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April 2, 2016

Eubank vs Blackwell: Brave, Brutal, Blameless

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was published on on April 1st, 2016. Thanks to Michael Carbert, Editor-in-Chief, for his help and patience in producing and publishing the edited version:

“Boxing is the magic of men in combat, the magic of will, and skill, and pain, and the risking of everything so you can respect yourself for the rest of your life.” – F.X. Toole

Over the course of 10 ferocious rounds of boxing, Chris Eubank Jr. and Nick Blackwell’s titanic battle for the British middleweight championship epitomized the very best and very worst aspects of the sweet science. Two men who went into the contest as loathsome enemies ended their struggle with a newfound and heartfelt respect for each other, enthralling and finally sickening their audience, encapsulating how this sport is at once so compelling and yet, at times, so disturbing for even its most ardent followers.

Bad blood simmered between champion and challenger in the build-up to the contest, as each man questioned the other’s talent, integrity and resolve. Eubank, believing himself a world-class fighter who was merely stooping to domestic level for the fight so that he could add the Lonsdale belt to the family trophy cabinet, was dismissive of the champion’s ability: “There’s always a threat. But as far as him out-pointing me, out-boxing me, out-gaming me, being the stronger man on the night? Never”, Eubank told UK’s Channel 5 prior to the bout.

“He said he was gonna make me quit, make me give up. It was so absurd, I was so shocked to hear someone say something like that, especially coming from a man like him, that I told him: if you can do that, I will give you my purse” continued the challenger, contemptuously.

For his part, Blackwell insisted that Eubank was a phony, unproven fighter; a man happy to ride the publicity generated by living in his father’s shadow: “I think it’s all an act, I don’t think he’s being himself… just doing a lot of negative stuff to get people talking about him – like his old man, that’s what the Eubanks do”, claimed the British champion.

“I’m tough, I’m strong, I’m fit. He thinks he’s gonna get me out of there early; when he hits me with his cleaner shots and I’m standing there and I’m smiling at him, he’s gonna have a shock. Y’know, he’s hit me with his best shot and I’m still there and I’m still throwing, then we’ll see what sort of fighter he is” Blackwell argued, his pre-fight words now ominously alluding to the sad story of events that would later unfold in the ring.

As the protagonists waited through the pre-fight introductions, the ill feeling between camps was tangible. WBO middleweight champion and former opponent of both men, Billy Joe Saunders, stood in Blackwell’s corner along with heavyweight king Tyson Fury. Eubank Jr. was flanked by his father and mentor, former WBO middle and super middleweight champion, Chris Sr. Holding Blackwell’s British title aloft, Saunders moved forward and mocked Eubank Sr., pushing the belt high in front of his face. Following an intense stare down, referee Victor Loughlin ordered the fighters to touch gloves; neither man offered their hand and Blackwell quickly moved backwards to his corner, maintaining a fierce glare in the direction of his challenger. Loughlin repeated his request, to no avail. “They didn’t touch gloves, there’s no love lost, this is a real grudge match”, observed Dave Farrar, commentating for UK television.

A confident Eubank started the first round circling and flicking out jabs. As Blackwell stalked, the challenger began winging powerful hooks to the body and uppercuts to the head; Blackwell countered from a high guard with straight left hands. At the halfway point, Eubank landed a powerful right uppercut, and the champion responded by dropping his hands and roaring in defiance. They exchanged angry-looking words at the bell, and though it was impossible to know what was said, Blackwell’s body language was unmistakable: “Yeah, that’s right, you’re in a fight now!”

The second round was probably Blackwell’s best of the fight. Eubank was still trying to tee off with powerful hooks to the body and following with uppercuts to the head, but Blackwell was having success with a frequent, solid straight left jab in return. The champion also managed to block a number of Eubank’s heavier blows behind his high, tight guard and his measured, disciplined approach deserved to win the round. Again they exchanged defiant glares at the bell.

In the third, the two men traded heavy blows, with Eubank landing a succession of hurtful right uppercuts. Blackwell goaded his challenger, wiggling his shoulders and talking after being hit, but his nose was bloody and the first visible effects of Eubank’s assaults became apparent. Towards the end of the round Blackwell landed a big left hook, but it was Eubank doing most of the damage in what was shaping up to be a fantastic contest. They ended at the bell with the by now customary, defiant stare down.

A pattern for the fight had been firmly established: Eubank would begin the round circling and flicking out jabs; Blackwell stalked and moved forward behind a high guard, aiming to counter with straight lefts; Eubank circled or moved backwards to the ropes, but fired huge hooks to head and body and attempted powerful right uppercuts through the guard. The problem for Eubank was that his own guard was often lazy after delivering his combinations, leaving himself open to the countering lefts that followed him as he edged out of range. The problem for Blackwell was that the big combinations coming towards him were increasingly finding their way through his guard to their intended target.

