(Written June 2014 by MJ Law)
Boxing fans in the UK who subscribe to Sky Sports will likely tune in to Ringside, a weekly show that covers the events of the boxing world and which is hosted by Adam Smith and former boxer Johnny Nelson. With regard to Adam, it is difficult to decipher whether he is a genuine boxing fan who has landed a dream job or if he is a run-of-the-mill Sky TV presenter who has been shunted into this job and therefore acts as though he loves boxing more than he really does. Whatever the case, his melodramatic style of presenting can be quite nauseating. Almost every week he informs the viewers that the British boxing scene is buzzing as he practically foams at the mouth with excitement. He conveniently ignores the fact that the mainstream media gives little coverage to the sport, except for truly big fights involving the likes of Carl Froch. A typical example of Adamís exaggerated hyperbole occurred prior to bantamweight Jamie McDonnellís bout with Julio Ceja at the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster on 11th May 2013. Adam claimed that this bout had the whole city of Doncaster buzzing (his preferred adjective), yet Sky Sports had declined to televise it and when it did take place more than two thirds of the seats in the stadium were empty. Still, itís not easy to deter Adam ĎRose-Tinted Glassesí Smith.
Furthermore, Adam frequently gushes about each fight that Sky televises, making out that it is a timeless classic which was bursting with non-stop, edge-of-the-seat-action as well as being a magnificent display of masterful skills. Of course, itís his job to generate high viewing figures so heís not going to admit that an upcoming fight is probably going to be a forgettable bore between a pair of ordinary journeymen. But itís still cringe-inducing when he lowers his voice for dramatic effect, which he does habitually.
Another aspect of Adamís presenting technique is to compare the current thrills and spills of boxing to Britainís Ďgolden eraí. By this he means the prime years of Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and Michael Watson. This is a custom that he occasionally repeats as he adopts a dreamy, faraway look and sighs ďOh, the glory days of Benn and EubankĒ. Benn, Eubank and Watson were good fighters, but why doesnít Adam ever mention Jimmy Wilde, or Ted ĎKidí Lewis, or Benny Lynch? Wilde, Lewis and Lynch were all truly great fighters, certainly greater than Benn, Eubank and Watson. Maybe Adam has never heard of Wilde, Lewis or Lynch, or at least knows very little about them. Maybe his boxing knowledge only encompasses his own lifetime and anything beyond that is largely unfamiliar to him.
This reference to Benn, Eubank and Watson coincides with a book that was released earlier this year entitled No Middle Ground; Eubank, Benn, Watson and the Last Golden Era of British Boxing by Shanjeev Shetty. Was this really a golden era and just how good were Eubank, Benn and Watson? Certainly they each had a colourful personality (each very different) and their rivalry ignited passions and a bit of fun too.
A major instigator of their legacy is that their careers overlapped and they all fought in the same weight divisions. Consider as a comparison the brilliant career of Lloyd Honeyghan, who also had a colourful personality. He won the British, Commonwealth and European welterweight championships and scored wins over talented contenders such as Gianfranco Rossi (whom he flattened in three rounds, and bear in mind what Rossi went on to achieve), Sylvester Mittee and Horace Shufford. He then won the undisputed (and lineal) world welterweight title with a stunning victory over the awesome, previously undefeated Donald Curry. His subsequent defences included victories over Johnny Bumphus and Maurice Blocker (a future lineal champion). Honeyghan was just as entertaining in the ring as Eubank, Benn and Watson and his quality of opposition was higher overall. In contrast, neither Eubank, Benn nor Watson ever beat anyone on the level of Curry or became undisputed world champion in any division they fought in, or even unified any titles. Honeyghanís accomplishments were superior but Adam Smith never mentions him.
The programme for Benn v Watson
So hereís the question; was the era of Eubank, Benn and Watson really golden? Or was it lacking in a few carats?
Nigel Benn was born in Ilford, Essex, and was nicknamed ĎThe Dark Destroyerí. He was a rather rough and ready, blue collar guy with a big punch, reasonable skills and (as it turned out) a suspect chin. He turned professional on 28th January 1987 and scored a first round KO over Graeme Ahmed, who was coming off four straight losses. Benn proceeded to crush fourteen no-hopers before beating fellow prospect Darren Hobson on 14th March 1988. Next he won the vacant Commonwealth middleweight title by trouncing an undistinguished, unknown Ghanaian called Abdul Umaru Sanda. Five more wins over softies followed before he stepped into the ring with Michael Watson.
