In what was described as a landmark decision, the British Boxing Board of Control was found to have been negligent and liable for compensation for the injuries that left Mr Watson with only half his brain functioning, partially paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.
The ruling represents the first time in British legal history that a regulatory body has been ordered to pay damages as a result of failing in its duties. The future of the board of control, which is uninsured for such action and was described in court as "financially impoverished", is now in doubt.
Eight years of litigation followed the accident during the bout on 21 September 1991 at White Hart Lane football ground, in north London. The legal costs alone are said to amount to pounds 500,000. In addition there will be financial compensation for Mr Watson, who, at the age of 26, was regarded at the time as one of the world's finest boxers at his weight. There had been reports that he had been prepared to accept pounds 1m in the past, but legal opinion held yesterday that the sum was now likely to be much bigger. The actual amount will be decided by a High Court judge.
There is also the possibility of claims from other boxers who have been injured in the ring, as well as the families of the 15 who have died after bouts since 1945. Two of the fatalities, in 1994 and 1995, took place after Mr Watson's accident.
The court upheld Mr Watson's claim that if he had received "proper attention" in the ring in the minutes after his collapse and during his transfer to hospital, he would not have sustained the brain damage and could well have made a complete recovery.
In his ruling Mr Justice Kennedy said the board was in breach of its duty to Mr Watson. He also stated that the boxer did not, by agreeing to fight under its rules, accept any risk that followed, as the rules themselves had not been carefully worked out.
The judge said the fact that the board was non-profit-making had no relevance to the safety aspect. The cost of putting safety measures into place would not have been much and, under the rules, would have been the responsibility of promoters in any event. The importance of timely resuscitation after serious injuries had been known since the 1970s, and the possibility of sub-dural bleeding, which Mr Watson suffered, had been accepted since 1980, said the judge.
The board's general secretary, John Morris, said after the case: "Obviously this is a very serious matter for the future of professional boxing. We are a non-profit-making organisation ... and if we are not there to do it, then obviously someone else will have to be there to control the sport."
He added that the board had "considerable sympathy for Michael Watson". However, "the action brought by Michael was the first of its kind. The board received advice from all its lawyers, including leading counsel, that it had no legal liability to Michael. It therefore felt it had a duty to its members to contest the case." The board planned to appeal against yesterday's decision. Mr Watson, of Chingford, east London, who sat in the court in his wheelchair to hear the ruling, shook hands with Mr Morris and Leonard "Nipper" Reed, the board's president and a former senior Scotland Yard detective who was instrumental in convicting the Kray twins.
The boxer said he was "very pleased" with his victory. He added, through his solicitor: "I am delighted that I have won my case and I will now be compensated for my injuries. I am pleased that as a result of what has happened to me new rules have been introduced which have made boxing, the sport I love, safer. I take comfort from the fact that those changes may have already saved others from a similar fate."
Chris Eubank, Mr Watson's opponent on the night of the accident, said the High Court case had brought an end to a traumatic period for him, as well as Mr Watson.
Fight night, Review front,Reuse content