“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 ten ferocious rounds of combat, the torrid battle between Chris Eubank Jr. and Nick Blackwell for the British middleweight championship epitomized the very best and very worst aspects of what some call “The Sweet Science.” Two men who went into the contest as loathsome enemies ended their struggle with heartfelt respect for their adversary, but only after their struggle enthralled and finally sickened spectators, the match encapsulating how boxing is at once so compelling and yet, at times, keenly 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 who appeared to regard the match as nothing more than an exercise in adding the Lonsdale belt to the family trophy cabinet, was dismissive of the champion’s ability, telling UK’s Channel 5: “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.”
For his part, Blackwell regarded Eubank as a phony and an unproven fighter who was simply benefiting from being the son of a former world champion. “I think it’s all an act,” stated Blackwell. “[He’s] just doing a lot of negative stuff to get people talking about him, like his old man. That’s what the Eubanks do.”
“I’m tough, I’m strong, I’m fit,” continued the champion. “He thinks he’s gonna get me out of there early [but] 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.”
As the protagonists waited through the pre-fight introductions, the ill feeling between the 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, while Eubank Jr. was flanked by his father and mentor, the former WBO middle and super middleweight champion. Following an intense staredown, referee Victor Loughlin ordered the fighters to touch gloves; neither man offered their hand and Blackwell moved backwards to his corner, maintaining a fierce glare in the direction of his challenger. “They didn’t touch gloves … 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 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 had 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, the first visible effect of Eubank’s assaults. 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 now customary staredown.
A pattern for the fight had been firmly established: Eubank circled and flicked out jabs as Blackwell stalked behind a high guard, looking to counter with straight lefts. As Eubank circled or moved backwards, he fired huge hooks to head and body and attempted powerful uppercuts through the guard. The problem for Eubank was that his own guard was often lazy after he delivered his combinations, leaving himself open to Blackwell’s counter lefts. The problem for Blackwell was that the big combinations coming towards him were increasingly finding their target.
Eubank began the fourth with a fierce onslaught of punches and was clearly the dominant fighter at this point. But commentator Dave Farrar reminded viewers that Eubank’s success at this juncture wasn’t unexpected: “He’s been more comfortable in this round, Chris Eubank, but remember Blackwell tends to come on strong, the longer a fight goes.”
Between rounds four and five, both Eubank Sr. and trainer Ronnie Davies implored their fighter to focus on attacking the body: “[Attack] the trunk, the tree will fall,” urged his father. “Take his body, take his body,” insisted Davies. “That’s enough!” barked Eubank Jr., apparently sick of their advice. As the fifth began, former world champion Richie Woodhall, providing analysis for Channel 5, 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.”
During a clinch in the fifth, Eubank leaned over the ropes, pointing down and yelling at the area where Billy Joe Saunders, Mick Hennessy and Tyson Fury were seated. He then proceeded to unleash a furious series of blows, stopping midway through 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 a counter right hand on the chin that wobbled him and reminded everyone that Blackwell was still very much in the fight. Blackwell ended the round, face bloodied, unloading shots with Eubank 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. Spurred 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. The challenger responded with right uppercuts to the head and finished with some vicious hooks to the body. Despite this, Woodhall scored the round for Blackwell; it would be the last one that did not clearly belong to Eubank.
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, asked his fighter between rounds.
In the eighth Eubank again unleashed a sustained volley of blows and again Blackwell covered up and refused to wilt. He was withstanding an alarming 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 to the ropes and scoring with both hands. “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, but it was Eubank landing the more eye-catching 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 trainer and a 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 their pre-fight strategy. As a bloodied Blackwell sat on his stool, Lockett encouraged him to pick up the pace: “He’s knackered, 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,” stated Eubank Sr. “I don’t want it to go to a decision.”
Showing immense courage, Blackwell tried to implement his trainer’s instructions in the tenth. At no point did he stop throwing shots back or even look like he knew what the word “quit” meant. However, he just didn’t have the strength or accuracy left in his punches to turn the tide. Eubank pushed him back to the ropes and continued landing the more telling blows, primarily uppercuts. The swelling on the champion’s eye increased alarmingly, and Eubank dropped his hands and began swaggering side-to-side as he sensed victory drawing 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 over his left eye. Following a brief inspection, the doctor whispered in Loughlin’s ear and the match 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 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. “Blackwell was a hell of a competitor,” said Eubank. “I have respect for anybody who gets into the ring. Sometimes … you say things leading up to the fight [but] 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.”
Shortly after these words were spoken, Blackwell was rushed to hospital. By morning he was in a medically induced coma.
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 talked-bout moments that emerged in the post-fight debate was the interval between rounds eight and nine, with Eubank Sr. 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 … 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.
First, it must be noted that although Blackwell had absorbed numerous heavy blows in round eight, he had responded by doggedly fighting back. Secondly, Eubank Sr.’s advice to “take him out to the body” mirrored almost exactly what he had said between rounds four and five, 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 nine and ten, when he ordered his son to “take this guy out.”
While Eubank Sr. clearly had concern for Blackwell’s safety, his advice after round eight, widely circulated in the media, is 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. It’s simply not accurate to construe his remarks as “proof” that he knew Blackwell was in serious, imminent danger, when neither the severity nor the imminence of the danger were in fact ever evident during the battle. 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 while the other left on a stretcher and lies in a coma in hospital and there is something deeply disturbing about that outcome. 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. Then again, people would not die from marathon running every year if we banned that as well. 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, which is a moral argument as opposed to a medical or statistical 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 and the difficulty of their craft. The intention or “primary aim” of boxing is not, after all, to “harm your opponent.” Claiming so is the equivalent of 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 is a necessity in boxing, but it is not the point of boxing, any more than the point of climbing Mount Everest is to repeatedly put one foot in front of the other.
Boxing is both violent and hazardous. But it is also a means by which, in the midst of danger, pain and potential tragedy, courageous human beings test themselves and demonstrate the essential ability to compete, endure and overcome. In doing so, we somehow exemplify everything that is most splendid about the human condition.
— Matt O’Brien
Ed. note: As of this writing, Nick Blackwell’s family expect the boxer to wake from his induced coma in the next 48 to 72 hours. It has been reported that his vital signs are good and medical staff are cautiously optimistic.