IT is the hottest day of the year and clearly too much for Michael Watson. The former boxer sinks into his chair and shakes his head wearily. “I’m tired…” he murmurs, more to himself than anybody else. There is a far away look in his eyes and an unspoken agreement that we’ll give it another try tomorrow. This is not the first time that Michael has cancelled but it’s easy to forgive him. When it comes to excuses he does, after all, come better equipped than most of us. “We’ll do it in the morning,” he promises. “I’m going to psyche myself up…”
More 25 years ago Michael was the recipient of an uppercut that almost ended his life. The facts are no secret: the blow in question was thrown in desperation by rival Chris Eubank shortly after the eccentric Brighton boxer had been bludgeoned to the canvas with only 14 seconds left in a barnstorming 11th round of their rematch. Fourteen seconds that would change Michael’s life forevermore; instantly ending his boxing career and beginning a lingering rehabilitation that may never really be over.
Twenty-four hours later I’m back in Michael’s favourite restaurant in London and sitting beside him, ready to do what we have to do. He looks fresh-faced and healthy: heavier than in his fighting days but the years appear to have been good to him. It is only when he speaks that you are aware that something is amiss. It took the ex-boxer many difficult years to learn how to speak again and his words are blurred. When you watch him painstakingly climb to his feet you have an even greater insight into the difficulties that he faces on a daily basis.
If Michael’s been psyching himself up for today then so have I. The plan is to sit and watch that life-transforming fight in real-time, and to be completely honest I’m worried. I’m not sure how I feel about reliving this inestimably tragic occasion and I’m equally unsure as to what Michael’s reaction will be. But he seems relaxed and so does his loyal friend and carer, Lennie Ballack, who sits across from me, his eyes fixed upon an iPad currently displaying the preliminaries to the fight in grainy analogue detail.
“It just seems like yesterday… It really does,” sighs Michael as he watches his younger self climb into the ring.
“When you look at yourself as you were then, what do you think about?” I ask.
“Revenge!” exclaims Michael with a wide-eyed smile.
We laugh, as we will do a lot over the next hour or so. But beneath this apparently flippant comment lurks a bitterness that still remains after all these years. Michael’s injury occurred three months after a highly controversial first fight with Eubank. To this day many observers share Watson’s belief that he was robbed of the decision.
“What did you plan to do differently?” I ask.
“When I fought, I never wanted to hurt people,” admits Michael. “So I showed Chris mercy in the first fight. My intention this time was to put him out for the count.”
We watch as Eubank makes his entrance. Both men are in superb physical condition. “How do you feel seeing yourself looking so good?” I ask.
“I’m still like that!” grins Michael.
The fighters move to the centre of the ring. The bell sounds and immediately a pattern is established: for this fight Watson will be the aggressor and Eubank will operate on the back foot.
“What was your strategy?” I ask.
“I just wanted to have a good time,” quips Michael.
“You’re going straight to the body,” I say. “Was that premeditated?”
“Chris Eubank could take a shot to the chin over and over again but the body was his weakness,” explains Michael.
“And what was your weakness?”
“My weakness was… Women,” smiles Michael. Yet again there is laughter at the table.
“Look,” interrupts Lennie. “Michael’s giving Eubank a boxing lesson.”
Round two begins but our concentration is already swaying. Instead of watching we find ourselves stuck in a long conversation about another rival, Nigel Benn. It is only midway through the next round that I am able to pull our attention back to what is happening onscreen.
“At the moment nobody’s having any clear success,” I say. “It’s as if you’re having a conversation in there.”
“Eubank’s throwing a lot of punches but he’s not connecting,” says Lennie.
“I was just enjoying myself massively,” adds Michael.
“Were you talking to him?”
“No, it’s difficult to talk with a gum shield in.”
“How did Muhammad Ali do it then?”
“He’s got a big mouth!”
This is already not going as I’d expected. It’s not the poignant, bittersweet afternoon that I’d been steeling myself for. Michael’s smile is ever-present as he studies his former self. He can’t stop the wise cracks. Every sentence contains a joke.
“I notice you’re throwing a few right hand leads,” I persist. “Is that something you’d worked on?”
“No, I just couldn’t miss his head!” Yet more laughter.
We enter the second quarter of the fight and the momentum is beginning to shift. Tiredness is setting in and Eubank is standing his ground more. “Chris knows that if he stands in, Michael can’t get full leverage on his punches,” explains Lennie.
“He’s protecting himself,” agrees Michael.
“I notice that a lot of the time your hands are very low,” I say.
“That’s because he couldn’t hurt me,” explains Michael. “If Nigel had connected he would have knocked me out straightaway, but not Chris.”
We watch as Benn is interviewed at ringside, firmly in the Watson camp. “Do you like Benn?” I ask.
“Yes, I do like him.”
“Have I got him all wrong? Because I really don’t.”
“He’s like a brother,” says Michael. “I’m proud of him.”
