Chris Eubank vs Steve Collins (18th March, 1995)

Steve Collins vs. Chris Eubank (poster).jpg

“I really hate him. That strut, that shoulders-back stance. He makes me cringe.”

Chris Eubank commenting on his own boxing persona.

Chapter 4

Chris Eubank vs Steve Collins (18th March, 1995)

Any sport is often only as good as the characters involved. Whilst the educated minority may enjoy a technical, scientific masterclass between two boxers who wouldn’t stand out in a supermarket queue, many fight fans want people that bring a bit of excitement and colour between the ropes. It doesn’t even have to be someone that they desire to cheer on to victory; often, it is just as pleasurable to find the boxer you love to hate. Some of the most successful pugilists haven’t necessarily been the most skilled, but they have been the ones who spark something within a viewer, whether positive or negative. People who are willing to pay to see you get beaten are people who are willing to pay to see you – period.

Enter Chris Eubank.

It is arguable that there has never been a more divisive man lace up his boots and step foot in the ring. The dandified look that he sported was one that made him easy to dislike among reams of boxers that rarely betrayed their roots. When he opened his mouth, he was no less controversial. Any man who described the sport in which he made his living as a ‘mug’s game’ was always liable to draw criticism. In hindsight, his criticisms surrounding the barbarity of boxing occasionally ring true, but at the time, they just added to a sense of superiority that seemed to permeate every facet of his character. To all intents and purposes, it felt like Eubank believed himself above boxing, viewing it as a way to make money quickly rather than as a calling or passion.

Unlike Nigel Benn, a man that he would be inextricably linked to throughout his career, Eubank didn’t necessarily inspire the same fervent support. Benn’s passion for a brawl instantly connected with the baying fight crowds in a way that Eubank’s aloof attitude never would. A boxing style that often made it appear as if he was boxing in third gear didn’t always help his cause, and would lead to several controversial decisions over the course of his career.

Eubank is an easy man at times to knock, but it would be dangerous to suggest that his boxing ability was anything other than laudable. Whilst not a power puncher, the accumulative effect of his blows were able to chop many opponents down to size. However, it was his defense that was particularly impressive, as his elusive movement and tight guard made him a tricky opponent to hit. Even if a hook or uppercut did find its mark, very few fighters had a chin like Eubank. His ability to take a punch could only be demoralising for his opponent, as the posturing Brit would usually shake off the stiffest of shots.

Like many, Eubank’s career in boxing was borne out of a desire to keep himself away from the potential dangers of the world around him. Returning from Jamaica when he was six, his youth would be spent bouncing around some of the most impoverished areas in London, including time spent sleeping rough when he was 14. Following his expulsion from school at the age of 16, he would be sent to live with his mother in the South Bronx area of the US.

An area that could allow a troubled Eubank to indulge in violence and illegality with ease, this initial decision saw him battle with addictions and crime before finding some sense of normality in the Jerome Boxing Club. This decision saw him follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers; his career would see him go on to completely eclipse them both.

By the time Eubank fought for the first time in the UK, he already had a spotless 5-0 record garnered in fights in the Atlantic City area of New Jersey – all victories by decision. It would be his sixth fight and UK debut that saw his first win by stoppage against Darren Parker. Unlike the highlight reel knockouts of his noted adversaries, this was anticlimactic in nature; several stiff jabs and a couple of right hooks saw a delayed wobble from Parker, which was enough for the referee to wave off the fight in the first round.

It would be the ‘punches in bunches’ approach that would see Eubank defeat Anthony Logan in his twelfth fight, a contest that would start to see the Brit’s star truly begin to rise. Logan was a ranked fighter who had troubled Nigel Benn in the first two rounds of a fight only four months earlier (a fight Benn would win by KO following a hook at the end of the second round). For a fighter of Eubank’s experience, it was a considerable step up (for comparison, Benn vs Logan was Benn’s nineteenth contest). As would become a common thread during Eubank’s career, he would rise to the occasion and win via decision.

Eubank’s first title of note would be the WBC International Middleweight Title, a belt he won in eight rounds against Hugo Antonio Corti. In round seven, confusion would reign as a cut over the left eye of Corti led to a prolonged delay. A damaged glove or a headbutt were the perpetrators as far as the Argentinian’s corner were concerned, but it would be almost five minutes before the fight would continue. As if to add insult to injury for the losing champion, the referee would wave off the fight in round eight due to the perceived severity of the wound.

Twelve wins in eighteen months would put Eubank in contention for a world title. Standing in his way – Nigel Benn. The WBO Middleweight Title would be the jewel that both men would contest for, and the acrimonious nature of the build up would only fuel the desire of the British fight fan. In theory, you couldn’t get two more different boxers, and both men were happy to position themselves as the antithesis of the other. Real hatred created an atmosphere that crackled with intensity whenever the two met; the fight fan could not wait to be sated by the biggest British boxing contest in many years.

During the contract signing that took place on television, Eubank also showcased his ability to use psychology and mind games to unnerve his opponent. Refusing to look at Benn the whole time they were on camera, the challenger was quick to suggest that he held no hate for the champion, he just wanted his title. Benn had no such qualms about voicing his pure hatred for the man that he would meet in the ring for the WBO Title – an outburst that Eubank believed played into his hands. By admitting a personal emotional response, Benn had lost the aura that Eubank felt often had his opponent defeated before they fought him.

People knew that Benn could punch and punch hard. They also had seen him get up off of the canvas to win. The doubts were all surrounding Eubank. When Benn connected cleanly with one of his concrete bones, how long would it be before Eubank dropped? Could he match up to the quality that was loudly proclaimed every time he opened his mouth? Benn believed Eubank had beaten nothing but street cleaners up to this point, and was confident that he couldn’t handle the step up in class.

In a pitched battle between two of the best middleweights this island has produced, Eubank showed that the hype was justified. Taking Benn’s biggest punches on the chin (a knockdown in the eighth round notwithstanding), and swarming him with combinations round after round, Eubank stunned many in the boxing world when he forced the referee to stop the fight in the ninth round. For a man who derided boxing, the elation on his face as the realisation struck that he had won the title was pure and unconstrained by gimmickry or media shaping.

Eubank was world champion. The stoppage arrived at a time when the judges’ scorecards had both men within a point of each other – it was truly that close.

