Time runs out for Eubank

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The points victory Steve Collins gained over Chris Eubank in Cork on Saturday night to retain the World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight championship was not as clear cut as his many supporters imagined but, when a split decision was announced after 12 hard rounds, knowing glances were exchanged at ringside.

Before Collins wrested the title from him six months ago, and until then unbeaten, there were enough controversial verdicts on Eubank's record of 42 wins and two draws to suggest that a further aberration in scoring by WBO officials could not be discounted.

In concluding that Collins held a 115-113 advantage at the final bell, two of the three American-based judges, Aaron Kizer and Paul Herman, concurred with the champion's greatly experienced cut man, Ernie Fossey, and a personal assessment, but not with the view of Gennaro Hernandez, who had it 115-114 in Eubank's favour.

While it was felt generally that Hernandez should consult an optician, difficulties in objective scoring were soon apparent after Collins launched into the contest like a sprinter from the blocks, coming out with such force that Eubank only just avoided being bowled over in the centre of the ring.

If this tactic, repeated for two-thirds of the contest as a prelude to sustained, if often ineffective, aggression, had figured in the challenger's calculations he nevertheless found it disconcerting. The main purpose of the posturing that helped to build Eubank's reputation and, ironically, raised his ring earnings above those of every other British boxer, was to compensate for idleness in preparation.

Introduced dramatically by a stirring Celtic anthem, Collins would have none of it. With no pretence at finesse, the Irishman kept Eubank under pressure, forcing him to endure the troublesome inconvenience of fighting the full three minutes in every round.

Despite great efforts against Nigel Benn and the ill-fated Michael Watson, there was never any substance to the notion that Eubank had few peers in the annals of British boxing. Carefully avoiding engagements with leading Americans in the middleweight divisions, he was essentially a product of television hyperbole.

As Eubank will probably move up to light-heavyweight and challenge for yet another alphabet title, that held out by the fledgling World Boxing Union, it may be premature to think of him in the past tense. However, his earning power is bound to be seriously affected by this defeat. As one former champion put it: "Chris had better think seriously about the future because his days as a big earner in boxing are over."

There is sourness too. While awaiting the result Collins spoke to Eubank in an attempt to patch up the bad feeling that has developed between them. "I won't repeat what Eubank said," Collins said, "but it was clear that he wasn't interested."

Collins is flawed technically, but after a gruelling affair he was the one moving in the right direction. "We're looking at November for Steve's next defence," said his promoter, Frank Warren, who believes that the super-middleweight division is now wide open. Eyed by Nigel Benn as one last mammoth pay day, Roy Jones, the International Boxing Federation champion, is widely considered to be unbeatable, but Warren is not convinced. "There are guys on the brink," he said yesterday.

This must include Benn, who only just avoided the embarrassment of being floored by a late substitute when defending the World Boxing Council title last week.

Whatever the future holds, Collins and his supporters were entitled to be jubilant. Parties went on in Cork until the early hours of yesterday morning, and when Collins showed up at his hotel he was given a great reception, people clamouring to slap his back and shake him by the hand.

Earlier, Collins could be found sitting quietly in his dressing room with his family and friends. "The plan was to keep Eubank under pressure and give him angles to think about," he said. "It worked perfectly. I don't think I lost a round."

The first crisis came when an accidental clash of heads in the eighth round opened a deep cut over the corner of the champion's left eye. Having been introduced to the power of positive thought, Collins may believe that it staunched the flow of blood, but Fossey worked on the wound expertly.

The second crisis came with the desperate rally Eubank staged in the final two rounds, hurting Collins with solid hooks and uppercuts. "Stay in close," Fossey advised, not entirely sure if he had the champion's full attention.

For the moment, Collins reigns as the two things people in boxing appreciate most - a champion and a survivor. As for Eubank, you could say that time is running out on him, but that really started some time ago.