AMONG the record number of 310 athletes who will represent Scotland at Glasgow 2014, Lewis Benson believes no-one deserves their place at the Commonwealth Games more than he does.
The Edinburgh boxer certainly had to do it the hard way before he was confirmed as Scotland’s representative in the welterweight division.
When Benson celebrated victory over his Glenrothes rival Connor Law in the Scottish Championship final at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow at the end of March, he believed Games qualification was also assured.
But with Law still above him in Boxing Scotland’s ranking system, a box-off behind closed doors between the pair was ordered to decide the final place in the Games. Benson edged it on a split decision but it was an experience which tested his enthusiasm and resilience to the limit.
“It feels now as if I have earned my place more than anyone in the team,” said the 23-year-old. “I’m feeling great now, but it was horrible at the time.
“It wasn’t straightforward for me at all. When the team first got announced, I wasn’t in it. It was hard to take in at first. But I just had to get straight back into the gym and prepare for the box-off. I didn’t expect it at all. When I beat Connor in the Scottish championship final at the Emirates that night, I thought I had made the team.
“But they had their reasons to decide a box-off was required and I had to accept their reasons. I had to get into training camp to do the business again and that’s what I did.
“The box-off was behind closed doors at the Bridgeton centre. There were five neutral judges and the referee. There were two people from sportscotland, myself, Connor and our coaches. That was it. It was really strange, surreal almost. You would think you would be more nervous boxing in front of a big crowd at the Emirates – but I actually liked that, it gave me a buzz and got me so up for the fight. In the box-off, I wasn’t myself to be honest. There was so much pressure. I knew it was one fight which would change my life one way or another. You could hear a pin drop in the place. I tried to picture myself in a ring with everyone watching, but it just wasn’t the same.
“Looking back now, it was maybe a good experience – just having to lay everything on the line when it was really just me and my opponent there. But it proved I need there to be a good atmosphere to box at my best. In the Scottish final at the Emirates, I won on a unanimous decision. But in the box-off, it was a split decision. You need that added buzz, with everyone cheering. The box-off just felt like a sparring session in the gym.
“On the day, though, I just wanted it more than Connor. He tired at the end and didn’t want it as much as me. I put my cards on the table and gave it my all. It was enough on the day.”
Now that he is able to look forward to competing at the Games, Benson is determined to add his name to Scotland’s list of boxing gold medallists. He has taken inspiration from one of them, the 2006 light-heavyweight champion Kenny Anderson.
“Kenny has been brilliant for me. He has given me the mindset I have now,” added Benson. “Previously, I was only thinking about trying to win a medal. But he said, ‘Never mind just winning a medal, why are you not just thinking about the gold?’ That’s the way I look at it now and getting advice from someone like him who has experienced it has been invaluable. So I’m not going there for silver or bronze now – I’m going there to win it. I feel I’ve got a good chance. The favourite in my division is Fred Evans from Wales, who won silver at the Olympics in London. But I’ll have the home crowd behind me and I’m in the best form I’ve ever been in. I’ve won my last eight fights in a row and I’m going into it full of confidence.
“The Commonwealth Games has a great tradition in Scottish boxing. You just look at names like Dick McTaggart, Alex Arthur and then Kenny who made their names first of all by winning gold at a Commonwealth Games. Dick went on to become Olympic champion, Alex won a world title as a professional and Kenny has been British champion since turning pro. So it is a platform for you if you can win gold. The world’s your oyster afterwards.
“With it being in Scotland, it makes it so much bigger for me. If I win gold, I could be a household name and turn professional. I’m not saying I’m going to turn pro straight after the Games – I’ve got at least another year and other things I want to do as an amateur before I think about that.
“It would be great to go on and box at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, but the fact I’m not on the Team GB programme makes it hard. But who knows what will happen after the independence referendum? Maybe Scotland will be sending our own team to the Olympics. But I’m making no comment on how I’m voting!”