He would go on to defend the title three times, defeating Dan Sherry, Gary Stretch and Michael Watson. Always unconventional, the title defense against Sherry ended following an inadvertant Eubank headbutt left Sherry unable to continue. Luckily for the champion, he was able to win on the scorecards even following a two point deduction. Alongside Nigel Benn, Watson would be another person that Eubank would work hard to rub up the wrong way, as well as names that would be eternally linked by the almost tragic consequences of their second fight in 1991.

Described as an ‘object I must get past to better my life’ by Eubank, Watson was, in many eyes, the best of the three boxers. Having shown a rampaging Benn that a good defense and counter punching trumps brute force, he was ready to do a public service in his eyes by taking Eubank out of the fighting game for good.

In one of the many controversial decisions that would plague his record, Eubank would pick up a victory in a first fight that was considered contentious by many, outright wrong by a few. Whether this was a case of the popularity of Watson clouding the judgement of those watching the fight, or whether there was a legitimate case for Watson’s hand to be raised in victory, a rematch was called for. The two men would do it all again three months later.

For the first time in his career, the champion was shaken. Dubbing Watson ‘an idiot’ in a press conference that he would subsequently walk out of, Eubank was riled by the idea of the rematch. In his mind, he had clearly won the fight; the desire to see him overthrown was what fuelled the second bout, rather than a legitimate claim of victory by Watson and his fans. This time, they would battle for a different prize – the vacant WBO World Super Middleweight Title.

If anyone wanted conclusive proof of the guile and determination inherent within Eubank, it was the second fight against Watson. Shrouded often by the debilitating injuries suffered by Watson, Eubank’s ability to continue to press against a fighter who was beating him conclusively, pick himself off of the mat in the eleventh round and go on to win showed a level of grit that many had not foreseen.

It would be the collision with the ring ropes that would cause Watson internal injuries – injuries that would force the fight to be stopped in round twelve and leave him paralysed for many years – but that cannot take away from the right uppercut, left hook combo that were the first two punches Eubank that knocked Watson off his feet seconds after the champion had received the first count of his career.. First Benn, and now Watson; Eubank was had risen above the detractors and showed how legitimate he truly was.

Barry Hearn, the promoter that night, would later claim that Eubank was never the same fighter. Between a mixture of a desire not to hurt others, and the fear of this outcome for himself, Eubank would often fight his future bouts with a tentativeness that had not always been there. Points wins, of the unanimous, majority and split variety, became the order of the day. In the following fourteen fights, Eubank would go the distance twelve times. Within that time frame, he would also draw two fights, the most notable a controversial rematch with Nigel Benn that many thought Benn did enough to win (something that Eubank would later acknowledge).

Most importantly, however – Eubank didn’t lose during this time period.

Fourteen fights, fourteen defenses, over the course of three years. He entered 1995 with the WBO World Super Middleweight Title still around his waist, even if his detractors remained. In forty three fights since his debut in the US, Eubank was still yet to lose. Psychologically, Eubank often had his opponent riled and confused long before they stepped into the ring with him, yet chinks in his mental armour had been exposed following the first match with Watson. Could he be rattled enough by an opponent to finally taste defeat in his tenth year as a boxing professional?

Ten days before Eubank would defeat Ray Close by split decision to register his tenth defense of his title, the eleventh of May in 1994 would see the culmination of a prolonged attempt by one boxer to finally be crowned world champion.

A man who could often be criticised for promising more than he produced, Steve Collins was entering the ring for his third attempt at a world title. Having spent the formative years of his career fighting over in the US, he held a solid, if uninspiring, record of 27-3. More than capable of defeating the also rans, it was the fighters of real quality that Collins would struggle against. A first title shot for the WBA World Middleweight Title turned into a boxing lesson by Mike McCallum, the reigning champion, as he would defeat Collins comfortably across twelve rounds.

Two years later, Collins would once again contest for the WBA World Middleweight Title, this time against Reggie Johnson. The title at this time lay vacant following the decision by McCallum to take on the IBF Champion, James Toney. A much closer fight than his previous attempt, the fight would end in what some would consider a contentious majority decision victory for Johnson.

Both men had been penalised early on for low blows, leading to point being docked in the fifth. During the second half of the contest, Johnson would push the pace and have Collins in a lot of trouble especially during the tenth round. Collins would spend the majority of the round backing away, getting caught with numerous big shots from the American that were sending the partisan crowd into raptures. Unable to find that one killer punch to drop his opponent, Johnson would himself spend the next two rounds backing away as Collins moved forward messily, but relentlessly. Surviving the previous round seemed to bolster Collins, whilst the inability to finish seemed to deflate his opponent. In a fight that was so closely contested, the final two rounds went to Collins, and truly showed the warrior that he was.

But it was not to be. Collins, as ever magnanimous in defeat, would wish Johnson well in his desires to unify the World title, but warned the boxing world to not forget about him. It would take another two years, a second successive defeat (this time to Sumbu Kalambay) and a six fight win streak before he was contesting for a world title again – this time, Chris Pyatt’s WBO Middleweight Title.

With Pyatt coming into the fight as slight favourite, the commentary team were quick to discuss Collin’s seeming lack of fire when fighting ‘lesser’ opponents, suggesting that he often seemed to be ‘marking time’ when not challenging the best in the division. With the title on the line, the first four rounds showed a more focused Collins, even though the perception of who was on top in the first third was open to interpretation. The commentary team felt Collins was two rounds to the good; Duke McKenzie at ringside suggested it was only a matter of time before Pyatt would go on to regain his title.

Part way through the fifth round, Pyatt would be caught with a right hand whilst moving in to attack. The blow would send the champion to the canvas following a delayed reaction, as he struggled to get his feet planted whilst taking the punch. A standing eight count followed, but it was clear that Pyatt was struggling. The referee stoppage perhaps came too early, as it seemed that Pyatt was doing his best to avoid the combinations of Collins whilst leaning back against the ropes. Though often a wise way to try and see out the round and give yourself the opportunity to clear your head after the bell, the referee saw that Pyatt was not fighting back and stepped in.

Whether the finish came too early or not, Steve Collins was finally a world champion.

Post fight, Collins would signal his intentions to fight the winner of the Roberto Duran vs Vinny Pazienza fight that would occur the following month. However, what would follow would be a ten month period where Collins would not step foot in the ring. The Irishman would suggest, as he was wont to do before, that people were avoiding him; Duran and Pazienza’s ‘controversial’ first fight would open the door for a rematch, one that would arguably garner more interest (and money) than a fight against Collins.

