Boxing: Eubank seeks break in gloomy sky: Owen Slot examines the pressures on an unbeaten boxer who on Saturday will be fighting to restore his reputation

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THERE will be rather more than a boxing title to defend when Chris Eubank steps into the ring to fight the Irishman Sam Storey in Cardiff next Saturday night. His reputation as a boxer, for all his 40 unbeaten fights, has taken more blows than most of his opponents in recent times.

For all Eubank's petty posturing and statements of unchallenged superiority, his last nine defences of the World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight title have gone the full 12 rounds and none has dealt such a blow to his credibility as the last, six weeks ago at Olympia, against Mauricio Amaral, a little-known Brazilian. The biggest effect of his diminished reputation, however, is likely to be felt by Sky Sports, who signed up Eubank on a pounds 10m deal which involves a daunting eight fights in one year. Yet there are ominous signs that the regular, large audiences that BSkyB expected are unlikely to be delivered and speculation is already rife that the television company is attempting to wriggle out of the contract.

Eubank came to Sky Sports with impressive credentials as a crowd-puller. For each of the past three years, when he fought on ITV, Eubank's fights attracted the channel's highest audience for a sporting event, most notably more than 15 million for his second head-to-head with Nigel Benn. Yet when he reached BSkyB, his appeal was probably already fading: while industry analysts have reported no rise in satellite-dish sales, the Amaral fight, his engagement in the eight-fight 'World Tour' sequence and his first in London for more than a year, was far from sold out. Neither were the viewing figures a roaring success: the fight was watched by 603,000 and, while it started at 11.15pm, an hour later than the Michael Bentt- Herbie Hide contest which Sky Sports also televised, the ratings were 190,000 poorer.

. Eubank had thrown himself whole-heartedly into the self-

promotional exercise but, once in the ring, he failed to deliver a theatrical performance to match, leaving all the pre-fight build-up looking more like pantomime.

By the seventh round of the Amaral fight, 40,000 viewers had switched off and, at ringside, Barry Hearn, Eubank's promoter, was sufficiently concerned with Eubank's progress to go to his corner to urge Ronnie Davies, his trainer: 'We've got to win some rounds.' Eubank did then step up a gear but there appeared another sign of fallibility, a trickle of blood running from the corner of his left eye, the second time in successive fights that he had been cut there. Finally, in the 11th, Amaral had Eubank staggering, and the uninterested viewers, who had switched back on for the fight's outcome, then witnessed a chorus of derision from the crowd when the judges' decision in favour of Eubank was announced, followed by an ovation for his opponent.

Eubank was criticised for appearing to coast through a contest with a below-par opponent. Three weeks later, the resignation of Kelvin MacKenzie, the managing director of BSkyB, who had pushed through the Eubank deal, prompted further speculation that the boxer might be off, too. Vic Wakeling, head of Sky Sports, denies any truth in such rumour, but Bruce Dunlop, who promotes Eubank for BSkyB, admits that his debut was unsatisfactory.

'It was quite disappointing because we want value for money,' Dunlop said. 'If it had been a cracking fight, we'd have been far more enthusiastic about the man we had paid money for. If we are promoting great fights, people are going to watch them. There is a hope that the fights will improve.'

Nevertheless, no pressure has filtered through from BSkyB to Eubank. 'They have never been anything less than 100 per cent supportive,' Hearn said. So will we see a different Eubank on Saturday? The fighter maintains not. He acertains that he is entertaining and that he will only raise his performance when necessary. Sam Storey, his opponent in Cardiff and No 10 in the WBO rankings, is another man likely to stay the distance but not to beat him over it.

So is there any chance of Eubank facing an opponent of more substance? 'It is important to stay unbeaten and prolong the storyline,' Hearn said, though denying that Eubank only ever faces hand-picked losers. 'Eubank only fights the top 10 and we can't make every one of those a Nigel Benn.'

Whoever the opponent, however, Hearn believes that Eubank will be affected by the censure. 'Despite the cold exterior and his mannerism of total confidence, I would be astonished if the criticism didn't get to him.' Does that mean there is a more sensitive side to Eubank? We may even see a knock-out at Cardiff's International Arena on Saturday.

(Photograph omitted)