Click here to read Part One.
After their first fight Michael Watson knew that Chris Eubank could be outworked, but he also knew that Eubank could hit him with the type of clean shots Mike McCallum had hit him with, if less frequently. This left Watson in a bind: come forward throwing shots to take the decision cleanly whilst, therefore, leaving himself open to some of that McCallum-style abuse.
In the early stages of the McCallum bout, Watson had tried to adopt his earmuffs guard only to find that Mike dropped in body shots, thus lowering the guard and leaving Watson exposed to big head shots later in the fight. For his rematch with Eubank, Watson would have to be more expansive with his guard whilst still walking Eubank down round after round. A big ask.
So, Watson got himself fit enough to ensure that his body could handle the pace, then set about upping his work rate and punching in each successive round of the rematch. The plan worked too well, for it dragged the core fighter out of Eubank.
One incident sums up the somewhat sinister pre-fight feel of the rematch, setting the tone for the fight. Eubank exited a press conference and in the process of doing so casually tossed an insult at Michael: “If I walked out of this room you’d starve”. Not nice, but then Watson was starving, for a world title, and on the 21st of September 1991 both men stepped out for the fight that would change their lives.
The fight itself is amazing. It took place in an outdoors arena, White Hart Lane. The wind caused referee Roy Francis’s hair to sway and blow this way and that, apt in a fight that did the same. Eubank came out wearing the Tottenham away strip colours, a red rag to Arsenal fan Watson. He also made sure that the photographers made way for his celebrated ring vault; he seemed supremely confident of victory, although this buoyancy looked misplaced in the early going.
Early on Watson heeded the adage ‘throw enough mud and some will stick’—he threw a lot of punches at Eubank and gave him some real stick. Eubank had, even this early in his career, been written off more times than the Sweeny’s motor; he came back into the fight in spurts, waiting for the tide to turn against Watson.
Watson was giving too much of himself. However, he took a deep breath before taking a very strong third round. Eubank came out for the fourth cut by the left eye, there was still no sign that Watson would drop the pace and at some point in those early rounds Eubank must have regretted lighting this fire under Watson.
Around the seventh round, Eubank began to find his accuracy; it seemed that we were going to witness a carbon copy of fight one, only with far more entertainment. As was usually the case the pace settled down at a crucial time for Eubank, by the eighth Watson was gulping for air on the inside, whilst having to fend off Eubank’s pot shots on the outside. Crucially, also, Watson was beginning to take longer to respond to the shots coming his way. It is hard, impossible even, to say but this may have been his point of no return.
Eubank may adopt the trappings of bourgeoisie decadence outside the boxing ring yet inside of it he was as tough as he must have been during his days a teenage tearaway. Perhaps the jodhpurs and such are an attempt by the man to move away from his past. In the boxing ring, however, he had to tap into that past in order to survive. Survive he did, coming back with hard counters at crucial moments.
For his part Watson was tapping into something even more primordial as each round passed. Like a rocket that had set off for the moon without the fuel needed to complete its course, Watson seemed to be heading back down to Earth.
Ahead on points going into the 11th round, Watson was still shouldering the tired Eubank off in order to land body shots. Eubank set himself and landed a looping right hand that hurt Watson, only for him to blow his gasket in the follow-up assault; Watson, his time coming, tried to seize his chance.
Eubank’s legs were gone, from the twin terrors of tiredness and pain; a right hand from Watson put Eubank down for the first count of the rivalry. We all know that it was a pivotal moment, Watson must have accrued a lot of damage yet had Eubank stayed down Michael would have been a title holder at last. Eubank, though, never stays down.
He got up and, learning from his earlier mistake, walked forward whilst throwing a compact right uppercut that landed on the chin of the oncoming Watson, the left hook that followed, and missed, was academic. Eubank would never throw a right hand punch like the one he had just landed. Indeed, as shown versus Sugar Boy Malinga, he would sometimes throw himself over whilst trying to replicate the perfection of that shot. It was a beautiful and brutal punch, the exemplar Eubank never quite replicated in this big a fight. Watson, not surprisingly, went down. Surprisingly, however, he got up to make it to the 12th and final round.