Watson was born in London and was a polite, humble guy who had made his professional debut on 16th October 1984, stopping Winston Wray in four rounds. His quality of opposition whilst rising through the ranks was higher than Bennís. Although he had dropped a decision to James Cook on 20th May 1986, he had triumphed over Don Lee, a decent fringe contender, on 3rd February 1988.
Benn and Watson squared off on 21st May 1989 at the Majestic Ballroom in north London and Watson demonstrated courage, guile and an airtight defence on his way to knocking out Benn in the sixth round. At the time, Benn was being hailed as an unstoppable wrecking machine but on this night he lost his unbeaten record, his Commonwealth title and the overblown myth that surrounded him. At this point in his career, Benn had not beaten anyone of note.
Watsonís victory earned him a shot at WBA middleweight champion Mike McCallum on 14th April 1990 at the Royal Albert Hall. However, Watson was outboxed and stopped in the eleventh round. He rebounded with a trio of wins over so-so opposition, one of whom was a faded Errol Christie. Then he tackled Chris Eubank for the WBO middleweight title on 22nd June 1991 at Earls Court. This bout was closely contested and ended in controversy, with Eubank being awarded a majority decision, though many at ringside thought that Watson was robbed.
Chris Eubank was an outlandish, eccentric character who was aloof, arrogant and behaved as though he was a highbrow aristocrat. At various times he has taken to wearing jodhpurs, a monocle and a cravat, and has occasionally walked with a cane. This pretentious nonsense belies his rather ordinary origins. He was born in London and spent parts of his childhood in Peckham and Hackney, both of which were deprived neighbourhoods. During his career, Eubank often attempted to talk in an intellectual manner, vainly stringing together lengthy, complex sentences in the fashion of a poet but he came across as more of a target for ridicule than an intellectual.
Eubank made his professional debut on 3rd October 1985, outpointing Tim Brown in the glamorous setting of Atlantic City, New Jersey. He put together a winning streak of twenty-one bouts before facing his first notable opponent, Kid Milo, whom he stopped in the eighth round on 5th September 1990. This led to him winning the WBO middleweight title, and the man he won it from was Nigel Benn. But how did Benn win it?
It should be stressed that the WBO title was quite meaningless. Itís still meaningless now, but it was even more so back in 1990. The WBO had been formed in 1988 and was struggling for recognition, basically offering up their belts to anybody (which is not much different to how they operate today). The inaugural bout for the WBOís middleweight title had taken place on 18th April 1989 and was between Doug DeWitt and Robbie Sims, a pair of ordinary, borderline contenders who were both coming off losses. In fact, they had both lost to the same man; Sumbu Kalambay, who at the time was the WBA (and lineal) middleweight champion. Therefore, the WBO were accepting a pair of defeated cast-offs to battle for their pointless belt. DeWitt won a split decision and defended against Benn on 29th April 1990. Benn won with an eighth round KO, but letís be honest; beating DeWitt was hardly a jaw-dropping achievement and it was absurd to consider him a real world champion.
Benn was a hard-hitting slugger
Bennís initial defence was a first round stoppage of Iran Barkley, and on paper this was a terrific victory. However, the actual circumstances painted a different picture. Barkley was a tough guy from the Bronx in New York City and had experienced a rollercoaster career. He had beaten Michael Olajide and scored a stunning upset victory over the superb Thomas Hearns, but he had also lost to the aforementioned Robbie Sims and Sumbu Kalambay. Furthermore, before meeting Benn he had additionally suffered back-to-back losses to Roberto Duran and Michael Nunn respectively. After this he had undergone surgery for a detached retina and been inactive for a whole year, so Benn was facing a tainted, ring-rusty version of the New Yorker. Barkley was actually beaten on the three knockdown rule, but on the first and second knockdowns Benn had hit him while he was down and Barkley was given no time to recover. Benn was lucky not to be disqualified, though his tactic to jump on Barkley from the opening bell was shrewd.
Benn went on to defend his WBO belt against Eubank on 18th November 1990 in Birmingham. This was a highly-charged encounter, with Eubank wearing Benn down and finishing him off in the ninth round.
Eubank had made two successful defences before his fight with Watson. These defences were against unproven Canadian prospect Dan Sherry, who had no significant victories on his record, and British hopeful Gary Stretch, who also had no significant victories on his record. Neither Sherry nor Stretch were world class, and in the case of Sherry, a victory for Eubank was certainly dubious. In the tenth round, Eubank had inexplicably head butted him and Sherry was unable to continue. Showing a great deal of leniency, the referee opted to merely deduct two points from Eubank, who was then declared the winner by technical decision. Within minutes, leaflets were being handed out to the crowd promoting his next fight against Stretch.
