24 July 2012

His greatest fight to date

MICHAEL Watson is laughing. With thick belly laughs and full-sized chuckles, he jokes and feigns punches with members at Hackney charity Headway East London. Those distressing live TV images from 21 September 1991 at White Hart Lane seem like a lifetime away.

Three minutes from being crowned middleweight boxing champion of the world, the Stoke Newington-born fighter had confidently out-boxed and knocked down Chris Eubank in a rematch for the WBO title.

But on the verge of defeat, pantomime villain Eubank got up from the canvas to muster an uppercut so vicious that Michael’s head flew back to hit the top rope. The referee stopped the fight soon after and Michael collapsed. He spent the next 40 days in a coma, with no senses for eight months. The subsequent years turned into the greatest fight of his life.

“The doctors said I’d never be the same. That my life would change, but I defeated the odds,” declares Michael defiantly.

He got his first taste of boxing at Hoxton youth club the Crown and Manor – a decision, he reveals, first rooted by being bullied. Though he narrowly missed out on competing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, five years later he knocked out Nigel Benn to win the Commonwealth middleweight belt, to become a vital component of the golden generation of UK middleweight boxers.

“I’d fully enjoyed boxing, almost everything that I wanted to happen, happened. But then suddenly I was a man to a boy again. It was all over,” he reflects.
 
Doctors thought he would never be able to speak or walk again after the Eubank bout, but they were wrong. Michael spent eight years in a wheelchair and in addition to his medical rehabilitation training, started attending sessions at brain injury charity Headway East London. He still drops in to meet the staff and members. “They gave me encouragement at the time. Now I try to give something back,” he says.

In 2003, he successfully completed the London Marathon in six days, with stopover breaks. Eubank was there to congratulate him at the finishing line.

Michael says: “All the supporters made it fantastic – they gave me the drive to keep going.”
As for feelings about Eubank, he ‘bears no grudges’ against the fighter. Instead he saves his ire for the British Boxing Board of Control, which the High Court of Justice ruled against for failing in their duty of care.

A series of blunders, including having no paramedics on site, meant Michael was not on the operating table until two hours after the fight. Rules have now been tightened to prevent a similar incident. “If I save another boxer’s life, my journey hasn’t been wasted,” he says.
 
In 2003, he was awarded an MBE for services to disability sport and on 22 September 2011, almost exactly 20 years to the day of the Eubank fight, the WBO bestowed on him the ‘People’s Champion’ belt.

Now his next challenge is to light the Olympic flame at the 2012 Games. He says: “I think I’ve qualified to light the torch. A lot of people think I’m still in a wheelchair, so I believe it would be inspirational. Doctors said I’d be bed bound, I’d be a cabbage. Well I make a fine cabbage don’t I? Lighting that flame would be my biggest dream. Let’s make it happen.”

 

Curriculum Vitae

1965 Born in Hackney
1979  Starts boxing at Crown and Manor youth club in Hoxton
1984 Loses out to represent Great Britain at the Los Angeles Olympics
1989 Wins Commonwealth Middleweight belt
1991 Fights Chris Eubank for the WBO Middleweight belt Controversially loses on points
1991 Suffers an near-fatal blow from Chris Eubank in WBO Middleweight title rematch
1999 High Court of Justice rules British Boxing Board of Control was negligent in its duty of care to Michael
2003 Given an MBE for his work for disabled sport
2011 Awarded a ‘People’s Champion’ belt by the WBO

First published in Hackney Today

Michael Watson beat the odds on the road to recovery

Michael Watson beat the odds on the road to recovery

Michael Watson beat the odds on the road to recovery

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