Chris Eubank, the fight that made you was Nigel Benn in 1990. You seemed to come out of nowhere, what gave you the belief that you could beat somebody like Benn?
Doug DeWitt, Iran Barkley – I had already sparred with men like this in New York as a teenager. Guys like Alex Ramos and Richard Burton, who I thought hit just as hard as Benn, though in the fight I would find out otherwise.
I was sparring 12 rounds with Errol Christie every day, who as a gym fighter used to match Thomas Hearns at his peak. If I could elude these punches and if I could catch someone as elusive as Herol Graham and put him down for more than a minute, why couldn’t it be the same with Nigel Benn was my mindset.
I was overconfident going into the Nigel fight, in actual fact. I expected it to be easier. Benn was quite simply astounding, in excess of what I expected. He was Lightning fast with his single shots that were laced with power that I never even knew existed. I knew I couldn’t match him for natural ability, so I had to keep my shots less than six inches to have the same speedy effect and throw 3 or 4 shots to equate the damage of his one!
I caught him with some perfect single shot counters, a left hook in the second stanza that I have no idea how he stayed stood from, and a right hand in the seventh that was the second-hardest punch I ever delivered in my life, one behind the fateful right uppercut I caught Michael Watson with – Benn stayed erect, somehow. Those shots had all my weight behind, every last ounce.
The guy was a phenomenon, his strength inhuman. The pace he set in the first few rounds from the opening bell was one of borderline retardation. So everything I did had to be completely unorthodox to counteract his retarded-like ferocity, fighting side-on and stop-start with no jab or guard; trying to make him think.
Usually, adrenalin masks pain, but in this particular fight I had about a 2% bodyfat level and virtually no water retention, because the weigh-in was only seven hours before the fight itself on this occasion and I would lose 14lbs in seven days for middleweight title fights
Benn, the hardest puncher on God’s green Earth, put everything he had into shots to my body, rupturing all my internal organs and fracturing all my ribcage, and winding me a few times; which leaves you exhausted anyway when you’re not even doing exercise.
It was hell on Earth for me but I had stayed clean and lonely for seven and a half years, perspiration buckets without waste, and my moment was getting closer, so to quit was no option – it’s fair to say I’d have been kind of suicidal if I quit.
Nigel didn’t know what he was getting himself into. I was willing to be killed and I was willing to kill. I could throw punches with two tonnes of force from six inches from every angle. I had multi-directional foot movement, split-second reflexes and could do straight splits and vertical backbends. My jaw was denser than 98% of the world population.
This was not a normal man, myself, I knew this and I gave Benn a certain glare that lasted a second or so at the pre-fight press conference, with an intense look in my eyes that said: ‘You’re in deep water’, and he didn’t seem to read it.
There were 12,000 fans and 12,000,000 viewers, while six months before that you had never even had a live TV fight before, and were fighting in front of 1,000 people at York Hall or Brighton Conference Centre. How did you cope with this pressure?
I didn’t. I let it pass me. I was so tunnel-visioned that it really didn’t register – I wasn’t even there. It was just me and Benn, the object. Me and the object. I had already fought in front of 20,000 fans and 20,000,000 viewers when I was 18 years old in the Golden Gloves in the Madison Square Gardens, so it wasn’t a stress in the build-up for me, through my training. As I said, Nigel didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
One of the main things that stood you out from the rest, along with your personality outside the ring and vaulting ring-entry, was the way you’d stand and posture between rounds and even during rounds at times, looking down your nose at ringsiders! Do you agree, looking back, that your posturing could be over the top at times?
However, it was something of a spectacle in the Benn fight because Benn was known as a ruthless killer. At moments in that fight he was. But the combination of my power and poise made for Benn to doubt himself. Until you saw this fight it was not seen of a man keeping another man who was a wrecking machine tentative and afraid to throw, by being… tentative and afraid to throw, but looking threatening! I pulled that off in a big way.
Posturing can be a weapon, sometimes a guy can keep another guy at distance just by seeming dangerous. In the boxing world I was the master of this – I think you can see the fight with (Renaldo) Dos Santos on YouTube, and keep an eye on how Dos Santos doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of me or how to approach me because of my posture.
Did you lose your killer instinct to finish opponents after the tragic fight with Michael Watson in 1991?
I lost my finishing instinct. I would say I boxed more cautiously after that, yes. I jabbed more, went for less combination-punching and so on.