With a third contest between Chris Eubank and Ray Close in the making, Close would have his license revoked after failing a medical due to lesions on the brain. Always a large middleweight, Collins would be offered the opportunity to take on the WBO Super Middleweight Champion. A fight against Eubank was guaranteed to bring Collins a sizeable payday; more importantly, it was a battle he was sure he could win. The day after St Patrick’s Day would see one of the biggest moments in Irish sport.

What Collins realised that many who had faced Eubank before didn’t was that he had to get into the mind of the champion. Having watched a previous title challenger appear overawed by the pre-match montages and ‘Simply The Best’ entrance, he knew that he would have to put Eubank off of his game if he was to have any chance of winning. Watson had shown that Eubank was flawed when rattled; Collins needed to take advantage of this hint of a weakness.

Whilst the pre-fight interactions would be most famously remembered for Collins’ apparent flirtations with hypnotism, it would not be the only way that the challenger would try to rile Eubank. A press conference six weeks before the contest would see Collins arrive an hour and a half late before conducting the majority of it in Gaelic. This didn’t initially seem to faze the champion, but he would later storm out after Collins suggested that he had forgotten his African roots. According to Eubank, the mayor could ‘fuck his city’ and it was now ‘kill or be killed’; words made more unsettling coming from the man who ended Michael Watson’s career.

The stories surrounding Collins’ hypnotism would come out at the weigh-in, and it would push Eubank close to the edge. Collins revealed that he was hypnotised to lessen the pain of Eubank’s blows, leading to the champion even suggesting that he wanted to cancel the fight as close as the day of the contest. Fearing the unknown entity that Collins potentially offered, but worried about the public perception of him if he chose to pull out, Eubank made the decision to defend his belt.

Collins wasn’t finished.

Eubank’s entrances were always part of the package, often leaving his opponents overawed and outmatched from the very beginning of a fight. This evening was no different, at least in terms of pomp and circumstance. Following Collins own ring walk to raucous cheers from the Irish crowd, his camp would place headphones on their charge so as to not allow the entrance to negatively impact upon their fighter. With his name in fireworks and astride a 1970s Harley Davidson from his own collection, Eubank would maintain eye contact with the ring throughout. Arguably, never had he been more focused. As the familiar strains of ‘Simply The Best’ rang out over the PA system and more pyrotechnics began, Eubank began his walk to the ring.

Collins saw and heard none of it – he would admit in the future that he couldn’t help but feel it, the vibrations of the music rocking the ring and travelling up his boots. However, when Eubank vaulted into the ring, the often debilitating nature of his entrance had passed Collins completely by.

The circus around the fight would all be irrelevant if Collins wasn’t able to perform in the ring. Were we due to see the pedestrian, unfocused Irishman or was he ready to pull off what could only be considered a surprise that evening?

In the first ten seconds, Collins showed Eubank what he would be in for with a clean left hook that stunned the champion, lurching him forward into the grip of the challenger. Visibly tentative, Eubank would spend the first round lunging from outside of punching range and aiming jabs to the body with limited success, whilst any whiff of a solid connection from Collins would be greeted with a raucous chants of ‘Steve-o’ and applause from the crowd. For all the posturing that usually would come with a Eubank fight, he looked unsure what to do with his uncharacteristic opponent and scared of getting hit.

The potential power in the Eubank punch was highlighted in the opening of round two, as another lunge by Collins saw him clipped with a right hand. The Irishman would stumble and hit the mat, but the referee would give him the benefit of the doubt and wave off any count. The commentary team pondered whether the decision was right, sensing already that the fight would come down to small margins. A smattering of combinations would arguably give Collins the round; a huge difference on the scorecards from the potential 10-8 round it could have been.

Both men were often more content in fights to be on the backfoot, but back by a vocal crowd in the Green Glens Arena, it was Collins who was often bringing the fight to his opponent, landing with shots that at least looked good, if not the most damaging of blows. A notoriously slow starter, it was conceivable that Eubank lost the first three rounds, though they were paper thin decisions. More worryingly for Collins, Eubank managed to land a couple of dangerous looking punches, seeming to be slowly getting his range.

The fourth round, whilst still closely contested, appeared to go the way of the champion. His ability to avoid punches by swaying in and out of range left Collins often swinging and missing. Rather than target the body, Eubank would begin to throw his jab to the face, with one in particular catching Collins off balance and sending the Irishman into the ropes. The smile on the face suggested it was little more than a stumble, yet he was less happy with an elbow that caught him on the top of the head as the round ended.

The problem for Eubank was pure volume. Whilst his jabs and subsequent shimmies to avoid Collins’ counter punches were eye catching, the challenger would always land two or three shots at a time. Coupled with the noise any time Collins moved forward, let alone connected, it felt by the end of the fifth that Eubank was already letting his opponent slip away without doing quite enough to stop him. It was always going to be the early rounds that Collins needed to win, with Eubank a notoriously slow starter, and by and large he had done just that.

An otherwise solid round six for Eubank was almost ruined in the last ten seconds as Collins pushed him back with a combo that, whilst lacking power, had the champion on the back foot again. The hope would be that the Irishman would begin to run out of steam in the later rounds; Eubank was outboxing Collins any round that Collins wasn’t pushing the pace. Unfortunately for Eubank, Collins rarely took a round off.

The closeness of the battle was clear when, at the end of the seventh round, Glenn McCrory revealed his scorecard: 88-86 in favour of Collins.

Incongruous with the chess match that had unfurled over the past rounds, the end of the eight suddenly saw a fight break out. A punch to the body had Eubank on the mat for only the fourth time in his career, and as he got up and took the standing eight count, Collins sensed his chance. Combinations were chucked, primarily at the gloves, of Eubank, but the champion fired back, rocking Collins and sending him back into the corner. Both men seemed to believe that this was an opening, a chance to take the fight out of the hands of the judges. It came late; the bell saved them both.

If Eubank hadn’t needed to work harder and fight his way back into the contest before, he did now.

