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Eubank-Watson II: the fight that changed boxing

AMID the vast tapestry of dramatic and memorable nights that have played out in boxing rings around the world, none has been more dramatic or memorable than the night Chris Eubank met Michael Watson at White Hart Lane, north London, on September 21 1991.

This fight changed boxing forever and doubtless left all involved and many in attendance questioning their consciences, seeking and struggling to find justification for a sport whose descent into hell they’d just witnessed.

In a recent episode of Piers Morgan’s “Life Stories” on ITV, Eubank was reduced to tears while recounting this life altering event, in a sight made all the more powerful by Michael Watson’s presence in the audience.

Watson’s recovery from near death due to the brain trauma he suffered in the aftermath of what was 12 round war is the closest thing to a miracle imaginable. A clot on the brain which required six operations to remove and that saw him spend 40 days in a coma, followed by a year in intensive care in a vegetative state, then subsequently confined to wheelchair for six long years, dictated that he should not have been able to walk, talk, read or write again.

That he can today is a wondrous thing.

During Morgan’s Eubank interview the man’s words, from his seat in the audience, could not have been more powerful. They came in response to Eubank breaking down as he looked back on the fight and saying: “I can’t tell you how sorry I am. It’s the only regret in my career.”

Watson then declared: “I love you Chris. Let's move on. We are born warriors, we are real. God bless you, Chris. This could have happened to anyone. It was a sheer accident.”

The fight itself pales into near insignificance compared to the outcome. Yet if the outcome had been different, if both fighters had emerged from it, it would have gone down and still be held up today as one of the most exciting and pulsating to ever grace a professional boxing ring, cited as an example of boxing at its best.

Watson climbed into the ring in front of a raucous sold-out stadium determined to avenge the points defeat he’d suffered against Eubank in their previous clash in June 1991 at London’s Earls Court.

From the opening bell, the pace he set was so blistering, you just knew that whoever prevailed would only do so by going to the well more than once, entering what Norman Mailer famously described as the “boiler rooms of the damned.”

The gameplan was clear and made sense, formulated as it was by Watson’s trainer Jimmy Tibbs, who was more familiar than most with Eubank’s style having also been in the corner of Eubank’s boxing nemesis, Nigel Benn, for their classic encounter the year before.

Eubank, Tibbs knew, liked to fight in spurts and was not comfortable trading at a fast pace under sustained pressure. This therefore is exactly what Watson prepared his body and mind to dish out, launching relentless attacks against his opponent for three minutes of every round, like a wrecking ball smashing against a mighty brick wall again and again.

In the swirl of chaos and violence into which both men were pitched, seconds must have passed like minutes and minutes like seconds.

That Eubank didn’t break could only have been down to a will forged in poverty and tempered in sweat-filled gyms from the Bronx in New York to Brighton, England, along with many other places in between.

By the eleventh round, Watson had established dominance both in the ring and on the judges’ scorecards at ringside. Visibly tiring, it was all Eubank could do to remain on his feet. That is until Watson knocked him off them with a crunching combination to send him down to the canvas for the first time in his career.

It was now that it happened, almost as if in a dream sequence detached from the fight and any semblance of reality. In violation of the laws of nature, Eubank proceeded to get up from the canvas and launch himself forward, detonating a fierce right uppercut that broke through his opponent’s guard to send him halfway across the ring.

The horror of witnessing the back of Watson’s head landing against the bottom ropes was matched by the incredulity of him, as with Eubank just seconds before, getting to his feet.

As he did, the bell went to end the round. It was now that the fight should have been stopped. Sitting on his stool in his corner blinking repeatedly, Watson should by now have been on his way to an ambulance.

That’s if one had been present.

Instead out he came for the final round, already broken and about to enter the hell it would take years to escape. Instantly the bell went, Eubank stepped forward with a flurry of punches to which Watson had no answer up against the ropes.

Referee Roy Francis mercifully stepped in to stop it and upon reaching his corner, Watson collapsed. Just 36 minutes earlier he had walked to the ring in the prime and condition of his life at age 26. Now, for him, life would never be the same.

Neither would boxing.

As a result of this tragic denouement enhanced safety measures were introduced at all professional bouts. From now on paramedics and an ambulance had to be present at the arena, which itself had to be within ten minutes’ distance of a neurological hospital. Who can tell the number of lives that have been saved as a result?

The drama of Watson’s battle for life cannot be understated. Finally transported from the stadium to a hospital that did not have adequate facilities or a head trauma team present, precious time ticked away until neurosurgeon Dr Peter Hamlyn was able to get there to start operating on him.

Hamlyn later revealed that “Michael was closer to death than anybody that I have ever operated on.”

Forging a close and lasting bond and friendship in the ensuing months and years, the good doctor also stated: “Michael has done more for me spiritually than I’ve done for him physically.”

Michael Watson also went on to forge a close bond and friendship with Eubank to thus again mine the contradictions of a sport that brings life together with death in an embrace of courage, fortitude and human will.

Such tragedies in a boxing ring, as occurred on this fateful night, are difficult to comprehend and even harder to justify. Perhaps in the last analysis there really are some things that lie beyond good and evil.

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