It was a bygone era of the British fight game, when we undoubtedly boasted some of the best middle and super-middleweight fighters modern boxing has ever seen. It was a magical time that those of us lucky enough to live through, will remember forever. I was but a young boy 20-25 years ago when the following three fights took place, but the fantastic (and tragic) legacy created by those contests are largely responsible for igniting my life long love of The Hurt Business”.
I can well imagine that those of you as passionate about the sport as me, will have already guessed the direction of this article. Those as old, and older than me anyways!!. For any young fan, unfamiliar with the men and bouts I am to list below, I wholeheartedly recommend you get yourself onto YouTube immediately, as you will truly witness courage, grit and world championship CLASS that is often lacking in many of today’s contemporary fighters.
Rather than attempt to list the bouts in some kind of order of personal preference, the trio of fights I’m to reference, are to me at least, all worthy of legendary status in their own right, so no attempt shall be made to list them in a gold, silver, bronze fashion. I will however, if you hadn’t already guessed, name the individual fighters involved in each contest. 4 warriors. 3 Brits and 1 American, each fight contested in a British ring. Those men are of course; “The Dark Destroyer”, Nigel Benn, “Simply the Best”, Chris Eubank(s), “The People’s Champ”, Michael Watson, and Gerald “G-Man” McClellan from the USA.
My choice 3, in no order, except chronological, are as follows…
Benn v Eubank, 18/11/90, N.E.C, Birmingham, UK.
Rivalries are often what makes boxing special. That feeling you get as a fan when watching a contest between men who genuinely loathe each other is something unlike anything experienced in a “regular” bout. The hype building up to this fight, 25 years ago, was unlike anything seen between fighters on these shores in a long, long time. You had two men, who personality wise, and in terms of fighting style, really couldn’t be more different.
Benn was the puncher, the aggressive knockout artist who didn’t come to mess about. He got the job done, and when he did, he did it in style. Going into the contest he had only one blemish on his record, a tko loss to one of the other men I am to feature, Michael Watson. There is something of an interconnecting web between Benn-Eubank-Watson that is relevant to this article that shall hopefully become apparent to the uninitiated as I continue. Benn was not to be taken lightly, and Eubank knew it. Of all his 27 victories going into the fight, Benn had 25 knockouts, and was arguably the most dangerous man in the division at that time.
Then there was Eubank. Undefeated as he went into the fight, the Brighton man was the eccentric. The kind of character one doesn’t normally associate with a boxing ring. Preening and posturing at all times on fight night, and every night, with his trademark vault over the ropes, Eubank was the technician of the two. The boxer, the mover, arguably the more skilled of the two. It was set to be an explosive contest.
And explosive it was. Ask any true fan of British boxing to name their HBO favourite fights of all time, I guarantee Benn/Eubank 1 will be in there somewhere. It was a true war, and for the first couple of rounds, the idea of boxing to a plan went out of the window for both men and they traded hurtful shots based on fighting pride and instinct, each punch laced with spiteful intent. As they say in boxing, a boxer always beats a brawler, and an argument can be made for that here. Just a year prior, Benn had been handed his first taste of defeat to the skilled Michael Watson. A boxer, not a brawler, and Eubank, like Watson, was a boxer. However, this fight had ebb and flow and after 6-7 rounds, many ringside had trouble splitting it. A tremendously difficult fight to score. Benn fought with true champions heart, his left eye completely closed going in to round 8 where he scored a knock down that Eubank protested vociferously was just a slip. Benn seemed to have his number in that round, dishing out punishment galore, yet Eubank Hung in there, both men desperately tired. Just a few minutes later, it was all over. Round 9 was where true conditioning and heart settled the battle. Punch after punch, it was a right and a left with less than a minute to go, that rocked Benn. Clinging on for dear life, the referee, Richard Steele separated them, whilst Eubank, smelling blood, went in for the kill. A final, desperate rally from the challenger was enough to see the contest waved off and a new WBO champion crowned in “Simply The Best”.
No.2: Eubank vs Watson 2: 21/09/91, White Hart Lane, London.
The second of my fights, like the third to follow, has gone down in history. Not just for the right reasons, quality action and supreme courage, but also for some of the wrong ones. The simple fact that only one man WALKED out of the ring under his own steam, and the lives of ALL the participants were changed irrevocably.
Eubank/Watson 2 was billed as a grudge match, though with such a gentleman being involved in Michael Watson, grudge was a difficult word to use. Ever the nice guy, on and off camera, he was there for one reason; to right a past wrong. Just 3 months prior, the boxing public, and Watson, felt they had witnessed an out and out robbery when.Eubank was awarded a MD victory in their first encounter. Despite a slightly slow start, almost everyone watching bar the judges believed Watson had done enough to take Eubank’s WBO belt that night, and the boxing press were up in arms. Hence, promoter Barry Hearn fixing it for the two to fatefully clash all over again in what was to be the last time Michael Watson laced up his gloves, beginning what was to become a wholly different fight. A fight for his life.