As Eubank tried to push forward, all too often he was taking punches coming back the other way. His mouth was open, sucking up every last breath he could draw into his body and his punches grew wilder. A slip in the ninth round saw him back on the canvas; his tired legs beginning to betray him. For a man who must have known the belt was slipping from his grasp, the sight of a bouncing, smiling Steve Collins could only be disheartening. Not that you would know it as the bell went, as Eubank once again chose to raise his hand in celebration. One for the judges, face saving or delusional? It was hard to tell.

If Eubank was feeling good about his performance, things were just about to get better. The first punch landed in the tenth round, a right straight, caught Collins on the chin. Stumbling and reaching out for ropes that weren’t going to save him, the Irishman dropped to the canvas, much to the consternation of the fans in the arena. The smile on his face would suggest more surprise than true hurt, but suddenly, the outcome wasn’t as sure as it had been fifteen seconds ago. With the adrenaline coursing through Eubank’s body, the referee had to physically manhandle the champ to get him back into a neutral corner.

After the fact, Eubank would say that the hypnotism story played in his mind as Collins got back to his feet whilst taking the mandatory eight count. Knowing he had to go for broke, he wanted to throw everything at his opponent, but worried that he could cause irreparable damage if he threw the punches required to win the fight. He still did enough to win the round, but considering Collins had been down on the mat, Eubank would spend a lot of the next three minutes posturing and landing the occasional shot. This time would give Collins a chance to clear his head, but the round would finish 10-8.

A slap to the face greeted Eubank as he returned to his corner; his team clearly felt he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity in that round. ‘Go forward and stop him’ was the rallying cry as the bell rang. The media surrounding the ring had divergent opinions on who was in the lead – Collins by three to Eubank by one round showed the swing of opinion amongst even the learned.

Eubank would arguably go on to win the last two rounds as the relentless pressure that Collins had exerted throughout the fight left him visibly tired. Though the occasional big punch would be thrown back, it would be Eubank who finally pressed the pace, upping the workrate amidst the posturing and mid-round taunting. As the final bell rang, both men raised their hands aloft, greeted by rapturous applause from the crowd who felt that Collins had done enough to win the title.

As Eubank stood on the ropes to gesticulate to the crowd, he would announce that he believed he at least had a draw. However, the decision was unanimous; Steve Collins was the new WBO World Super Middleweight Champion. Scorecards of 116-114, 115-111 and 114-113 would not only signify the end of the Eubank’s incredible title reign and undefeated streak, but would also emphasise the closeness of the fight itself. With a boxer known for the occasional controversial decision, there was no doubting on the night that Eubank had been beaten by the better man. To add insult to injury, it would be literally minutes after the decision was announced that Collins would reveal the hypnotism story to be a hoax.

Collins suggested that this fight would be his ‘gateway to millions’, with Roy Jones Jr., Nigel Benn and even Sugar Ray Leonard being touted as potential opponents, but it would be Eubank himself who would get the next shot at the title in a rematch. In an even closer contest, Collins would win on a split decision. Though Collins would go on to defeat Nigel Benn twice, he would retire in 1997 never really having that big money match that he desired. Namely, a unification fight with Roy Jones Jr.

For a man who was as much about the mythology surrounding him, two losses in a row lead unsurprisingly to Eubank’s retirement. However, he couldn’t stay away for long, and would return to the ring for five final contests before his official swansong. Sadly, the aura had gone; two wins in the Middle East against weak opponents would be put into stark contrast when he would lose to Joe Calzaghe and twice to Carl Thompson. Whilst Calzaghe was a young up and comer, Thompson was a man who Eubank would have handily beaten in his heyday.

With this retirement, he wouldn’t come back.

Whether you love him or you hate him, everyone has an opinion on him, and in many ways Eubank changed the sport of boxing for the better. Yet on St Patrick’s Day weekend in 1995, it would be Steve Collins who rewrote the history books and outthought the master of the mind game.

Pernell Whitaker vs Julio Cesar Vasquez (March 4th, 1995)

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“You see what you’re doing?” Duva kept asking as they ran the tape twice. “You’re moving straight in and he’s unloading on you.”

“But that’s the way I fight,” said Whitaker, puzzled.

“And that’s why you lost,” said Duva.

A pep talk by Lou Duva, Whitaker’s soon-to-be professional manager, after an amateur loss to Joey Belinc, 1984.

Chapter 3

Pernell Whitaker vs Julio Cesar Vasquez (4th March, 1995)

The most important thing in boxing is to not get hit.

Fighters like Ali and Tyson have transcended the sport, for bad and for worse. Features such as their charisma and brutal punching power gave the audience a hook that allowed them to attach themselves to a sport that potentially didn’t excite them in any way. You didn’t need to be a follower of the fistic arts to enjoy Ali’s shuffle and quickfire verbal wit, or the relentless forward aggression of Tyson in his heyday. Their work spoke to the masses; intelligence and savagery lauded in equal measure.

To the uninitiated, the defensive is always a harder sell than the offensive. The immediacy of a jab, verbal or otherwise, allows instant gratification; often, the elusivity of a fighter only bears fruit as the fight progress, each missed swing as mentally debilitating as physical. For the boxing fan, the boxer who can weave, bob and sway with the punches may not satiate a carnal urge for blood and thunder, but is the distillation of the craft into arguably its purest form.

Hit. Don’t get hit.

‘Sweet Pea’ Pernell Whitaker would be some people’s choice for the greatest defensive boxer of all time. Considering his personable nature (thus the less than threatening nickname), and an offense that often centred around a very good defense, he was always going to struggle to rack up the column inches in the tabloid media per se. However, his reactions in the ring made the boxing world stand up and take notice. Hitting Whitaker was akin to grabbing water; every time you think you got him, he would slip through your fingers.

Whitaker’s shot at Olympic Gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics would almost slip through his own grasp following a 4-1 defeat against Joey Belinc during the Olympic team box-offs. A quirk in the organisation gave him a reprieve; having won the Olympic trials the previous month, he would only need to win one fight, unlike the losers who would need to win both to qualify. Even after a tantrum threatened to derail his chances, Whitaker would get back into the ring the following day and defeat Belinc 3-2. Close, but just enough to send him to Los Angeles as the Lightweight contender.

During these trials, a host of other notable names would also aim to make their Olympic box. Both Evander Holyfield and Meldrick Taylor would qualify, but for one Michael Tyson, the opportunity had come too soon. Henry Tillman would be the obstacle in his particular path twice, both at the trials and the box-offs, and he would defeat Tyson both times.

