By Leon Smith
Eubank speaks of his teenage years in NYC, his financial struggle with lack of funding and promotion, how he used martial arts to help his boxing and just how be bested bitter rival Nigel Benn in their 1990 classic.
Also, we hear the views on big title fights of his with Michael Watson, Steve Collins, Graciano Rocchigiani and Carl Thompson, and circumstances surrounding.
But first of all, a quarantine message for all from Mr. Eubank:
Quarantine is a time of reflection. It’s a time of tragedy. But it’s a time of reflection. What appealed to me about the religion of Islam was deprivation, such as Ramadan, because it forces you to look internally within yourself.
We are growing. You are growing. There is something coming out of this hardship for you. On the other side of this pandemic, you will have grown as a person.
That’s just my philosophy of placing the positive in front of the negative. That’s all I can do.
Why did you first start boxing?
To keep me off the streets of South Bronx. My competitive spirit soon kicked in though, I quit smoking and drinking and downed raw eggs at 4am before running in South Bronx. I was 16 and trained seven days a week.
And after the first three weeks, unbeknown to me until after my career, Adonis Torres called my father and said they had a future world champion on their hands.
I couldn’t afford the gym fees, so Adonis Torres said I could work as caretaker to cover it. I had the keys to the gym and was always in there.
Talk to us about your amateur accomplishments?
I won the 1984 156lb Spanish Golden Gloves tournament.
I also beat Rey Rivera, Dennis Milton and Terminator Coles en route to the semi-final of the 1985 Golden Gloves at the Madison Square Gardens. They have nine Golden Gloves Championships between them from the 80s.
I was favoured to win the tournament in front of 17,000 spectators at just 18. The anxiety and nerves meant I failed to get my jab working, and so lost that semi-final in a Hagler-Hearns type fight on points, on March 15th 1985, to Joseph Henry. He was five years my senior. I wouldn’t lose again until March 18th 1995.
Thomas Hearns was in attendance and many future world champions competed, including Kevin Kelley, who fought Naseem.
Why did you turn professional at only 19?
I needed the money. I hated South Bronx and I loved Great Britain. It was for calls back to London and flights back to the United Kingdom.
I missed seeing red telephone boxes, I missed everything about the place.
Who was your boxing hero?
Bob Marley was my hero, because what I used was words for my inspiration. Most of my friends at age 15 in London had been middle-aged Jamaicans.
Me at 15 was more mature than Naseem Hamed at 25, that’s why I fell out with him and why it took George Foreman to make me realise Naz was still a kid and needed my help.
I remember being at high school in New York and being three years older than all my classmates, I was 16 and they were 13. I was 19 and they were 16.
I would sit in class with black eyes, split lips, swollen knuckles and speak like nothing they’d heard besides Rowan Atkinson in Never Say Never Again [James Bond movie] – so I was a total outsider and teachers pet.
Their admiration was for Hulk Hogan, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Yankees player Don ‘The Hitman’ Mattingly. My admiration had been Terry Thomas and was now the jab of Thomas Hearns.
Now there is this: imagine being whipped while blindfolded. That’s something else, isn’t it? That was the jab of Thomas Hearns.
It came with this snap from beneath the opponents line of vision. I however had a short torso, and Mr Hearns a long torso, and so I couldn’t really use a jab like that.
When did you believe you could be world champion?
My competitive spirit kicked on when I started winning my professional fights and mastering all the basics – catch and counter, slip and counter, side-step, bob and weave, pivot with every punch… You return your glove to the correct position by your chin after every punch. You weave after every combination. You close the distance without crossing your feet… I had mastered it all through drilling, drilling, drilling, practice, practice, practice.
You get them into punching range with your jab. You circle away from their best punch. We know this. It’s basics.
I then however incorporated martial arts into my training, in that I would my distribute 95-97.5% of my weight to the back foot rather than be evenly distributed, to better pull out of range, better move out of range or better move sideways.
In boxing convention, you move your back foot first if you want to move back or your left foot first if you want to move left, and so on.