Eubank began the fourth round with a fierce onslaught of punches and was evidently the more dominant fighter at this point. Commentator Dave Farrar reminded viewers that Eubank’s success at this juncture wasn’t necessarily unexpected for the champion and his team, though: “He’s been more comfortable in this round, Chris Eubank, but remember Blackwell tends to come on strong, the longer a fight goes on.”

Between rounds four and five, both Eubank Sr. and trainer Ronnie Davies advised their fighter to focus on attacking the body: “[Attack] the trunk, the tree will fall”, suggested his father. “Take his body, take his body”, urged Davies. “That’s enough!” barked Eubank Jr., apparently sick of their sensible instructions.

As the fifth round began, former WBC world super middleweight champion Richie Woodhall, providing analysis for the Channel 5 commentary, noted for the first time that Blackwell was taking too much punishment: “he’s taking too many shots, Blackwell – we know he’s a tough kid, Dave, but he’s gotta get through these rounds without taking so many punches… he’s taking too many, for me.”

At one point during the fifth as the fighters clinched, Eubank leaned over the rope, pointing down and yelling to someone at ringside in the area where Billy Joe Saunders, Mick Hennessy and Tyson Fury were seated. Seconds later he proceeded to unleash a furious series of blows, stopping midway through only to gesture angrily again to ringside, before continuing to rain powerful punches on the champion. Perhaps over-eager and over-confident as he went for the finish, he was caught with an accurate, counter right hand on the chin that wobbled him off-balance and reminded everyone that Blackwell was still very much in the fight. Blackwell ended the round, face bloodied, unloading shots with Eubank now backed in a corner.

“Great entertainment here at the SSE Arena”, commented Farrar at the opening of the sixth stanza. Eubank was winning most of the rounds, but Blackwell was demonstrating the tenacity and heart of a true champion. Spurned on by his success at the end of the fifth, “Bang Bang” moved forward with renewed vigour and landed a number of effective right hands over Eubank’s low left. Eubank responded by landing repeated right uppercuts to the head and finished with some vicious hooks to the body – though Woodhall scored the round for Blackwell. It would be the last round you could argue in his favour.

In the seventh, Eubank threw the proverbial kitchen sink at his tiring foe, unloading venomous punches for a full half minute. Blackwell swung back bravely, but he was rarely finding the target. “Do you like taking these uppercuts or what?” Blackwell’s trainer, Gary Lockett, could be heard asking his fighter ruefully between rounds.

Again Eubank unleashed a sustained volley of blows in the eighth round, and again Blackwell covered up and refused to wilt. By now he was shipping an uncomfortable amount of punishment, but every time it looked like Eubank was on the verge of forcing a stoppage, the champion battled back with just enough to keep himself in the fight. He ended the eighth on the attack again, pushing Eubank back to the ropes. “Blackwell landing to the body and then to the head. Good work this from Nick Blackwell!” remarked an excited Farrar as the bell rang to end the round

The ninth was a quieter round, with both men exchanging jabs for the first two minutes. Blackwell was still pressing forward, and although getting through with occasional lefts, it was Eubank landing the more eye-catching single shots. During the final third of the round Blackwell’s left eye began to swell noticeably. For the first time in the fight, there was a sense that the defending champion’s self-belief had faded ever so slightly. As the bell rang to end the ninth round, the defiant, combative stare that had accompanied the end of hostilities in almost every round of the contest up to this point was replaced by a respectful tap of the glove on Eubank’s waistband.

Gary Lockett, Blackwell’s respected trainer and former world middleweight title challenger, was clearly aware that his fighter was losing rounds, but it was also clear that riding the early storm, dragging Eubank into deep waters and coming on late in the fight was very much a part of their pre-fight strategy. As a bloodied Blackwell sat down on his stool, Lockett encouraged him to pick up the pace: “Close round, for the taking, he’s knackered, he’s on the back foot, and you’re not putting him under pressure… this was the plan. This was the plan, to take him there, now”.

Eubank’s corner told a different story. “I want you to take this guy out. I don’t want it to go to a decision”, said Chris Sr., simply.

Showing immense courage, Blackwell tried to implement his trainer’s instructions in the tenth round. At no point did he stop throwing shots back or even look like he knew what the word “quit” meant; he just didn’t have the strength or accuracy left in his punches to turn the fight in his favour. Eubank pushed him back to the ropes and continued landing the more telling blows, usually uppercuts with the right hand. The swelling on the champion’s eye increased alarmingly, and Eubank dropped his hands and began swaggering side-to-side as he sensed victory draw near.

With 40 seconds left in the round, referee Victor Loughlin stopped the action and called over the doctor to inspect Blackwell and the grotesque bump now protruding from the top of his left eye. Following a brief inspection, the doctor whispered in Loughlin’s ear, and the fight was waved over.

