including financial freedom. This business hurts so many, but it’s not about hurting anyone for Benn. His intention is winning a sporting contest.

“If someone told me that Van Heerden was going to come out 10, 20, 30 percent injured or be in a coma, I’d rather lose the fight,” Conor concludes, in a tone laced with passion and intent. “Because how do you deal with it? And I’d probably end up retiring after the fight anyway. I’m not in this game to inflict serious damage on somebody. It’s all well and good knocking someone out and that’s fine, you get knocked out, you get back up, you’re sweet. But when it’s life, career-ending… It’s not what the sport of boxing is about. It’s a gentleman’s sport.”