I grew up in a heavily influenced Boxing environment, from both parents sides. Whilst they have their personal differences towards one another, one fact they remained united on. Michael Watson is greatest British fighter to never win a World Title, bar none. He went as close as humanly possible to being World Champion, before something happened that would alter his and family lives forever.
Watson was born in Hackney during the swinging ’60’s to a large West Indian family. His father, who separated from his mother Joan had returned to Jamaica.
Living in Dalston, North London. Renowned for being an unruly area in the late 70’s, it was a particularly rigorous environment for a father-less young boy learning to become a man.
Michael was a quiet, softly spoken young man. His mother had installed in him to be polite and courteous at all times. This began to become a disadvantage to him as played football on his estate. One game in particular against a group of older boys would be career defining. In being victorious in this game, Watson was beaten up. Unable to defend himself, he went back to his home licking his wounds. Close family friend “Uncle Joe” was there, he would from this day become a father figure to Watson. He told him that he needs to learn how to defend himself so this is never repeated.
Uncle Joe took 14 yr old Michael to Crown and Manor Boxing Club to do just that. He admits himself, when he looks back that this was a real watershed moment for him. Watson felt a sense of belonging, he felt at home in the gym. He was free. It seemed that the gym and boxing felt the same towards him. He took to the sport like a duck to water.
Watson fought 22 times for Crown and Manor as an amateur, winning 20 losing 2. He transferred to Colvestone Boxing Club where he won the ’83/84 Nationals. This put him in contention to be part of Team GB for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Watson losing what was deemed as an easy fight, he was stopped by young Liverpudlian Brian Schumacher who took his seat on the plane to America.
Michael soon turned pro after this brief setback. Chalking up some impressive victories. Watson picked holes in his opponents, he could also bang with his trademark right hand.
He was 14-1 before the public really sat up and took notice of him.
“He was a well schooled, clever, skilful boxer.”
Watson v Don Lee
American Don Lee, named Dangerous Don was the first real win Watson had in the public eye.Lee was one of the most avoided and
feared middleweights from that period. Watson was the aggressor, exerting frightening power. Stalking and hunting Lee down. He was the polar opposite to himself outside the ring. The referee called a halt to the fight. Lee’s lip was badly cut. Rightly so as he would of done some serious damage to him. Watson whilst the high-pressure fighter in the ring, still displayed the humility outside of it. He never wanted to maim, hospitalise anyone. Thriving on purely embarrassing his opponents with his skill and laser punching precision. That was more satisfying in his eyes.
“I was a Top Ten contender during the era of Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Roberto
Duran, it was a great era to be a Top Ten contender” Michael Watson
Watson used this as a catalyst in his next 7 fights, winning 6 by knockout, drawing 1. His KO of Ricky Stackhouse my personal favourite.
This had him knocking firmly on the door of the divisions big guns, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank. This was the renaissance period of boxing on these shores. An embarrassment of riches in the Super Middleweight division, that would continue with Steve Collins and later Joe Calzaghe in years to come.
Nigel Benn had 22 fights and 21 KO’s when he was due to fight Watson. He was Michael’s acid test. The man they called the Dark Destroyer. Benn was a real throwback to the boxers of yester year. He reminded me of a young Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier. Inner City street fighters, just angry young men, with a point to prove to the world. Who will go through anything, and anyone who dares to cross their path with the force of a freight train. Benn, enjoyed hurting people, he got off on it. But he could also box and was certainly not a man to piss off.
“The British press hate a winner who’s British. They don’t like any British man to have balls as big as a cow’s like I have.”—Nigel Benn
Watson v Benn
The poster for this fight is the best I have ever seen. It was the same time Michael Jackson was touring in London for his album “Bad”. Rare for any promoter to miss a trick on what’s current, hats off. Benn’s entrance for this fight was BAD themed and fit his persona like a velvet glove. The venue, “The Super Tent” a purpose built almost circus esq ripe for the occasion.
Benn, the overwhelming favourite sprinted out of the blocks as expected, pressing, trying to bully Watson. Michael cupped his gloves over his head, Ali esq v Foreman and just absorbed everything Benn threw at him. Benn had punched himself out, he was blowing. Later blaming his coaching for not conditioning him correctly for this fight. In the 6th, he met the canvas and was counted out. The crowd in the tent went ballistic, Watson had done it against all odds. The smarter man had won.
After the Benn fight, Watson didn’t hit the expected heights. This was his time to be catapulted into the stratosphere. Why hadn’t it happened?. This was down to appalling management of his team, by Mickey Duff his manager. To put it in to perspective, 18mths after defeating Benn, Watson was fighting on his undercard for £15k, Benn was getting £500k, the figures didn’t add up. His patience and trust had run out with Duff. He knew he was being taken for a ride. No more.
In 1991 Watson took Duff to court citing a “Restraint of Trade” in his contract. The judge agreed that by Duff acting as his manager and promoter there was a clear conflict of interest. He ruled in Watson’s favour.
This was a monumental verdict that would set the precedence in years to come, it had give power back to the fighters. Sent a clear warning to rogue promoters that it wouldn’t be tolerated.
It enabled Watson to finally get his hands on the man he wanted, Chris Eubank.