A disappointed Blackwell walked back to his corner while Eubank clambered onto the ropes in celebration. When he eventually stepped down, he immediately headed over to the former champion’s corner. The fighters acknowledged each other’s effort and hugged briefly, demonstrating the kind of deep, mutual respect that is so often forged between bitter rivals in the fires of a brutal fight. It was an honourable conclusion to a brilliant, intense battle of wills.

Sadly, by the time the post-fight interview took place, Blackwell was already receiving medical attention. “It was a great fight, Blackwell was a hell of a competitor” said Eubank. “I have respect for anybody who gets into the ring. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment you say things leading up to the fight; it’s nothing personal, it’s all business. I wanted the man’s belt. I’ve always dreamed of becoming a British champion, and tonight that dream became a reality. But all credit to Blackwell.” Later, the tragic news emerged that Nick Blackwell had been placed in a medically induced coma to reduce the swelling on his brain.

Media attention quickly turned to the nature of Blackwell’s defeat and the number of punches he had taken, in particular questioning whether the fight should have been stopped earlier. One of the most controversial and talked about moments that emerged in the post-fight debate was the interval between rounds 8 and 9, with Eubank Sr. clearly heard uttering the following words:

“Next time you actually throw a flurry like this, if the referee doesn’t stop it, then I don’t know what to tell you, but I will tell you this: if he doesn’t stop it, and you keep on beating him like this, one, he’s getting hurt, two, if it goes to a decision, why hasn’t the referee stopped the fight? I don’t get why, so maybe you shouldn’t leave it to the referee. Now you’re not going to take him out to the face, you’re going to take him out to the body.”

In the tragic aftermath of the fight, many reports have taken Eubank Sr.’s words as proof that it was obvious by this point that the fight should have been stopped in order to prevent serious injury to Blackwell. This view conveniently ignores a number of crucial factors in the context of the bout’s ending.

Firstly, it must be remembered that although Blackwell had taken a number of blows in the eighth round, he had responded by doggedly fighting back, with commentator Dave Farrar noting the success of his persistent attacks moments prior to Eubank Sr.’s instructions. Secondly, Eubank Sr.’s advice to “take him out to the body” mirrored almost exactly what he said between rounds 4 and 5, long before it could have been considered a “safety precaution”. Thirdly, media reports that Eubank Sr. was calling for his son to “stop targeting the head” in order to minimize the damage to Blackwell are directly contradicted by his later advice between rounds 9 and 10, when he ordered his son to “take this guy out”.

Though no doubt Eubank Sr. was genuinely concerned for Blackwell’s health, his words between rounds 8 and 9, widely circulated in the media, seem more likely attributable to a combination of exasperation at his son’s inability to force the stoppage, and strategic advice about how best to achieve this aim. Had Eubank Jr. landed a perfect shot to the body in the ninth round, ending the contest, no doubt the consensus view would now be lavishing praise on Sr. for his excellent strategy. That didn’t happen of course, but the point is that it’s very easy in hindsight to justify his remarks as “proof” that he knew Blackwell was in serious, imminent danger, whereas neither the severity nor the imminence of the danger were in fact completely evident at the time. Blackwell had not been knocked down or even seriously wobbled, was defending himself and consistently throwing punches back, and therefore the referee and his corner had more than enough reason to let the fight continue.

Ultimately, one man left the ring as the newly crowned champion; the other left on a stretcher and lies in a coma in hospital – and there is something unavoidably, deeply disturbing about that state of affairs. This tragic ending could so easily have been avoided, detractors of this brutal business will argue, if only we did not allow men to legally engage in a sport where they batter each other in the head for entertainment in the first place. Then again, people would not die from marathon running every year, if we banned that, too. The statistical dangers of boxing have a habit of suddenly becoming irrelevant when they compare favourably to such mundane activities as running, though. Boxing is different, we are told, because of the intention to cause harm (a moral argument, rather than a statistical/medical one).

Anyone familiar with this great sport will recognize instantly how badly such an over-simplified view fails to do justice to the motivations of the combatants, the spirit of their community and the artistry of their craft. The intention or “primary aim” of boxing is not, after all, to “harm your opponent”. Claiming that it is relies on an appeal to surface appearance over underlying form that is about as meaningful as arguing that the “primary aim” of football is to “kick a dead piece of cow skin around a field”. Punching another man in the face may be a necessity in boxing, but it is not the point of boxing, any more than the point of mountain hiking is “putting one foot in front of the other”.

Mount Everest, like the sport of boxing, would also not lie scattered with bodies, if only men did not strive so foolishly to reach the beauty of its summit. Yet we continue, even in the midst of danger and pain and tragedy, to explore the world, to test the limits of man’s mettle and his capacity to compete, endure, and overcome. In doing so, we somehow exemplify everything that is most splendid about the human condition.

Thoughts and prayers to Nick Blackwell and his family.

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