Peerless moment for two lords of the ring

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The Independent Online
THEY HAVE lost the cricket and Formula One, as well as most of the football and rugby and a big chunk of racing, plus tig, tiddlywinks and rock-paper-scissors, but the BBC can still turn out a mean sports documentary. The first Clash of the Titans (BBC2, Sunday), was an absolute classic of the genre, the kind of richly satisfying film only the Beeb can produce.

First up was an account of the rivalry between Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, which resulted in two epic battles. As Harry Mullan puts it at the start of the film, "I can't think of another all-British pairing of such sustained ferocity and intensity."

I never met Harry, but we spoke many times on the telephone when he used to write for this paper's Sunday version after many years as editor of Boxing News. He sounded like the nicest man you could ever meet, and when he died at the age of 53 last month, I felt a genuine sense of loss. It was lovely, then, to see Clash of the Titans include so much of Harry and his passionate phrase-making, making it an incidental memorial to him.

"It was boxing at its rawest," he says of Benn-Eubank I. "That's the great appeal at the core of boxing: it strips a man down to the basics, when it's just one man's will against another man's will. And that fight personified the concept more than any other British fight I've ever seen."

It was a modern saga. Benn detested Eubank, but the Brighton belle spoke simply of wanting to earn enough money to "get out of a maisonette flat and into a house," making the ruthlessness with which he set about Benn all the more awe-inspiring.

After the second fight, Barry Hearn recalls, "The first thing [Eubank] said to me was, `What does a draw mean?' I said, `It means we can do it again.' He said, `I like draws'."

Mullan was good on the differences between them: "Benn is a straightforward fighting man. He'll walk straight at you and take your head off. Eubank is operating on another level entirely. He was trying constantly to dislocate Benn, to confuse him and bewilder him."

In the end, though, it was less about tactics than raw courage. As Eubank closes in to finish the first fight, Mullan remarks, "Television sanitises boxing; it filters out the violence. You can't see that little fleeting moment in a man's eye when you know the fight is over in a split-second - that indefinable moment when he accepts defeat." His words are underpinned by footage of Eubank steaming in. There's slo-mo and slow music, the sound muted save for each thudding blow. Peerless telly.

In the first week of Wimbledon (BBC1 and BBC2), the contest that came closest to emulating Benn-Eubank was fought out between teenagers, one of whom lost because she'd had a row with her mum.

It wasn't just shock value that made Martina Hingis's defeat to Jelena Dokic so memorable; the quality of the young Australian's tennis was thrilling. Whether matters are going to be unduly complicated by her mad dad, who looks as if he should be jamming with the Grateful Dead or rolling up on Centre Court on his Harley Davidson, is part of that two-week soap opera, SW19.

We often ask ourselves whether we create tennis prodigies prematurely, but try telling that to Lester Piggott, who rode his first winner at the age of 12. As part of their Millennium countdown, BBC1 are running five- minute Rewind inserts tucked in before Neighbours, and Tuesday's featured the young Piggott's account of his first great day, read by a youngster, Merlon Cera Marle.

"With 200 yards to go I pushed The Chase to the front and heard another jockey, Davie Jones, screaming, `Go on! Go on!' I was not absolutely sure I was really going to win until the last 50 yards, but that's just what we did. We won by a length and a half. My first win! It was a very exciting moment. Not that I was allowed time to let it go to my head. After the race, I just got changed."

Nowadays he'd have just got changed, analysed his relationship with his parents for the world's media, then spent the evening glad-handing corporate dim-wits.