Spend any length of time talking to Chris Jenkins and it’s likely he’ll tell a joke in a minute.
Of course, the Welshman has good reason to be cheerful. Having been on the verge of walking away from a sport that had taken more from him than it ever gave back. Jenkins is finally reaping the rewards of two decades’ worth of dedication, since capturing the British welterweight title last year.
Now, the 32-year-old is very much a fighter in demand. Liam Taylor, Ekow Essuman, Michael McKinson and, mandatory challenger, Conor Benn are all vying for a crack at the champion. However, having spent years taking fights at short notice on the road, Jenkins is keen to exercise the modicum of control that the belt affords him, and there is only one boxer he wants to face.
“I’m a popular guy,” Jenkins (22-3-3, 8 KOs) said with a laugh as he spoke to Boxing Social. “It’s good. The fight I want is the Benn fight. He’s mandatory challenger so why would I want to take somebody for less money when I can face my mandatory challenger and get a lot more money?”
Much to the chagrin of certain boxing fans, Benn is amongst the most well-known boxers in Britain. Every single punch the son of Nigel Benn has thrown as a professional has been televised live on Sky Sports, yet Jenkins admits he has seen very little of his potential opponent.
While Jenkins may not have been keeping a watchful eye on the rise of Benn, observers have seen significant improvement over the last four years. ‘The Destroyer’ has come a long way from the fighter who went life and death with Luke Keleher (who had a record of 2-4-1 at the time) in his second pro fight. In 2017, Benn found himself on the canvas twice in the opening round against Cedrick Peynaud before going on to win a disputed decision. However, last year, Benn established himself as solid contender with wins over Jussi Koivula (WTKO2) and Steve Jamoye (WTKO4).
Other boxers in the division have speculated that Benn’s status as mandatory challenger has been handed to him due to his famous surname as opposed to his in-ring exploits. Given that Jenkins has found fights hard to come by at various points throughout his career, it would be understandable if he found the opportunities handed to his potential rival to be galling, but he is unperturbed.
“I haven’t seen too much of him, to be honest,” he said. “[He’s] aggressive and comes forward. He’s getting the wins. Yes, he’s been put on his arse a couple of times, but he delivers the goods. There’s talk that he robbed some fella, I didn’t even watch the fight. At the end of the day, he’s mandatory for a reason; whether it’s [due to] the backing of Eddie Hearn or if he deserves his shot, we’ll find out, but I want that fight. He’s a name, isn’t he? He’s more well-known in the sport than I am. I don’t mind, the only thing I’m famous for is Jenkins’ Bakery! After this boxing, I’m going to become a stand-up comedian.”
Don’t misconstrue tongue-in-cheek remarks about life after boxing, the name-value of his opponent or money as Jenkins casting one eye at hanging up his gloves. Yes, the Benn contest will likely result in a career-high purse, but Jenkins still has plenty of ambition and is convinced he is capable of exposing Benn as a manufactured prospect rather than a serious contender.
Jenkins believes that Benn’s aggression will be his undoing. While this confidence could be dismissed as bravado, Jenkins does have form which lends credence to his claims.
Ultimately, Jenkins has worked too hard, for too long to relinquish his belt.
“I showed it in the [Johnny] Garton fight [W12],” he said. “Then I boxed [Paddy] Gallagher [WTD9] over in Belfast, I got cut but I was well up on the scorecards, giving him a boxing masterclass. I can do it again.
“All my career has been taking fights last-minute on the road. I blew on the scene in Prizefighter, then I was looked after quite well with Matchroom. Then I lost to [Tyrone] Nurse [L12] and I was taking fights last-minute. Now, other fighters are irrelevant to me, bar one fighter and that’s Benn.”
Cuts are a sensitive subject for Jenkins. The laceration he referenced in the Gallagher bout is simply one of many. He has spent much of his career fighting through a crimson mask of his own blood. Four of his fights have been halted after an accidental clash of heads, resulting in Jenkins sustaining an injury which the ringside doctor deemed too severe for him to continue.
While many have offered him their ‘expert’ advice as to the root cause of why he finds himself on the receiving end of head clashes, Jenkins dismisses their theories, in favour of his own, somewhat unusual, explanation.
“Oh, fuck, man,” he said as the subject was broached. “How many times have I been cut now? Six, or seven times by head clash! [Liam] Taylor, [Paddy] Gallagher, [Darragh] Foley, [Tyrone] Nurse, [Akeem] Ennis-Brown, the French kid [Christopher Sebire] cut me with a headbutt on the side of the ear and I got cut six, seven fights in by some journeyman who jumped in with the head. I’ve been cut a lot.
