Tonight, Denzel Bentley (13-0, 11 KOs) faces the biggest challenge of his career to date as he takes on Mark Heffron for the vacant IBF European middleweight title, at York Hall, Bethnal Green.
For a fighter who had just 17 fights as an amateur and limited professional experience, Heffron represents a significant step up in class for Bentley. It is unusual for a fighter to face a vaunted puncher such as Heffron in the infancy of their career, particularly without a more prestigious strap at stake, but Bentley has always done things differently.
From facing all-comers on the Battersea estate he grew up on, in unlicensed bouts utilising gloves and headguards his brother purchased, to facing 2012 Olympian Serge Ambomo on 12 hours-notice, Bentley has never shied away from a challenge.
Traditionally, British boxers tend to be carefully matched en route to world title opportunities, however Bentley is plotting a different course for himself.
“I don’t want to be in the game a long time before I get my shots at titles,” Bentley told Boxing Social. “I’ve been chasing a title fight for over a year now and I’ve finally managed to get one, so I’m not going to turn it down. I’m in the gym every day, I’m not cheating, I’m not cutting corners, I’m not living a wild lifestyle outside of boxing, so I feel I can progress smoothly.
“All the young boys abroad take these chances, thrive and become great fighters and future Hall of Famers. It seems like in Britain everyone just wants to bide their time and wait until they are 30 before competing for a world title. That’s not the angle I wish to come at. I’m coming at a different angle and I’m taking the fights that will get me to that spot sooner rather than later. When I get there, I don’t want to be inexperienced. I’d rather people tell me I’m not ready for the fights at domestic level than get to world level and say I’m not ready. It doesn’t make sense to go onto world level without the experience. That’s why I’m taking these fights now.”
Bentley envisages himself following the career path which is more common in countries such as Japan and America, where prospects are tested early.
He believes that it is the grounding that boxers receive in such bouts that results in fighters from abroad dominating pound-for-pound lists.
Bentley has seen too many British fighters found wanting at the upper echelons of the sport and is determined to learn from their mistakes.
“This is how I’m going to prepare myself for the world scene,” he said. “There’s some tough fighters at domestic level, but I’m just seeing it as my training ground for world level. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, domestic level is just not where I want to stay at, so I’m going to fight all these guys at the top of the domestic scene before moving on. That’s my experience gained in good, championship fights.
“I’m 25 now, I’m not young but I’m not old either. In the next two years, I want to be competing at world level when I’m in my physical prime. Without being rude, there’s a lot of fighters struggling to compete for a world title.
“Luke Campbell has challenged for a world title twice and maybe if he’d competed for it earlier and fought Anthony Crolla, he could be a world champion by now. Anthony Yarde took a brave step up and fought [Sergey] Kovalev, but maybe he lacked the experience at domestic level. It worked out for Kal Yafai, but when he went on to fight ‘Chocolatito’ [Roman Gonzalez], it didn’t quite work out for him. You can’t skip steps, and for me, I’m not skipping steps. People may think it’s too early, but if I have another 13 fights fighting journeymen, they’ll be telling me to get a move on! I don’t know what everyone wants, but I’m going to move on my journey how I want to move.”
The assertion from some quarters that Bentley has bitten off more than he can chew by facing Heffron as this stage, does not sit well with the Londoner.
Heffron has been a professional for a decade, having joined the paid ranks at 18. The last 10 years have seen him box in six different countries, live with Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam and train alongside Guillermo Rigondeaux.
Heffron’s ability has been no secret to those in the trade. Stories of him holding his own in sparring with world class fighters when he was in his teens were commonplace, yet Heffron has failed to replicate his gym form in competitive bouts.
In 2018, Heffron challenged Liam Williams for the British title and found himself outclassed before being stopped in the 10th round.
The bookmakers have struggled to separate Bentley and Heffron, which Bentley believes is a more accurate reflection of the bout.
“If I’m being honest, everyone keeps saying he’s a level above me, but all he’s got on me is experience,” he said. “He’s probably been boxing all his life and I haven’t, but since I’ve turned professional, I’ve taken it very seriously. I feel like I’ve progressed quickly. That’s the sort of person I am; I need to progress to get better. If I’m just fighting at the same level, I won’t get any better.
“These are the fights that will make me better. When you go through his Boxrec, he hasn’t beaten anyone at or above the level of anyone I’ve beat. You look at the Andrew Robinson (WTKO6) win, it’s probably the same kind of level as the Mick Hall (WRTD6) win. The others are all people he’s meant to get rid of. I haven’t looked at his record and thought, ‘He’s beat that guy, that’s a bit tasty!’ All he’s got on me is that he’s been in the game longer.
“Apart from Liam Williams, who has Mark Heffron fought that has punched him back,” Bentley said with a laugh. “He hasn’t been in with anyone like me. I haven’t been in with anyone like him, so it is a test for me. I don’t see it as an easy fight, I’m going to have to be on point on the night and I might have to dig deep at times. The thing is, I don’t think I’m out of my depth, I think it’s an equal level fight. You can be a gym legend all you want. You can go in the gym, beat people up, but you’ve got to do it on the night. The same is true for me. If I do what I do in the gym on the night, I’d be a world champion already, but it’s about doing in on the night. With Mark Heffron, it will be a laser-focused performance from me. I’ll be so switched on because I know I can’t slip up.”
Heffron has been every bit as confident as Bentley in the build-up to the contest. The Oldham man has promised to “demolish” Bentley. That is precisely the attitude Bentley wants all his opponents to have.
Despite stopping Mick Hall in July, Bentley was critical of his own performance. He believes he allowed his opponent to land too many shots on him, and he simply did not feel sharp.
Even if he wasn’t 100 per cent, he appeared to curb Hall’s ambition early, as his opponent became increasingly cautious.
The 25-year-old believes that fans will see the best of him when his rivals are certain of victory. In that regard, he has found the perfect dance partner in Heffron.
“I want him to believe he’s better than me,” he said. “That means he’s really going to come and try to win. When I beat him, he’s going to realise this boy is not a joke, and everyone else is going to realise it, too. That’s the angle I’m coming at. I want all these fighters to believe they can win, and I want people to struggle to pick a winner so, when I win, it looks all the more impressive.”
To those who know Bentley, this determination and ambition will come as no surprise. Be it in fights on the estate or games of Saturday league football, the 25-year-old always possessed a resolute will to win.
Team sports did not suit him. His teammates did not care as much as he did, they did not try as hard as he did. With boxing, he found his calling. Success or failure rests squarely on his shoulders only. He would not have it any other way.
Bentley is going to continue to do things differently, his way. He is the master of his own destiny.
“I’m always up for a challenge,” he said. “This is what I do for a living, I’m going to be confident. I can’t hide behind no one. I’ve just got to be better than the last time I boxed. Anything that happens is solely down to me.
“They can throw anyone at me, and I’ll believe I’m going to win because at the time they are throwing that person at me, I’ll be ready for that opponent. My name was mentioned with Mark Heffron last year. At the time, everyone was saying, ‘That’s a good fight,’ Now, ‘It’s a step too far’. I’m going to take that step and land safely on both feet.
“I want to focus on winning the British outright in the next year. The year after, go onto fringe world level and title eliminators and, by the end of 2022, I want to be fighting for world titles. That’s my aim, but I’ve got to get past Mark for that to be reality.”