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​The Cult: Michael Watson

Michael Watson was on the brink of his greatest victory when he suffered a severe head injury in the ring. The incredible manner in which the Londoner has recovered makes him a fitting addition to The Cult.

by Jim Weeks
16 December 2016, 8:38pm

Illustration by Dan Evans

Michael Watson was on the brink of his greatest victory in the ring when he suffered a severe head injury. The incredible manner in which the Londoner has recovered makes him a fitting addition to The Cult. You can read previous entries here.

Cult Grade: Forever Fighting

Michael Watson is floating. It's barely perceptible, but the London-born fighter is a few inches above the canvas, his white boots almost gliding across the sweat-glazed surface of the ring. He moves smoothly between the ropes that enclose him and Chris Eubank, deftly evading his opponent's punches. In return, Watson delivers flurries of blows that catch the bombastic, farcical Eubank, send him reeling. Perfection. Eubank looks spent. He is sweating profusely and, at the end of each round, he gulps down breath like a thirsty man who has spent days wandering the desert. But each time the bell goes any hope of salvation evaporates before his eyes, little more than a mirage. Watson has this.

The win will be redemptive. Watson believes his narrow defeat to Eubank just three months earlier at Earl's Court, for the WBO middleweight title, should have been a victory. Nevertheless, this bout – for the same organisation's vacant super-middleweight belt – will settle that score, and consign Eubank to his first professional loss. As the fight heads for its latter stages Watson is clearly on top, out-scoring Eubank and leaving him increasingly desperate to land meaningful blows. Watson, the lifelong Arsenal fan, will triumph at White Hart Lane. It could not have been scripted better.

The two men walk out for the 11th. It is his now. He can taste it in the air. Just two rounds to go, then the belt. Eubank is desperate. Face battered and mouth agape, he swings wildly at Watson. To his credit, he shakes him for the first time, but has expended too much energy. Watson soaks up the pressure, then gleefully catches Eubank with a sweet right that sends his opponent to the canvas. White Hart Lane roars for the Arsenal boy. But Watson remains calm. It is not over yet.

READ MORE: The Cult – Chris Eubank

Eubank agrees. He rises to his feet and walks towards Watson almost casually, almost as if to shake his hand and congratulate his opponent on a hard-earned win. But this is still a title fight. Eubank throws a right-hand uppercut of such immense power that, for a split second, White Hart Lane seems to fall entirely still and silent. Watson is sent tumbling. His head catches the second rope viciously, snaps back like elastic, and Watson sinks to the ground. Dazed, he clambers to his feet just in time to hear the bell toll for the end of the 11th.

He sits and blinks, breathes deep, blinks again. Something has changed. Out for the 12th, Watson is no longer gliding. In fact, he looks lopsided, uncertain on his feet. As the bell signals the start of the final round he quickly retreats back to the corner he has just risen from, hands shielding his face. Eubank has the scent of blood in his nostrils. He chases Watson like a wounded animal. Watson eats a flurry of blows and the referee can do nothing else but step in and stop the punishment. Eubank, somehow, has won.

The ring is flooded. Watson is still on his feet, blinking in disbelief, in confusion. Amid the chaos, Watson goes down again, this time without the assistance of Chris Eubank's right fist. He is on his back now, barely responding to his team's concerned cries. In lieu of proper medical care, his head is propped on a briefcase. The scene is fading. The gliding spotlight beams turn the moisture in the air into stars shimmering above the wild melee that is now gathering around the stricken boxer. But he is no longer there. Michael Watson is floating.

Point of Entry: Through Darkness

Michael Watson turned pro in 1984 and over the next five years built an enviable record of 21 wins, one loss, and one draw. Despite this, it was not until his fight against Nigel Benn, in May 1989, that he really came to province. At the Majestic Ballroom in London, Watson secured victory with a sixth-round TKO, ending Benn's unbeaten record and taking his Commonwealth middleweight title in the process.

Next he challenged Mike 'The Bodysnatcher' McCallum for the WBA middleweight belt, lasting 11 of 12 rounds before the veteran champion floored an exhausted Watson. It was a valiant effort nonetheless and one that endeared him to fight fans. Three more wins followed before he took on Eubank for the first time in June 1991.