Watson v Eubank I
Chris Eubank was the most hated athlete of the late 80’s and 90’s. Eloquently spoken, he was the self appointed aristocrat of this era. Perceived as pompous, up his own arse. He was the man everyone was rooting against. The public wanted to see that smug smile smashed off his face. Eubank drew on the negative energy and hostility he received, and it made him a better fighter for it. This fight was no different, Watson was labelled “The People’s Champion”. Everyone, including Eubank’s wife was in his Watson’s corner. I’ve always admired an athlete with self assurance and arrogance, if he can back it up. Eubank could and he wouldn’t of looked out of place as a tailor in Savile Row.
On warm summers evening in June 1991, a contest for WBO Super Middleweight title, Watson gave Eubank a boxing lesson. Dominated him, he fought like he was the World Champion and Eubank was the challenger. Some had the fight closer, but not for me. The fight went the distance. Watson had it in the bag. He knew it. The crowd knew it. Even Eubank knew. It was written over his swollen sweat dripped face. Eubank got the decision. It was a public robbery, on the highest stage. The crowd utterly defenceless to stop it
The fall out the next day in the tabloids was venomous, the press simply couldn’t comprehend how Eubank got the decision.
3 months later we had the rematch the world demanded. Eubank had no choice. He had to take it. He had to beat this guy, prove everyone wrong. But could he?
This would prove to be more memorable than the 1st fight. But for the wrong reasons.
Watson v Eubank II
This fight meant more to Watson than any other he had contested. He knew he had to get the stoppage. He couldn’t rely on the officials giving him the decision. It was his time, his destiny. It was the only way he would realise his dream as a 14 yr old boy. Back in his local boxing club, being World Champion. It’s what he worked for in his entire career. Building up to this single moment. The coronation from Peoples Champion to World Champion. Watson treated Eubank like a young sparring partner. Knocking him round the ring like he didn’t deserve to be there. Eubank, in his own words had been out thought, out manoeuvred, out strengthened. Watson’s style was completely wrong for him.
It’s the 11 round. Watson is light years ahead on points. But he wasn’t satisfied. He had to finish Eubank off. He knocked Eubank down with a right. 1st time Eubank had been put down in his career. 20,000 people going crazy in White Hart Lane. Afterwards, Eubank said he wished he’d hadn’t been able to get up, he wouldn’t of done if he knew what was moments away.
Like a true champion, Eubank showed heart, grit. Despite being exhausted, he wasn’t ready to surrender his title.
Eubank catches Watson with a perfect uppercut, Watson falls on to the ropes, lands awkwardly on the back of his head.
The crowd goes silent….
Watson gets back on his feet. He’s not himself. Visually, breathing different. Mentally, heartbroken.
The round ends.
He returns to his corner. His family said it wasn’t Michael that came out for the 12th. A stranger.
Watson wasn’t returning punches
The referee immediately stopped the fight.
Watson collapses moments after in the ring.
There was no ambulance or paramedic at the event.Doctors wearing dinner jackets arrived after some eight minutes, during which time the fallen fighter received no oxygen. A total of 28 minutes elapsed before Watson received treatment in a hospital neurosurgical unit. He spent 40 days in a coma and had six brain operations to remove a blood clot.
Steve Bunce has written a superb piece on how the rest of the night unfolded. Please read below.
After regaining consciousness, he spent over a year in intensive care and rehabilitation and six more years in a wheelchair.
His biggest fight had begun.
Watson, like the true champion mustered something that most human beings in that situation wouldn’t and couldn’t be able to do. He fought. He fought to get his life back. Or certainly some sense of normality.
One of the key turn points was when Muhammed Ali travelled over from the USA to personally see Michael. He sat by his bedside and told him he’s not a bad looking guy. Not as good looking as him mind! This visit, gave him the needed lift and made him want to continue. It gave him renewed hope in his darkest hour. His idol coming to see him.
Watson sued the British Boxing Board for negligence and won a reported £1m. A paltry sum considering you nearly lost your life due to inadequate care ringside.
On 19 April 2003, Michael Watson made headlines when he completed the London Marathon, walking two hours each morning and afternoon for six days. Raising money for the Brain and Spine Foundation, Watson slept overnight in a support bus that followed him along the way.Finishing the race by his side were Chris Eubank and his neurosurgeon, who had become his personal friends.
On 4 February 2004, Watson was awarded the MBE by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. She told him that she had heard of his achievements. Watson was overjoyed and noted that this was his family’s first visit to Buckingham Palace.
A truly moving story, of not only a remarkable boxer, but a remarkable man.
Many in his situation would hold bitterness, a grudge towards Chris Eubank for nearly ending his life.
Watson told Eubank when they first met many years after the fight that “he forgave him, and had prayed for Eubank that he was ok”.
Now I’m not a remotely religious man, but that’s pretty powerful stuff. Forgiveness in the face of death. Eubank, broke down in to tears upon hearing that.
If Watson can forgive Eubank. It really does make you re-evaluate your life and what’s important.
One thing is for sure.
Michael Watson is a Champion, he doesn’t need a belt or title to hold that accolade.
I hope you enjoyed the article.
Tune in early next week for my next blog.