THE executives of British Sky Broadcasting have distinguished themselves in recent years with a number of sure-footed decisions which have seen a minority satellite channel evolve into a major player in British broadcasting. But there may be considerable unease in their Isleworth offices this morning over the wisdom of their latest investment.
Chris Eubank's eight-fight, pounds 10m 'world tour' got off to the shakiest of starts at the Olympia Grand Hall on Saturday night, with a far from convincing points verdict over the willing but scarcely threatening challenge of the Brazilian novice Mauricio Amaral.
Presumably the World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight champion has been signed up to enhance the sale of satellite dishes and subscriptions to the Sky Sports channel. Much more of this and he is likely to generate a rush of business in the opposite direction.
According to Eubank and his promoter, Barry Hearn, the Sky contingent were 'very satisfied' with what they had witnessed, an evening's entertainment which followed a well-worn pattern. First comes the entrance, the familiar strut in the spotlight culminating in the leap into the ring over the top rope. Next there is the fight, a plodding, predictable affair which has now gone the distance nine times in a row. Finally there is the verdict, which always goes the champion's way and is greeted with howls of outrage by considerable sections of the crowd. Controversy, after all, is good for business.
This time, all three judges made the 28-year-old Brighton man a narrow but clear winner, to the obvious consternation of many at ringside. 'Terrible,' muttered Jim Watt, the former world lightweight champion, now ITV's boxing analyst. 'Eubank didn't have one good round.'
A harsh assessment perhaps but Watt, who has commentated on most of his fights over the past four years, should know better than most that, with Eubank, the question of boxing ability is of secondary importance: what matters most is the show.
Since winning the WBO middleweight title from Nigel Benn in November 1990, Eubank has transformed the basic boxing match into a performance to be judged on its artistic merit. Like the Harlem Globetrotters, the protagonist's personal charisma has become more vital than the sporting event itself. Who cares about the opponent or the result: sit back and enjoy the show.
When it comes to making an entrance, Eubank's professionalism is beyond reproach. We have seen it many times before, but there is still something captivating about his arrival. For many at Olympia it seemed akin to a religious experience: women were standing on their seats, swaying in time to the beat of Tina Turner's 'Simply the Best' as the gladiator swaggered towards the ring.
Next came the adulation, Eubank pausing to milk the affection before his leap over the rope. The only new wrinkles in the routine were a snake-like hiss aimed in the direction of the press seats, and a glower of murderous intent towards his opponent, who blinked uncertainly back at the champion, seemingly unsure if he was about to embark on a world title fight or play the fall guy in a pantomime.
Poor Amaral, the only man inside Olympia unaware that he was participating in an exhibition, looked overwhelmed by it all. He came out uncertainly, fear showing in his eyes during the opening rounds. The Brazilian challenger's demeanour changed through the early stages, however, and he seemed reassured by the knowledge that Eubank seemed more intent on striking poses than striking his opponent.
The light-punching 22-year-old South American grew in confidence as the champion continued with his performance. By the end of round seven even Hearn had seen enough of the act, the promoter climbing into Eubank's corner to administer words of encouragement. 'I was concerned,' he said afterwards. 'I felt it was necessary to get in there and say, 'Come on, we've got to win a few rounds here'.'
Eubank certainly lifted his work rate over the closing stages, possibly sufficiently to convince the judges that he had done enough. 'It was a fair decision in my opinion,' he said. 'The job is about winning and it doesn't matter how you do it. Anyone who says I didn't win that fight must have been intoxicated.'
Not a great night for the Chris Eubank Experience, but the show goes on. On August 27, he will take on the former British champion, Sam Storey, at the New Convention Centre in Cardiff, before embarking on the third leg of his eight-fight world tour in South Africa in October.
'I have complete resolve in the task I've taken on. I'm undefeated in 40 fights, and that's a good feeling,' he said. His sense of well-being is likely to be further enhanced when he examines his next bank balance.
For Amaral, who received pounds 27,000 for his night's work, for the paying and viewing public who were forced to wait until after 11pm for the fight to start in order to avoid a clash with the Brazil- The Netherlands World Cup quarter-final, and for the Sky executives who have made a major investment in a commodity of questionable value, the balance sheet has a less pleasing aspect. When a professional boxer reaches the peak of his performance before the opening of hostilities, we are all being short-changed.
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