'Just living has been my hardest fight of all'

A decade ago Steve Bunce witnessed Michael Watson's fateful fight at White Hart Lane. The boxer now tells him of the hope that has come out of agony
Click to follow

In the dim light of another miserable September night, Michael Watson nods his head as he remembers the life that came to an end the moment he collapsed after his fight with Chris Eubank 10 years ago tomorrow at White Hart Lane in London. Watson underwent emergency brain surgery that night and is still recovering today from the injuries that ended his ring career.

Images of Jesus and fistic relics, the two constants from his life in the ring and in church, surround him in the living room of his home in Chingford, Essex. In another room one of his carers, Colin, is using a computer as Watson leans closer, his voice getting ever more serious as he moves through his memory to his last night as a prizefighter and the rematch with Eubank for the vacant World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight title.

"I know I was winning that fight," he tells me. "I know I was, I could feel being the champion but I look back and I know that if I had won that fight I would have mixed with the wrong people and I would have been on the way to destruction." He looks for an agreement, a nod of acknowledgement, but I am struggling with his logic.

"Tell me. What was the fight really like?" he asks. "What was it like, because when I watch it, I feel like I'm not there. What was it like?" It is hard to answer. There were over 20,000 people there, it was a fierce fight, and in round 11 both of the boxers were over. Eubank went first and then Watson was dropped. It is arguably the greatest round in British boxing history. I remind him we watched a tape of the fight in hospital but it was nine-and-a-half years ago, the type of memory he no longer has, and I realised that it was a dumb thing to say. He still has the tape but he has lost it.

"I would have had the riches if I'd won but my soul would have been lost. I know that. I also know that I'm a better person now," he continues. The fight ended after 29 seconds of the 12th round and Watson walked back to his corner, glaring over his shoulder at Eubank the whole time, before he slumped suddenly. His closed eyes, long eyelashes, his peaceful face, have been captured in sad pictures from that moment. He was soon stretched out on the sodden canvas. The time was 10:54pm and at 11:08 he was taken from the ring to North Middlesex Hospital, arriving there at 11:22. It was a dark and miserable night.

According to medical reports Watson's pupils were fixed and dilated and his brain stem had, therefore, suffered injury. It is not a pleasant read. Watson was fast approaching an early and tragic death as the minutes ticked away inside the "golden hour" of survival that all neurosurgeons speak about.

At the North Middlesex, the Saturday night regulars from domestic disputes and pub brawls were silenced as Watson's body was rushed in, trailed by a congregation of family and friends in despair. He still had his blood-splattered white boxing boots on. He was, so the record states, resuscitated and one pupil had unfixed before leaving the hospital at 11:55 for the drive to St Bart's and the knives of the alerted neurosurgeons.

At 7 o'clock in the morning Peter Hamlyn, a neurosurgeon, emerged from theatre with the blasted eyes of a man close to collapse to deliver a prognosis with little cheer: "I'm hopeful he will be able to make some progress." His emphasis was on "some". Behind him, Watson's mother Joan and her friends from the Evering Pentecostal church in Tottenham were on their knees in prayer again. Six hours later Hamlyn and his team were back inside Watson's head scraping another clot from the surface of the boxer's brain. At that point it looked like boxing was in-waiting for a fatality to be officially announced.

"It is a miracle that I'm here talking today," Watson continues. "I thank God for saving my life and saving my soul that night. I have become what I've become because of what happened to me back then. I have been saved and God has given me a destiny."

Back then he was in a coma for over a month before the recovery started to take over his life and his progress started to defy the predictions of experts. It was not, however, always smooth, and I can remember times when he was not moving forward as fast as some people wanted. I can also remember nights when the mercenary visitors – B-list celebrities – congregated outside the intensive care unit making my flesh crawl as they discussed "poor Michael".

There were the months at the rehabilitation centre in Homerton, not far from his childhood home in Islington, where the frustration at his lack of mobility was clear. On one occasion Eubank visited him there and the visit ended with Watson calling his former tormentor "scum". They have been reunited for a BBC documentary, which will be screened on Sunday.

"I had Eubank mentally because I broke him mentally at the press conference before the fight. I knew I had him in my grasp when he got up and left. I forgive him," Watson adds. I point out that Eubank is involved in many good causes and Watson looks up with a smile, hits his knee with a hand and in mock amazement says: "Wonders never cease." The boxers never liked each other. "Michael Watson wasn't like me," Eubank has said. "He actually likes the business. For him, it means something to be champion."

Watson is now 36 and is dependent on his carers for the life he has been left with. He walks with a lilt and talks with the occasional extra breath that most people who have endured months of a tracheotomy require. He has hopes for a future that it once seemed he would never have. He would like to become an adviser to young boxers and move back inside the business he was carried away from. He knows about disputes, having walked out on his first manager, Mickey Duff, and their contract.

"I was once surrounded by the dull and the simple. I could work with fighters and let them know what they have to do. Fighters today are too pampered, they get whatever they want and they are not hungry," he adds.

Now, he attends church, works out in a gym – "a real gym," he points out – and is waiting for the final settlement with the British Boxing Board of Control. In 1999 Watson had his day at the High Court of Justice in a case for negligence that he brought against the sport's governing body. He was successful. New safety rules were introduced after Watson's collapse and they have directly led to other boxers surviving and recovering from the same type of acute subdural haemorrhage that he suffered.

"This is what my life is and living it has been the hardest fight. I understand my situation and I understand life a lot better. Too many people take life for granted but I now have so much respect for people, especially women. I know the suffering a mother goes through when her child is in pain.

"A mother's love is so deep and trusting, they are very precious," Watson adds. He has two daughters of his own but he was separated from the mother long before the last fight. "I would like to see them more," he adds quickly when I ask about them. I can remember them at his bed. Jamilla, five at the time, and Leyla, three, looking at the cards and trying to be good for Daddy. Smiling, gently stroking his hand. Michael barely moving, just following them with his dark eyes from under the baseball cap he wore to hide the dent on the left side of his skull. What an awful memory, beyond tears and prayers.

"I feel like getting out of this house, getting away for a change," Watson continues as I start to leave. "I need to give my brain a healing because it has too many scars. What more could a man go through? I have been there with God at my side." When he talks he is often back in the pulpit at the Evering Pentecostal church and when God is in a sentence there is a beatific look on his handsome face. I wonder if the happiness is genuine, I decide it is by the time I leave. He has constantly told me to be positive.

"I pray for you, Steve. Let's stay in touch," he tells me at the door. I move my mouth but nothing comes out. I want to say "I prayed for you" but I have no words. He closes the door.

Fighting Back: The Michael Watson Story. BBC 2. Sunday 23 September, 10.05pm