Published on November 5, 2013 | by Michael Carre

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Sports writing festival offers authors a literary platform

Ben Dirs (second from left) talks with fellow boxing writers Mike Costello, Donald McRae and Kevin Mitchell about his new book.

Ben Dirs (second from left) showcasing his work at the London Sports Writing Festival [Clare Skinner]

Anyone with an interest in British sport will have some notion of the intense rivalry between Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn that dominated boxing in the early nineties.

The first fight was staged in the year 1990, but due to its ramifications there were calls for a rematch in 1993.

These blistering fights would capture the attention of a nation.

Ben Dirs, the BBC’s chief boxing correspondent, was just a teenager when the feud unfolded and has since gone on to spend much of his working life covering the sport he fell in love with.

Dirs has written a book dedicated to the rivalry that exploded on to the British boxing scene.

Rivalry

The Hate Game: Benn, Eubank and British Boxing’s Bitterest Rivalry was published this month and describes the rivalry in its tiniest details, exploring the build-up, the backstage antics and why both fighters were at such loggerheads.

Dirs explained why the Benn-Eubank rivalry was so special.

“That was the last golden era of British boxing. In terms of the reach of those two guys – the second fight had 16 million people watching. To put that into perspective, that’s about the same that saw Andy Murray win Wimbledon.”

That changed with Sky taking away the rights from terrestrial TV in the mid-90s – a decision which boxing has never recovered from, much to Dirs’ clear frustration.

“A lot of people don’t realise how big boxing was back then. Back in the early nineties, it was second only to football,” he said.

However, it wasn’t solely down to the increasing interest in boxing throughout the ’90s that focused Dirs attention on this specific rivalry.

“Those two were very much a special case – Benn and Eubank,” Dirs said.

“They were just magnificent. If you could just invent two characters who were going to have a rivalry, you’d invent those two,” he insisted.

Dirs described how the two boasted such contrasting characters that ultimately made them clash.

“Chris Eubank, was a ridiculously spoken Lord of the Manor bloke, and then you had Nigel Benn, who was this ex-squaddie who just wanted to rip someone’s head off.”

One of the great things about this rivalry compared to anything today, was how genuine it was. Nowadays, supposed fueds are built up into a grudge match only for any bad feelings to mysterously evaporate once a fight is over.

Dirs pointed to the recent David Haye and Dereck Chisora rivalry as being “played up” by seemingly staged public confrontations, including a ridiculous press conference bust-up. However, he was far more convinced by the bad blood between Benn and Eubank.

“Benn couldn’t stand this guy [Eubank]. He was consumed by this bloke. Eubank always maintained there was no hatred from his side, although he didn’t like him,” Dirs confirmed.

As Dirs’ journey through writing the book continued, he found his perception of both fighters changing, noting that he warmed in particular to Eubank, who he learned to be far from the outlandish fool he was often portrayed as.

“For every story about him being a total spoof, which you can’t really argue with, you come to realise a lot of it was tongue-in-cheek. Benn, on the other hand, was a less complicated character so I don’t think I found out much more than I already knew.”

While Dirs clearly reveled in the nostalgia of boxing’s former glories, he also spoke of the process required when trasferring that into written word.

He did admit however, that as his passion is boxing, he had some obvious advantages available to him, that wouldn’t have been had he covered a different sport.

“Most people will speak to you because boxing isn’t as big anymore. Try writing a book about modern football. I wouldn’t know where to start – even nailing down one interview,” he said.

Ambitious

Access to a sport like boxing is far more open than others such as top-level football, making interviews far easier to obtain.

Dirs also noted that his initial passage into securing a book deal was actually very smooth as he had his years working at the BBC to support him. However, he maintains, any writer ambitious and good enough, could get a chance to convince publishers to give their ideas a look.

“I think if you’ve got a brilliant idea and you can write it well, then you can get in,” he asserted.

The London Sports Writing Festival, held at Lord’s over the weekend of 19/20 October, featured countless great books, like Dirs’, which were showcased and talks were held for fans to ask the authors and their guests questions about their works.

Dirs loved the whole concept of the festival and felt it gave sports writing a platform it isn’t normally allowed does not get.

“I think the idea is great. It gives sports writing seriousness. I sometimes think sports writing isn’t taken as seriously in Britain as it is in America. They’re very good in America at methodolising their sport and treat it as literature in a wider sense,” he explained.

Given that over 300 people turned up to the event and in some talks people had to stand in order to gain a vantage point, the festival can be labeled a success. And Dirs is hopeful it can be the first of many similar chances to expose sports writing to the public.

“Hopefully this is a step in the right direction. People are writing about sport in a more literary way. It’s got to be a good thing sport writing is being taken more seriously.”

The Manchester-based writer now has a busy period of attempting to force his way into a market bustling with highly-anticipated sports books and autobiographies.

Competition

Sir Alex Ferguson’s memoirs hit the shelf just this week, as did Ricky Hatton’s last week, while Madrid-based writer Sid Lowe’s book on El Clasico rivalry is sure to be popular, as is Guillem Balague’s on Lionel Messi.

Dirs joked that he’ll be fighting just to even get his book reviewed such is the flood of esteemed competition but his pride at seeing sport literature flourish was still intact, even if it was to cost his book some serious column inches.

His experience at the London Sports Writing Festival clearly left its mark though and he, along with countless other sport lovers will be hoping this is just the start of many such events.

 

 

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