“People say, ‘It’s because of this,’ or ‘It’s because of that,’ but it isn’t actually. I’ve got a Neanderthal forehead. I don’t even have to wear a hat when it’s sunny because my eyebrows point over so much, it’s like I’ve got a built-in sun-visor! It’s win-win, but when it’s snowing, I get a little build-up of snow on it!”
While Jenkins is now able to see the humour in a predicament, which has resulted in numerous stitches and scars over the years, just a few years ago it was the cause of great frustration.
Having burst onto the domestic super-lightweight scene in 2013 with three eye-catching performances to capture the Prizefighter trophy, expectations were high for Jenkins. His displays in the eight-man, three-round, one-night knockout competition earned him a promotional deal with Eddie Hearn.
Within two years, he had the opportunity to capture the British 140lbs title against Tyrone Nurse, but after 12 rounds the judges were unable to split them. A rematch four months later, saw Nurse declared as the new champion.
In the years that followed, Jenkins’ love for the sport would diminish with each fight. Head clashes, disputed decisions and 12-hour days balancing work as an industrial cleaner, professional boxer, father and partner took their toll.
For Jenkins, the nadir came after his fight with Darragh Foley was halted in the third round due to a clash of heads. In the East End of Glasgow, with blood once again streaming down his face, Jenkins had made his mind up; he was ready to turn his back on the sport despite trainer Gary Lockett’s best efforts to convince him to continue.
“I nearly walked away then,” he recalled. “I came out of the ring and said, ‘I’m done, Gar. Fuck it. Fuck this sport. I’m done’. He said, ‘Don’t be stupid’. I didn’t go back to the gym for a couple of weeks because the eye was so bad, and I just didn’t want to do it no more. Gar said, ‘Listen to me now, you are that close to getting a shot at something big. You’ve worked hard’.”
Professional frustration was compounded by personal loss. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in Britain. Despite how common it may be, few people expect it to happen to someone they know. That was the case for Jenkins, who was blindsided when a close friend lost his battle with the black dog of depression.
Overcome with grief, Jenkins endured great mental anguish. Rather than suffer in silence, Jenkins opened up to Lockett about his feelings. Some of Lockett’s former fighters have jokingly referred to him as ‘the grumpiest man in boxing’, however the pastoral element of coaching is something the former world title challenger takes incredibly seriously. With Lockett’s support, Jenkins sought out the help he required.
Jenkins talks candidly about his experiences in the hope that others who are struggling will talk to someone, anyone. It’s okay to not be okay.
“My mate took his own life,” he said. “I went through a bad time outside of boxing, getting over his death and stuff. I spoke to Gary about it, then I had a little chat with somebody and it was great. I learnt from Gary, don’t be afraid to open your mouth. If anything is wrong, you can talk to him, even though he looks angry and mean, but he’s got a big heart on him. Any problems outside the ring, I give him a call and he advises me. He’s been in the game, so he knows the corruption in the game as well. I went to see a counsellor to get over the fact that my mate took his own life. It opened my eyes.
“Back in the day, men were men, and women were women. You showed weakness and you were a fanny. I was brought up that way; you don’t show weakness, you don’t talk to nobody, you bottle it up and deal with it yourself. But when people go through hard times, they just need to open their mouth, even it’s just once, just to a close loved one.”
Lockett’s belief that something big was just around the corner turned out to be well-founded.
Jenkins moved up to welterweight and, after being on the verge of walking away from the sport, he was handed the opportunity to challenge Johnny Garton for the British title. At the third time of asking, Jenkins would not be denied. He finally captured the British title, defeating Garton by unanimous decision.
Unfortunately, the sense of elation would be short-lived as, soon after his title victory, tragedy would strike once again. Another close friend of Jenkins took his own life. While his loved ones were concerned that Jenkins would struggle to cope, he found motivation in sorrow and now dedicates his fights to his friends.
“Three weeks after I won the British, my other best mate phoned me on the Thursday,” said Jenkins. “I was meant to go and see him to do some training with him because he liked to do a bit of boxing and stuff. He was a really good rugby player; he’d
been all over the world with rugby. Then he took his life on the Friday night. Obviously, Gary was worried, my wife was worried that I’d go down the path of self-destruct. It’s been a fucking hassle, basically. Then I just said to myself, ‘Fuck, no. I’m not just boxing for myself and my family, but for the memory of two of my best mates’. I need to provide and it’s something I love, getting punched in the face. Not getting headbutted but punched! It’s fucking nuts, man. I’m alright…now.”
Having endured so much to reach this point in his career, there is no blow Jenkins could take inside the ring comparable to the pain that he has suffered outside it.
As such, he doesn’t fear Conor Benn. Defeat isn’t an option.
“Tough times don’t last,” he said. “But tough people do.”
Main image and all photos: Steven Paston/Press Association.