Sunday is meant to be a day of rest. Once it was a day of religious observance and, pre-trade unions, it was often the only day off a working person received. In British boxing, Sunday is usually a day of rest too. However, exceptions remain and for those unlucky few, the Sabbath’s respite hasn’t been forthcoming.
For Tony Bellew and Ilunga Makabu, the one thing Sunday won’t provide is a let-up. The two men who will contest the vacant WBC Cruiserweight crown will be hoping to make it a Bloody Sunday for their foe.
The two combatants, while not exactly treading a well-worn path, will nonetheless be in good standing with other pugilists who have plied their trade on a Sunday.
On Sunday 21st May 1989, a tent in Finsbury Park London was the site for British boxing’s most hotly anticipated bout of the year. Two London Middleweights who were as different as chalk and cheese were about to go head to head. In one corner the brash, mouthy, flashy and big-hitting Nigel Benn. In the opposite corner, the quiet, confident Michael Watson, a man who did his talking in the ring.
Benn entered the ring with a phenomenal undefeated record of 22 wins, all by way of knockout; whereas, Watson entered the ring with an impressive roster of 21 wins, one loss and one draw, with eighteen of his wins coming by the short route.
From the first bell, Benn went straight for his opponent and attempted to steamroller him. Watson, however, was cuter and he allowed the ex-soldier to blow himself out, before taking control of the bout and eventually knocking Benn out with a jab in round six.
After the fight, Benn would regroup and move to the United States to reignite his career, and eleven months later he became the WBO Middleweight champion when he stopped Doug DeWitt in eight rounds. He would eventually travel up to Super-Middleweight, where he won the WBC crown and cemented his position as one of Britain’s favourite fighters.
Watson, however, would walk a harder path less than a year after the triumph over Benn. The Islington man challenged all-time great Mike McCallum for the WBA crown and would fall to a brave and gutsy eleventh round stoppage. A year later he would also fall short in a controversial defeat to WBO Middleweight champion Chris Eubank. A rematch was set for 21st September 1991 at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane football stadium, and the outcome was tragic. Well ahead going into the second to last round, Watson came out and floored his opponent, almost instantly Eubank responded by returning the favour and dropping Watson heavily. His head snapped against the bottom rope and somehow he beat the count.
Watson’s trainer, Jimmy Tibbs, would later receive unwarranted criticism for allowing his man out for the last round, but the Londoner was well ahead on the cards and Tibbs could not have known the severity of the situation. After 29 seconds of the round, referee Roy Francis waved the bout off. Michael Watson had lost his world title challenge but his biggest fight lay ahead.
As Eubank and his team celebrated, they were unaware that in his corner Watson had slumped on his stool and was heading towards a coma, as the bleeding in his brain was becoming more severe by the minute. Watson was in a coma for over a month and underwent six brain operations. He spent over a year in Intensive Care and Rehabilitation. In 2003, Watson completed the London Marathon by walking two hours each morning and afternoon for six days.
A little under six months after the Benn v Watson show, Londoner Jim McDonnell made his second attempt at a world title, as he faced Ghanaian legend Azumah Nelson for the WBC Super-Featherweight title at the Royal Albert Hall. McDonnell, from Camden Town, earned his crack at the man from Accra by defeating Barry McGuigan five months earlier and was hoping for a different outcome than his previous shot, when he lost a unanimous decision to underrated South African legend Brian Mitchell.
The Londoner was game throughout the bout and didn’t disgrace himself in losing to Nelson, a two-weight champion. McDonnell was decked four times but on occasions he was slipping a lot and by round eleven the challenger was exhausted, his right eye had swollen shut and the ringside doctor was called to inspect the eye.
In the corner, Darkie Smith worked furiously to reduce the swelling. McDonnell walked out for the final round with legs made of clay; fatigue was etched on his face but grimly and gamely, he pushed forward. A slip gave Nelson the opening he needed and he pounced upon the Camden fighter and drove him back to the ropes, where he fell from a combination of tiredness, Nelson’s punches and a shove. Referee Joe Cortez administered the mandatory and the bout continued. The end was only delayed, as a combination would deck McDonnell heavily this time and Cortez waved the fight off without even bothering to administer a count.
McDonnell lost his next two matches, including a chilling and sickening knockout against Kenny Vice and a points decision to an opponent with a losing record, before hanging his gloves up. He now trains IBF Super-Middleweight champion James DeGale. Nelson fought on until 1998. He was unsuccessful in a tilt at Lightweight champion Pernell Whitaker four months after the McDonnell fight and defended his WBC Super-Featherweight crown on six more occasions, before losing to Jesse James Leija in 1994. He won the crown back a year later before losing it in his second defence to Genaro Hernandez. It would be his final world title bout.
Nigel Benn could be forgiven if he was the kind of person who hated Sundays. Eighteen months after his loss to Michael Watson, the Ilford man was ready to take part in another Sunday service, this time against Brighton’s Chris Eubank. Benn had rebuilt his career since the loss to Watson. Five wins on the bounce had earned him the WBO crown and he’d so far made one successful defence against former champion Iran Barkley, whom he destroyed inside one round.
Eubank was unbeaten in 24 but had fought at a much lower standard than the champion and the bookies odds reflected that. The two fighters had an intense mutual dislike of each other and the public had come to loathe of the Brighton man, something which would continue for several more years.
The bout was a classic. Both men came out with ferocity, Benn stalking the challenger and Eubank fighting fire with fire. Neither man seemed particularly keen to use their jab or attempt anything close to a strategy, and both were throwing punches with bad intentions. In round four, Benn landed a vicious uppercut that caused Eubank to bite down on his tongue, causing a gash that left him swallowing blood throughout the bout. The Brighton man hid this injury from his corner for fear of the doctor stopping the contest.
By round five, the champion’s eye was swollen and Eubank took advantage of that by continuing to throw big shots at the Ilford man. Round seven saw Benn hit the challenger with a low blow and benefit from the situation by hammering the Brighton man with body shots. Round eight saw the champion trap his opponent in a corner and a big right to the head floored Eubank. The challenger wasn’t hurt and by round’s end, he was beginning to take control of the bout.
Round nine began in an even fashion, until Eubank missed with a shot and Benn seemed to land a shot to his backside that floored him. Referee Richard Steele signalled that it was no knockdown and the combat resumed. Benn, eye swollen, looking ragged and exhausted, was caught by an enormous left hand that sent him skittering into the ropes on unsteady legs. Eubank could smell blood and, despite the champion attempting to throw back another huge right hand, snapped his head back and referee Richard Steele stepped in.
Both men would go on to win titles in other weights and would meet again in October 1993 in a bout at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium that was called a draw. The animosity between the two has never dissipated and even today, 23 years after their last bout, an uneasy truce is the best they can muster.
Sunday fights have given the sport some great memories. From Eubank, Watson, Benn, Nelson and McDonnell, we now look to Bellew and Makabu to reignite those memories of days long gone. Both will be hoping they can be the one to give their opponent a Blue Sunday and themselves the perfect lead into a manic Monday.