IT WAS a phone call that was to change my life. Apologies if that sounds somewhat over-dramatic and self-indulgent. But it did.
In the early 1990s I’d been working for Hayters sports press agency in London in my spare time as a news reporter at the South London Press – mainly Barnet and Leyton Orient Football Clubs on a weekend – when the call came in. In Autumn 1993 Boxing News had a spare press pass for Nigel Benn v Chris Eubank II. Would I like to go?
Legendary BN editor Harry Mullan was a pal of Reg Hayter, the founding father of Hayters and somehow my name cropped up. To this day I still don’t know how or why. I was certainly a dedicated boxing fan and I recall covering the Robert McCracken v Ernie Loveridge clash at York Hall in early 1993. Rob was a Brummie and I hailed from the Black Country, so at least there was no language barrier. That fight thrilled me. I interviewed Rob at ringside afterwards, him in his royal blue Birmingham City shorts, little knowing his future as both fighter and trainer would be so impressive and far-reaching.
Anyway, the call came in and my head spun. Film buffs may remember the movie Total Recall. There’s a scene where Arnie Schwarzenegger, cunningly disguised as a fat lady, lands on Mars. As she is going through customs there is an electrical malfunction and the fat lady’s head swivels uncontrollably, before exploding. Pretty much the same happened to me as the words ‘press pass’ and ‘big fight’ were offered.
I didn’t know much of Harry Mullan then. I’d met him, liked him and knew of his reputation. Harry was a jovial Irishman with a tough streak. Above all, he was great company and he absolutely loved the fight game. It seeped through his every pore.
So there I was, a cub reporter, with precious little real knowledge of boxing, going to the biggest fight of that and many a year. And crucially, in those cash-strapped days of post-university employment, the ticket was even free.
I’d grown up with the sport, but then how could you not in the 70s and 80s? Boxing was everywhere. Boxing was box office. Can you believe that Henry Cooper was twice winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award and yet Our ‘Enery never won a world title? Cooper was big news. Ken Buchanan was big news. John Conteh was big news. Boxing stopped the traffic. Millions upon millions would watch Harry Carpenter and Reg Gutteridge introduce boxing shows from around the world on terrestrial television.
Many years later I travelled with Reg to a fight in Las Vegas and he still had a twinkle in his eye. At the Betty Boo bar in the MGM Grand Hotel he had us scribes in stitches. Reg was chatting to some young girls and told them he was a robot, like Arnie in Terminator – totally impervious to pain.
He was convincing them he was part machine, part man. And offered to prove it. Reg stuck a fork in his leg and blood spurted everywhere. The girls shrieked. The rest of us stood aghast. Reg rolled around laughing then lifted his trousers to reveal a wooden leg, courtesy of the D-Day invasion in World War II when he stood on a Normandy beach mine. And the blood? A couple of sachets of tomato ketchup from McDonalds sellotaped to his leg.
But back to Benn v Eubank II.
I’d watched their first 1990 dust-up, which remains compelling even after all these years. We are now very accustomed to boxers trash-talking their opponents, but in this instance it did actually look like these two couldn’t stand the sight of each other. Nearly three decades later I’m sure that level of antipathy has now been watered down, but the rematch three years after their first ding-dong promised fireworks aplenty.
My favourite was, of course, Nigel Benn, aka the Dark Destroyer. Benn could punch his way through several brick walls, but even to my inexpert eye it was clear he lacked pugilistic nous. Benn either fought at a frenetic pace, more frenetic, or even more frenetic. After losing to Michael Watson, Benn realised his limitations, went back to basics, and started dismantling highly ranked Americans, such as Iran Barkley and Doug DeWitt.
The panto villain was Chris Eubank, who had the temerity to call himself ‘Simply the Best,’ vaulted ring ropes, snorted with those flared nostrils and posed between rounds, showing off his six pack. Eubank was fruitier than your Grannie’s fruitcake, nuttier than Squirrel Nutkin’s winter stash. But both Benn and Eubank could really fight.
I travelled up north on the day of the clash via my usual mode of transport, poncing off a pal who could drive and had actually bought a ticket.
The promoters had done a remarkable job in convincing an estimated 42,000 to shell out for an open-air fight in October. In Manchester.
For perhaps the only time in the Autumnal history of Lancashire it failed to rain and Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground was awash, thankfully not literally, with baying boxing fans. You could blame promoter Don King for many things, but even he couldn’t do anything about the weather, which somehow stayed dry.
Before the showdown King had signed up the winner on a long-term deal regardless if they won or lost, but nowhere in the contract did it mention a draw, which meant Benn and Eubank were free agents after the fight. It’s still one of the few times ‘The Don’ ever missed a trick.
So I helped out on fight night where I could, which was, in truth, negligible. Harry’s successor in the BN editorial chair Claude Abrams – another fine journalist – was also working that night. Claude did the main undercard fights, namely Crisanto Espana v Donovan Boucher and Birmingham’s Paul Wesley v Warren Stowe, with the BN letters page later widely admonishing referee Mickey Vann for using foul language. How times have changed?
