IT was exceptionally pleasant, two-and-a-bit weeks after that necessary but largely depressing Panorama investigation aired the sport’s grimiest laundry, to watch a prime time terrestrial TV programme put boxing in its Sunday best and showcase its unique appeal to the masses. Kudos to Chris Eubank and his latest sidekick, Piers Morgan, for that.
I have got to know Eubank a little in recent years and it was refreshing to see the eternal charmer do what he does best which is, simply, to be himself.
From the moment we first saw him walk or listened to him talk, plenty have accused Eubank of putting on an act. It’s true, to a degree, that the former two-weight world titlist cares a little too much about the perception he creates and the image he presents; substantial care is taken with every inch of his body and each word that falls from his mouth, even when talking privately. But Eubank, whether or not one agrees with what he has to say, is never dishonest and is very rarely unkind.
That compassion and authenticity was stark as he admitted how much the consequences of his unforgettable rematch with Michael Watson affected him and continue to do so. That 1991 fight ended in the last round, led to Watson having to live his life in a body wrecked by the fists of Eubank and triggered changes in a sport that, perversely, needed such a high-profile disaster to safeguard its future.
Watson sitting in the audience, calling out to Eubank as old the warrior’s guard came down and tears started to flow, was pure ITV schmaltz; the producers of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories are very good at it, after all. But it was also one of the most genuinely touching bits of television I’ve seen in a long time.
“It’s okay, Chris, let’s move on,” Watson said as Eubank wept. “It’s okay, bruv. Let’s move on in life. I love you, Chris. It’s all in the past.”
The respect between the old rivals continues to grow long after that rivalry’s grisly culmination. It is honest and it comes straight from their hearts. Now, the cynical may say that reminding viewers of Watson’s plight does the sport few favours but, to my mind, the opposite is true. Boxing is a dangerous sport and one that Watson thanks for all it gave him, even as he lives with the disabilities it inflicted upon him along the way.
The exchanges between Eubank and Watson should also serve as a reminder of those dangers to every single active fighter who, though they may claim to know what can go wrong, couldn’t possibly empathise with such tragedy unless they’d experienced it first-hand. In short, boxing is savage and brutal enough without some of the distasteful barbs – like threats to ‘put you in a coffin’ – that we hear too regularly during ill-advised attempts to sell fights. Eubank, I’m sure, would have welcomed such knowledge in the early part of his career.
Further lessons for the young and invincible came from Eubank in the shape of the financial woes he experienced later in life, which were a consequence of both his notorious spending habits and generosity. Even national treasures like Eubank are not guaranteed riches forever.
The bolshy Morgan, a divisive character to say the least, was the perfect foil for Eubank’s natural extravagance. The US-based Brightonian habitually over-complicates his answers to the point of confusion – not from him, I hasten to add – but Morgan managed to trim the fluff and grandeur and, in turn, showed the world the real Chris Eubank – an exceptionally thoughtful man with an understated sense of humour. We heard of his complicated childhood, his skirmishes with authority and – the take home message – how boxing transformed his life, and in turn his understanding of right and wrong, for the better.
“What you’re doing for the public,” Eubank said in defence of fighting, “you are lifting their spirits. And there’s no better vocation, lifting the spirits of others. You know, whatever your predicament, whatever situation you’re in, you can rise. And that’s what we do.”
Eubank, like the sport that made him, is far from perfect. But he has been a credit to boxing from the moment he first laced up the gloves as a determined but troubled youngster. And, as this programme highlighted, he continues to be a credit to boxing in retirement. We can all learn a lot from him.