Boxing: Calzaghe prepares to write latest chapter in rich history of British boxing's 12st angry men
Welshman prepares for his 18th title defence in a division dominated by likes of Eubank and Benn. Steve Bunce reports
Friday 03 March 2006
The rich history of British boxers in super-middleweight world title fights is short, but there is no doubting, in the brutal business of boxing, that the 12st limit is the British weight.
When Joe Calzaghe defends his World Boxing Organisation title against unbeaten American idol Jeff Lacy tomorrow night at the MEN Arena in Manchester he will attach his name permanently to that history.
As a point of record the first man to win a version of the super-middleweight title, the International Boxing Federation belt 22 years ago in Atlantic City, was Murray Sutherland and he was born in Scotland but based in America. Since that night seven British fighters have held one or more of the championship belts and another dozen have stepped through the ropes to fight for it.
It all started on a night that British sport would never forget when over 30,000 people sat in the drizzle to watch the rematch between Chris Eubank and Michael Watson. It was September 1991 and the pair had met for Eubank's middleweight title a few months earlier, when Eubank kept the title but lost the crowd.
During a few weeks of bizarre negotiations the WBO were somehow able to jettison the two leading super-middleweight contenders and install Eubank and Watson at Nos 1 and 2. The rematch was not, as many mistakenly believe, a foregone conclusion and Eubank and his promoter, Barry Hearn, had future plans that excluded Watson.
However, a tabloid campaign, the intervention of the deputy sports minister and a series of clandestine meetings saw the fight arranged. The business was a lot cosier just 15 years ago.
Watson dominated the fight, pushing Eubank back. It started to blur by round 10 and took on an epic feel for everybody at ringside and inside White Hart Lane.
Some 17 million watched on television and people still talk of a strange feeling as the late rounds drifted closer to something climatic. It sounds daft, but they realised that they were watching something historic.
"I know I was winning. I know I had the title. I know that, I know all of that," Watson told me during our collaboration on his autobiography. He was winning, he was right, and in round 11, Eubank retreated clumsily, looked at the canvas briefly and touched down from a glancing shot or two. Both were exhausted.
Eubank regained his feet; the entire crowd was on their feet and then time stopped in the ring. Watson came off the ropes in slow motion, the voices in his corner to "be careful" and "keep your hands up" were lost in the night. He walked forward and his chin was stopped by a crushing, sickening right uppercut.
Watson was lifted off his feet as he fell back, his head hitting the ropes but somehow he was up by 10 and the bell put an end to the session. The two corners entered the ring to retrieve their fighters for the final 60 seconds of respite.
Watson came out for the last round but he was finished, the damage had been done deep inside his skull and seconds later he was on the canvas. He was unconscious. Thankfully, years later he could walk and talk again but that night ruined him and possibly Eubank. In his next 14 defences, Eubank went the full 12 rounds 12 times and often spoke of his inability to finish what he started in the fight against Watson.
But it was Eubank and his great rival Nigel Benn who took the super-middleweight division to extraordinary heights when they met at Old Trafford in October 1993. Round after round they fought with a bitter intensity that was at times quite remarkable and at each bell they often took the occasion to exchange one extra punch and a line or two of insult. It was nasty and at the same time it was about as good as it ever gets in a British ring.
A drawn verdict divided the loyalties of the crowd and the pair embraced uneasily at the fight's conclusion. Benn wanted another fight, having lost to Eubank a few years earlier, but Eubank was finished with that type of fight, that type of vicious row. Eubank had the heart for anything but after Watson he probably lost the stomach for excesses inside the ropes.
During the next year or so Eubank continued to pick off his challengers as the WBO incumbent and Benn moved closer to what many considered a fight too far in defence of his WBC title. Benn, it has to be said, had the respect that Eubank always claimed was incidental to his peace of his mind.
In February 1995 a fight was scheduled for London's Docklands Arena between Benn and the ferocious and moody American Gerald McClellan. It was to be what many consider boxing's greatest night.
McClellan's fists had left 29 of his 31 opponents in a dreadful state. He was a truly blessed puncher and before meeting Benn his three previous WBC middleweight defences had ended in the first round. He had knocked out Julian Jackson, one of the sport's best champions at the time, in less than two minutes in his last fight.
However, McClellan had gathered for his corner an assortment of halfway men and nobodies from his roam through the dog-fighting pits of America's lost towns. His preparation was flawed and he entered the ring convinced that his punch was all he required to leave Britain with Benn's WBC belt. His lowly paid and unpleasant hirelings agreed.
In round one, Benn was knocked clean through the ropes and landed shoulder first on a TV monitor. His eyes had interference of their own and from my seat not 10 feet away there was simply no chance of Benn beating the count or lasting the round. He was gone, as they say in boxing, but he did survive and in round 10 it ended with McClellan on his knees blinking. This time, he was gone.
They shared a ward at a local hospital briefly. Benn was released to spend the night being tipped in and out of a bath packed with melting ice to ease his every pain. McClellan had a large clot scraped from the surface of his brain and was making great progress before being moved back to the USA. He is now partially blind and deaf.
Benn, just like Eubank had, left something behind in the bloodstained ring that night, and was never really the same. He lost his title the next year on points to South Africa's Thulane "Sugar Boy" Malinga and then lost back-to-back fights with Dublin's Steve Collins at the MEN Arena.
Collins had finally put an end to Eubank's amazing reign as WBO champion in Cork in March 1995. Eubank had lost the fight and his mind the night before when Collins convinced him that a hypnotist had made him impervious to pain. Eubank tried to pull out and had hidden in a wardrobe.
The following night Collins did his best to look like a man possessed with evil demons and his demented sneers worked a treat. Eubank was hesitant for much of the fight and Collins won a tight decision. It was a wonderful twist, a necessary touch of light relief coming so close after the McClellan tragedy.
In 1997 Collins left the sport in tears and Eubank and Calzaghe met for his vacant title. Calzaghe dropped Eubank in round one and won clearly over 12 rounds. Eubank said at the time that Calzaghe was the "best of us". He meant super-middleweights. Calzaghe has been the champion ever since and tomorrow is his 18th defence. That's British boxing history.
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