Boxing: The night Michael Watson's career was ended

Twenty years ago today he was on the verge of a world title – then it all went horribly wrong. Steve Bunce was ringside on a brutal night that changed boxing for ever

We all know when Michael Watson's boxing life ended: it was 10.54pm on Saturday, 21 September, 1991, in a corner of a boxing ring in the middle of the White Hart Lane pitch. That was when it ended.

Watson was 26 that night when he was led from one corner of the ring to his own corner after taking the final punches. He was gazing over the shoulder of the referee, Roy Francis, looking at his opponent. Francis had a hand on Watson's elbow and was having a screaming match with trainer Jimmy Tibbs, who had jumped up into the ring yelling abuse at the referee for stopping the fight early. "He's gone, Jim, and you know he's gone," Francis roared back. We all knew Francis was right; it was very noisy high up in the ring but it was going very quiet, very quickly inside Watson's head.

Tibbs finally took charge of his boxer and then it all changed. "He just slumped. I felt him go, he was on my chest and I knew he was gone," remembers Tibbs.

In a neutral corner Chris Eubank, his own features smeared with swellings, was having his gloves removed and trying to smile as people screamed in joy at him from ringside. There was blood on his teeth. In other areas, not far from ringside, fights broke out in sections of the 22,000 crowd. The television images were still going out live on ITV and an audience of 13 million tuned in. They watched as the people in Watson's corner started to panic, they watched as desperate cameras tried to find Watson somewhere under the track-suited horde that guarded the boxer's corner. There was a glimpse of his boot; it was a recurring image during the next hour.

I was at ringside, resting a hand on the second rope about three feet from Watson's head. His head was resting on a briefcase belonging to the British Boxing Board of Control's doctor. It was 10.56pm and the fighter was slipping away. The rope I was holding, and the place where I was gripping it, was just about exactly where the back of Watson's head had hit with such fury in the very last second of the 11th round.

The 11th round is unforgettable. Eubank was sent reeling and exhausted to the canvas with about 20 seconds left in the round. He was finished, his eyes a blur as he took some of the count on his knee. The noise was incredible. Nobody was sitting.

"I know that I was thinking about my daughters, thinking about my family. Thinking that life would be easy from now on; I would be world champion. What else would I have been thinking?" Watson told me.

Eubank stood, wiped his gloves on the referee's shirt, stepped forward and threw one punch. It was all it took. Watson also walked forward, his chin neatly hidden between his blood and sweat-coated gloves, but Eubank's punch, a simple right-uppercut, picked the direct route and slid between the gloves to connect cleanly with the point of Watson's chin. He went over, his legs stiff and his head snapped off the second rope. The bell sounded. It remains, even after all these years, a moment that never fades. Tibbs and Dean Powell, his assistant on the night, were quick to assist their boxer back to his corner. It's the hurt business, a brutal game so don't ask questions of men that act and fight with their hearts in truly desperate moments. Watson replied to Tibbs in the corner, he was alert. Big Roy Francis stood in the middle of the ring and called the boxers out to touch gloves after the 60-second break. It was the last round of a rematch that had dominated the back pages and was only taking place because of public demand. Watson faltered but that was because Tibbs had hold of his heels to gain a few extra seconds of rest. Everybody wanted to fight some more.

Watson was leading the fight on all three scorecards by three rounds, six rounds and one round. He only had to survive three minutes and the World Boxing Organisation's super-middleweight title would be his. It would also be sweet revenge for the injustice of his loss on points to Eubank in June of the same year. The bell sounded and 29 seconds later it was over. Watson was not throwing punches and Eubank was throwing too many. Francis, his hair flying in the outdoor breeze of a cooling autumn night, jumped between them. "He's gone, Jim, and you know he's gone."

In Watson's corner it is now 11.08pm and he has been placed on a stretcher. The doctor has a tube in Watson's mouth to help him breathe. He is, let's not hide from it, slowly dying. There is no emergency resuscitation equipment available at ringside. That all changes in the months to come. Tibbs, the DJ Tim Westwood, a nice guy called Kamel and a scared-looking medic each has a corner of Watson's stretcher. He is carried at pace from the ring, from the ringside area and to a waiting, but ill-equipped, ambulance. The police have restored order inside the football ground and as Watson leaves the pitch an announcement comes over the Tannoy thanking people for coming, and giving details of the next Spurs home game.

Watson is taken to the North Middlesex hospital, arriving there at 23.22pm. It is the wrong place. There is inadequate resuscitation equipment and no specialist head trauma staff. That all changes after the fight. He is placed alongside other Saturday night specials and his boxing boots are glowing in the gloom. His pupils were fixed and dilated; his brain stem had suffered an injury. (If this is grim reading, try and listen as Watson tells the story in his faltering and often haunting voice.) Thankfully, he is resuscitated and one pupil becomes unfixed. It is 23.55pm when he leaves North Middlesex for Barts Hospital. That is one minute outside the Golden Hour of essential rescue that all neurosurgeons preach. But, this is Michael Watson and he doesn't want to die.

