Michael Watson: the night the lights went out

Yesterday Michael Watson won the first round of his battle with the British Boxing Board of Control. But it was the fight he lost on 21 September 1991 that still haunts the sport he loved
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Michael's gonna do him. He's gonna drill that Eubank bad. No way, man. Eubank's too clever. He weren't trained last time. Don't matter how hard Eubank trains. I seen Michael. He ain't leaving nothin' to chance. He is taking Eubank out. No one takes Chris out, man. Chris got a chin like granite. He's gonna lure him in and, bosh, Watson's gonna get whacked. It's gonna be the same as what McCallum did to Watson, 'cept worse. You're joking aren'tya? Eubank ain't no McCallum. He's all talk. Michael's gonna shut him up. After this fight, Eubank is dead, man. Finished.

All week the gyms buzzed with the debate. It was about a 50-50 split. Drilled. Whacked. Dead. Finished. Done. Either one. Eubank or Watson. Take your pick.

Now it was time. The rematch, White Hart Lane, 21 September 1991, a blustery, unsuitable autumn night. Typical promoters: trying to maximise the gate with an open-air fight. It was only three months since the first one, at Olympia. Everyone thought Watson had won, but the judges scored against him. Lucky that way, Eubank. He brought the TV money, but only because millions wanted to see him get chinned.

And through the prism of Eubank's villainous dandyism, Watson finally became a character in his own right. He was the hard-working young pro. The good man. The straight man. The Ken Norton to Eubank's cod Ali.

At Olympia, I'd been sitting two seats away from Linford Christie. He said he didn't normally follow the fights. But it was local. West London. And at the end of the fierce last round, Linford had reared back smiling in his stylish dark suit saying, Oh! Oh! How boxing was too hard, too brutal. Oh!

I don't think I saw Linford at the fights again.

Another thing about Olympia: in the first row was a very posh father and his son, about 12 years old. The father, a patrician City type, rather bemused - the son must have begged him to get tickets. And the child himself, in a jacket and tie, prep school, with a "Michael Watson" baseball cap on, soft little hands white-knuckled as he stared intently at the ring. I thought: Christ, if this lot are buying tickets, they must really have cracked it. It's live on ITV, and still Olympia is rammed. Boxing must be huge. It was.

I shouldn't have been, but I was moved by the sight of this privileged child. I thought, don't get involved in this. Try a sport where the winner wins. Cricket or something. A few minutes after the dubious decision was announced, after Watson had mournfully grimaced and the crowd had spat its outrage, I looked over at the two seats and they were empty. The father must have ushered him off hurriedly. Good. Hope he never comes back.

There was even more hype for the return, but White Hart Lane was only half full. Maybe it was the ticket prices. I arrived there with my friend Colin "Sweet C" McMillan, a champion boxer with the ghosts of two Sugar Rays in his fists. However, being a featherweight, he didn't get quite the same money. The ringside atmosphere was thick and nasty. Fights were breaking out. Eubank and Watson made their hooded entrances. Colin knew Watson. He reckoned he'd win, but that it would be hard and close. The first bell rang.

Wow, easier than expected. Watson applied the pressure, the unrelenting sinew of cold fury, and Eubank couldn't cope. We were into the eleventh, and only Eubank's granite chin was holding him up. Now even that was crumbling. A flurry on the far side, and Eubank was down, with a shake of the head, eyes swollen, blinking, thinking. He was getting up, though. Brave of him. Poor Eubank, all the pomp of his act come to this.

Watson jogged in a neutral corner. I watched him. I was glad for him. He'd won before, important fights, but somehow he'd never broken through. The odds were always against him. People thought "Dangerous" Don Lee would beat him at Wembley, but Watson brushed him aside. Everyone thought Nigel Benn, the "Dark Destroyer", would smash him, but it was Watson who smashed the undefeated Benn, silencing Benn's exotic entourage. Watson didn't have an entourage, unless you counted his brother.

