Between Life and Death: Remembering Boxer Michael Watson's Fightback From the Abyss
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Between Life and Death: Remembering Boxer Michael Watson's Fightback From the Abyss

It is 25 years since Michael Watson fought Chris Eubank at White Hart Lane. The injuries Watson suffered that night changed him forever, but, a quarter of a century on, the extent of his recovery continues to defy expectations.
September 22, 2016, 4:35pm

This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entires here.

It is 25 years since Michael Watson last stepped inside a boxing ring as a professional fighter. A quarter of a century has passed since the early autumn night at White Hart Lane, when the course of several lives – not least Watson's – were changed forever.

When he faced Chris Eubank on 21 September 1991, Watson was a man in peak physical condition. The archetypal boxer, seemingly built of nothing but lean muscle, the 26-year-old was champing at the bit to avenge the defeat he had suffered at Eubank's hands just three months earlier, and become WBO super-middleweight champion in the process. He would come tantalisingly, and tragically, close to achieving his goal.

Today, aged 51, Watson's physical form is quite different. At a glance he does not appear to be in poor shape for a man of his age, his greying hair and a little extra weight the only obvious signs of reaching his sixth decade. But it is clear that his mobility is affected and his speech impaired. Watson still lives each day with the scars of that night, when a bleed on the brain left him teetering on the brink of death. The lack of proper care afford to him in the crucial moments after the bout resulted in permanent neurological damage.

Yet Watson is a man grateful to be alive at all and happy to take on the challenges that life has placed before him. In fact, he has come to see the events of that night as an opportunity.

The WBO title fight was the second time Watson and Eubank faced each other in 1991, with the latter winning a contentious decision at Earls Court in June. It left a bitter taste in the defeated man's mouth, with Watson feeling the contest should have been his. Nevertheless, two judges had scored Eubank as the winner, the other recording a draw.

The tension was escalated by Watson's antipathy towards Eubank, a feeling he shared with the majority of the British population at the time. Watson was a quiet man who let his fighting do the talking. Eubank also spoke with his fists, but he supplemented this with a near stream of consciousness outside the ring. Watson lived for boxing; Eubank called it a mug's game, a barbaric and exploitative circus that he participated in only to make himself wealthy. Watson – like many of his contemporaries – deeply resented Eubank for this.

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And so, when the opportunity arose to avenge the defeat he'd suffered in June and fight for the vacant super-middleweight belt, Watson had no hesitation in accepting the challenge. He knew that he possessed the ability to overcome Eubank. His opponent was not naive to this fact either, but produced his usual bombast in the pre-fight press conference, belittling Watson for his inability to accept defeat.

Yet for all his bravado and cartoonish dandyism outside the ring, Eubank was no pushover when he stepped between the ropes – or vaulted over the top of them, as was more often the case. He was a top-draw European fighter with an extremely strong chin, and entered the contest with a record of 28 wins from 28 professional fights.

The scene of the encounter might have rankled with Watson. A life-long Arsenal fan, he would seek to achieve his greatest victory yet at the home of their arch rivals, fighting at Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane stadium.

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This was a time before boxing disappeared behind a paywall, allowing a huge audience to tune in on terrestrial television. For the hotly anticipated meeting, around 13 million switched on ITV; that is not far off a quarter of the British population, a number now unimaginable for the sport.

And, for much of the bout, those who were watching must have thought they would see Eubank brought down to earth with a bump. Certainly for the first nine rounds, this was Michael's fight.

With Watson proving superior, Eubank fell behind on all three scorecards. What's more, he was becoming exhausted, and it looked unlikely that he would be able to find the energy required to battle back into the fight.

As the bell went to signal the start of the 10th, Eubank would have been aware that the only way to retain his undefeated record would be to knock Watson out. And so he went for his opponent, using what little he had left in the tanks to launch his most sustained attack of the evening. Watson held firm.

The 11th would prove decisive. Looking spent, Eubank desperately gulped down water in his corner and headed out even more desperate to put Watson on the floor. Face battered and mouth agape, he swung wildly. Finally he caught his rival with a succession of good punches, shaking Watson for the first time. But Eubank had expended so much energy on this assault that he looked barely capable of standing afterwards. Watson soaked up the pressure, remained firm on his feet, then landed a right on Eubank that sent his opponent to the canvas. This, it seemed, was the icing on the cake: not only would Watson defeat Eubank, he would add the ignominy of putting him on the deck. White Hart Lane exploded in a roar for the Arsenal boy.

What happened next was perhaps the most impressive moment of Eubank's career, and undoubtedly the most pivotal of Watson's life. Without hesitation, Eubank rose to his feet. He walked calmly towards Watson, nothing about his stride suggesting that this was for a world title, and struck him with a brutal right-hand uppercut that sent the challenger sprawling. His head rebounded viciously off the second rope; the bell rang just as he clambered to his feet.

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Watson was disorientated and stumbled back to his corner with the help of his team. As he walked out for the 12th and final round, Watson gestured towards his opponent with his glove, a "bring it on" motion to confirm that he was still game. But the round began with an unsteady Watson forced to the corner, where he received a flurry of blows from Eubank and could offer nothing in return. Referee Roy Francis stepped between the pair and brought the fight to a close. In an incredible late show, Eubank had won.

While the victor stumbled away in groggy celebration, Watson's condition was worsening. He lay on the canvas surrounded by a growing number of concerned onlookers; Eubank could not have seen Watson, head resting on a briefcase, as he spoke in praise of his opponent to ITV. Watson was in no condition to speak. He had suffered a bleed on his brain and was losing consciousness, but the ringside provisions were inadequate: there was no emergency resuscitation equipment, and he was carried out on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. This also didn't possess the necessary equipment, and to compound the situation he was taken to a hospital that lacked adequate head trauma specialists. After being resuscitated, Watson was transferred to Barts Hospital in Middlesex. He was operated on by neurosurgeon Peter Hamlyn, who would later recall: "[Michael] spent longer on the edge between life and death than anybody I've ever met."

Watson slips out of consciousness, his head resting on a briefcase // PA Images

Watson required six operations and spent 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." 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 Watson. Had there been adequate resuscitation equipment ringside, it is believed his injuries would have been considerably less serious. He was awarded £1 million in compensation, later reduced to £400,000.

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Initially, his outlook for the future was bleak. It was believed that he would never walk again, and he would need to learn to speak almost from scratch. When he appeared on the pitch before an Arsenal game in 1993, Watson appeared a profoundly changed man: confined to a wheelchair, his face bloated and eyes unfixed, he did not seem entirely certain of his surroundings. There was a fear that this was the life he would lead indefinitely.

But he has since recovered considerably. His speech remains impaired – talking requires more effort now than before the fight – but what he says is clear and comes from a well-organised 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 Hamlyn 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."

"What has happened to me has made me a better person," Watson said shortly after his 50th birthday. "I'm a lot stronger and it has changed my personality for the better. It's given me more love and concern for other people, especially the helpless."

For Eubank as well, the second Watson fight was a turning point. Though he would remain undefeated for another 15 bouts, he never possessed the same finishing power that he'd displayed in that fateful 11th-round uppercut. He seemed almost hesitant about delivering decisive blows, fearful that the dreadful events of September '91 might be repeated. More often than not, he won on judges' decisions.

But Watson bears no malice towards the man who threw the punch that changed him. "I didn't feel any anger toward him because it could have happened either way," he explains. "You have to let bygones be bygones. Getting angry won't correct the past."

@Jim_Weeks