After Eubankís disputed win over Watson, there was considerable demand for a rematch and this took place on 21st September 1991. It was also for the WBOís vacant super-middleweight title, Eubank having relinquished the middleweight belt and choosing to move up in weight. The debatable necessity of the super-middleweight division is explored elsewhere on this website, but regardless of what division the rematch occurred in, the outcome was a terrible tragedy. Watson was stopped in the twelfth round of a gruelling bout and sadly collapsed whilst still in the ring. He was rushed to hospital but had lapsed into a coma, in which he remained for forty days. Thankfully, after extensive surgery, he regained consciousness but he faced prolonged rehabilitation. To his tremendous credit, Watson has far exceeded doctorsí original expectations and although he remains partially paralysed, he is a shining example of the human spirit.
Eubank proceeded to make fourteen successful defences of his new belt, two of which ended in a draw. His challengers were a mix of decent fighters (such as Lindell Holmes, Thulani ĎSugar Boyí Malinga and Tony Thornton) and mediocre pushovers (such as John Jarvis, Mauricio Amaral and Dan Schommer). One of the draws was a rematch with Nigel Benn, which was also a unification bout, for Benn had gained the WBC super-middleweight title. Eubank was somewhat lucky to get a draw.
After losing to Eubank in their first meeting, Benn had gone on to beat limited Italian Mauro Galvano on 3rd October 1992 to win his WBC belt. He subsequently made nine successful defences, incorporating the draw in his return match with Eubank.
Excluding Eubank, Bennís challengers were an unremarkable bunch of reasonable fighters who were not quite world class, such as Lou Gent, Vincenzo Nardiello and Daniel Perez. There was also Henry Wharton, whom Benn outpointed on 26th February 1994, but he was an unproven novice lacking in international experience. However, there was one prominent exception amongst Bennís challengers and that was Gerald McClellan, from Freeport, Illinois.
McClellan had been a big hitting middleweight, twice blitzing Julian Jackson, and against Benn he was fighting above middleweight for the first time. In addition, he had never been beyond eight rounds. Their bout took place on 25th February 1995 in London and ended in a heartbreaking manner with McClellan going down twice in the tenth round and suffering horrible injuries from which he has never recovered. Beforehand, McClellan had been favoured to win and dropped Benn in the first round (Benn was knocked completely out of the ring) and again in the eighth round. It was a wild, brutal slugfest and Benn showed incredible resiliency in surviving some heavy bombardments. It was almost certainly his best performance but it was also one of the most distressing nights in boxing history. Benn should have also demonstrated a degree of compassion after the fight ended. Even though McClellan had collapsed after returning to his corner and had been placed on a stretcher while receiving medical attention, Benn continued stomping around the ring gesturing aggressively in triumph.
There was no rubber match between Benn and Eubank despite their second bout ending in a draw. Benn finally lost his WBC belt on 2nd March 1996 when he was beaten on points by Thulani Malinga, who already been defeated by Eubank. A pair of inside-the-distance losses to Steve Collins occurred later in the year which brought his career to a close.
Eubank looking....well....make up your own mind!
Collins had previously ended Eubankís run as the WBO title-holder on 18th March 1995 with a unanimous decision. Eubank lost a rematch to Collins and suffered three further defeats (one to Joe Calzaghe and two to Carl Thompson) before retiring in 1998.
Itís interesting to note that Watson, Benn and Eubank campaigned during an era when there was a change in the culture of boxing. This change really began in the 1980ís, when gaining experience and developing world class skills became less of a priority. What became more of a priority was remaining unbeaten and winning a title. The accomplishment of winning a title had become much easier because the number available had doubled in the 1980ís. Previously, there had been only the WBC (formed in 1963) and the WBA (formed in 1962), but the IBF was formed in 1983 and the WBO unfortunately came along in 1988. These self-serving sanctioning bodies also created more weight classes; in 1950 there was only eight, by 1960 there were ten, by 1970 there were eleven, by 1980 there were thirteen and by 1990 there were seventeen. If there was only one world champion per division (as there should be), Benn and Eubank would never have been a world champion. In fact, if there was just the WBC and WBA, itís unlikely they would have been champions. And if there were only the original eight weight divisions, they would not have held titles in more than one division. They have clearly benefited from the crazy increase in titles and divisions.