Debates can also rage about whether Watson should have been pulled out of the fight; he was clearly out on his feet, and we now know that the damage to Watson had been done. Yet Watson had dreamed of a title win his entire boxing life, he was also ahead on points; his corner also had no idea that there was a storm going on in Watson’s injured brain, they did the only thing they could do under the circumstances. Watson was doused down and sent out for the final round.
For all his disdain for the harsh reality of the sport the hurt, almost feral, Eubank went at Watson in the final round, going for the KO with the same zeal that we, the fans, exhibit when calling for a knockout. The outcome of this fight effected Eubank, though, as he tended to step off the gas when he had his man hurt in later fights. Nigel Benn caused Gerald McClellan harm at the point in Benn’s career when his body was letting him down; Eubank was robbed off his killer instinct at his physical peak.
We all know what happened next, yet that is hindsight; even after the fight was waved off Watson acknowledged the stoppage and remained on his feet—possibly adrenaline and that sheer heart at work. The fight between an immovable object and an irresistible force had ended the only way it could end, and then the real fight, for both men, began in earnest as Watson collapsed. A blood clot had formed on his brain from the injuries sustained in the fight.
‘Watson is a real Champion. He pasted me, and I want the world to know it. He was a better man than me, by far the better man. He outfought me, he had more skill, he outboxed me, he outmanoeuvred me. He won the fight.’
Ringside medical care was not the best it could have been in those days, crucial minutes were wasted. Watson made it to hospital and spent 30 days in a coma; he survived six operations and he then defied predictions that he would not walk again by completing the London marathon in 2003. Generally, as he did as a fighter, he fought his way back from the brink.
It is also alleged that post-fight scuffles in the aftermath of the stoppage prevented Watson from being carried to the ambulance in a speedy enough fashion, with the police, and, according to reports, Nigel Benn, having to step in to break up the skirmishes in the crowd.
A fight can have so many outcomes; we get by on speculating about them over and over again. In this case the fight ended the only way it could end, badly. Both men were so strong, in terms of their will and their chins, that the outcome was manifestly destined by the events that had led to the fight itself.
That spectre of speculation that we never mention, the possibility of an in-ring tragedy, raised its head and reminded us that it is always there. For those of us who never question the morality of boxing this fight reminds us that the sport may attract celebrity trappings, yet it also throws up personality clashes and battles that are far too primal for their own good. Fights such as this one, and the fights between Prince Charles Williams and Merqui Sosa, make a compelling argument for the inclusion in boxing of compassionate draws in which the fight is stopped so both men can live to fight another day.
Watson was operated on, days passed to months to years; his recovery warmed our hearts, absolving us, also, of any guilt over witnessing the events that led to his pain. In some ways, for this writer, the comeback, in life, of Michael Watson washes away some of the negative aspects of revisiting his most infamous, and stirring, fight.
We respect Watson for his remarkable recovery, and our respect is founded upon the fact that we saw what he had to come from, what he went through to try and win the title that night in 1991. It is a bittersweet irony, in order to fully take in the depths of his post-boxing achievements you have to revisit the fight that led him to near physical ruination.
It is a mild version of the Hobson’s choice faced by Watson going into the rematch. Watching the fight does not cause discomfort for this writer, it is so compelling you get lost in it, it is the admittance that, yes, this was a great fight, that causes me to shift slightly in my seat whilst at the same time ensuring that I appreciate exactly what Watson came back from. It should be acknowledged as a brilliant bout first and foremost, a great and tragic part of British boxing history. If the tragedy of it sits heavily when watching then put something into the sport by buying Watson’s book or by giving a donation to McClellan or any number of fallen fighters—if only to acknowledge their contribution to great fights.
