To do justice to Saturday night this piece would have to be an epic poem and it’s not going to be. I’m not here for justice and I’m not in the mood
A golden-haired boy of 25 and now a former British champion lies comatose in a London hospital, oblivious to the orgy of opinion his plight has inspired. All kinds of media – mainstream, social, broadcast or typed has filled its boots on his tragedy. Boxing is barbaric, boxing should be banned, the referee should have stopped the fight earlier, Chris Eubank told his son to stop punching Nick in the head, its Eubank’s fault, its Billy-Joe Saunders fault, it’s the Furies fault, I love boxing but I hate this…
It’s all bullshit. Every word of it. Sorry, but it is. The reality is the top of the bill contest at Wembley Arena was one in which only one group of people got what they deserve. And they were all outside the ring.
I’m not going to pretend that I know Nick Blackwell, but I have exchanged messages with him online. Every time I have asked him for an article quote, he replied quickly and cheerfully. He couldn’t have been more helpful. His missives usually began, “hello matey,” which always made me smile. For whatever its worth right now, he struck me as an incredibly nice kid, while as a fighter he came into his own of late. Always super-fit, super-dedicated and super-tough, his spell as British champion was well merited. He fought like an absolute warrior on Saturday, from start to finish. Taking on an enemy with awesome firepower, he marched toward the sound of the guns unbowed. Even as assault after assault rended his skin, broke his nose and smothered his face in blood, he kept marching. It was lump-in-the-throat stuff. Nick was the champ and refused to cave in. What pride, what guts.
Nick Blackwell did not get what he deserved.
His opponent, Chris Eubank Jr looks more impressive every time I see him. At times he fought with such ferocity and verve I was awestruck. The uppercuts that ripped through Blackwell’s guard, the flashing jab, the sheer malevolent athleticism of him, from where I sat two rows back his intensity was spellbinding. He perhaps needs to tighten his defence, convert his bursts of activity to consistency, but you can pick holes in anyone if you want. If he fights like that every time, we have a superstar on our hands, someone who could take on any middleweight in the world. And I mean any. But because of the controversies and all the nonsense being bandied back and forth, he hasn’t received his due credit.
Chris Eubank Jr did not get what he deserved.
Victor Loughlin, a genial Scotsman with nearly thirty years professional refereeing experience, found himself amidst a firestorm. Being in that ring with those two lads must have felt like standing in no-man’s land during the Battle of the Somme, under machine gun fire and exploding shells. It was a fight of almost supernatural violence and Loughlin was professionalism personified. How he kept a cool head, I do not know, but he did. There were times he looked closely at Blackwell, times when it would perhaps have only taken one or two more for him to step in, but Blackwell kept defending himself, kept firing back. If Loughlin had jumped between them in the fifth or sixth as some are suggesting, there would have been uproar. Blackwell has been behind before and won. You have to give the champ the benefit of the doubt. As an official he found himself in a hell of a situation and did his best. That’s all anyone can ask.
Victor Loughlin did not get what he deserved.
The corners have come under scrutiny. Bizarrely reports have emerged suggesting that Chris Eubank Sr urging his son not to attack the head was some sort of compassionate action! That he foresaw and tried to avert Nick’s fate. How absurd! Only those with no understanding of the fight game could suggest such a thing. Eubank said the things he said because he understood that Blackwell’s iron jaw was not going to give way and his boy would not force the stoppage with head punches. The advice to attack the body was simply tactical. Perhaps an abdominal assault could bring an early end? Regardless, he and the rest of the corner showed great dignity and respectfulness, when the severity of Blackwell’s condition became clear. That’s where he showed his true worth. Boxers may be men of violence but they are not animals and he, alongside Ronnie Davis, demonstrated that in their concern for their stricken foe. Who has recognised that?
Chris Eubank Sr did not get what he deserved.
Billy-Joe Saunders has come under attack. People say he stirred up the hostility, heated the cauldron. Maybe he did and maybe his goading of the Eubanks before first bell was unnecessary. But promoters and TV love all that, this is how they sell the game. Create a rivalry, stoke up false hatred, then get you all to buy into it. Many of those who follow the sport enjoy the antagonism and crave the pantomime. As a world champion with a potentially lucrative Eubank rematch to hype, Billy-Joe was just doing his job. It would have had no effect on the fight. Yet some of the media he provides with stories and the fans he titillates, turn on him because of events in which he played no real part.
Billy-Joe Saunders did not get what he deserved.
And what of us? The fans and writers, the bloggers and youtubers, those in the arena and those at home. I can speak for myself and say that as soon as this fight was announced I wanted to be there. Months ago I asked Instant Boxing to request accreditation for me. Why? Because I knew it would be a cracker. Because I believe that Eubank Jr, despite his irritating posturing, is a special talent, because I know that Nick Blackwell is a soldier in his very heart and because the two of them together would create a spectacular fight. I knew it and I wanted to be there to witness it. I wasn’t disappointed. What played out before me was a searing battle of wills and bearing of souls. I could not have looked away if I tried. This is why I, why we watch boxing. Let’s not mince our words. Let’s not look for excuses. This is what we want.
We love boxing when two young men, who are evenly matched, come together and put it all out there. You can’t take that out of the game. You can’t pretend it’s not there. Despite all the mock outrage, the truth is that on Saturday, all of us, the fans, the media, we got what we love.
We got what we deserved.
What happened at the weekend is not some freak or aberration. It happens often. Jerome Wilson, Jonjo Finnegan, Kieran Farrell, Charlie Payton, Michael Norgrove (RIP), all in the last four years. They just weren’t on TV. You cannot be a boxing fan and be incensed by serious injury. You cannot start pointing fingers and apportioning blame. It happens. It will happen again. Love the sport? If you mean that, then you have to think through the disconnect. It’s not easy, but you have to.
I’ve made my peace with it, more or less, although I hate myself for it sometimes. The central question that everyone involved must ask themselves is ‘is it worth it?’ Don’t hide behind invective. Don’t look for scapegoats to distract from your inner-conflict. Be honest. There is no right or wrong answer. It is what it is and you take it or leave it.
As soon as Nick was carried out, I left the arena. Hughie Fury was due to fight next but I didn’t have the stomach for it. I drove home around the North Circular with damp eyes. I am not ashamed to admit it. But for the ten rounds it lasted I loved the fight.
Two days later and brave Nick Blackwell remains unconscious. We still don’t know how things will go, although there are encouraging signs, I hear. Anything you say in such circumstances is inadequate, but for Nick my message is simple. Right now it’s the best I can do.
Good luck, matey.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please visit my non-boxing blog at https://markturleyblog.wordpress.com/
Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.