TV networks like to showcase an unbeaten fighter with a title, figuring it will easily attract viewers. They seem unconcerned with what the title actually is or who the title-holder has actually beaten. This is why it has become such a precedence to try to keep a fighter unbeaten and to get him a title, any title. Promoters attempt to steer their star protťgť towards a title whilst exposing him to minimal risk.
As an example, take the recent case of British hopeful Brian Rose, promoted by Eddie Hearn. Rose is an affable but limited fighter from Blackpool who is clearly not world class. But this wouldnít discourage Hearn from getting him a title shot because itís easy to get a title shot. Why? Because there are so many titles available and a fighter doesnít have to face the best in the world to fight for one. Boxing is the only sport in existence in which a competitor doesnít have to defeat the best available opposition to become a world champion. If Usain Bolt wants to the win 100m at the world track and field athletics championships, then heíll have to beat the best sprinters in the world. If Andy Murray wants to win the menís singles crown at Wimbledon, the premier tournament in tennis, then heíll have to beat at least two or three of the best players around. Itís a totally different scenario in boxing.
On 14th June this year, Rose challenged Demetrius Andrade for the WBO light- middleweight title, but what exactly had he done to earn this chance? He had beaten an utterly shot former welterweight called Vivian Harris (who had won just one of his previous nine bouts) and Joachim Alcine (who had been knocked out in the first round of his previous fight by Matthew Macklin). Rose was obviously not prepared to tackle Andrade and it came as no surprise when he was soundly thrashed in a one-sided mismatch. He had not gained the necessary experience nor developed world class skills. Basically, Hearn had opted for a short cut to get him a title shot and Rose predictably came away with a sore head and presumably a nice payday. If that was all he wanted, then fine, but he was almost certainly going to fall short by using a short cut and thatís exactly what happened. For Andrade, this was merely a routine, keep-busy fight.
If the unthinkable had happened and Rose had scored an amazing upset, he still would not have had the skills or experience to rule over the division in which he would supposedly be the world champion of. The light-middleweight division currently includes the likes of Saul Alvarez and Erislandy Lara, and Rose is clearly not in their class. But this illustrates just how ludicrous the state of world championship boxing is, because even if Rose becomes a so-called world champion, he wouldnít necessarily have to defend against the best in the world anyway. Eddie Hearn is not concerned with developing a genuine world class fighter; he is a short-term schemer and just wants to get one of his fighters a title shot the easiest way possible. And if a fighter strikes gold and happens to win a title, then Hearn will negotiate a route for him to keep it for as long as possible by avoiding the most dangerous challengers. This is the culture of boxing.
Watson's win over Benn was probably the best of his career
Take another prime example; Ricky Burns. On 5th November 2011, Burns outpointed a battle-worn Michael Katsidis to win the interim WBO lightweight title. Earlier that year, Katsidis had already been beaten by Robert Guerrero in a shot at the WBA title. The WBO subsequently promoted Burns to their Ďfull-fledgedí champion and he reigned as such until being outclassed by Terence Crawford on 1st March this year. During his reign, Burns made four successful defences, including wins over a couple of decent fighters in Paulus Moses and Kevin Mitchell. But what is significant here is that between 2011 and 2014, a list of the best lightweights in the world would have to include Miguel Vasquez, Brandon Rios, Richar Abril, Antonio DeMarco and Adrien Broner. And Burns never defended against a single one of them. But why not? He was supposed to be the world lightweight champion, right? So why would he not defend against the best contenders? Is it because Hearn figured that Burns couldnít beat any of them? The Box Nation network and later Sky Sports, which televised Burnsí defences, were seemingly unconcerned about whom Burns faced and it was Hearnís job to keep Burns winning. Itís a nice arrangement and everybody is making money, but itís the sport and the fans that are given a raw deal because itís rare when this eraís world champions actually face the best in their division. Did it bother Burns that he wasnít facing the best lightweights in the division? Or was he content to go along with the charade? Before each bout, Hearn would launch his usual propaganda campaign, attempting to portray whoever Burns was fighting as a genuine threat and a worthy challenger, but in reality the biggest threats in the lightweight division were not in the opposite corner when Burns stepped into the ring. Maybe Burnsí challengers were good fighters, but they werenít the best and only in boxing does a world champion not have to face the best. If they did, world welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather would have already defended against Manny Pacquiao, and world light- heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson would have defended against Sergei Kovalev, and world flyweight champion Akira Yaegashi would have defended against Juan Francesco Estrada.
