‘River the boxer’ is how he is known to the people of Coventry. 

In time, River Wilson-Bent wants to be known as ‘River the British champion’ and his home football team Coventry City, aka ‘The Sky Blues’, to be back in football’s English Premier League.

“It sounds brilliant,” the undefeated (10-0, 5 KOs) middleweight tells Boxing Social while enjoying fatherhood with his two-month-old baby daughter.

“Coventry City getting to the Premier League, I win the British title and the city would be flying. It would be quality.”

Boxing and football are a marriage made in sporting heaven. Josh Warrington and Leeds United are the perfect example. The fans merge into one sporting force to create something special and soon begin following their fighter as far as they would travel to see their team.

Bent’s full name is River Omari Wilson-Bent. As you might assume, he is named after the late Hollywood actor River Phoenix who passed away at just 23-years-old on October 31, 1993. Bent’s forename would have been Omar, his father’s choice but his mother refused. The parents met halfway with Mrs Bent’s adoration for the actor meaning that their son would carry the kind of name that headline writers dream of.

On November 13, River will get his feet wet with Tyler Denny (13-2-2, 0 KOs) when the pair battle for the vacant English middleweight title at the Skydome in Coventry. Part of a Mick Hennessy show, also featuring Shakan Pitters, which will be shown live on Channel 5. For Bent, it is an easy fight to be motivated for as the former Midlands champion continues his climb up the domestic ladder.

“The English title is one I wanted for ages, and I’ve said all through my boxing career that I want to do it the proper way,” he says. “The English, the British and so forth. I’m a very motivated lad anyway. This now is just that big push to get the English title. It’ll be a good, hard fight and I know Tyler will bring it. He’s boxed for it two times and lost both times so it’s the third time he’s going to box for it and he’s going to want it. He’s going to come for it, going for a third time. It’s going to bring the best out in me.”

Trained by Brendan Norman, managed by Jon Pegg and now an official Mick Hennessy fighter, the boxing career of Bent could not be in a better place in his eyes. Everything is on track; the English title opportunity is coming at the right time and the 27-year-old roofer already has one full 10-round fight under his belt. Since December last year, Bent has been fighting in scheduled 10-rounders. Third and seventh round wins over Troy Coleman and George Farrell put him in good shape for a shutout decision win over late replacement Gabor Gorbics last month. 

“I weren’t very happy with my performance in my last fight,” he admits. “Watching it back, I thought I boxed very well but, on the night, I just couldn’t find the gears. I think it was to do with camp, I had a lot of things going on in camp, my newborn baby and then I had Sladjan Janjanin pull out on me at the last minute. When I’m running, I have my music and I visualise stuff going on in the fight and then bang, I wasn’t boxing him. I was worried if I was going to fight. I’d sold many tickets for the fight. We got to the night; performance wise I didn’t box very good, but I’ve certainly not showcased my best yet.

“Obviously, with Covid and stuff my first 10-rounder actually came in my eighth fight which was for the Midlands title. That is a bit soon. I feel like I am on track now. My last two fights I’ve boxed two lads who were coming to win. That’s what I said to my team, I just want these hard fights now. I’m 27 years old, I ain’t got time to wait around. If I’m gonna do it, then I’m gonna do it now.”

That is the present, the past was one filled with sport but not boxing in the beginning. His dad saw competitive activities as an important method to keep his kids off the street as is the norm with a fighter’s back story. Rugby would grab the attention and commitment of River’s brother who he described as a “superstar” of the sport locally.

“I always used to follow my brother around,” River recalls.

“My brother was like a superstar rugby player. He was like the best player in the team, scored a huge amount of tries, he played for Warwickshire, and we used to go everywhere with him. And I used to be that guy, the little brother who used to try following him. I’d tag along, try and do what he’s doing but I was nothing like that. He even told me that for rugby I wasn’t aggressive enough. Then I went to play a bit of football, my dad was like go and play a bit of football, tried that, didn’t really go to plan. Wasn’t really the best of footballers.”

Then came boxing. Aggression would soon be needed.