But by distributing my weight to my back foot, I would skip out of range by moving my front foot first or skip to the left by moving my front foot back and cross stepping my back foot. It was proving to be effective in gym fights.
Mastering splits and backbends allowed me to throw punches from out of range without being caught on the way back out. A huge tool. Totally unorthodox.
So how could I not possibly win the world championship? It’s physical, it’s sport. The mental side is not drinking, not smoking, not using drugs and not quitting. That was already there. I also did a lot of pushing hands with my martial arts tutor for emotional health.
So with completely mastering every technique, both the basics and the unorthodox, who else did this? Nobody.
So was this around the very start of your professional career?
A one and a half year period prior to 88 I began learning martial arts heavily. However, to prove to myself I’d be a worthy world champion, I had worked part-time in a Korean store in South Bronx selling groceries, bread and confectionery for $10 a week – it was about not spending my wages on fares and running to train at the old Gleasons Gym in Manhattan in 90 degree heat in the summer of 1985.
It was like a Rocky movie when fire hydrants would be opened for me and all these children who had just broken up from school followed me on my run past Central Park as I would glide around sideways or backwards and dance, yellow taxis in traffic honking their horns for me to let off punches!
Bruce Silverglade let me train for free and bought me Gatorades, because when he was amateur president I would step in with any of the top talent they had any time it was offered, be it welterweight, middleweight or light-heavy bouts. I was used for sparring and disadvantaged from running, so it was good target practice I guess.
I didn’t just want to win a world championship, you see – I needed to keep it because I had no other trade. I graduated high school in June 1986 and planned to move back to England in January 1987 with a typing qualification from SOBRO tech college, but found the certificate wasn’t recognised outside America.
Learning typing wasn’t easy because back at high school I would often caress the area above my eyebrows with my thumb on one side and middle and ring finger on the other, due to my head pounding from heavy sparring.
Any secretarial vacancy I could find in London required short-hand audio typing, which I hadn’t learned. I only learned word processing skills up to 60 words per minute. So I literally had to be a world boxing champion, I had no choice.
I got dismissed from a job at Debenhams for stealing trousers and shoes due to having no money, and got a job at Wimpy in Streatham where I caught two trains from Brighton and was left with no money to live on – I was sleeping on my brothers sofa as it was.
Yet I have passed an apprenticeship in boxing. So that’s what we went with, you see. I was however kicked out of King Alfred Leisure Centre in Hove for practicing overhand hooks on the speedball, so went back to New York and fought as a prize fighter again. A pugilist, if you will.
What had my wages from that grocery store been spent on? I saved up for clothing from Angora on 85th Street and Lexington Avenue. I was a hustler so I got my deals!
I was also a gambler. I did the New York lottery, I doubled my $350 fight purse at Harrah’s Casino Hotel on January 8th 1986 by betting on red – I trained right through Christmas and New Year for the fight, including 11:59pm to 12:01am on my own in the gym. This was New York City. He was a New Jersey Golden Gloves Champion and I needed my record to go to 3 and 0.
So instead of answering that in short, I gave you the up and all of it!
Who was your trainer at the time?
Luis Camacho, Lenny DeJesus and Pat Versace worked with me at Jerome Boxing Club and Patrick Ford did at Gleasons Gym. But Maximo Pierret was the one I watched and listened to most and who taught the techniques most correctly.
Were your early fights in Atlantic City tough fights in any way?
Most of them were Philadelphians, so of course they were tough! They were desperately wanting to get to a winning start, as did I, because it was all or nothing. The ‘0’ was crucial for a young prospect then you see.
Tim Brown and Eric Holland were Pennsylvania Golden Gloves Champions and had awkward styles. Brown (was) like a poor man’s Roy Jones. Holland with what you call the Philly Shell, which I hadn’t seen in New York City.
The guy I fought who was a New Jersey Golden Gloves Champion was a 6ft1 light-middle – I struggled because I didn’t actually have the overhand right or overhand hooks in my arsenal at the time.
And then the guy I fought at Resorts International was an unbeaten southpaw, I struggled to get my right hand off because of his stance. He was picking me off but I won because of my aggression.
