If you were a British fight fan in the late '80s and early '90s, chances were that a certain middleweight called Nigel Benn would've had you gripped to the edge of your sofa like your life depended on it. In an era that seemed to mainline excitement from the sport on both sides of the Atlantic, boxing was at a high watermark for the sweet science, where ego and masculinity still ruled over politics and the oncoming interference of pay-per-view. Basically when fighters still had the balls to get in the ring and cause physical graffiti towards each other.
Domestically speaking, boxing had never really lost its popularity amongst a British public somewhat starved of real worldwide success. It's hard to imagine now, but the sport during the period had been a staple part of television viewer's lives. Pre- satellite, ITV had been both a heavy investor and positive promoter of boxing in this country - regularly drawing in viewing figures of millions for fights that, on paper, probably didn't deserve such rabid, populist attention.
Whilst the British domestic scene always had its poster boys when it came to pulling in viewers, from Mcguigan to Honeyghan and beyond, what it really lacked was a league of whip hand men from these shores vying to be top dog in their division. Then it happened. As the aforementioned Nigel Benn exploded into the public consciousness, something weird and wonderful seemed to happen to our domestic middleweight scene. From out of nowhere a trio of world class fighters seemed to emerge thrillingly at the same time. And both stylistically and philosophically the three boxers were completely the antithesis of each other.
The three main protagonists in question were Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Michael Watson (with Steve Collins to follow slightly later). The chief pistolero in amongst the group was always going to be Benn of course. Stylistically the self proclaimed 'dark destroyer' was a real wrecking ball of his generation. Probably the closest to a Tyson these shores ever produced, his front forward style was perfectly suited to draw in huge audiences. The British public had always loved a banger, and Benn usually produced. Often looking like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he strode to the ring, he was an anomaly when it came to the stereotypical view of the British boxer, but his rising record of victims gave some kudos to his primeval style. It was even suggested by some that he had the potential to become a worldwide superstar, such was his raw power, although his lack of any real defence had certain critics pointing to the fact that a clinical counter puncher would eventually have the beating of him.
In May 1989 that bell would toll ominously. Benn had risen through the middleweight ranks to secure the commonwealth title and entered the ring in Finsbury Park before a live TV audience to defend his title against fellow countryman and middleweight Michael Watson. It was a real fire versus ice affair. Watson in many ways would be one of the most talented middleweights this country would ever produce. A beautifully balanced and elegant fighter, he was the epitome of the 'sweet science', a boxer who could nullify incoming aggression with little more than nimble footwork and a jab like a cobra hitting a nest of mice. In many ways Benn was perfect for him, and so it proved. 'The dark destroyer was picked apart and stopped somewhat prematurely by the referee in the sixth round. It had been a crude and unsophisticated display by the champion, whose odd game plan of throwing mainly hooks had been no match for Watson's undoubted ring craft and guile.
As the dust was settling on that contest however, what no one realised was that the real-deal of a domestic rivalry was just around the corner. As Benn went about brilliantly re-inventing himself in a cavalier way with impressive victories in the United States, another homegrown fighter was busily lighting the touch paper for what would be to prove an enigmatic and never less than entertaining career.
Even before the Benn/Watson fight had taken place, Dulwich born Chris Eubank was being noted on various undercards as a middleweight of rising promise. With a mixture of speed and power, by early 1989 he had quickly began to make a name for himself with a string of eye catching victories. It was as much his eccentricity outside the ring however, specifically during interviews, that got as much attention and began to spike interest from promoters. The softly spoken fighter cut an odd figure certainly amongst the media who lapped up his pantomime flamboyance and arrogance as a welcome change from the two syllable interviews boxers usually gave in post fight interviews. Pretty soon in fact, and despite his lack of real world class experience, he was almost getting as much press attention as those at the top of the division themselves.