Whitaker would make it clear that he didn’t want to be considered one of the challengers at the Games, wanting to ‘be a guy nobody notices as I work my way up’. His desire to stay as hidden as his ringwork often allowed him to be was wishful thinking. In a Games that would involve a boycott by seventeen countries (fourteen led by the Soviet Union), not only would Whitaker go on to win Olympic Gold, he would win it in style. Adolfo Mendez (Nicaragua), Geoffrey Nyeko (Uganda), Reiner Gies (West Germany) and Chun Chil-Sung would be dispatched following a first round bye, cutting Whitaker a path through to the final. Even more impressively, he wouldn’t lose a fight on any judges’ scorecard, walking into the Gold medal match with a perfect 20-0 record.

Even if people weren’t excited by him already, his performance in the final surely raised the interest of more than a few onlookers. Luis Ortiz from Puerto Rico would be his opponent, a man who himself would become a legend for achieving the highest medal by a Puerto Rican athlete in history. Unfortunately for him, it was only silver, as Whitaker put on an amauteur masterclass. From the moment the bell rang, his speed had Ortiz chasing shadows, whilst combinations were fired at lightning speed, leaving the Puerto Rican little chance to avoid the incoming barrage.

What made Whitaker stand out in this fight was his ability to dodge and avoid punches. He could block a punch when he wanted to, but would often trust his eye for an incoming punch and his speed to avoid a shot rather than take it on his arms. More often than not, he was justified in this faith. Ortiz would land a decent uppercut in the first round, but would otherwise fail to come close to troubling Whitaker. Although at times Whitaker would look sloppier on offense than he did when counter-punching, he would force Ortiz’s corner to throw the towel in after two standing eight counts in the second round. The shots that left Ortiz needing time weren’t even the best in the round; you could hear the commentator crowing as a left to the body had Ortiz gasping for breath and hoping for the end.

Following an amateur record of 201-14, Whitaker would step into the ring for the first time as a professional later that Olympic year, taking only two of the six rounds advertised to defeat Farrain Comeaux. Whilst much has been made of his elusiveness, Whitaker would win nine of his first fifteen fights via knockout or TKO. The biggest victories to that date would be a unanimous decision over Roger Mayweather and a TKO win over Miguel Santana. They would give Whitaker his first titles as a pro; the NABF Lightweight Title, followed by the USBA Lightweight Title. In the grander scheme of things, titles that didn’t amount to much outside of minor recognition and a heavier bag to get through customs. Whitaker was ready to go for a World Title, and would get that opportunity in his sixteenth fight – an impressive feat by any conventional standards.

Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly go to plan.

His opponent: Jose Luis Ramirez. A man who, whilst only five years older than Pernell, had fought over ninety more fights than the Olympic champion in his career thus far. Admittedly, many of these were in a spell fighting in Mexico where Ramirez would often fight twice a month from the year of his debut (1973). This wasn’t to suggest that he didn’t have any pedigree. He had been in the ring with fighters such as Edwin Rosario, Alexis Arguello, Ray Mancini and Hector Camacho. His one hundred wins to this date wasn’t anything to mess around with, and it was a marked step up in class for Whitaker.

Oddly enough for a match between an American and a Mexican, the match would take place in France due to the management of the champion residing there.

The first four rounds couldn’t have gone more perfectly for the challenger. Ramirez was known for his punching power and durability, yet Whitaker didn’t let him get anywhere near him in the opening twelve minutes. Whitaker would circle around, feint, bob and weave, always working behind the repetitive percussion of his right jab. It didn’t matter too much that these shots often didn’t faze his opponent; if you are hitting and not getting hit, the rounds are yours.

Ramirez, as would be expected of a man with over one hundred fights under his belt, continued to march forward, and would even catch Whitaker with the odd straight left. The problem for the champion was that every shot was hitting a man moving backwards, nullifying the power of the blow. Still, it could be argued that the fifth round was the first which he may have wrestled away from the challenger.

Unfortunately, it would be Whitaker’s movement that would cost him in the long run. He would continue to tag Ramirez with jab after jab after jab, but as early as round six, the commentary team were beginning to question how the judges might view this continuous backwards movement. Added to this, it was often Whitaker who would clinch first, a move that didn’t endear him to the fans in attendance whatsoever. However, by the time the bell rang for the end of the twelfth round, everyone felt that Whitaker had done more than enough to win his first World title.

Everyone that is, except for two of the judges.

In a decision that would end up on multiple ‘Worst Boxing Decision’ lists in years to come, Ramirez would retain his title on a split decision. The Ring would even dub it the ‘Worst Decision of the Decade’ in a Lightweight fight in their March 1990 issue. A 117-114 scorecard in Whitaker’s favour sounded too close; a 115-116 and a 113-118 card a complete aberration of judgement. Rumours swirled around that a Ramirez versus Julio Cesar Chavez contest had already been committed to, one that would lose its lustre if Ramirez lost his title. Whatever the conspiracy theorists believed, Whitaker had lost his first contest as a professional boxer.

As Ramirez went on to lose the following contest against Chavez by technical decision (a cut opened by a clash of heads sending the match to the scorecards in the eleventh round), the Olympian had to rebuild his career. A defeat of a 3-8-1 Antonio Carter was to be expected. His next fight would see him win his first world title, the IBF World Lightweight championship, beating Greg Haugen by unanimous decision. Haugen had only been defeated once before in his career, and Whitaker would follow up with his first defense ending in a technical knockout of Louie Lomeli, undefeated up until this point.

Considering the contentious nature of the first fight, a rematch against Ramirez was always a possibility in the near future, and they would meet once more in 1989. This time the fight would be in the US, and Whitaker would not be stopped. Outside of one judge, Whitaker would whitewash Ramirez, winning every round and picking up the vacant WBC Lightweight Title in the process. When asked what would have happened had history repeated itself, Whitaker replied, “They never would have got out of the building.”

Winning the World Title wasn’t enough for Whitaker. He would go on a tear over the next four years, winning thirteen bouts, many by unanimous decision after outboxing his competitors. This wasn’t the only weapon he had in his arsenal though, as he proved when taking out Juan Nazario (a match that won him the WBA Lightweight Title), Jerry Smith and Ben Baez in the first round. Whitaker knew how to punch just as much as he knew how to defend. The undefeated streak would coincide with Whitaker being named The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year and the Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year for his exploits in 1989, as well as him being the first Unified Lightweight champion since Roberto Duran.