When I went back to England, I told everyone to keep me away from tall guys, southpaws and unbeaten records. You learn, it’s all learning.
When I fought Tony Thornton, Sugar Boy Malinga and Lindell Holmes, I took their usual Philly Shell away by forcing them to move forward and moving to my left. You can’t go forward moving to your right with your right glove to the left side of your cheek, because your whole right side would be open to left hooks.
So when I fought tall guys, southpaws with no blueprint to beat or what not in England or on the road as champion, I knew technically what one was to do based on my experience in some of those early professional contests.
You keep your left foot outside of the southpaws right foot in order to land the right hand, for instance.
Eric Holland – 5ft6, strong constitution and made it rough inside. So against Juan Carlos Gimenez, I kept him on the end of my jab, or I may of had to drop him to win. Learning, learning.
The only tough fight I had in England prior to Nigel Benn was against a light-heavyweight on just a few hours notice when I was still an 11 stone fighter. Greg George.
He shoved me into the ropes and the referee called a knockdown, and (while) sat there on my trunks I thought back to how I was able to deal with bullies as a child, and that was to always punch them in the eye!
I got up and threw punches at his eye, detaching his retina and opening a cut to stop him. I naturally had punch accuracy.
So from fight six to fight 24, I didn’t learn much. I learned in America. I had many gym fights in front of many spectators. Puerto Ricans, South Americans – the toughest genetics in the world in regards to shaking off punches. North Americans of their most deprived area – mentally and physically starving and emotionally numb. No white towels.
Were you ever spotted as a potential great when coming up?
At the New York press conference for the second Benn fight, I had Steve Farhood, Michael Katz and Johnny Bos tell me that I was spoken (of) as some special talent back then in sparring circles in New York, but I had no idea!
When did the first Nigel Benn fight come about?
Well it came about (on) Sunday November 18th, 1990 at around 9pm. That’s when it came about.
Was that your best performance in your whole career?
It was the ultimate. To box the world’s most dangerous puncher with your gloves held together at stomach-height, and win, is the ultimate.
He’d blown Iran Barkley away in his previous fight which is totally unheard of. Barkley had arguably drew with both the best pound-for-pound boxer in Michael Nunn and greatest fighter in the world in Roberto Duran for his previous two bouts for all the other versions of the middleweight championship. The other champion, Benn, blows him out in a round.
So it required the ultimate boxing performance to beat the man and fulfill my whole ambition, my whole being, my whole none-other-choiceness.
What’s your take on the first Michael Watson fight?
I took that fight because this was the business. The best must fight the best – it’s the age old tradition. It’s boxing history. It’s public demand.
In the New York region, it was Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. They had to fight. Me and Michael Watson, in London, we had to fight.
The first five rounds were the best boxing performance rounds of my career. All of them. Beautiful.
He was the man who was able to stand in front of the world’s most dangerous puncher and beat him – which is unheard of – so he had the best defense in boxing in terms of covering, catching punches on gloves, arms.
Only the best body puncher we’ve seen in boxing had been able to beat him, to wear him down and exhaust him with counters to the body. I’m speaking of Mike McCallum there.
However, nobody was able to come close to blocking most of McCallum’s head shots like Michael Watson did.
So in accordance with all of that, it’s maybe my best display of the trade I had learned in New York; the craft I had mastered.
In those first five rounds, you see it there: perfect catch and counters, perfect lead right hands, and due to conventional combinations being anticipated: perfect step jab-right uppercut-left hook series and perfect right hook-left uppercut combination off a quadruple jab, and his conventional jab-right hand-left hook combination perfectly slipped, bobbed and weaved.
Non-telegraphed, equal head and foot movement, (and) a 2.5% success rate of my opponents jab, and so on. And this is Michael Watson opposing me. Plus, not being caught with counters after leading from out of range – so the martial arts integration is there.
I was running low on strength after those first five rounds because I lost 19lb in four days and we were still weighing in the day of the fight.
Michael’s defense was absolutely supreme however, there were occasions throughout (where) I threw three- and four- punch combinations from different angles and not one punch would get through, despite starting or setting to throw the combination when his gloves weren’t by his face. He would duck and slide with superb reflexes, too, which he hadn’t against McCallum.
