Steve Bunce describes the aftermath of the tragic, unforgettable Michael Watson-Chris Eubank contest that took place 30 years ago today
There was another big fight at White Hart Lane, many, many years ago. The 30th anniversary is this week. It was an unforgettable and tragic fight, a night of emotional, physical extremes and the two men in the ring, Michael Watson and Chris Eubank, will never fully recover. It officially finished at 10.54pm on September 21, 1991. The other time, the boxing time, was 29 seconds of the 12th and final round. It was a Saturday night in fight diaries, but day zero for Watson; the fight for life was his 13th round.
“Five minutes after that fight was stopped, I started to die in the ring. It’s that simple,” Watson told me when we worked together on his autobiography.
The fight finished in the ring, but it is still being fought every single day that Watson defies science and the experts to live his life. And he does live his life. He finished the London marathon in six days, two hours, 27 minutes and 17 seconds. More numbers that can never tell the full tale.
All three judges had Watson in front and, until the last 10 seconds of round 11, revenge and redemption and relief were his. And then, well, you know the story about Eubank getting dropped, getting up, steadying his feet and then knocking Watson down just before the bell to end round 11. Pandemonium in the stadium, at ringside, in the corners and in the ring. What craziness were we watching?
The brutal drama was live in living rooms, over 12 million people watched. They saw Watson stumble back to the corner, to the arms of Jimmy Tibbs. They saw Eubank stumble back to Ronnie Davies in his corner. Sixty-seconds of break and then the last round. Over 12 million people standing in their living rooms, trapped, transfixed, worried, joyous, incredulous. The telly delivered that night.
“I told Jimmy: ‘I’m fine’,” Watson insists. He was certainly responding in the corner before he is helped up. What drama, it’s hard to type it. Flashbacks, deep memories that will never be shaken. A glance, a stumble, a bite on a gumshield smeared with blood.
He stands in the corner at the bell, his soaking wet piece of canvas-sanctuary, the last place this side of the darkness that he was ever safe. He is led out by the referee, they fight, it ends.
“That’s it, son,” Roy Francis, the referee, tells Watson when he stops it. There is a look from Watson at Eubank at that exact moment. It’s haunting, the saddest look ever seen in a boxing ring. Michael knows it is over and over for good.
Then confusion. Watson is in the corner in Tim Westwood’s arms. Then he slips, he slides, he drops, somebody places his head on the doctor’s briefcase. Panic, he is hurt. The fight is on.
Eubank is wedged silently in his corner, his cousin, Bobbie Joe Edwards, on one side and Guy Williamson, now of the Board, on the other side. The minutes are precious and they quickly sense the fear in the opposite corner. Watson is now flat on the canvas.
At 11.08, Watson is carried out of the ring on an old blood-stained stretcher. Tibbs and Westwood are part of his stretcher-bearing posse. Watson is taken past his mum and her friends from church. They will form part of the touring party, cars of men and women lost in hope and prayer and despair. We drive the north London streets on the edges of the glow from the blue-lights on the two ambulances taking Michael Watson to the unknown.
Michael told me he sat up in the back of one of the ambulances and realised he was dead. It never happened; he was out on both trips. It was dropped from the book. Pity, it’s a savage image.
Michael arrived at North Middlesex hospital at 11.22pm. He was too seriously injured for that place. At 11.55pm, he was put back in an ambulance, the cars filled again, women weeping and silently mouthing pleas to their personal Jesus, and the journey started once more. This time the destination was St Bartholomew’s. There was a lot of press gathering, a lot.
The main doors at Bart’s were under siege by about 12.30am.
Michael was on his way and so was Peter Hamlyn, the surgeon. His quiet evening had been interrupted. He made his way and was shocked when he saw the crowd gathered in the night shadows of the building’s ornate arches. He told the cabbie to pull round the side. Michael was upstairs. Hamlyn was frantic, locked out.
And that is when the story of Michael Watson’s survival takes a beautiful twist.
In frustration, Hamlyn pushed and kicked a door in the dark. A few seconds later a ghostly image appeared through the glass. It was the famous Bart’s bag lady. The nurses gave her tea, she lived in doorways and was legend. On the night Watson met Eubank, she was not outdoors, she was indoors. She opened the door, Hamlyn was in. She closed the door in silence, moved back to her dark place. Hamlyn scrambled up the stairs. The race was on. Hamlyn told me this story one day in his office near Harley Street. I had trouble sleeping that night.
“I add the bag lady of Bart’s to the list of my saviours,” Watson told me.
Inside the hospital in the empty canteen, there was a prayer session. Michael’s mother and her dear friends had faith that night. Jimmy and Tim were there. Jimmy’s son, Mark, arrived. I stood in silence that night, waiting for the updates from Hamlyn. I would be a witness to either a death or a miracle. I knew that much.
Michael went for surgery at 1am. Wheeled in silent and still. The Golden Hour, the magic sixty-minutes, that neurosurgeons require and need between the trauma and the surgery, had long gone. Gone.
Michael’s mother went in at 4.20am. Jimmy at 5.10am. At 6.05am Hamlyn came down. “He’s in a critical state,” he said. I kept scribbling.
Hamlyn and Watson are not normal human beings.
You know the rest. And, I’m still scribbling.