“What about Eubank? Have you ever had a time when you’ve sat down alone together and had a cup of tea?”
“Yes,” confirms Lennie.
“And did you get along?”
“Very well,” says Michael. “He’s a nice man.”
We return to the fight, now halfway through: “There’s definitely something happening now,” I say. “He’s floundering.”
“He’s surviving,” says Michael. “The body punches were getting to him. I was sustaining the pressure.”
As if to confirm this we watch as Michael connects with a flurry of hard punches to Eubank’s head. The ferocity of the blows make the three of us gasp. “He’s really brave, isn’t he?” I say.
“Yes, Chris is a good fighter,” replies Michael. “He’s the real deal.”
But somehow we’re losing track of the fight. Round seven is already here and it’s more of the same: Watson chasing, Eubank retreating. “Do you think about this fight a lot?” I ask. “Does it dominate your thoughts?”
“No. Do you know why, Ian? Because I’ve done everything I want to do.”
“But if you could, would you still like to box?”
“No. Because I’m at peace with myself.” In the background there are roars from ringside as Watson’s attacks intensify.
“How conscious are you of the crowd?” I ask.
“I don’t hear them at all,” says Michael. “I had tunnel vision!”
The bell sounds once more and we’re all astonished to discover that round 10 is upon us. “In the light of what was about to happen,” I ask: “How were you feeling at this point?”
“The only thing in my mind was that I was about to become world champion,” Michael replies.
“So there were no warning signs that something was wrong?”
“No. I felt good – perfectly normal.”
“He absolutely marmalised him in this round,” adds Lennie.
“It has to be said that you look a bit tired as well,” I say.
“Not as tired as him.”
A silence descends upon the table as the next round is about to commence. “This is the key moment,” I say. “How do you feel knowing what’s about to happen?”
“I feel I’m about to face reality.” The smile is still on Michael’s face. The bell for the fateful 11th rings out and our faces are suddenly set in resignation and fear. Nobody is talking much now as we watch an exhausted Eubank launch one final frantic attack. For the first time in the fight Michael is pinned against the ropes as Eubank struggles to turn the fight around.
“At the time I actually thought he was getting on top,” I say.
“He’s a champion,” nods Michael. “He won’t give up.” But Eubank’s reserves of energy are already evaporating away. Now Michael commences his own assault, forcing his opponent backwards and connecting with punch after punch. Eubank slowly begins to wilt. Finally, a solid left hand catches Eubank to the head as he moves forward: the coup de grâce. The power of the blow is increased exponentially. Almost as an afterthought the boxer sinks to the canvas, a look of hopeless confusion on his face. As the referee begins his count it is difficult not to feel sympathy for Eubank.
“OK,” I soberly announce, “Fourteen seconds… 13… 12…” Watson watches from the table and from a neutral corner as his opponent climbs wearily to his feet. Then, as Michael marches forward to finish his night’s work and become WBO super-middleweight champion, Eubank somehow manages to conjure up a punch from nowhere that arches through Michael’s guard and slams into his chin with devastating force.
“What an uppercut!” exclaims Michael. Amazingly, he is both surprised and excited by the skill and brutality of the blow received so long ago by that other version of himself. He repeats the sentence a second time: “What. An. Uppercut.”
I lean forward to halt the replay. “We have to talk about this,” I say. “Boxing is a sport of extremes. The difference between boxing and life is that it’s 36 minutes as opposed to someone going to the office every day for 40 years. There were 14 seconds between you knocking him down and him effectively ending your career. In that 14 seconds a whole movie took place.”
I talk about how moving an inch to his left would have completely transformed Michael’s future; about how a simple step backwards might have been the difference between glory and catastrophe. How does he feel about this 25 years later? How can anybody possibly live with this knowledge?
“Do you know what, Ian?” Michael says slowly. “What will be will be. It was meant to be.”
“You really think that this was meant to be?”
“Look what happened after that. Look at people I’ve helped in life… Critically ill people.”
I take a deep breath: “You know I’m not religious,” I say. “But if there is a God, why did he do that to you? What did you do to deserve it?”
“He did it for a reason – to give people hope and love,” says Michael.
“It was meant to happen,” agrees Lennie.
“Then he’s got to be a cruel God,” I say. “There must have been a time when you lay there unable to talk… Unable to walk… And you thought to yourself: ‘Why me?’”
“Yes I did. I cried for the state I was in. But I didn’t give up hope.”
We watch as that other Michael slumps into his seat and his corner attempt to restore him to his senses. “I’m still thinking logically at that moment,” admits Michael. “I’m still conscious… All I wanted to do was survive.”
The bell rings out one final time. Within seconds Michael is overwhelmed by a rampaging Eubank. The fight is over and another about to begin. Disaster snatched from the jaws of triumph. Michael Watson’s final abiding memory of that night a quarter of a century ago before the darkness set in.
Ian Probert’s book, Dangerous, is out now.