My take on that fight was that he didn’t do enough to win each of the last seven rounds to take the title. History shows that the challenger must take the title from the champion.
The rematch with Watson was a very sad occurrence. Many feel you lost your killer instinct after that fight in September 91, would you say that’s fair?
I lost my finishing instinct. If an opportunity presented itself to drop a man without walking in, I would. But if they rose and I was walking in from a neutral corner, for instance, it brought back the thoughts of Watson II.
Some people accuse you of avoiding the best Americans, do you agree?
How? As the world champion, you don’t go chasing. You’re the chased. You had to become mandated, like this Tim Littles did to me. Now this Tim Littles was considered as dangerous a prospect in America as any, alongside Roy Jones and Gerald McClellan.
I accepted this fight and signed to fight this unbeaten top rated American. He pulls out injured and Tony Thornton gets mandated in his place, another tough American who gives me a great run for my money.
Now I could’ve easily, and I mean easily, given up the title and fought a seemingly lesser fighter in Italy for the supposedly more prestigious WBC belt. Barry Hearn gave me that option.
But I told him I was a real champion and it was a matter of honour to defend my title, so I chose the challenge of the hugely regarded Littles and the highly rated Thornton who replaced him.
Fast forward five years, and I step in at very late notice to face a mandated challenger to the title of Steve Collins, by the name of Joe Calzaghe. Collins ducked the fight, something which I can never be accused of in my career, and I took the fight and fought the fight.
I defended against Michael Watson with a freshly broken sternum. I didn’t pull out or postpone because that’s not what real champions do.
And in actual fact, coming up, nobody would face me. So as champion of the world, you don’t have to go chasing anyone.
I remember I beat this Eric Holland in 86 and his trainer was George Benton, now there was another fighter in one of the fights after mine called John David Jackson who George Benton also trained, the star pupil they said.
I am saying ‘Give him to me, I can take him’. He was 10 and 0 southpaw and in the top 30 of the rankings. Adonis Torres said I wasn’t ready.
Barry Hearn couldn’t get any of the Americans over to me. Ron Katz I knew through Johnny Bos and he was my matchmaker for some bouts – James Canty, Les Wisinewski and Ron Malek.
Ron Katz told me, he sent the tape of me against Les Wisinewski to every one of the American middleweights handlers – other than Michael Nunn – and only Ron Malek would come over, who was ranked something like 57th.
Though the top 50 in the 80s and 90s might beat most of the top 10 today, from say middleweight up. The genetically gifted youngsters today play basketball, American football and rugby or prefer MMA.
Strength and conditioning can’t make up for lack of talent, and nutrition can’t make up for lack of hunger. Those who are deprived can’t find a beaten down gym to fight in because they aren’t there anymore. They can’t afford to train in state of the art, so turn to crime and substances.
What’s your best advice for prospective boxers?
Absolutely. To the game, to loneliness. Give up, quit. By that I mean seclusion.
How did I beat Benn? I secluded myself in a hotel room for six weeks, sparring 10 rounds with Errol Christie Monday to Friday at Thomas A Beckett, and trained again in the evening at the hotel gym on the Nautilus machines and the elliptical.
The routine was 10 rounds of shadow boxing, a 10 round fight with a fresh Errol Christie with no stools, then 30 minutes of skipping, then speed ball and medicine ball, with gymnastics and floor exercises in between.
No roadwork, just 300 rounds of hard sparring. Benn would go 30 rounds of light sparring for a fight. I only wanted to leave the hotel once a day, to get the sparring in, and not leave my room on weekends and to be alone, because I knew Benn would be out partying and so on.
Now Errol Christie, with head guards and 18oz gloves, was the best fighter in the world and beat me up every day, which is why I won.
The day before the fight, the Saturday night, I stayed in the Hilton Birmingham Metropole and stayed up into the early hours bulk watching Blackadder videos with my publicist Andy Ayling, episodes that I had missed on British television by being away in America. I had never been calmer.