Ultimately, no matter what our reasons for following the sport, we have to admit that boxing gives us pleasure first and foremost. Viewing fights is the main game of the sport, meaning that fighters have to take risks for our enjoyment, and we are forced to accept that we use them as means, for our enjoyment, rather than ends in themselves, which could explain why we feel so uncomfortable when something like this happens.
In coming all the way back, Watson also made the sport safer; he had taken on his management as an active fighter, he then took on the BBBoC as a stricken fighter. In the process pointing out the real moral problem with boxing back then, the poor safety measures, measures that could have been put into place if only we had considered the fighters health as worthy of the expense from the get-go. A dialogue opened between the boxing authorities and medical professionals. Help was brought in, not to judge, but to administer when needed the aid required.
In many ways, fitting given his faith, Watson suffered in his boxing career in order to bring about a safer sport. In turn he helped the sport absolved some of its hidden sins: how many more fights had taken place without any thought being given to the fundamental problem of boxing, that injuries can occur anywhere and at any time?
Danger is inherent in boxing; the danger is a necessary by-product. We take two supremely tuned fighters and ask them to go beyond what is normal, and we ask them to examine the dark places that we ourselves fear to tread. If the triumph flirts with danger the thrill is all the more tangible, when the danger results in permanent damage the guilt of the watcher becomes as inherent as the danger faced by the fighter.
We are happy to ask men to beyond the pale for us, but we want it both ways in that we also want them not to go too far beyond the pale, to that dark place where stamina breaks down, technique becomes instinctive, and the pure fighter takes over and does what a fighter must do, defeat the opponent as emphatically as possible. It is a facet of the sport we can never get away from, therefore we must accept it.
Trying to put boxing into moral terms is akin to ants theologising before a God they will never be able to comprehend, let alone understand. If you erase the Eubank-Watson rematch fight from the collective boxing memory you erase it from existence; if you erase the fight from existence the injuries inflicted upon Michael Watson counted for nothing. The fight is a monument to his desire and will and should remain as such—a celebration rather than a lament. Something to be enjoyed for the right reasons.
After the fight something strange happened, Chris Eubank gained a prefix, ‘troubled boxer’ whereas Watson, in some senses, became a human stain on the sport. Most would think that Watson’s career as a fighter was over, in reality he was back where he was before the win over Benn, the head-down plugger, the man who was doggedly pouring everything he had into getting a title win was now directing his considerable will towards a remarkable recovery.
Watson eventually emerged from his struggles, his life was impacted forever but he still had that deceptive desire, deceptive because he was such a mildly spoken character. This is why we should not avert our eyes from the second Eubank fight; it is as much a part of his legacy as his return to health. A testament to his desire.
In his next fight, versus Sugar Boy Malinga Eubank would, as he claimed at the time, shake hands with an opponent for the very first time in his career, although he also expressed his disdain for an African fighter going by the nickname ‘Boy’.
It should not be forgotten that Eubank suffered that night at White Hart Lane also. His trainer, Ronnie Davis, claimed that he had to remove Eubank’s boots after the bout, there must have been a slender margin between the predicament faced by Watson and the triumph of Eubank.
Eubank himself would change his boxing style, no longer keen to advance on his man when he had him all at sea, in the years post-Watson Chris seemed to bear boxing with an enigmatic sadness, decrying the sport then stating that he had to fight because: ‘I’m fighting for it (money). I’m Gladiating for it…In different circumstances my nature would be softer. I’d be a musician or an artist if there was money in it’. There is money in both those pursuits, Eubank’s problem is that he is a fighter, and always was and will be despite his protestations.
In the end, Eubank uttered the most fitting words on the matter, and in The Sun of all places, when he stated that: ‘Watson is a real Champion. He pasted me, and I want the world to know it. He was a better man than me, by far the better man. He outfought me, he had more skill, he outboxed me, he outmanoeuvred me. He won the fight’.