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Jack Slack: Christ, What a Right Hand!

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  On the 18th of November, 1990, an undefeated upstart named Chris Eubank stepped into the ring against Britain’s pride, Nigel Benn. What they danced, sweated and bled over the canvas on that winter evening has been called the best fight in British boxing history, and remains one of my favorites to this day. Eubank and Benn had very similar records—Eubank was 24-0, Benn was 27-1—but they couldn’t have been more disparate as fighters and as people. Benn came from Ilford, a grey blur in Greater London, and had served in the army during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Coming from this working class background, with a period of national service, Benn had a tremendous amount of goodwill from British fans. All these things served Benn’s popularity well, but none did him as great a service as his punch. Benn could hit with incredible force and provided the kind of face down, out cold for minutes knockouts which everyone wants to see—at least in the deepest, darkest recesses of their mind—when they attend the boxing.  It didn’t matter that he wasn’t always fighting world beaters, Benn laid them out. The immortal line, uttered by commentators, “Nigel Benn loves a good tear up” captured perfectly the spirit of his fights. Spectators came for blood, Benn’s success as a British fighter on the world stage was a bonus for them. Benn was a master of the cross counter—that is, landing a looping right hand over the opponent’s jab. Chris Eubank, meanwhile, was a different kettle of fish—as a fighter and as a person. Eubank had been born in London, spent some years in Jamaica, then returned to England to live in Hackney and Peckham, not terribly classy or safe places—you will remember Hackney from the riots the other year. After getting expelled from school, Eubank was sent to live with family in the Bronx and there took up boxing. No, I didn’t get the names the wrong way round, and if you’re familiar with Chris Eubank’s attitude and speech, all of that will surprise you. Despite his mock aristocratic stylings, Eubank had a far rougher upbringing than Benn. But it was Benn who was considered the hometown, rags-to-riches story. Few sympathized with Eubank, partly because he had drifted around so much in his life, partly because of his “putting on airs”, and partly because he didn’t have that thunderous punch. There was no denying that Eubank could fight, though. And while he never provided the near assurance of a knockout that Benn did, he always put on a show. Prince Naseem and Eubank’s arguments are well known, but much of it focused around which man taught the other to jump over the top rope before bouts. This was a big deal in 90s boxing… The pouting, the strutting, the cup-and-saucer style guard… all vintage Eubank. Eubank largely resented the attention that Benn had received and consequently went to great lengths to call Benn out throughout his career. In 1989, Benn had picked up his first and only loss against Michael Watson (an important individual in British boxing, and a tragic story all of his own, perhaps for another day). Benn had been dropped by a stiff jab while swinging wild and gassing himself out, and allegations of a quick count, of a fix, and on Benn having no chin were rife.  Benn saw no other way to proceed than to kick it into overdrive. He had lost his commonwealth title to Watson, so he went abroad and brutalized Doug Dewitt and Iran Barkley to take, and then defend, the WBO middleweight title. With a world title (albeit a fairly new one) back in British hands, and a cocky British challenger, it made sense to cash in on the rivalry and have the biggest all British fight in some time. The signing of the contract was even televised and made for some awkward, and intense, moments. By fight night, the media was in a frenzy. The bitterness between the two boxers was clear from the staredown across the ring. And as the bell sounded, Eubank attempted one of the neatest trick plays I’ve seen in boxing for a while. Performing almost the reverse of Jersey Joe Walcott’s cakewalk—Eubank skipped out to the centre of the ring, side on, cross-stepping with his back foot. Suddenly he turned his hip in and tried to take Benn’s head off with his right hand. He failed to catch the WBO champion, but it was clear there was to be no feeling out process here. A fantastic trick play if you don’t plan on touching gloves. Benn had always been at his best when coming forward and slipping to the inside while punching over his opponent’s jab. It was evident from the start that Eubank had to get Benn leading, and so he went to his usual tactics. One of the commentators remarked that Eubank often posed like a Greek statue, and went into a “Napoleonic strut” when he circled the ring, backwards. Eubank’s stance was so side on that to circle to his left side, he essentially just walked backwards. Much of the bout was spent with Eubank staring at Benn, perfectly still, daring Benn to lead. When Benn did lead, Eubank would sway, crack him with a counter, and then flurry. You’ve got to be gutsy to dare one of the hardest hitters in boxing to punch you. But Eubank did get too confident on many occasions. He couldn’t fight only on the counter, after all. So normally Eubank led with unorthodox right hand leads or big overhands that ducked him straight into a clinch with little hope of retaliation. But Benn was so alluring as a target when he walked forward, Eubank couldn’t resist jabbing at him—which was Benn’s bread and butter. Benn’s best connections were over Eubank’s jab and in the seventh round, he was able to catch Eubank circling with a cross counter. Because Eubank’s balance was so awkward, and his stance so side on, the punch threw him to the floor. Eubank protested that it was a slip, but the punch was rightly ruled a knockdown. Eubank’s craftiness was on full show throughout. Whether it was sneaking in hammerfists with the bottom of his left glove, sometimes disguised as left hooks, other times just flagrant, or if it was protesting low blows over body shots. But this second facet got Eubank into trouble. After protesting several times about low blows which weren’t low, Benn knew that Eubank simply didn’t like the punches. From the start to the finish of round seven, Benn threw almost exclusively to the body until he went upstairs and scored that knockdown. By the ninth round, Benn’s eyes had closed and Eubank had bitten his own tongue almost in half on a huge uppercut. Both men were struggling, clinching, but still battling. After missing a punch and stumbling to the floor from exhaustion, Eubank summoned up the energy for a solid flurry. Landing a great right hand, he sent Benn reeling towards the ropes. A cricism of Benn throughout his career was that when he was hurt, he would back onto the ropes and attempt to evade punches with head movement. And he just wasn’t good at it. It almost had him knocked out in one round against Gerald McClellan a few years later. As Benn laid against the ropes, Eubank was able to make full use of his fast hands. But Benn couldn’t see the blows coming any more. After a little sustained punishment, Richard Steele stopped the fight and Eubank was the WBO middleweight champion. The Eubank who was offered the microphone after the bout was not the same man who had been present throughout the build up though. The accent was gone and all he could muster up was “I done it, dad” and “Karen, can we get married now?” Soon Eubank found his character again and conceded that Benn was a different type of animal. “He extended me like I’ve never known one could be extended”.  The two met again in a rematch which didn’t quite live up to the mayhem of the first. Interesting Don King’s contract stipulated that both the winner and the loser would be under his management after the fight, the bout ended in a draw and neither fighter ended up with Don King due to a bizarre oversight in the contract. Nige…

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