“One of my mates said do you want to come to the boxing gym, and I was like ‘I really want to’. Spoke to my mum and dad about it and my mum said, ‘No, you’re not boxing’, as all parents do. And I said ‘okay, cool’ and I literally got my bag and one day snuck off and went to the gym and, in seven months’ time, I was coming [back] with a letter to my mum saying can you sign this for me.”

The sneakiness was no issue. Sweaty clothes plus noticing her son was always packing a bag meant the clues soon added up.

“She could see the dedication I put in. With the rugby, my brother used to get taken to it, driven everywhere, but me I did it all myself. I used to walk to training myself and walk home from training. It was something I wanted to do and did it all myself.”

However, River’s first sparring session didn’t go to plan. That aggression which his brother spoke of would need to be dragged out.

“I can remember someone kept throwing punches at me and I kept looking away and kept getting shouted at. ‘Don’t look away, don’t look away’, as the coaches do. They used to say, ‘You’ll never box if you look away like that, you’ll get knocked out’.”

Then something clicked. 

“I think it was after my first fight. I was in the changing rooms with my coach, my old coach, and he went round everybody saying, ‘I expect well of you tonight’, and he came to me and said, ‘I don’t know what I expect from you tonight’. Because in sparring I’d been looking away. I was boxing a lad who won one and stopped the lad and they were trying to get me a skills bout and I was like ‘I don’t want a skills bout’. I was 14. I didn’t want a skills bout. All my mates were boxing, having real bouts and my coach said, ‘I’ve got you a bout. One lad who’s had one fight and stopped him’. I used to get always thrown in at the deep end and I went out and won. I got a standing eight count in the first round and then my opponent got a standing eight in the second and the third and I won the fight unanimously.

“I won best boxer of the night as well. As a young kid just starting and you’re winning this big trophy, it’s like wow. It was class. And from that moment, I just knew it was something I wanted to do and something I love.”

Thirteen years later and River is now described as a hidden gem in boxing circles and as an all-action fighter to the paying public. His style will gel well with a domestic 160lbs division that is awash with experience, rising stars and nearly all of the top 15 are fighters you would pay to watch. And if paired together fans would witness some enthralling clashes that Bent is keen to be a part of.

He begins to speak of the “quality” standard of the division before he turns his attention to the unbeaten and hugely popular Nathan Heaney.

“I was meant to box Nathan Heaney,” he says.

“When I was made mandatory for the English, I rang Jon [Pegg] up and said can we get the fight. Jon got on the case and Linus Udofia said they were going to vacate the belt and I understand that. He’s mandatory for the British now. You do that, you move on. What’s the point him coming to box me? So, I was then made mandatory to box Nathan Heaney. It went to purse bids, I talked to Nathan about it, and he said it was going to happen and then bam he withdrew from the purse bids.”

There isn’t bitterness in Bent’s words or tone. The missing boxing cliché was, ‘It is what it is’. Bent then went on to tell Boxing Social why Heaney withdrew in his opinion.

“He said it was not the direction he wanted to go in. In other words, his bum hole went, and he didn’t want to fight me. That is exactly what has happened. We know Nathan Heaney and he knows me. Even my coach said the fight wasn’t going to happen.”

“He’s making money,” Bent continued. “If they’re going to hand him shit people to box then let it be that way. Let him run his course. When he’s not boxing anybody for 10-15 fights and then boxes somebody who is ready to come at him then he’s in trouble.”

Like Heaney, Bent is a good ticket seller but even he admits not on the scale of the Stoke middleweight. Working as a roofer, training and ensuring tickets get delivered is an arduous mix for any fighter to go through. One day Bent could be in Carlisle working away and the next in Brighton. Up at 4.30am for a run before heading off for the working day an hour later. Thankfully, he has a considerate boss, who is now a sponsor, and for the upcoming Denny fight Bent has been seven weeks absent from work so he can focus on the training. 

“My boss is a very good mate of mine. I’m off for all my camps now. He pays me a wage while I’m off,” he said. “This is the third camp I’ve had seven weeks off completely so I can train like a full-time athlete.

“People used to message me on Instagram after I’d post something and say you motivate me to do more. They’re saying I can’t believe the drive that you have and it’s nice. And to my fans, I want to say make sure you’re at the Skydome on November 13, the English title is coming to Coventry. Let’s have it.”

Main image: Hennessy Sports/Oliver Brady.