During these four years, Whitaker would begin to make his move up the weight ranks. In 1992, he would win the IBF Light-Welterweight Title by defeating Rafael Pineda, before defeating James McGirt to win the WBC Welterweight Title. This would make him a five time world champion, going some way to fulfilling the promise evident since his time at the 1984 Olympics. Whitaker was not content; there were bigger paydays and challenges out there which he sought.

Sitting with a record of 33-1, Whitaker would go up against his toughest opponent to date in 1993. Following his defeat of Ramirez, Julio Cesar Chavez had added twenty-five victories to his undefeated record, leaving him on an envious 87-0. Unlike Whitaker, many of Chavez’s victories would come by way of knockout or technical knockout.

An offense that relied on relentless pressure coupled with hooks to the body had chopped many an opponent down to size. Whether Whitaker would be able to stay out of range of the hard hitting Mexican was the big question heading into the contest. Chavez was also a master of defense himself, often making shots miss or taking the bulk on his gloves and forearms, whilst ducking under many punches to allow him to attack from different angles. It was never going to be an easy night for the American in a contest considered to crown the best pound for pound boxer on the planet, as well as for Whitaker’s WBC Welterweight Title. The New York Times dubbed it ‘Fight versus Flight’.

Looking back, there is a sense of irony that a lot of the build up was overshadowed by squabbles between the camps about who would be the judges for the contest. Chavez wanted no-one American; Whitaker’s camp wanted none of the chosen judges changed. In the end, there would be one American on the list – Jack Woodruff from Texas.

Chavez was the overwhelming fan favourite that night in San Antonio, and he took the first couple of rounds with relative ease. Round Three was when Whitaker began to pick up the pace, throwing combos with delicious speed and accuracy, whilst also finding the opportunity to slip and dodge the majority of Chavez’s attack. Even when he was caught, Whitaker showed more chin than he had perhaps been given credit for, often firing back with several punches as a swift retort to any stiff blows.

By round eight, the crowd was silent.

At range, Whitaker was jabbing Chavez to a standstill, snapping his head back with every ramrod right. In Chavez’s world, close and in the trenches, Whitaker was dishing out more punishment then he was taking. By every conceivable measure, Whitaker was winning the fight.In some people’s eyes, the only real negative for Whitaker was several low blows, though the same could be levelled at Chavez.As the rounds slipped by, Whitaker looked calm and collected; Chavez looked a broken man.

The delivery of majority draw decision was greeted with some boos even by fans loyal to Chavez. Sports Illustrated would chose to emblazon the word ‘Robbed’ on their September cover. They had scored the fight 117-111 in favour of Whitaker, and would not be the only press agency who felt that the American had been cheated out of a just victory. Attention turned to Duva, and the power to choose the judges that was conceded to Don King. Whatever the shadier business behind the scenes, Whitaker had the moral victory, if not the one in the record books.

In March 1995, it would be about continued development of the Whitaker legacy. The next two fights after Chavez were victories (Santos Cardana and James McGirt), and though concepts such as an undefeated record and the recognition as the pound for pound best boxer in the world had been stolen from him, he stood on the verge of making history. Only Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran had ever won legitimate world titles at four different weights. Whitaker had the chance to join greatness when he took on another Julio Cesar, though this time it was Vasquez rather than Chavez, for the WBA Light-Middleweight Title.

Vasquez embodied the old credo ‘have gumshield, will travel’ as he traversed his way around the world defending his title. Not content to just box in Argentina, he had taken in France, Spain, Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom in a ten fight win streak with the belt on the line. A crass fighter in some ways, he did little that was flashy in any conceivable way, with his head often caught due his lack of movement. What he did offer was power and the ability to endure punishment; this had been enough to get him to a World title.

That is not to suggest he wasn’t going to be a challenge for Whitaker. Though boxing titles can sometimes feel like the detritus of a decaying sport, there is usually some semblance of quality in a boxer who has ascended the ranks to the top. Vasquez would show what he was capable of in the ring in 1994, when he would defeat a young Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright by unanimous decision. Though Wright was the better technician, Vasquez walked through his offense, knocking him down in the second, seventh, ninth and twice in the twelfth. It was a victory for doggedness above all else, and showed that Vasquez had the force in his punches, both singularly and cumulatively, to put Whitaker in danger.

Vasquez would eschew his most common hunting ground of France to travel to take on the American in New Jersey. This would be his fourteenth fight since he won the title a little over two years previously, an insane fighting schedule but one that had reaped dividends with thirteen wins. In fact, he had only lost one fight in his career up until this point, and that was by DQ against Verno Phillips. There was no doubt that a Vasquez win would have been considered an upset, but there was also no doubt that he was in the ring with a fighter that would keep him honest throughout.

If the number of people who entered the ring with you before the introductions was indicative of the likelihood of you picking up the victory, Vasquez would have won handily. As Michael Buffer allowed his trademark voice to sell the importance of this contest, the champion was surrounded by men holding flags and belts, almost symbolic of the battles and stories he had collected along the way during his tenure as champion.

The commentary narrative that was still being spun was whether Whitaker would be able to take a punch from Vasquez, if the Argentinian was able to find him. Unlike the Whitaker of several years ago, the older fighter now tended to trust his instincts and stand ‘in the pocket’ rather than circle around the ring. Feints and bobs became his defensive weapon of choice, rather than the occasionally negatively perceived backwards movement. With the move up in weight and the punching prowess of the Argentinean, this could have proved to be a dangerous tactic.

In the early rounds, Whitaker showed why he was still considered one of the best pound for pound boxers walking the face of the Earth. Early ducking allowed him to avoid several big Vasquez punches, whilst the first left of an significance seemed to stun the champion, as if he hadn’t expected Sweet Pea to punch that aggressively. Like the Chavez fight, Whitaker was not afraid to trade with his opponent, considering his unshaken belief in his ability to avoid his opponents’ offense. As if to highlight his easygoing attitude towards the contest, we even get a little bit of showboating in Round 1, whilst Vasquez himself gets a pat on the backside for good measure in Round 2.