Meanwhile, in another part of town Dr Peter Hamlyn is having a night away from surgery. Hamlyn receives the call shortly after Watson arrives at Barts and has been assessed by experts. He has a massive bleed on the surface of his brain. The fighter is prepared for surgery and goes down just before 1am. Hamlyn has reached the hospital but is unable to enter because of a gathering crowd of friends, fans, the curious and media outside the main entrance. He walks to the back of the Victorian building, searching for an open door. He knows time is crucial. He is standing in despair and looking up when a darkened door in front of him, and immediately below where he needs to be, suddenly opens. It is the bag lady of Barts, a legendary woman who has been living inside the hospital for years. Hamlyn races through.

The surgery, the first of five procedures, is over by 4.20am and Watson is placed in the eerie world of intensive care. His mother goes to his bed. At 5.10am Tibbs, who had been on his knees praying with Watson's mother and all the sisters from the church, was sent in to see his boxer. I know it was a final look. But, the other fight is on and the hospital years have started.

"Michael was closer to death than anybody that I have ever operated on," Hamlyn said. The pair are now great friends. "Michael has done more for me spiritually than I've done for him physically." And, yes, Hamlyn does call it a miracle.

And so it goes. In 1993 a few weeks before the Eubank and Nigel Benn rematch I went to see Watson. He was finally living back at his home. He had a series of carers. I sat with him as he ate chicken and rice. It was messy. He was struggling with words. There was a gaudy boxing belt on one wall, a gift from Benn, and the house was horribly sterile. It all seems so remote looking back now.

Ten years later I went back to the house. There was a lot of laughter this time. Watson made me a cup of tea, taking stick from Lennard Ballack, the gentle hero in the story. He has been at Watson's side from coma to marathon to the hundreds of dull days that require Watson to defy boundaries in pursuit of ordinary pleasures. Ten minutes in their company can be shattering – in 2003 I spent months with the pair eating, talking, laughing and walking. I was helping Watson with his autobiography. We all know where his boxing life ended but that was only part of Brother Michael's story.

An era of brutal rivalries

Benn vs Watson

Nigel Benn's abrasive character clashed with Michael Watson's relatively reserved persona, and things climaxed before their 1989 fight. Benn's relentless bragging grated, so Watson told the press of a stare-out between them when Benn blinked first – a sign of fear. "I'll hit him with so many lefts, he'll be crying for a right," exclaimed Benn, but Watson won convincingly, causing Benn to fly to America to resurrect his career. Despite this, Benn supported Watson in his ill-fated rematch with Chris Eubank.

Eubank vs Benn

"I do detest him, I really do. It's no joke, I can't stand him," simmered Benn, fuelling the fire ahead of a brutal classic clash in 1990. The rivalry was the greatest in middleweight boxing, as Eubank's flamboyant posturing drove Benn crazy. Benn's entourage sabotaged Eubank's entrance music before their bout by causing it to stop abruptly, but Eubank emerged victorious on the night. Three years later their drawn rematch was watched by half a billion people, and the two have since become friends, a recognition that each man helped to define the other.

Eubank vs Watson

Animosity filled the air prior to their first 1991 bout as Watson insisted Eubank was "foolish to take this fight", before instructing him to remove his "silly glasses". The rivalry was enhanced by Eubank's hate-figure status which generated Watson widespread support. Eubank regarded Watson as "strictly an obstacle which I must get past in order to enhance my standard of living", but despite winning both the fight and the infamous rematch later that year, his standard of living suffered when he was declared bankrupt in 2005.

Benn vs McClellan

Benn had his own Eubank vs Watson moment in an encounter with American Gerald McClellan in 1995. During one of the most savage fights in boxing history, McClellan sustained a blood clot in his brain, leaving him blind, almost deaf, and with permanent short-term memory loss, while 17 million watched. Benn, now an ordained minister living in Majorca, has helped raise funds for his opponent's treatment and met him for the first time since their clash, in February 2007.

And Watson's road to recovery...

After six brain operations, no one thought Watson would walk, write or talk again but he has defied those expectations. After partially recovering from his injuries, Watson sued the British Boxing Board of Control for negligence and was awarded around £1m. It was ruled that the Board should have been responsible for medical provision at the fight. In 2003, he completed the London Marathon. With each mile taking an hour, Watson walked two miles in the morning and two in the afternoon, completing the course in just over six days. In 2004, he was awarded an MBE for his continued services to disabled sport, a moment he described as "the pinnacle of my life".

Rik Sharma and Matt Bodimeade

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