“He’s gone Jim, and you know he’s gone”: the words of boxing referee Roy Francis on September 21st 1991.
Francis was holding aloft Michael Watson, who had just gone eleven and half rounds with Chris Eubank for the WBO super middleweight title. During this 11th round Watson was on the cusp of victory. Eubank’s legs had gone. His usual crisp, quick movement had descended into a lumbering, clumsy gait.
With around 20 seconds left in the round, Eubank was sent crashing to the canvas. Whitehart Lane was about to watch the Londoner’s first defeat in 28 fights. Eubank stood up, but it was clear to all that his legs had metamorphosed into jelly. Many would argue that Francis should have stopped the fight then. It is likely that Francis wishes so too.
Eubank’s response to teetering on the edge of defeat is what boxing fans clamour for. With mere seconds left in the round, Eubank unleashed an uppercut that would change boxing. Watson’s legs went stiff and he collapsed to the canvas. The bell rang, which saved Watson a count.
Both emerged for round 12 but it was now Watson who was in trouble. Eubank took the initiative, unleashing a flurry of punches. Watson had dominated the fight and only needed to survive the next 180 seconds to win on a decision. Watson knew this. Watson’s coaches knew this. It didn’t take long for Eubank to end the fight. Roy Francis finally stepped in. Eubank was WBO super middleweight champion of the world.
The aftermath was chaotic. Watson’s coach Jimmy Tibbs was remonstrating with Francis. All the while, Michael Watson’s life was ebbing away. Moments later, he went limp in Tibbs’ arms.
It took organisers over an hour to get Watson to a hospital. He ended up visiting two separate facilities, both of which were ill equipped to deal with his traumatic brain injury. Having finally received the treatment he needed, Watson spent 40 days in a coma. For eight months after the fight Watson could not speak, could not hear and could not walk.
It would be 6 years before he walked again unaided. Since that September night in 1991, Watson has lived with brain damage, inflicted by Chris Eubank. Watson later sued the British Board of Boxing Control for negligence. He was awarded just £1,000,000 as compensation.
The news that Nick Blackwell was placed into an induced coma following his defeat to Chris Eubank Junior brought the Eubank vs Watson fight into context once again. Midway through the fight, Eubank offered his son some hard earned advice:
“If the referee doesn’t stop it, then I don’t know what to tell you, but I will tell you this: one, if he doesn’t stop it and we keep on beating him like this, he is getting hurt; two, if it goes to a decision, why didn’t the referee stop the fight? I don’t get why. So maybe you shouldn’t leave it to the referee. So you’re not going to take him out to the face – you’re going to take him out to the body.”
Eubank understands the implications of a head trauma such as that suffered by Blackwell. The injuries suffered by Blackwell have shifted focus to the dangers of boxing.
Mixed martial arts has been subject to a degree of polemical criticism in recent times. The rise of Conor McGregor has elevated the sport in Ireland to a greater degree of prominence. Boxing has long been popular in Ireland. Of the 28 Olympic medals won by Irish athletes, 16 have come in boxing. Thus it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when criticising the bloody nature of MMA, 2012 Chef de Mission Sonia O’Sullivan, kept stum on the dangers of boxing.
One must look at the facts behind both boxing and MMA. In the 23 year history of the UFC there has not been a single recorded death inside the octagon. Yet since the introduction of the Marquis of Queensbury Rules in 1884, there have been 923 deaths in boxing. These deaths did not all occur at the beginning of the 20th century either. The consistency is remarkable. The 1980’s saw 67 deaths in the ring. The 1990’s saw 78. Between 2000 and 2007 there were 68 deaths in the ring. In total there have been just 4 fatalities in sanctioned MMA events in the history of the sport.
The superior safety record in MMA is down to many factors. Many will point to the fact that MMA and boxing are different sports in order to shirk any criticism levelled at boxing. While this is true, there is also a degree of overlap between the two. Besides, it may be fruitful to take notice of a combat sport with an impeccable safety record.
The two biggest factors in the ring are the fighters and the referees. Each has their role to play in ensuring athlete welfare.
Many unstudied MMA fans are surprised by the candour and sportsmanship shown by one Conor McGregor in both victory and defeat. McGregor may be vitriolic in his exchanges with opponents pre-fight but embraces them in the aftermath. The reason for this is simple. The UFC is a cut-throat competitive organisation. These fighters are not showmen. They are professional athletes who understand what is at risk. October 2015 saw a purge of some 50 UFC fighters from the roster. If you aren’t earning your keep, White and Fertita will show you the door.
The camaraderie between fighters plays its part in safety. The UFC Fight Night 85 bout between Mark Hunt and Frank Mir this month is a prime example. Both Hunt and Mir are heavy hitters. Hunt threw a big right hand in round one which sent Mir to the floor. Hunt didn’t do what one would expect him to, which is launch himself on top of the hapless Mir. Instead Hunt simply walked away. Speaking to the press conference after Hunt said:
“Frank, he was still in the dark lands when I saw him [after landing the punch]”
“His face was still…he wasn’t there, so I just left it. He wasn’t there. He was out, somewhere else.” via MMA Fighting.
This situation has arisen before. 3 years before Hunt fought Mir, UFC Fight Night 30 saw Mark Munoz take on Lyoto Machida. The southpaw Machida threw a head kick at Munoz which landed and sent the Filipino to the canvas. Machida darted to mount Munoz and finish the fight. Instead of unleashing a series of hammer fists to the inert Munoz, Machida held back his fist until the referee arrived.
By refraining from inflicting further punches on their opponents, Hunt and Machida prevented further serious brain injuries.
While fighters have a role, they are athletes who are there to win. It is referees who must take responsibility for athlete welfare. To their credit, referees in the UFC have done so. Referees in MMA are more prepared to end a fight than their boxing counterparts. They are also more likely to intervene physically. When Conor McGregor landed his predicted left on José Aldo, Aldo crumbled to the canvass. 2 seconds later, referee John McCarthy had hurled himself at McGregor to prevent the Dubliner from further injuring a defenceless Aldo.
McCarthy has been outspoken on safety. In an interview with USA Today, McCarthy said:
“No one deserves the right to finish a fight. They earn it through their actions in being competitive. A ref needs to understand the difference between fighting and surviving. Sometimes we need to protect fighters from themselves as much as their opponent”
This comment from McCarthy is applicable to both Eubank fights. Watching Blackwell put up the guard and offer little to counter Eubank Junior’s assault was more akin to surviving than to fighting. Similarly, with both fighters exhausted in the 12th round in 1991, Roy Francis would have done well to stop the fight after Eubank was knocked down.
The moral of the story is simple.
Instead of looking down their noses at more “brutal” combat sports, boxing, and indeed all sports, should learn from others. The long term impact of Blackwell’s injuries will not be known for some time. Yet, the British Boxing Board of Control, which failed Michael Watson 25 years ago must take action. Part of this action should be a review of refereeing practices and further education for fighters. One death should prompt reaction.
Five or more each year, should prompt revolution.