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A night on the box

I’ve made a number of crass and/or ridiculous decisions in my life. One of the worst was to conclude my otherwise thoroughly enjoyable stag night sitting in what was then the Hammersmith Odeon in the early (UK) hours of 3rd October 1980 watching one of my all-time heroes Muhammad Ali take on Larry Holmes for the World Heavyweight Championship of the World.

It turned out to be his last-ever fight – he lost the depressingly one-sided contest when his corner retired him in the 10th round – and sometime afterwards it was revealed that he’d been exhibiting clear signs of mental deterioration in a neurological exam specially-ordered by the Nevada State Athletic Commission three monthly previously to determine whether he was fit to fight at all.

Last night, on a whim fuelled partly by the surrounding hype and partly by nostalgia for the good old days when a group of pals and I were fervent fans of the fight game and did this sort of thing regularly, I shelled out £16.95 to pay-per-view television-watch the George Groves v Chris Eubank Junior clash at the Manchester Arena, billed as a semi-final in the super-middleweight World Boxing Super Series that will reach its climax this June.

At my age, half the battle of the evening was to stay awake long enough to see it, which I just about managed by sinking under a duvet on my sofa and dozing off after my evening meal and then waking about 45 minutes before the advertised start time.

I’m humble enough to admit that these days I’m reduced to being a poor imitation of my former self – but so is Prince Naseem Hamed, the former multi-world featherweight champion whose purple pomp was the late 1990s.

Last night alongside Duke McKenzie he was filling in as a ring-side pundit for ITV’s Box Office channel, mounters of the TV coverage.

He bore little or no resemblance to his youthful self, being I should estimate roughly four stone heavier and – despite retaining a smidgeon of his former swagger – he had nothing but the blandest of platitudes to offer. I say this with sympathy and self-recognition in my heart but seeing and hearing him was about as deflating an experience as then watching what followed.

Of razzamatazz there was no lack.

The staging of the promotion was spectacular – far better and more proficient than in the heyday of Prince Naseem, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank (Senior), Tom Watson, Steve Collins, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler … and yes, even Muhammad Ali and myself.

The lighting rig surrounding the ring alone – uplighters and downlighter flashing around with eye-pleasing computer-wizardy-borne efficiency – was terrific.

The build-up in the Arena to the main bout was everything a TV onlooker could have wished for.

I could feel the personal anticipation welling up inside me albeit I was still in control enough not to attempt a prediction.

In the ‘good all days’ this was a task I was so bad at – despite my then fan’s-anorak-standard knowledge of every aspect of the Noble Art – that eventually I took to working out for myself which boxer might prevail in any given bout … and then announcing publicly that I favoured the other. It wasn’t an entirely satisfactory means of improving my correct prediction-rate but it was certainly more successful.

I must declare an interest at this point.

I had never previously seen Chris Eubank Junior fight and, although in the last eighteen months George Groves has improved to the point of winning himself the WBA super-middleweight world championship, I’ve only ever seen him fight (on television) when twice succumbing to Carl Froch in losing attempts on the latter’s world title.

Inevitably dominating his small part in proceedings was Chris Eubank Senior – a truly great fighter whose personality and towering ego have denied him the place he probably deserves in British national life and boxing history and instead left him as a much-derided figure of fun and scorn.

Not that he seems to care.

He strutted about, loving the limelight and presumably also the resounding booing that erupted every time he appeared on the screen and/or did anything.

The bout was hugely disappointing. As a fight, I mean.

Eubank Junior is as fit as a butcher’s dog and clearly very talented – but not as talented as his father. For all his ‘mean’ attitude he came across as a pale and inferior imitation.

The first round contained about as much fisticuffs-with-meaning as a CND tea and cucumber sandwiches party. Groves was the bigger man – word on the commentary was that he had rehydrated to 13 stone 2 between weigh-in and fight-time – and over the 12 rounds controlled 80% of proceedings.

It became apparent from the off that Junior was going to have a serious issue getting closer than Groves’s long reach and greater power would allow.

He also got a bad cut from an accidental clash of heads in Round 3.

This combination made for a snore-fest until about Round 10 when – having realised or been told that a knockout was his only chance, that is if the state of his eyebrow didn’t stop the bout first – Junior began launching all-out attacks with growing frequency, something he should have been doing from the outset.

Bizarrely, in response Groves – hitherto seemingly relaxed and in total command without ever getting into the same postcode as his advance prediction of a spectacular knockout victory – seemed to implode in energy and strength like a flabby balloon left for three days floating near the ceiling of a kids’ party venue.

In the last two rounds Junior, who on my card was losing by five or more rounds (as he eventually also did on the judges’ scorecards), suddenly came into it and by the final bell Groves was being banged about all over the ring and looked ragged enough to be about to lose – if you see what I mean, i.e. if you could ignore the evidence of your eyes over the first ten rounds – a close decision.

Fortunately on this occasion, when the decision was announced, everyone agreed that the judges had got it about right.

Lastly, and to finish – let me add that there was just one thing that on the night Chris Eubanks may have got just about right.

I could be kidding myself, but as Groves began strutting around the ring – and telling the interviewer that he’d sustained a suspected dislocated shoulder in the final round – in the background I saw Eubanks Senior standing in front of his blood-soaked son and whispering quietly and slowly into his left ear.

Some of what he was saying was no doubt positive and consoling stuff about not worrying too much about losing [“whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” and so on], but at the time I speculated to myself that – being ever mindful of public image plus marketing and similar PR  imperatives – perhaps Senior was also urging Junior to be a humble gentleman in defeat.

Later, although in his ‘winners interview’ Groves had uttered several crowing jibes in Junior’s direction whilst asserting his “I was in a different class” superiority (which he certainly wasn’t), when it was Junior’s turn at the microphone he was the epitome of a good loser, praising Groves for his performance, admitting he had under-estimated him and generally being a gracious good egg.

If what I describe was indeed the case, I’d be only too happy to tip my hat to both Eubanks.



About James Westacott

James Westacott, a former City investment banker, acquired his love of the Noble Art as a schoolboy in the 1970s. For many years he attended boxing events in and around London and more recently became a subscriber to the Box Nation satellite/cable channel. His all-time favourite boxer is Carlos Monzon. More Posts