READ MORE: Remembering Naseem Hamed's One, Humbling Defeat

Suffice to say, Eubank has played a significant role in the Michael Watson story, at least the boxing years. The Brighton-based fighter's persona was in stark contrast to the more reserved, low-key Watson. Eubank was famous for his bluster, bravado and bullshit. He dressed like a country gentleman, called boxing a mugs' game, and attracted considerable attention for it. Though deceptively good in the ring, some felt that his larger-than-life personality and media profile gave him a professional edge over fundamentally better boxers. Watson certainly believed as much.

When they first met, Eubank was defending his WBO middleweight title. It went the distance, but the champion did enough for the judges, who scored it 116–113, 115–113, 114–114. Having fought so hard and come tantalisingly close, Watson believed that the wrong call had been made; he believed that the fight had been rightfully his.

Their next meeting, just three months later, was for the WBO super-middleweight title.

What happened to Watson that night in 1991 profoundly changed his life. The 26-year-old fighter was at his peak, in fantastic physical shape and on the cusp of beating Eubank, which would have represented by far the most significant win of his career. It is by no means hyperbole to suggest that, before the fateful uppercut, Watson had the fight in the bag; indeed, all three judges had scored him ahead even after that 11th-round blow.

What followed the fight could be called a comedy of errors had it not led to such suffering for Watson. In addition to having his head propped on a briefcase, there was no ringside emergency resuscitation equipment to help the stricken fighter; the ambulance he was transferred to also didn't possess the necessary apparatus; and he was taken to a hospital that lacked adequate head trauma specialists. All of this cost vital minutes. After being resuscitated, Watson was transferred to Barts Hospital in Middlesex.

READ MORE: The Cult – Nigel Benn

His recovery was arduous, beginning with six operations and 40 days in a coma. When he emerged, he remained in intensive care and began the agonising battle to regain some semblance of his former mobility. He later described this experience as "[waking] up in a different body." That he is now capable of such eloquent descriptions is testament to how well Watson has recovered.

Nevertheless, the severity of his injuries were attributed to the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC), which was found to be "in breach of its duty" to the men fighting that night. Had there been adequate resuscitation equipment ringside, it is believed that the long-term affects of his injuries would be considerably reduced. Watson was awarded £1million in compensation, later reduced to £400,000. This, of course, is not a pay off: it is money Watson needs to ensure his long-term care. Watson does not complain. He could pack a punch, but he is not a man to hold a grudge.

The Moment: Thousands, Daily

In the days and weeks that followed the fight, Watson's outlook appeared bleak. It was believed that he would never walk again, and he would need to learn to speak almost from scratch. In 1993 he was taken onto the pitch before an Arsenal game. Gone was the incredible physical specimen who had pushed Eubank to the brink of defeat less than two years previous. Watson was now confined to a wheelchair, in which he sat awkwardly hunched, his face puffy and his eyes wandering listlessly about Highbury.

In truth, that image is tragic, a snapshot of the cruel price boxers sometimes pay for their sport. It is only now, with Watson a considerably healthier man, that it is not so painful to see.

While his speech remains somewhat impaired, Watson is able to express himself clearly. More importantly, he does so from a clear mind. He can walk again, with difficulty, but to be doing so at all defies initial expectations. In 2003 he completed the London Marathon, walking in stints for six days. He crossed the finish line with Eubank and Peter Hamlyn – the neurosurgeon who operated on Watson five times – by his side.

What is most striking about Watson now, compared with the figure he cut in 1993, is the smile that is almost permanently etched on his face. He is incredibly philosophical about what happened, even seeing positives in what he refers to as "the accident." Wheeled onto the pitch that day, he was the victim of a violent sport and the negligence of those who should have been protecting him. But you don't get that impression any more. Today, he is a man who has overcome something terrible and turned it into a positive.

Closing Statements

"He spent longer on the edge between life and death than anybody I've ever met, by miles."––Peter Hamlyn, Watson's neurosurgeon.

@Jim_Weeks