The contest came alight early on, both men scoring well with Watson appearing to once again have the edge. This momentum in favor of Watson became more apparent as the contest wore on. Going into the championship rounds, Eubank’s corner made it clear to their fighter he needed a KO to win, and in the 11th round, it seemed almost over as Watson decked Eubank, forcing the Brighton man to take the count. It’s what happened next that is considered to be the defining moment in the tragedy that befell Islington’s Watson. Moments after the knock down, Eubank returned fire with a spiteful uppercut that pole-axed the challenger, forcing his legs to stiffen and his head to crash back against the bottom rope and ring apron. Somehow he beat the count just as the bell was to sound out the end of the round. They say it was that punch which caused the near fatal brain injury that Watson was to suffer. As he came out for the final round, it was apparent Watson was still in trouble, commentator Jim Watt remarking as much on the television broadcast. Apparent to referee Roy Francis also, a late flurry from Eubank earned a stoppage that looked perhaps premature (Watsons corner complained) yet considering what was about to unfold, couldn’t have come sooner.
Many fans will know what happened next, so I shall keep it brief. After some ugly post fight scenes between rival camps in the ring, Watson collapsed unconscious in his corner as Eubank gave ITV the obligatory post fight interview. With a blood clot on the brain and severe swelling and bruising inside his skull, a series of errors and procedural faults compounded the problems suffered by Watson. Oxygen was not administered quickly enough and ringside doctors were wholly unprepared for such an incident. A doctors suitcase was used as a pillow to prop up the fighters head initially. With no brain specialists on standby, an ambulance first took Watson to a hospital where the surgery he required could not be performed. By the time the fighter WAS finally admitted to theater at St.Barts hospital in London, it had been 3HOURS since his initial ring collapse. 10 years later, the high court found the BBBofC guilty of providing inadequate care ringside, and ordered them to compensate Watson for the terrible injuries he suffered.
These days, Michael Watson is still fighting back. A patron of brain injury charities, a London Marathon finisher and avid Arsenal supporter, he has made his peace with Chris Eubank, a man so devastated himself by what happened, he never showed the same finishing instinct in the ring again, preferring to grind out decision victories. Watson looks to God for faith and has amazed doctors with his progress in terms of speech and mobility. That night changed a lot in British boxing and as such, care for the fighter became paramount. However, when you consider the changes implemented, it begs the question, How come four years later, we found ourselves there again?
My final legendary fight, is the contest billed as “Sudden Impact”, on the 25/02/95, and is the awesome contest between British and American knock out artists, Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan.
This fight, at the London Arena is worthy of an article in its own right. The first fight at Super Middleweight for American McClellan, was meant to be a destruction job of our very own Dark Destroyer. The boxing press, British and American, had the G-Man as an overwhelming favourite. The bookies were in agreement. There were very few people who saw the fight going past 3 rounds, and as we all know, they were almost proved right.
The very first round was Hagler/Hearns-esque in terms of excitement. McClellan assaulted Hemmed senses, pummeling him into near submission with brutal hooks and body shots as the champ dipped low to avoid them. The extent of McClellan’s power resulted in what is perhaps a defining moment, a what if? moment anyway. The sheer brute force sent Benn through the ropes to the apron, and to the viewing public, that was it. All over. I remember watching with my father, live, the old man swearing at the television, Benn’s hopes in tatters. If it were not for an inexperienced French referee in only his 2nd world title contest, perhaps the fight would have been stopped. If a fighter falls OFF the apron, he gets 20 seconds. Benn DID NOT fall off and the count was long. The stunned ringside faces of Frank Warren, Frank Bruno and Naseem Hamed said it all, their, and our, relief palpable as the bell saved Nigel.
For the interests of brevity, I shall not sum it up round by round as we know how it went. Benn had a buoyant second and dented the Americans spirit with his heart and determination. It was another fight with ebb and flow. McClellan showed the ferocity of one of his pit bull dogs, the same dogs he made fight to the death, yet he hadn’t counted on the British bulldog opposite. We were witnessing the contest of a lifetime. So far, so good. A terrific fight.
And then commentary teams on both sides of the Atlantic, and us viewers at home, began to notice something. McClellan’s inability to keep his gum shield in properly, the heavy squinting, the strength and will slowly being sapped from his body. Round 9 was uncharted territory for McClellan and the time when his inexperienced and oft criticized trainer, Stan Johnson, should have pulled him out. Ex-trainer, the late Manny Steward is on record as saying that had he been in the corner that night, things MAY have been different. Yet they were not. We went to the tenth, and with McClellan scoring through another knock down in the 8th, he was up on the scorecards. And then, after Benn gave him one count, followed quickly by an uppercut and body shot that forced McClellan to take a knee once again, it was all over. Just over a minute and a half of the round gone.
There were calls then, that McClellan quit. Don King certainly seemed to think so. Anyone calling McClellan a quitter does a huge disservice to the man. It is obvious, especially with hindsight, that the damage was cumulative. It seems, unlike Watson, it wasn’t one punch alone that did the damage. Watching McClellan slip down in his corner and slowly lose consciousness, is pretty much one of the most terrible things I have ever seen. Thankfully, due to lessons learned from Watson, better medical practices were in place. Though they could never PREVENT what happened, they limited the (terrible) damage. McClellan could easily be dead. By the grace of god, both he and Watson continue the fight of their lives.
Once again, thanks for reading. These were my three best from that era. I’m sure many Steve Collins fans will be dismayed at his omission but I couldn’t write forever!…….Maybe there is a debate to be had over fighter safety. With Magomed Abdusalamov, proof exists that brain injury is still a current topic. Why in 20 years of the more brutal UFC has this not occurred? Faster stoppages, albeit harder ones???….maybe…Once again, I shall leave it up to the comments to share fight memories and thoughts on these epic encounters and any you care to add to the list….