The anticipated Carl Froch-George Groves showdown reminds many fans of the heated all-UK super middleweight championship rivalries of the 1990s.
When Carl Froch defends his IBF super middleweight title against George Groves before a sold out Manchester arena on Nov. 23 many fans will be looking for a new installment in a celebrated saga which began over 22 ago.
During the early to mid-1990s Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn broke attendance and television records by fighting each other, while Michael Watson, Ireland’s Steve Collins and Joe Calzaghe battled furiously to take over the mantle.
The curtain rose in ‘91 when Eubank defeated Watson in an ill-fated rematch and closed six years later when the former was outpointed by future Hall of Famer, Calzaghe. Since that time “Super Joe” and Carl Froch have both enjoyed sparkling and distinguished careers at 168 pounds, but those huge domestic showdowns have been cryogenically frozen – until now.
Tickets for Froch vs. Groves sold out in 11 minutes and the potent rivalry between both fighters has brought back stirring memories of a golden era. The bout will be transmitted live on Sky Box Office pay per view in the United Kingdom and the build-up has been strategically orchestrated by Matchroom Promotions, who have pulled out all the stops.
Still, while the pending prizefight has brought back the flavor of those thunderous super middleweight collisions, it is now up to both participants to resurrect the same type of action that captivated boxing fans the world over.
Tom Gray takes a look back at five super middleweight bouts that historically changed the landscape of the sport and helped define the careers, and lives, of five truly remarkable men.
Sept. 21, 1991 – Chris Eubank TKO 12 Michael Watson, White Hart Lane, London, England
Only three months after making the final defense of his WBO middleweight title the man known as “Simply the Best” returned against the very same opponent in a battle for the vacant WBO super middleweight championship.
Eubank had won a close majority decision over Watson, in June 1991, but his controversial victory was treated with anger and disgust by the British media, who slammed the proud champion with an endless stream of disparaging headlines.
The backlash stung Eubank into revenge mode and the talented Watson didn’t have to be asked twice if he wanted a second chance. The Londoner jumped at the rematch and began training like a man possessed as soon as a deal was struck.
The rivalry was visceral in the lead up to the bout. “You make me sick,” said Eubank to Watson at the pre-fight press conference. “You lost the fight, so accept it and stop winging like a child. You’re acting like some kind of big shot, and if I stood up and walked out you’d be left starving.”
“Ask these people (the media) who acts like the big shot!” replied Watson.
Watson, known as “The Force”, was a superb athlete and highly intelligent in the ring. In May 1989 he was tactically brilliant against the fearsome Nigel Benn (22-0, 22 knockouts), who attacked him like a wild animal from bell to bell. Watson simply covered up until Benn tired and scored a sixth-round stoppage, courtesy of a single left jab to the jaw.
The victory earned Watson a shot at Mike McCallum’s WBA middleweight title and although “The Body Snatcher” won by a decisive 11th round knockout, the Londoner remained fully convinced that Eubank was no McCallum and vowed to end his fierce rival’s unbeaten run.
On Sept. 21, Watson entered the ring for the rematch with Chris Eubank as the people’s champion.
The action was terrific and after splitting the first four rounds Watson upped the pace and began investing in a sustained body assault. Eubank, a battle hardened warrior, was game but as the championship rounds approached he was clearly in trouble on the scorecards, and weakening.
“I was being out boxed, out thought, out fought and out maneuvered,” said the Brighton star years later.
Still, Eubank’s fighting heart was extraordinary and he made one last gallant effort to secure a stoppage in the eleventh. Watson, still loaded with energy, brushed off the attack and countered with two short, but damaging, right hand counters which dropped Eubank to his knees. The former middleweight titlist was all but finished, but found his feet and the crowd roared feverishly for the finish.
And then it happened.
Watson walked towards Eubank but was instantly struck by an explosive right hand uppercut, which landed with shuddering force and sent him hurtling into the ropes. His head ricocheted over the lower strand and a look of shock remained on his relatively unmarked face as the bell rang ending the session.
The damage had been done and the Londoner was as vacant when he touched gloves, to begin the final round, as he had been during his corner’s desperate instructions. Eubank immediately launched a volley of shots, but very little landed, and the referee chose to intervene because nothing was coming back.
It had been a sensational fight but, as with Benn’s victory over Gerald McClellan, almost four years later, the bout is remembered for its tragic aftermath. Watson, like McClellan, sustained irreparable brain damage and, had he not been in such superb physical condition, it is doubtful that he would have survived.
Over the course of an excruciating two year recovery, Watson confounded scores of medical experts by regaining a large portion of his physical and mental capabilities, but there was still another fight which the former Commonwealth champion was determined to win.
A plethora of medical mishaps on the night of the Eubank fight could not go ignored by Watson’s legal team, who elected to sue the British Boxing Board of Control. The stricken warrior was actually taken to the wrong hospital that night, before being re-routed to the correct facility, and valuable time was lost prior to an operation to remove blood clots.
Watson was finally compensated around £400,000, due to what the court perceived to be negligence in dealing with injuries he sustained during the bout. The victory helped pay for Watson’s care and a handful of other fighters, who have since been injured in the ring, have benefitted massively from tighter medical protocol, which was introduced following the case.
As for Eubank, he captured his second world championship but the victory was hollow and many are of the opinion that his fire for the game never fully returned. The enigmatic Brit seemed to lack the necessary killer instinct and, at later stages in his career, that affliction may have cost him fights that he should have won.
Eubank vs. Watson II was a great prize fight that, in many ways, lasted far longer than the scheduled 12 rounds.
(Click on the NEXT button at right to read about the four other classic UK super middleweight showdowns.)