Rumour has it that some fights took place last weekend in Liverpool. Apparently they were promised to provide a giant night for British boxing, worthy of a £17 Pay-Per-View fee on top of the monthly sky subscription which is already about £40 (including sports). Prevailing opinion prior to the night was that a pointless domestic grudge-match supported by a series of undercard knock-overs, being broadcast in such a way was a massive, disgusting rip-off. Typically and in spite of that, a minority of peasants tried to defend the indefensible, presumably in the hope of being favoured somehow by the Lords of the Manor.
True-to-form it seems the whole thing was, as expected, abysmal. Speaking personally, I steered clear of the nastiness and spent Saturday night sharing a bottle of wine with my wife then watching an X-Men movie with the older of my two daughters. The film, ironically, allowed me to watch bloated, clumsily created caricatures fight for free. As a result the PPV fiasco hasn’t left me feeling personally slighted, but the fact that so many people were willing to support this event provides another indictment of boxing business ethics – the milking of fans for every possible penny is set to become standard, it seems – and the less said about media cheerleaders who write or say whatever is required to keep their ringside passes and interview permissions safe, the better.
Fortunately we can now put all that unpleasantness behind us and look forward to a genuinely interesting night at The Ecxcel in London’s docklands this Saturday. Like many fight followers, for me a Tyson Fury v Dereck Chisora rematch was only a moderately interesting attraction. Frankie Gavin v Bradley Skeete for the British Welterweight title upped the ante considerably, but it was the addition of the Billy Joe Saunders / Chris Eubank Jr bout that has genuinely got my motor running.
This, folks, is what it should be about, after all – good fights create excitement. They sell themselves. For the anticipation of a bout to be really nerve tingling (promoters and TV companies please take note) what’s needed is a touch of the unknown, of mystery. People need to be genuinely unsure of what will happen. To raise a contest to absolute must-watch status there then needs to be a little sprinkling of potential magic about one of the contestants. Saunders v Eubank has all of those things.
Billy-Joe is a fighter I’ve always admired and enjoyed watching. A top amateur, he is technically a complete boxer. Smooth going forwards and backwards, adept defensively, sharp on the attack. He has all the equipment that a fighter needs to compete at the top. His achievements thus far, unbeaten in twenty with British, Commonwealth and European titles already collected are testament to that. At 25 the Hatfield traveller has done more with his career than 95% of professional pugilists will ever do.
Sure, there have been doubts over his punching power in the past. Although he has stopped 11 of his 20 victims, including wins over international-level performers like Australia’s Jarrod Fletcher in 2012 (TKO 2) and the Italian
Emmanuele Blandamura last time out (KO 8), it was noticeable that on stepping up to British level, his ability to hurt opponents seemed to diminish. Between those two victories, four fights against domestic operators went the distance, causing many to question his world-class credentials.
In some of those bouts, most notably against Islington’s John Ryder, in 2013, Saunders also got tagged much more than in his early career. He cited injuries and training problems, but the bottom line was that although still picking up wins, as the quality of his opposition increased, Billy-Joe seemed to struggle. He has unquestionably proved himself one of the top-boys in the UK – probably number 2 behind Martin Murray, but only just. For a fighter to convince us that he will be a real global star, he needs to dominate, decimate and terrorise the domestic pack.
Many excellent competitors down the years have picked up British, Commonwealth and European honours without quite having that extra spark or devilment needed to break the world scene. Saunders, I feel, is perhaps one of those. He’s a very capable young boxer, but could I see him turning over Gennady Golovkin? Sadly not.
Enter Christopher Livingston Eubank Jr, that well-spoken public schoolboy from Channel Five’s ‘At Home with the Eubanks’. He’s just a hype-job isn’t he? Living off his father’s famous name and pausing between eye-catching combos to mince around the ring and camera-pout? Maybe, but that’s what makes this fight so intriguing. In truth, we just don’t know.
If ever there was an example of a boxing career forged in the internet era it is the younger Eubank. He’s a Twitter phenomenon, born and raised in the public eye, with the monocled legend that spawned him never more than a few feet behind his shoulder. Chris Sr was always adept at manipulating the cult of personality and he studiously passes this torch to his son before our very eyes.
Despite not needing to fight, Chris Jr chose to and like his Dad went to the States as a sixteen year old for his fistic apprenticeship, becoming Nevada state champion in the Golden Gloves. He returned home, turned pro and picked up a string of wins without quite converting everyone to his cause- his shots were fast and flashy, his slow-motion footwork sometimes balletic, but he just didn’t break opponents down enough. Solid, unspectacular pros like Jason Ball, Harry Matthews, Terry Carruthers and Bradley Pryce all took him the distance in his early days. And none of them were ever really in danger of being stopped.
Perhaps realising that the youngster’s confidence needed more careful nurturing, his management (ie Dad) dropped the level of opposition. This worked well. Chris Jr found Eastern European imports far easier to demolish than steadfast British tough-nuts. Lithuanians, Belorussians, Bulgarians and Czechs have since been dispatched in a slew of eyecatching knockouts. Whispers too have circulated of impressive sparring displays, including an intriguing dalliance with Carl Froch.
Suddenly, believers began crawling out of the woodwork. Eubank Jr was the real deal, better than Mayweather, better than anyone, the saviour of boxing!
Others delay judgment. They cry, “Who has he faced?” After all, many fighters can look good against men who aren’t coming to win. But I was ringside last year when Eubank dispatched Welshman Frankie Borg, a good fighter, in the 6th with an uppercut so sudden and beautiful it was if lightning had struck. He may be a hype job, but there is some substance to the hype. Perhaps he has grown into his power since those early distance fights? It’s not inconceivable.
There is just something about the way he carries himself, his speed and tenacity that has to leave a glimmer of doubt in the mind of even the most hardened cynic. His Dad thinks his boy’s a different breed – Wolverine without the claws – and will clean up world boxing. The two of them have called Saunders average. They have said the fight will be easy. What if they’re right? Eubank Jr just could be something really unique and rare, a phenomenon waiting to happen. We will find out this Saturday.
My head tells me that Eubank’s career to this point has not prepared him for a fighter like Billy-Joe, that Saunders will keep him busy, make him fight 3 minutes of every round, that Junior’s punch power won’t seem quite so spectacular against a top-class operator and that the Hatfield man will wear him down and stop him in the mid to later rounds. My heart hopes I’m wrong – it clings to a romantic vision of a defining moment, the first step in the creation of a legend, a young man making his mark in fistic history. If Eubank can do a job on Saunders that’s what it would mean. How thrilling it would be to have a genuine superstar on our hands again – someone who could go and take on the very best with confidence!
As I much as I admire Billy-Joe, I just don’t feel he will ever be that fighter, Chris Eubank Jr just might be. That’s why this fight has a little touch of magic. And God knows, after last weekend, boxing needs it.