Boxing: 'It was my greatest fight,' the controversial aftermath to chilling night
Michael Watson has never fully recovered from his world title bout with Chris Eubank in 1991. The fight has not been screened since, but Eubank owns the rights and is making it available on the internet - for a fee. Sickening exploitation? Amazingly, Watson wants you to watch the brutal contest that scarred his life. In an extraordinary interview he explains why
Wednesday 26 April 2006
Michael Watson first watched a tape of his last fight as a boxer from the recovery ward at St Bartholomew's Hospital. It was some time in November 1991, less than eight weeks after his second and final fight with Chris Eubank.
He had to turn the sound down because it was disturbing other patients but he never took his eyes off the screen. At the time he could not talk because of a tracheotomy tube in his throat and he had a baseball cap permanently perched on his head, covering the dent left after the brain operations that saved his life.
"I obviously can't remember the first time I watched but I can remember watching it later on from different hospital rooms. I know that I have worn out a lot of tapes. I like watching it. It was a great fight," Watson said a few days ago, speaking from his mother's flat in Islington, north London.
On that Saturday night in 1991 ITV went off air at 11pm not knowing how seriously damaged Watson was. The final punches from Eubank connected with Watson's high guard shortly before 10.54 and within a minute Watson was on the bloody canvas, his head resting on a doctor's case, his eyes, with their long lashes, peacefully closed and his life slowly slipping away. The cameras were switched off, the transmission ended and the fight has not been seen since. Darkness for the fighter and the fight.
Watson emerged from the coma and the operations and the hardship of disability to become a role model for all victims of sudden head trauma. He walked from the darkness of surgery and uncertainty and three years ago took seven days to complete the London Marathon. Just less than four million people watched the finish live on BBC TV. But it was his last fight that he has always wanted people to see. "It was my greatest fight. I know some people might find that hard to understand. But, that is how I feel. I know it could have been Chris at the end on the floor, but it was me and that is something that I can't hide from and don't want to hide from," Watson continued.
A few weeks ago Eubank approached Watson to talk about putting an end to the embargo on the fight - something the former head of sport at ITV, Brian Barwick, had aggressively enforced - and somehow getting the fight shown in some shape or form. Watson agreed to the idea in principle and Eubank is now planning to make the fight available on his own website, www.chriseubank.com. There will be a small fee and Watson will receive an equal share of profits, which is a much better option than people buying illegal copies from unlicensed DVD dealers. But it is not as simple as that and Eubank has been harshly criticised by some for his role in the fight's planned exposure.
Also, it has emerged that the necessary exchange of legal documents between lawyers acting for both boxers, who have remained friends since that night has not quite been completed. As one lawyer explained to me at the Malmaison Hotel in London yesterday, when Eubank announced the arrangement, to a small gathering of press: "The deal's not off. It's just not on yet."
However, Watson is convinced - as is Eubank - that the fight being shown will both raise his profile and show people just how good a fighter he was. Having spent a lot of time with Watson helping him write his autobiography a few years back, I was stunned by just how important his boxing career and years of ring memories were to him.
"I'm happy that my fans and boxing fans will get the chance to see the real deal and enjoy all of the fight and remember it for more than just what happened to me when it was over. The fight was more than just the ending. It was a great fight," Watson added. "I know that people forget about my career before the second fight with Eubank. They know me as the boxer who suffered the injury in the Eubank fight, but there is a lot more than that. Just watching the whole of the rematch will show people that I was a quality fighter.
"When I sit down and watch the tape of the fight now there are parts I can remember. They are like quick flashes of recognition and I will tell you something strange: after every time that I watch it my mind is sharper," Watson continued.
The loss to Eubank was Watson's 29th fight and he is right - people know very little about his earlier ring appearances and they know a lot more about his long, drawn-out recovery. A few months earlier Eubank had beaten Watson on a close and controversial split decision which made both the front and the back pages of most national newspapers. In the weeks before the rematch Watson had repeatedly told me that he knew a big win was needed and in many ways he knew this was his last chance at respect and recognition.
"I have to get Eubank out of my hair," he said at the weigh-in for the fight, just 12 hours before the first bell set in motion the unforgettable encounter.
Watson had turned professional after losing a debatable decision in the British Amateur Boxing Association semi-finals in the Olympic year of 1984. At first, he was a steady pro, a fine operator and in 1989 he beat Nigel Benn in front an audience of over 10 million on ITV.
Watson was the nice guy and was given the nickname "Mover With the Hoover" by his local paper when it was revealed that he helped his mother clean the house. Benn was known as the "Dark Destroyer" and was unbeaten in 22 fights at the time and 19 of his victims lost in the first or second round. Watson boxed brilliantly and knocked out Benn in round six, but, bizarrely, it was Benn who remained the attraction. Watson was deeply upset at what had happened, but it was to get worse and in 18 months he was the chief support for the epic encounter between Eubank and Benn in Birmingham.
"In the Benn fight I showed everybody just how good I was. It was a super fight for me, but when it was over I had to watch Nigel grabbing the headlines again. It was frustrating," Watson said.
"In the first fight with Eubank the same thing happened. I knew I had won the fight, but he got the decision. He never stopped trying, but I deserved the title that night. It hurt.
"I was wrecked emotionally after the first fight with Eubank, but once the rematch was made I put every ounce of my body and soul into it. It was to be my finest hour and it was: I still think that because I know that I was put on earth to be an inspiration to others - there was a reason for the ending. I know that now," Watson continued.
Yesterday, Watson missed Eubank's press call. "It's not really my thing," he told me. "I leave that sort of thing to Chris because he likes the cameras."
Watson was also resting because today he plans to walk a stretch of the London Marathon with the former footballer Danny Wallace. In 1996 Wallace, who scored for England in his one and only appearance, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Eubank was in fine form and as usual made far more sense than he is ever given credit for. He said: "I believe it's an inspiring fight to watch. It's Michael Watson's forgotten legacy. He is right in many ways."
I was there yesterday and I was greeted by Eubank in the hotel's lobby. "Steve, go downstairs. I'm showing the last four rounds of the fight." I sat in an alcove near the bar, listening to the fight being shown down a step or two in the restaurant. I have watched it with Watson in the past and dozens of times on my own when I was working on the boxer's book. It gets harder each time and yesterday it was impossible. As the commentators' voices run wild in round 11 I stood to leave. I was halfway up the stairs when Eubank went down with about 10 seconds left at the end of round 11. I paused for a second to hear the amazement in the commentator's voice when Watson is knocked down. People watching in the bar had their mouths open and there was genuine shock in their eyes. Eubank and Watson are right: people have forgotten just how incredible the fight was.
I heard the bell sound to start round 11 and I knew what was happening on the screen. That was enough for me. I went out of the door for some air. I know exactly what happens: I don't need ever to see it again. I see it on too many nights when I close my eyes.
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