I recall reporting straightforward victories for future belt-holders Robin Reid and Barry Jones. The latter I met recently when he was commentating on the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, while Carl Froch once told me Reid hit him harder than any other boxer in his career. And I don’t mean with Reid’s trademark dangly earring!
It was a memorable night as it really introduced me to a whole new world. I’d reported on boxing, but only relatively minor stuff, while this was the real deal.
I’ll make no bones about it, I wasn’t exactly scared of Harry Mullan, but I was slightly in awe of him. I’d read BN for many years – it got passed around the South London Press – and worshipped Harry’s views, which quickly made me an expert when I repeated them ad nauseum to unsuspecting friends.
Harry was sociable, friendly and very professional in that old school way. The BN which reported Benn v Eubank II included Harry’s column which berated a journalist for making spelling mistakes galore in a ghost-written autobiography of Lennox Lewis. That was typical of him and it’s a lesson which all reporters should learn. I dread to think what Harry Mullan would make of some of today’s keyboard warriors.
As for the fight itself, like most at ringside I thought Benn had nicked it, but it certainly wasn’t the scandal which the Dark Destroyer believed. Not in the same league as, say, Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield I at the end of the decade.
I’ve watched the fight again many times but my memory on the night was that Eubank gave as good as he got. It was tense, it was raw, but the mutual hatred was laid aside for 12 rounds and both fighters gave it their all. In fact, had Benn not been rightly docked a point for a low blow in the sixth round he would have won.
Harry Mullan gave it to Benn 114-113 but had no argument with the decision, only the individual judging. I remember Eubank bossing the last round and both Harry and I saw it that way, but all three judges mystifyingly gave it to Benn.
My belief is that if Benn and Eubank had fought each other ten times, there would have been five wins for either camp. In other words, they were a well-matched pair, both absolutely world class performers.
It’s only my opinion, but a young upstart just coming through at that time from South Wales would probably have beaten them both, if all were in their prime. Joe Calzaghe, as history now tells us, was a phenomenon and the most gifted British fighter I ever reported on.
The fight changed my perception of boxing because I really saw at first-hand what it physically took to be a fighter at the very top level. Boxers are the fittest of the fit. I’ve taken professional footballers to boxing gyms and many have commented on how their levels of fitness are well below the demands made of boxers.
Benn v Eubank II also made me realise that boxing was sport in its rawest sense. There was nowhere to hide in a ring and the fighters, after knocking seven bells out of each other, invariably afterwards they displayed nothing but respect for their opponents.
Put simply, I fell in love with boxing. I covered York Hall fights on a regular basis for anyone who would employ me and got to know the great and the good of the game. I use that last word colloquially, of course, because boxing is anything but a game.
My career as a boxing reporter for the next 25 years took me to places I could only have dreamt of as a kid. I watched Ricky Hatton in Vegas, Joe Calzaghe take apart Jeff Lacy and Carl Froch losing to, then beating, the great Dane Mikkel Kessler. Along the way there were some unforgettable times and not just with Reg Gutteridge and his wooden leg.
Boxing News historian Miles Templeton produced a top 50 Greatest British Fights for BN two years and I was privileged to be at ringside for 10 of those bouts, which suggests I was bloody lucky. From Jamie Moore v Matthew Macklin, Benn v Gerald McClellan, Michael Gomez v Alex Arthur, Anthony Joshua v Wladimir Klitschko, Ricky Hatton v Kostya Tszyu and Michael Katsidis v Graham Earl…..I was there.
And I’ve got that phone call to thank for it.
So what happened after Benn v Eubank II? Harry Mullan said a third fight was inevitable, but as we now know it never materialised. Why? A whole host of reasons but essentially ‘politricks’, as Lennox Lewis used to call it, got in the way.
Benn went on face Gerald McClellan in February 1995 in a clash that was as tragic as it was memorable, with the American suffering permanent damage. It is still the most white hot engagement I’ve ever witnessed in a boxing ring.
Benn later retired after three straight defeats and was wise to do so, while Christopher Livingstone Eubank also lost his last three bouts. Whoever and wherever they boxed though, Benn and Eubank will always be intrinsically linked together.
I got to know Benn a little over the years and although they say you should never meet your heroes, I was glad I did as Nigel was always thoughtful and considerate. As for Eubank, he was larger than life and I had several dealings with him when his son turned pro. Hand on heart, Chris was absolutely first class, a delight to work with.
Before I go, a couple of quick stories from the past. I met Nigel Benn shortly after his retirement as he was at a sportsman’s dinner at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park ground. We sat chatting about boxing for over an hour and he spoke about how his life had been turned around by his recent marriage and Christian faith. Many years later Nigel Benn, despite all the ring wars, remains a man at peace with himself.
On the day Chris Eubank finally retired he invited the press to his house in Hove to deliver the news. After an interminable wait of several hours in the Eubank garden, a tannoy announcement boomed out “Testing, testing, 1-2-3. Would the honourable members of Her Majesty’s press please get off my f**king grass.”
Nigel, Chris and Harry Mullan, I can never thank you enough.