“I really hate him. That strut, that shoulders-back stance. He makes me cringe.”
Chris Eubank commenting on his own boxing persona.
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.