My martial arts tutor in South Bronx, Walter, told me over the telephone after watching Benn-Barkley that Kenpo says a rabid dog may pose a formidable threat, but inside, the animal is not thinking, and to have a complete warrior spirit, you must be ferocious on the outside but calm and tranquil on the inside.
What about making weight, there were often reports you struggled. Do you advice against this?
No, it’s an extreme sport, or business, so you do extreme things to achieve extreme results. Not eating for three days was far easier than hardly eating for three weeks or three months.
Sparring is where I’m getting sharp, I can’t get sharp for the fight if I’m depleted of energy. That was my trick.
Once I weighed in, by 1990 we had Lucozade Sport, so the regime for the Benn bout was this – straight after making weight: one can of Lucozade Sport, one bottle of water, one pineapple, and two coconuts.
Three hours later – two boiled eggs, one piece of toast and another bottle of water. Another three hours later, one banana and another bottle of water. That was it.
Benn was seen force feeding Marathon bars and bananas and gulping litres of water, drinking mass gainer shakes.
I started warming up two hours before the fight, with my various karate stretches and Tai chi meditation. It was just me and Ronnie (Davies), who stayed mostly silent. I guess Benn was just being very rowdy at this time with his large entourage.
What would you say was your best attribute that wasn’t an intangible, in terms of skill?
Position. Position, position, position. The thing about positioning is this: If you’re doing very little, but getting a lot done, while the opponent is doing a lot, and getting very little done, you’re winning the fight.
A tough fight was against Graciano Rocchigiani in Germany, in your 13th or 14th WBO defense. Many consider this your best win considering it was away from home and that Rocchigiani should’ve beaten Henry Maske and Dariusz Michalczewski after this. Would you go along with that?
You’re also forgetting he outboxed Nunn and Malinga to beat them over 12 with his straight shooting from the full guard. He had great timing. He beat Nunn for a WBC title I believe, and Nunn at the time of me and him fighting was WBA super middle champion. I’d just drew with Nigel Benn, the WBC super middle champion, and Mr Rocchigiani had never lost the IBF super middle title and was 35-0 at the time.
So to go to Germany and beat a German by nine points on one card, despite me having a point deducted, was unheard of, literally. He was a European spoiler, and I was a black Englishman who they had seen dressed like an aristocrat on German TV news. I was covered in spit to and from the ring.
Another backyard you went to was Belfast….
Ray Close II. Ray was an excellent boxer. He was an outstanding amateur, losing only split decisions in Cuba to the best Cubans. I had to go to the body early and hurt him late.
There’s still much debate about your first loss, to Steve Collins in Dublin. What is your take on the fight and pre-fight shenanigans?
Collins made me hate him. He knew what he was doing. What really bothered me, more than the hypnotisticism, was a comment Collins made in my presence saying: ‘Chris Eubank is ashamed of his African roots.’
That was the first time in 44 fights that I went into a fight subjectively towards my opponent, wanting to hurt him personally, rather than objectively score points against an object or obstacle. It was a dishonest tactic to use to dethrone the longest reigning world champion in the game for all the kudos.
Nobody else was 10 years unbeaten at that time and I should never of lost in the first place. For the rematch, however, the guy was crying tears of anger on his way to the ring and snorting like a bull, which unnerved me in itself, and fought me that night like he should be in a straitjacket.
That second loss was fair, because I was re-focused. But it should never of got to that in the first place.
How close were you to beating Carl Thompson in the first encounter for the WBO cruiserweight belt?
I thoroughly out-crafted Carl and was winning almost all the rounds up until about the eighth, when my eye completely closed and I couldn’t see anything out of it.
To win a title, you have to take it. I was an emotional fighter, incidents may of occurred in my career to cause me to be such. But the judges had a job to do and they did it.
This man was a heavyweight, perhaps 215 on the night and ripped to the bone. He overpowered David Haye. David went on to blow out John Ruiz at heavyweight, and beat a genuine giant.
Looking back, when you first starting learning to box in Jerome Boxing Club in the Bronx all those years ago, did you believe anything like that unbelievable career you had would occur?
No, I just wanted a pat on the back from my peers and my brothers.