I was itemising my collection of fights when I came across the brace of bouts between Chris Eubank and Michael Watson. Upon seeing the tragic second bout between the two appear on the screen my girlfriend (now wife) mentioned that she could not recall watching the fight since its first TV showing. I then tried to remember the last time I had watched the fight, eventually having to concede that it had been so long I could not recall my last viewing of the rematch between the two men. Strange given that I have watched many lesser contests a number of times during that period.
It is strange, also, that the fight is not shown as part of the British boxing repeats shown on TV. ESPN Classic often showed the first, lesser, fight between the two men without revisiting the compellingly brutal rematch due to its tragic ending
Chris Eubank caused controversy a few years ago when he made the fight available on the Internet, the fact he charged a fee for people to view the bout should not distract from the fact that Eubank put an excellent boxing match back into the public domain.
The reason for the blackout in relation to this fight is obvious, it ended tragically for Watson, Eubank settled the rematch, and the rivalry, with an improbable off-the-canvas stoppage of his game foe. In the process ensuring that Watson sustained brain injuries that sent him into a coma and almost killed him, injuries that required six operations and took a superhuman effort to recover from.
However, other tragic fights, such as Emile Griffith-Benny Paret and Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan, have appeared on TV screens, this despite one fight featuring a fatality and the other sending McClellan hurtling into a silent world of brain injury and physical hardship.
Why, then, the reticence to air the second match between Eubank and Watson? An omission made even more surprising by the fact it is one of the best British contests ever fought. Far better than the overrated first fight between Nigel Benn and Eubank, in which Eubank announced himself by stopping Benn in nine excellent, if not great, rounds.
Hopefully an analysis of both Eubank-Watson contests will give an insight into why this particular couplet is hidden away from sight to the extent that many of us may be surprised at how long it has been since we last took in a fight, and aftermath, that represents, for this writer, the epitome of Michael Watson’s superhuman desire to win a world title.
Going into the first Watson fight Chris Eubank was treading a fine line. Mentally and physically strong in the Benn fight, Eubank next fought a bizarre fight with Canadian Dan Sherry, a contest that saw Eubank—behind on points in the eyes of some observers—win a 10th round split technical decision after clipping his opponent with an ‘head butt’ that would raise a laugh from your average Glaswegian hard man.
This, in turn, was followed by a messy win over pretty boy Gary Stretch. The expectations raised by the Benn fight were quickly fading, and people were again leaning towards the view that Eubank was an enigmatic showman who had used smoke and mirrors to cover for dodgy stamina and errant skill. In reality Eubank needed a fighter to come to him, thereby allowing him to land his counters.
Watson, who was so aggressive, albeit unsuccessfully, in his first world title tilt against Mike McCallum, was brought in as the next challenger for Eubank’s WBO middleweight title—McCallum himself dismissed the bout as a ‘good fight between the third division fighters’.
In many ways it was a canny piece of matchmaking, prior to the Benn win Eubank’s mentor Barry Hearn had talked about making fights with the likes of McCallum, Michael Nunn and Roberto Duran. Once they grabbed the title the talk changed, turning now to a ‘Best of British’ showdown with Watson.
They must have felt that Watson was a fine fighter who was damaged by that hammering at the hands of McCallum. A hammering that was glossed over with comeback a win over the fatally flawed Error Christie, which took place on the undercard of Benn-Eubank I and was one of Watson’s most destructive performances, although with the above caveat in place.
Indeed, Hearn was so confident, prior to Eubank’s win over Benn, that Watson would be overmatched he told The Times that: ‘Watson is well advised, and will, I am sure, be well advised to stay clear of Eubank’.
Eubank himself was even more dismissive of Watson at that point, although to be fair he had been dismissive of Benn also, a man he then went onto defeat. He had decreed that only Herol Graham, ‘a master, a genius’, had the skills to beat him, Nunn also, at a push.
Still, the all-British showdown captured the imagination of the British public. As we have seen in recent years, the British public will happily bump up one fighter a few rungs in order to talk the contest up as a tussle between the two best boxers in the world at the given poundage.
Watson’s tangible pre-fight desire to win a title, plus the fact the McCallum fight could be spun as a learning experience, rather than the beating it so clearly was, contributed to the feeling that case Eubank may have bitten off more than he could chew.
However, Watson had, in 1989, hammered Benn in a more comprehensive manner than Eubank had managed. All this led to a feeling that the hard-working boxer from Islington would overcome the Brighton braggart.