A lot of it was in the subconscious mind. When I look back on my fights, when I’m seeing a man hurt from my power, the look in my eyes is one of worry as I go in for the kill, and the punches looser and longer than the finishing I was known for pre-Watson, which was tight, fast shots with the eye of the tiger.
Against Steve Collins in the 10th round and the first fight with Carl Thompson, it seemed you let those fights slip away by not going in to finish the job when they were clearly there for the taking, was it the thoughts of what happened to Michael that held you back?
Probably. That’s a piercing question, my friend.
You fought Sugar Boy Malinga, Lindell Holmes and Graciano Rocchigiani who were all future or former world champions or both, do you feel these are underrated victories?
In accordance with the fact that Malinga and Rocchigiani went on to beat Benn and Nunn for the world title, yes.
And in accordance with the fact that Lindell Holmes was refused as too dangerous by Benn and Nunn, yes.
Along with Michael Watson and Tony Thornton, all these fighters had the tightest defensive guards in boxing, and all these fighters fought the very best fighters of the world. And I slotted through more head shots than any of them on all of them, and landed more body shots on Graciano Rocchigiani than anyone.
My accuracy may have been the best, my technique may have been picture-perfect and my foot movement may have been poetry in motion, but in other areas like being naturally fluid or blessed with athleticism, it evens out myself with McCallum, Toney, Nunn, Graham, Jones and Benn all as equal best.
You fought Joe Calzaghe on about a one weeks notice in 1997, post-retirement and struggling to make even the light-heavy limit. You fight for the vacant super-middle title, your old WBO world belt that you defended so many times; what did you make of Joe at the time?
I lost 20lbs in seven days because I underestimated him and thought I could beat him on heart alone. He had a very awkward southpaw stance, very hard punches from awkward angles that you couldn’t see, a very high work-rate and very fast hands in combination.
I couldn’t use multi-directional foot movement or anchor my feet with punches because I had bad knees at the time. So his come-forward fighting and all around durability wasn’t truly tested like it could have been had I been in my prime.
But he was clearly very good, and going to be very hard to defeat, which he never was.
What are your predictions for the forthcoming domestic dust-ups between David Haye and Tyson Fury at heavyweight and Carl Froch and George Groves at your old weight, super-middle?
Predictions? Haye and Froch are the favourites, and rightly so. The gulf in experience is immense and it will show in the ring, I mean how can it not? Tyson has to fight beyond what we’ve seen before to win and the same goes for George, he has to fight beyond what we have seen before to win.
Will Haye’s inactivity play a part? David himself doesn’t believe in ring rust… Do you?
To an extent, because the term arose from somewhere. Observers and trainers picked up on the fact that fighters tend to perform less well after a prolonged absence from competitive bouts, and coined a phrase for the phenomenon.
It may sound brutish, or harsh, and I apologize for sounding brutish, but the matter of fact is that you simply have to always spar at 100% so that you are permanently at risk from injury. If you can do that, there won’t be ring rust.
It’s not a physical thing. Going head-to-head in a combat sport with another human being who is trying their best to debilitate you, is a jarring, slightly unreal experience, far removed from day-to-day life. I think ring rust is a result of the psychological difficulties involved in trying to readjust to a fundamentally traumatic activity.
Frequent competitive bouts both allow fighters to engage their skills unrestrainedly and accept and adjust to the unusual mental state required to attempt to cause physical harm to another human being for whom you have no personal animosity. A competitive bout might mean a professional match, or it might mean a gym fight, meaning sparring.
So I both agree and disagree with David, if that’s what he says.
How would Carl Froch fare in your era?
It’s not fair to put Carl in my era. It’s unfair on him. Let’s put it like this: I’ve not seen in boxing, since or even ever, the kind of absolute resolve that Michael Watson showed in our rematch and Steve Collins showed in our rematch, ever. Certainly not since.
How does a fighter cope with that maniacal-type resolve, along with an unbelievable bodily strength where you have to nearly kill a man to beat a man, or worse. It’s not fair to put fighters in my era.
Anthony Logan wasn’t far behind. Since the second fight with Collins, I haven’t seen a resolve the likes of which Anthony Logan showed against me, or a destuctifying war the likes of which me and Nigel Benn showed or Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan showed. It’s just not fair. Don’t mix the eras.