I'd always liked Watson. He did nothing exceptionally, but everything well. He seemed to know his limitations, and self-awareness is the greatest asset a boxer can have, more than pure talent. Every time you talked to Watson, this intelligence struck you. He was 7-1 against

Benn, insulting odds - the largest bet I've ever landed. Watson won less by punches than by strength of mind. For five rounds he absorbed Benn's attacks. When the Destroyer went down for the count on his spangled trunks in the sixth, it was from a jab. Like Ali against Foreman, it was victory for an alert brain over spent brawn.

I backed Watson against McCallum, too, at the Albert Hall, but this proved a mistake. McCallum was a veteran champion, a Jamaican who'd honed his skills sparring in Detroit with the great "Hitman" Hearns. McCallum was known as "The Bodysnatcher". He aimed for the solar plexus. He had the pure talent, but the intelligence as well. He was watchful. If you lost to him, it would be painful and long. I suppose I just got carried away. When McCallum judged Watson was ready to go, he finished him brutally.

It was true that Eubank was no McCallum. Still, that was a bad beating Watson had got. Punches leave imprints, but normally they don't catch up till later. Often not until retirement, when speech slurs, eyes go glassy, memory falters. These sound terrible things. Boxing people don't welcome them, either. They're human as well. But in boxing they are tacitly understood. You just hope they don't happen to your man. It always seems improbable they will. The boxer is so young, fresh, alive.

Eubank rose and grimly stood his ground. Watson skipped towards him a tad flamboyantly - most un-Watson, but he was so close to all he had wanted; understandable. Then aimed at Eubank with the finisher and - bang. Watson was down. What! An uppercut with everything in it, the last drop of Eubank's defiance lashing out, desperation punch. How the hell did Watson get caught by that?

The bell rang. Feverish activity in both corners. The ref, Roy Francis, hovered near Watson's. But he'll let it go on, won't he? I mean, Watson's a mile ahead on points. Got to give him every chance.

The start of the twelfth. Something strange is happening. Michael: he's not really there. Treading water. His face almost beatific. And Eubank realizing, attacking, Watson's face jerking upwards with unseeing eyes, and Roy Francis stepping between them to end it. Watson took four steps back towards his corner then collapsed on to his cornermen's shoulders. Couldn't walk. Familiar scene. He'll be all right in a minute.

Colin and I didn't wait for the announcements - legged it to the exits to avoid warring factions. Had a quick chat. Shame about Michael. Got careless. But fair play to Eubank.

After a while, I turned on the car radio. "The boxer Michael Watson is in a serious condition in a London hospital with a blood clot on the brain."

Christ. The shock. Wasn't used to this. I mean, you read about it in newspaper fillers. That Korean; a Venezuelan. They seemed remote. There was nothing like this since Johnny Owen. Before my time. I remembered my old English teacher - a Welshman - paying tribute to him in class. We didn't know what he was on about. When was it Johnny Owen died? '80? Jesus!

Later, I realized it was just a geographical oddity. We weren't exempt. Even though "medical provisions" were stepped up, the Nineties saw a succession of fatalities and serious injuries in British rings: red-haired Bradley Stone, younger-looking than his 23 years, to whom a memorial statue stands outside an East End gym; James Murray, 24, a pale Scot weighing 8st 6lbs, who lay dying as rival fans brawled; Gerald McLellan, the handsome puncher from Detroit - seemed invincible. He lies in a vegetative state.

By the time McLellan went down against Benn at the London Arena in '95, ringsiders were well versed. "You could tell when he came out for the round," we said. "The blood clot was already kicking in."

It was harder for the fighters. Richie Wenton, whose fists killed Bradley Stone, turned away in tears in his next fight, unable to continue. "I had flashbacks," he explained. "These flashbacks."

Michael Watson came back, in a wheelchair. I got used to seeing him at the shows. Usually he was being wheeled by his brother. He's 34 now. He's lost half that alert brain and one side of him is paralysed. Colin's retired from the ring, but recently he held a benefit night for Michael at a club in Barking, where Colin deejays. The place was rammed.

And I was really hoping that Watson would take the Boxing Board to the cleaners with this negligence lawsuit. I know the odds were against him, and I don't know the legal ins-and-outs, but morally there was only one winner. I don't like the Board, with their fancy premises by London Bridge and their letterhead stuffed with lawyers and MPs. They act as if boxing was a sport. I hoped Michael would drill them bad.