With the first two round under Whitaker’s belt, the tone is set for the rest of the fight. For the majority of the contest, Whitaker and Vasquez would land a similar amount of punches; Whitaker relying on his jab, Vazquez looking for knockouts with power punches. Yet, the percentages of actual punches thrown would work vastly in the American’s favour – he just didn’t have to swing as often as Vasquez did to connect.

Vasquez would seemingly win his first round of the fight in Round Three, though it only took a couple of showy combinations to take what was a fairly slow three minutes work from both men. However, in Round Four we began to see the capabilities of the champion, and the potential for a really tough night for the Whitaker camp. A ducking and feinting Whitaker would get dropped by a punch combined with almost a shoulder tackle, leaving the referee little option but to start to the count. A rueful laugh would escape Whitaker’s lips as he got to his feet, but in a close fight like this was shaping up to be, 8-10 rounds were not what the challenger wanted.

As both fighters came out for Round Five, the pundits on the commentary team had Vasquez in the lead, either by way of the additional point loss for the knockdown, or by winning three of the first four rounds. Several combinations by Vasquez had seemed to rock Whitaker near the end of the previous round, and if ever there was an opportunity for the upset to be caused, it felt like it was now. The corner suggested to their man that they thought Whitaker was out on his feet and there for the taking, yet the Argentinean would spend the majority of the fifth round flicking his jab at his opponent, rather than really pushing the tempo. Whether Whitaker was there to be taken out in this round or not, a brief flurry near the end probably did enough to steal the round for the challenger without really having to do much.

At the halfway point of the fight, the sweat had almost turned Vasquez’s shorts translucent, threatening the crowd in Atlantic City with an X-rated title defense. Without using lateral movement as much as in previous fights, Whitaker was often able to slip by the powerful punches of the champion, using the jab to keep the fighting mostly on the outside. As the bell would sound for the end of the round, the connection percentage would be 67% for Whitaker, even though not one of those punches had been truly memorable.

In a close fight, the outcome often hinges on the decisions made, whether by the contestants themselves or the people who have the ability to impact upon the action in the ring. Although he had had success throughout the early going by attacking Whitaker’s body, Vasquez seemed to make an unconcious decision to target the head for long stretches of the fight. As was noted on commentary: heads move, bodies don’t. Rather than make the choice to focus on a tactic that had worked up until this point of the fight, Vasquez seemed to play into the hands of his more elusive opponent.

Then, some separation for the challenger. Following several altercations throughout the fight, Vasquez would be deducted a point in Round Nine for what originally seemed to be holding behind the head, but would later be discussed as rabbit punches. At the end of Round Eight, the pundits had the fight even; a 10-8 round at this time could be the difference between immortality and a mere footnote in boxing history.

It felt like the tiredness of Vasquez was evident in the final few rounds. Perhaps that globetrotting, take on all comers nature had finally got to his legs, as he seemed unable to maintain the pressure, landing only the occasional punch rather than the combinations that rained freely earlier in the bout. He would end up on the canvas himself, though it would be adjudged a slip, and would see charges avoided with relative ease, like a bull unsuccessfully attacking the matador.

With the fight slowing down and sliding towards a judge’s decision, the commentary team mused about the stories and rumours that had circulated in the previous weeks. At the age of 31, the word was out that Whitaker perhaps didn’t train as vigorously or in as focused a manner as he used to; a story used to explain Whitaker’s lack of movement throughout the fight. The judges themselves were discussed, with the Vasquez team apparently unhappy about the make-up of the judges (one from Canada, Thailand and New Jersey respectively). It almost felt like it wouldn’t quite be a Pernell Whitaker contest without undue focus on the judges at ringside.

Any potential for controversy seemed to ease when, in the eleventh round, Vasquez was deducted another point due to his propensity for rabbit punching Whitaker. By the time the bell sounded for the end of Round Twelve, it seemed like Whitaker had done enough to win. In the final round, Whitaker would be booed by a small minority of the crowd for his exaggerated bobbing and weaving, a trait that the audience in attendance didn’t seem to admire and perceived as offensive towards a champion who had shown he deserved more respect. The unofficial scorecard was given as 114-111, with those two deductions turning a potentially close decision into one that looked a little more comfortable on paper.

For once, a Whitaker match would end with weird looking scorecards, but in his favour. Throughout the contest, it had seemed like Vasquez more than held up his end of the bargain, and won his fair share of rounds in the process. How exactly two of the judges managed to score the fight 118-110 and a quite staggering 118-107 was beyond the commentary team; a solitary score of 116-110 at least feeling somewhat representative of the action in the ring. Irrelevant of the scorecards that seemed more than a little on the generous side, the more important thing was that Whitaker was the new WBA Light Middleweight Champion. He would enter the pantheon of greats, alongside Duran, Hearns and Leonard, and leave the sport safe in the knowledge that he was one of its greatest ever.

If we wanted a signal that this was as much about legacy as anything else, Whitaker would vacate the title without making even one title defense. The step up in weight seemed to negate some of Whitaker’s most important defensive traits, whilst the inability to move as freely as he had in the past potentially left him prey to more powerful punchers at this level. It would be the WBC World Welterweight Title that would consume Whitaker’s interests for the next couple of years.

From a career standpoint, 1995 and this fourth World title at a fourth different weight would have been a poetic ending for a fighter who turned defense into an art form. Even with a loss and a draw on his record, the disputed nature of both of them left him little to feel ashamed about. However, Whitaker was only 31, and was still a name guy. There was no way that he was over the hill, and there was big money potentially still out there against some of the best up and coming boxers who would prove themselves by picking up the scalp of someone of Whitaker’s calibre. In some ways, Whitaker had become like Chavez before him; a guy to be targeted for the incomprehensible glory of victory.

Five more defenses of the WBC World Welterweight Title would see him end up in the ring opposite Oscar De La Hoya. Another controversial decision would go against Whitaker, and he would end his career with three losses and one No Contest following a failed drug test. The most notable of the matches that saw out his career was one against Felix Trinidad, one of the best Puerto Rican boxers of all time. Trinidad would win via a lopsided decision, effectively ending Whitaker’s run at the top. A broken clavicle would force him to retire from his last fight against Carlos Bojorquez. As is often the case, even the best of boxers go out on the end of several damp squib defeats – to go out on top would be too much like a happy ending.