If the subject of Burns fighting someone like Brandon Rios ever cropped up, Hearn would likely spout the usual issues preventing such a match-up, along the lines of contractual disputes, or no agreement on a date, or the other fighterís camp being uncooperative. But boxing fans shouldnít fall for it. Rhetoric of this nature is a lot of phoney baloney hogwash and Hearn knows it. If Burns and Rios really had wanted to square off in the ring then a clash between them could have been made. Thereís always a way to reach a deal. Remember back in 1988 when Michael Spinks and Mike Tyson came together in a monumental showdown? There was a whole truck load of obstacles standing in the way of Spinks battling Tyson, including lawsuits and arrangements with rival TV networks. But both Spinks and Tyson wanted the fight and it got made. There should be no excuses.
In a post-fight interview, how many times has a victor been asked who they would like to face next? Itís a standard question, isnít it? And hereís the standard answer; ďItís up to my manager. Iíll fight whoever he wants me to fight.Ē Another lot of phoney baloney hogwash! The manager works for the boxer, not the other way round. The manager should line up the boxerís preferred choice of opponent and if the boxer is a world champion then it should be the most worthy contender available, not some second-rate South American that no one has ever heard of with a record of fifteen wins against nobodies.
This was the culture of boxing that Eubank, Benn and Watson grew into as they rose through the professional ranks, with TV networks and promoters looking to build potential stars with a minimum of risk, though it has worsened over the years. Why have the sanctioning bodies allowed this? Itís simple; itís all about making money. And even the power of money canít force the best fights. Why would Floyd Mayweather risk himself against Manny Pacquaio when he can generate far in excess of fifty million dollars by taking on easier opponents? The WBC, whose welterweight title Mayweather currently holds, are happy to let Mayweather face whoever he pleases because he makes so much money for them.
When Eubank and Benn picked up their various titles, they did not face the best in their divisions. During the late 1980ís and early 1990ís, the most outstanding middleweights in the world included Sumbu Kalambay, Michael Nunn, James Toney, Mike McCallum and Julian Jackson. Neither Benn nor Eubank faced a single one of them. Watson did face one of them and that was McCallum, who decisively beat him.
During the early-to-mid 1990ís the most outstanding super-middleweights in the world would include Nunn, Toney, Roy Jones and probably Frankie Liles too. Again, neither Benn nor Eubank faced any of them. Therefore, not Watson, Benn or Eubank dominated any division they fought in, at least on an international level and were not the best in the world while they were active. The conclusion here is that they are not great fighters and they do not compare to the likes of Jimmy Wilde, Ted ĎKidí Lewis or Benny Lynch. But thatís not such a terrible notion is it, because thatís what makes Wilde, Lewis and Lynch so special; that they are just about incomparable.
Benn and Eubank in their rematch
But having said that, Watson, Benn and Eubank certainly carved out their own niche in British boxing history. In terms of pure ability, Watson was probably the best of the three, though his legacy is not what he accomplished inside the ring but outside it. His self-belief and willpower to battle back from the injuries suffered in his last fight are just mesmerizing and for that he should always be remembered.
Eubank was the most carefully matched of the three and benefited from some questionable officiating; not being disqualified against Sherry, a gift decision over Watson in their first fight and a generous draw in his rematch with Benn. He had decent ability but it was sometimes masked by his eccentricities. In the ring he would often spend more time posing and posturing than he did boxing, as if he were trying to get onto the cover of Vogue magazine instead of The Ring magazine. He would trot forward a couple of steps, and then trot backwards a couple of steps, almost like he was tiptoeing on creaky floorboards. Then he would lurch at his opponent with a single shot from an odd angle. He probably thought he was executing masterful boxing moves but he was no masterful boxer. Such a distinction would go to a champ like Pernell Whitaker and Eubank was nowhere near Whitakerís level. When he actually got down to fighting, Eubank could display grit and durability, but his inflated opinion of himself was always greater than his achievements. Perhaps Eubankís status was enhanced by how he became a foil for impressionists and stand-up comics. He really did seem to take himself far too seriously.
Benn was crude and had a weak defence, but this made his fights more exciting and so he was definitely the most fun to watch of the three. If Eubank and Watson could beat him, then his contemporaries such as James Toney and Roy Jones would also have beaten him too, in all likelihood quite easily. But letís not take too much away from him, he usually put his heart and soul into his performances and provided plenty of exciting moments.
To surmise, the era of Benn, Eubank and Watson was maybe not quite as golden as Adam Smith has made out, or least not golden in the sense that it involved a trio of all-time great fighters. It was an era which involved a trio of good fighters who fought with a lot of spirit and whose rivalry made them entertaining to follow.