Boxing: Eubank avoids a Close thing: Harry Mullan spotlights the showbiz style which will thrill fight fans in Belfast

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The Independent Online
BARRY HEARN, who should know, offers this as the definitive Chris Eubank story: 'I got tickets for us to see Barbra Streisand at Wembley - right at the front, cost a fortune. With five minutes to the start of the show, there's no sign of Chris.

'Streisand refuses to go on if there's an empty seat in the front row, so her floor manager came and sat in Chris's place. A minute to go, there's a ripple of applause. I thought, 'That must be him at last,' but when I looked around, it's George Michael.

'Thirty seconds from curtain up, the roof absolutely lifts off Wembley. I thought Streisand must have come on from the back of the hall, but instead it's Eubank. He parades down the hall to the front - monocle, jodhpurs, the lot - taps the floor manager on the shoulder with his cane and says: 'Inform Miss Streisand she may commence.' '

That kind of majestic but oddly endearing arrogance will ensure Eubank a warm welcome at the normally intimidating Kings Hall, Belfast, on Saturday, when he makes the 10th defence of his WBO super-middleweight title against Ray Close, who dented his perfect record by holding him to a disputed draw a year ago almost to the day. The Irish love a boat-rocker, especially when he can fight.

Eubank has 36 wins and two draws in 33 contests, 14 of them for world titles of one kind or another, yet there are still those who would question whether the second part of that description can properly refer to him. No other British boxer has generated so much controversy, or persuaded as many people to pay to watch him lose as to see him win. Like Frank Bruno and Barry McGuigan, he has transcended his sport to become a national figure, who regularly draws in excess of 10 million viewers.

That is why Sky Sports have thought it worth offering pounds 10m for his next eight fights, an outlay which must make their current standard-bearer, Lennox Lewis, a little uneasy. Sky are banking on Eubank selling dishes on a scale that the uncharismatic Lewis cannot generate, but if ITV sign up Lewis as a replacement, the transfer could work to everyone's benefit. Part of Lewis's problem is that he is not being seen by enough people to establish any kind of hold on the fans' affections, and his popularity rating should rocket when he is being watched by 10 or 12 million instead of Sky's hard-core 750,000.

In terms of ticket sales, Saturday's show is the most successful Belfast promotion since the glory days of McGuigan, and for once it is the visitor rather than the home fighter who is the attraction. Close is a steady and dependable performer but he's no crowdpuller, even though I thought he had edged out Eubank when they met a year ago. He seems to lack the 5 per cent which separates the contenders from the champions at this level, and which enabled Eubank to salvage losing fights against Michael Watson and Close.

With a new and appreciative audience to please, Eubank will not risk the kind of careless approach which so nearly cost him the title against Close last year. He'll be hard, mean and ready, and I believe him when he promises that 'this time around, it won't even be Close'.

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