To suggest that his defeat of Vasquez was somehow the pinnacle of Whitaker’s career would be crass and self serving – as if to fit a narrative that I have tried to force upon every fight I come across. However, in some ways it symbolised the rubber stamping of Whitaker’s legendary status. To be up with luminaries such as Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard speaks volumes of what Whitaker was capable of. With some of the higher profile losses, fair or otherwise, he suffered, there might not be that one big victory that he truly deserved, but no-one can take that title record away from him.

Also, sometimes it is just nice to think that occasionally it is more about your ability not to get hit as it is about your ability to hit someone else. Small pleasures.

Booker Prize Winners: ‘The Old Devils’

 

Another project of mine is my desire to try and read/review all the Booker Prize winning novels. With my birth year being 1986, it felt that the winner from that year made the most sense to begin with, so without further ado, here is the first review.

Booker Prize Winner 1986

Kingsley Amis ‘The Old Devils’

It has often been posited that there is nothing for definite in life outside of death and taxes. With the former on the horizon, what do we choose to place value in? Is it the days that end before lunchtime, that ebb and flow of retirement allowing you the freedom to do what you want, when you want it? Is it a few stiff halves, chased down with a few fingers of whiskey, each and every day? Is it the friends you’ve known for years, with their foibles, challenges and secrets?

In ‘The Old Devils’ by Kingsley Amis, Amis blends all three of these together into a novel that is laden with the sense of missed opportunities and the wiling away of the hours until time catches up with us. ‘Professional Welshman’ Alun is returning home after years in England making a career out of his work on Brydan, a poet said to be representative of Dylan Thomas. With his return, and more importantly, that of his wife Rhiannon, feathers are ruffled, beers are drunk and Wales is explored in a darkly comic story that celebrates women and Wales, whilst also wistfully looking back on the decisions of unknowing youth.

Many aspects of ‘The Old Devils’ can be viewed as stages of Amis’ life himself. The philandering Alun, who doesn’t take long to jump into bed with Sophie and Gwen, Rhiannon’s friends, most closely resembles Amis’ dalliances with the opposite gender. Charlie’s fear of the dark, or more accurately, being alone, seems to mirror that of an aging Amis, who would end up living with his first wife,and her husband in his later years. During a time following his second divorce, it cannot be considered by chance that his own returns to Swansea didn’t impact upon the overarching narrative of the story.

With the clear parallels between Amis and especially Alun, it would be worrying if the narrative turned into a way to validate or excuse the behaviours of the author through his presentation of a character. Thankfully, this never feels like it is the case. The third person narration allows us to see Alun through the eyes of others, and rarely does he seem to be anything other than a bit of a blustering old fool, even if several women in the novel can’t help themselves but jump into bed with him the first chance they get.

His capaciousness towards and interest in alcohol soaks the book, though it is explored as a coping mechanism for a life that is passing us by, rather than celebrated in any way. Outside of drinking, it often feels that the characters have little in common outside of their interconnected love lives and the fact that they used to be, so are now. Yet there are hints of genuine feeling, especially in the treatment of Dorothy by the other women in the group, who is tolerated even though she is often half cut and incredibly boring to boot.

The Alun and Rhiannon relationship forms the spine of the story, though Malcolm’s latent desires for her initially frame the narrative as we expect his narrative to play out. However, it is Peter, a man who had let himself go over the years following a dalliance with Rhiannon (leading to an abortion), who draws the sympathy of the reader, especially as the lack of marital tenderness in his relationship with Muriel becomes apparent. Amis’ portrayal of them as a couple initially presents a marriage that has lost its spark, but understand how their coupling is beneficial to both of them. This contrasts with Muriel’s derisory treatment of Peter whenever they are together after this, which is rare as if to symbolise the growing distance between the two.

Though Muriel could be viewed as a particularly unflattering presentation of a woman, with her callous and unfeeling nature, ‘The Old Devils’ does seem to try and celebrate women, even when multiple females fall to the sleazy charms of Alun. Rhiannon in particular is beautifully represented – Amis apparently based this character of his first wife – with an acceptance of the extra-curricular activities of Alun arguably her biggest flaw. Yet she draws attention from Alun, Peter and Malcolm, love smattered with lingering feelings from an unrequited youth. That she could embolden such emotions speaks to her generosity of spirit and her casual elegance.

Alun’s desire to produce a piece of writing of a similar enduring quality as that of Brydan accentuates this feeling of time being fleeting; it is clear that he desires to be remembered for his own masterpiece rather than his odes to another poet. The tension caused between Alun’s own personal view of his work and the damning feedback from his friend Charlie is one of the funnier moments of the story, especially when Alun debates internally whether to get rid of the offending manuscript or not. Unsurprisingly, the pages that have flowed from his fingertips are not destroyed so easily.

Indeed, it is this inability to communicate effectively that drives the narrative forwards. People holding onto emotions that blossomed many years earlier; relationships falling apart yet hanging on for dear life; affairs sensed, yet not admitted to. The decision of some characters to finally play their hands and open up about their internal musings allows for some closure, though secrets still lie just below the surface, as is the case with most friendship groups. Relationships that have been built and developed over fifty years are not easily altered or dissipated.

Drinks, women, friendship, loyalty; all are important themes within the story, yet it is at its heart a celebration of Wales first and foremost. Outside of the descriptions of cities, villages and the landscapes of South Wales, the fear of a homogenisation of culture that has already begun to sand the rougher edges of Welsh culture permeates throughout the novel. Provincial charm is already giving way to the grasp of big business and globalisation. Whilst looking at these concerns thirty years later, they seem overblown for the time when compared to the realities of modern existence, but the seed has been planted for change; a change Amis and his characters don’t seem to relish.

‘The Old Devils’ would be a high point for Amis on a descent into ill health and eventual death. He would pass away from cancer just under ten years after the book was published. If the book is to be seen as a somewhat allegorical novel that explores Amis’ regrets over choices he made at specific times in his life, it would be hoped that the writing of this story went some way to allaying some of those concerns. If not, at least he did better than Alun, and delivered a classic that will provoke a chuckle in years to come – when human nature is explored so adroitly, it will never age.

A personal response:

‘The Old Devils’ would beat competition from numerous books, including Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I would not have envied the jury who had to decided which book was better, especially due to the thematics of the books being so different. Still, Atwood’s ‘…Tale’ deserves recognition as not only one of the best books in 1986, but a stunning read even today. Poetic, yet brutal throughout.