In the event the first fight, held at Earl’s Court in 1991, was a bit of a damp squid. Eubank was all preening confidence and strutting lethargy. Watson, in turn, went for the body of Eubank, seen as Chris’s weak-point going into the bout. The body punching caused Eubank to drop his gloves as the fight wore-on, although as we would find out Eubank could do this and get away with it—his chin always looked after itself.
Throughout the bout an incessant Watson harried Eubank, who, as ever, was looking to counter with sparing shots. Once the pace dropped Eubank countered his way back into the fight, in particular the right hand was piling up points for Chris, and piling punishment on Watson.
Watson, as he would do in both the fights, was able to again up the pace, reaping the dividends of his early round body assaults. By the eighth round Eubank was urgent in his work, however Watson was blocking the rights of Eubank, who would let go with the odd burst of quality shots yet his world title seemed to be slipping from his grasp.
Eubank tried to change tack; however, all he could produce was fatigued boxing mixed with profligate movement. By the 10th Eubank was throwing away his chances of victory with every missed swing. Conversley, Watson scored with a body shot that backed Eubank up. It also seemed to travel the length of Chris’s body, robbing him of his legs and senses, enabling Watson to finish the round in control.
Despite some quality shots in the last two rounds—including a big left hook counter to the head in the 11th—Eubank was feigning confidence when the final bell went. Ss he would do often in the future, he had tried to nick a decision with quality pot-shotting, whereas Watson had, with less accuracy, seemed to have taken the fight with his workrate.
In many ways the fight was a lower-level replication of the first fight between James Toney and Mike McCallum, a draw that had seen Toney throw the better shots, only for Mike to out-work him—McCallum’s pre-fight prediction had certainly come true, it was a decent enough fight between two well-matched boxers.
I had it 113-115 for Watson. Official scores of 115-113, 116-113 and 114-114 meant Eubank kept his title via a majority decision. It left many people demanding a rematch, one that was signed, sealed and delivered fast enough to ensure that the two men would square-off again just over three-months later, this time at White Hart Lane.
Far from being chastened by his near-defeat experience in the first bout with Watson Eubank approached the second fight with a strange sense of entitlement not fitting with his previous performance. Weight-making battles had wearied both men going into that first fight. Fortunately the WBO decided to take a strange approach to their Super middleweight rankings. A magic trick was performed.
Keep your eyes on the number one and two contenders: Juan Gimenez and Michele Mastrodonate. Keeping watching them and, ‘abracadabra!’, they are replaced by Eubank and Watson respectively; plus, the prior occupants disappeared from the Top Ten entirely, it is magic ladies and gentlemen, magic of the black art of matchmaking variety.
The secret to the trick? The BBBoC‘s approval of the change in rankings. Gimenez had spent two years waiting in vain for his shot only for Ed Levine to reveal that the Argentinean had been ‘punished’ for failing to arrange a fight with Mastrodonate. Gimenez’s camp differed with this view, saying circumstance had prevented the fight from being made. To be fair to the WBO it makes sense that Gimenez would want a two-year #1 contender reign, who wouldn’t? Still, Eubank-Watson II was a great fight, especially at 168lbs, so what does it matter that it stank to the high heavens of power and politricking?
There was an edge to the pre-fight ballyhoo also, on one side of the edge there was the usual pre-fight ticket selling banter, on the other side of the edge lay a steep drop into mutual disrespect and loathing of what the other stood for.
For Watson, Eubank must have seen such a strange enigma, a world title holder who did not put his heart and soul into his fights. Despite putting in a better performance versus Benn, Watson had not hit the heights scaled by Eubank, nor had he caught the public eye. Also, his sole title tilt prior to meeting Eubank, versus McCallum, was the type of high mountain peak tilt that Eubank had talked about, yet was not taking. Watson, unlike Eubank, had done everything in the right way, yet he had not won a world title—this must have rankled.
Michael Watson had faced a Hobson’s choice after the first bout. The type of performance he put in against Benn would not win him the fight on the cards, as Eubank would be able to thread counters through and drop the pace. Watson would have to bring out that aggressive performance he had used against McCallum, even though it was a losing one, in the belief that Eubank, being no McCallum, would be overwhelmed. The pace drop late in fight one was behoving for Watson, he would have to crank it right up in the rematch. Indeed, prior to the fight McCallum himself had said that Eubank would lose against pressure, advice Watson heeded to the letter in fight two, which we shall visit in Part Two now that the scene is set.