It was clear that by early 1990, the sheer mention of Eubank was certainly beginning to get under one fighters skin, namely Nigel Benn, but first he had more pressing concerns. In April 1990 Benn travelled to Atlantic City in his first attempt to win the coveted middleweight title. His opponent Doug Dewitt was no patsy and showed his favouritism in putting the British boxer down in the second round. Benn rallied however and after flooring his opponent in round three launched a ferocious, sustained attack on Dewitt in the eight round, knocking him down seemingly at will and clinching the title by ways of the three knock down rule.
Having finally achieved his goal, and following up with a stunning title defence against the highly rated Iran Barkley, Nigel Benn gained the worldwide reputation his exciting style probably deserved. Back home however there was only one fight the British public wanted, or more to the point, one fighter they wanted him to silence: Chris Eubank. By now Eubank had really ramped up his role of pantomime villain amongst the British public but inside the ring he was also beginning to cut an ominous figure of his own in the middleweight division, winning an international title of his own and showing time and time again that however eccentric he was on the outside of the ropes, once the bell sounded he wasn't afraid to go medieval and mix it with anyone to be crowned top dog in the middleweight division.
The scene was therefore set in November 1990 for the two fighters to finally meet in what was arguably the most eagerly anticipated domestic fight of all time. In the build up to the contest the Benn camp went into all out psychological warfare. If intimidation had been a key weapon in the champion's armoury previously then he really ramped it up to incredible levels for Eubank. Their aim was to put the fear of god into the challenger so he would literally freeze when the first bell rang, but crucially what many didn't realise about Eubank was that he was a patron saint of tough upbringings and as granite tough as they come. The challenger in fact had served his dues as an outsider from the beginning. Bullied internally by his own family as a youngster and coming from an fairly impoverished background he was in many ways a self made man. Boxing in fact had saved him and having forced his way to its very summit by sheer will - there was simply no way he was about to cave in from outside influences. In many ways, in fact, those dark factors played into his hands perfectly. He literally thrived on them.
There was one other thing Eubank possessed that was absolutely pivotal. As the first bell sounded for his fight with Benn and the champion charged across looking to decapitate him, deep down Eubank was safe in the knowledge that he could count on an incredible chin. Forced to weather the champion's early storm however was no easy feat. This was an improved Benn by 1990, just as intense and still using pressure like a noose around an opponents neck but a little less wild in his application. As he turned the screw on the challenger many at ringside must have thought Eubank resembled little more than a rabbit in the headlights but the challenger had a steely intensity and aggression of his own. In the build up to the fight both boxers in fact had preached that they were going to knock each other out. By the end of round three, during which commentator Jim McDonnell had famously said every punch was a 'grand prix shot' - they hadn't disappointed in their application - it's just that neither fighter was really willing to budge.
In the next round however - it nearly swung completely in Benn's favour. A huge uppercut connected with Eubank's chin, splitting his tongue in the process. It was a punch that would have ended most fights in a heartbeat but somehow the challenger survived it and slowly but surely a different fuse was lit in the contest. Subliminally Benn became more measured in his aggression as Eubank came into it. Despite surviving a disputed slip of a knock down the challenger grew more in confidence, preening between rounds and landing heavy shots of his own. It now became a battle of wills. The hurricane versus the immoveable object. A contest in which everyone at ringside, and the protagonists themselves, knew something had to give.
Then in round nine, inevitably it did. In a classic contest that had swayed violently like a vine in a harsh wind, its symmetry was beautiful. After catching Eubank with a left hook, the challenger brutally replied with a perfect combination in return that staggered Benn into the ropes. As the champion struggled to compose himself, Eubank then followed it up with a flush right that virtually knocked Benn cold on his feet and had co-commentator Barry Mcguigan excitedly saying "This is it. This is the end". Referee Richard Steele concurred and called a stop to the contest immediately to save Benn further punishment. Chris Eubank had prevailed. He was the new world champion.
It brought to end not only the greatest domestic fight of all time but also one of the greatest middleweight title fights of all time. It was a Battle of Britain that had everything. Blood. Thunder. Flamboyance. Excitement. A fight that surpassed today's boxing politics and pay per view figures, an old school tear up with one man left standing. Truly, it was an epic that will never be forgotten.