A BRIGHTONIAN in the desert

It’s 21 years since Chris Eubank took on Joe Calza­ghe. Oliver Gold­stein ex­am­ines how Eubank, via fi­nan­cial cri­sis and a bizarre trip to the Mid­dle East, ended up in a box­ing ring with the young Welsh­man

Boxing News - - PREVIEWS -

UP to his neck in debt, with­out a TV deal, beaten twice in six months, and with a law­suit for ac­ci­den­tal GBH against him pend­ing – sud­denly, at 29, the for­mer WBO mid­dleweight and su­per­mid­dleweight cham­pion Chris Eubank found him­self all at sea. Re­tire­ment was hastily an­nounced then re­voked, with sym­pa­thy from his con­tem­po­raries and the broader pub­lic in des­per­ately short sup­ply.

Soon, pro­moter Frank War­ren would hit him with a writ for £84,000 in un­paid VAT stem­ming from the sec­ond Steve Collins fight. Amer­i­can Ex­press would is­sue an over­lap­ping claim for sub­stan­tial un­re­solved credit debt. For years, and a share in his mil­lions, the IRS had been cir­cling. Eubank’s haughty de­meanour and ap­par­ent con­tempt for com­pe­ti­tion had long since alien­ated him from fel­low fighters and the pub­lic at large. The re­turns on his eight-fight deal with BSKYB were so low that for­mer

Sun Edi­tor Kelvin Macken­zie was made to re­sign from his po­si­tion as Manag­ing Di­rec­tor. With the Lord of the Manor of Brighton de­feated and adrift, now was the time for tabloid-fu­elled schaden­freude.

See­ing the ru­inous state of his fi­nances ex­posed in pub­lic was, for Eubank, a bruis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “I wasn’t born with par­ents who were ac­coun­tants,” he told The Guardian in 1994 when asked about his ru­moured debts; “I come from the streets.”

Born in Dul­wich, Lon­don, in 1966, Eubank’s teenage years were plun­dered be­tween Hack­ney and Peck­ham, largely at one speed – tail­spin­ning in ex­tremis. Only when he left Lon­don for more out­landishly vi­o­lent ter­ri­tory in the South Bronx, New York, was Eubank able to stop his life from spin­ning fur­ther out of con­trol.

Later he would mas­quer­ade as a sort of self­made Tory-rad­i­cal, but nei­ther the faux-tu­dor man­sion in Hove nor the 10-wheel Peter­bilt truck from Fort Laud­erdale could stop the past from cling­ing to him like a bad dream or ghost. The jodh­purs and tweed would ob­scure with­out tran­scend­ing the grim back­story which his adult idyll was meant to sup­press. Through­out the mid-90s, Eubank was foot­ing the bill for an un­em­ployed older brother, who per­sisted none­the­less in sell­ing sto­ries of their bust-ups to the tabloids. In the same decade, his es­tranged fa­ther was dis­cov­ered sleep­ing rough in Hast­ings. Eubank would pay for his re­turn to Ja­maica. More bruis­ing still were the losses to Collins, a fighter whose mea­gre re­pute be­lied an im­pres­sive pedi­gree that was gained in the 1980s through a decade’s hard graft along­side Marvin Ha­gler in the Petronelli gym. Eubank would as­sign the first loss to the shad­owy in­ter­ven­tions of Collins’ per­sonal quack, Tony Quinn, whose mere pres­ence in the days be­fore the fight was enough to re­duce him to a jab­ber­ing wreck. The sec­ond was harder to at­tribute to the whims and vi­cis­si­tudes of pseu­dopsy­cho­anal­y­sis, how­ever, af­ter Collins ground down the for­mer cham­pion over 12 gru­elling rounds at Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork. In truth, Eubank had been ripe for the tak­ing for years. Time af­ter time since the first fight with Nigel Benn he had been bailed out either by ques­tion­able de­ci­sioneer­ing or by his own abil­ity to turn a fight sud­denly in the mo­ment. For some time now, Eubank had been a fighter of nag­ging lulls and in­de­ci­sive scraps and the odd oc­ca­sional tran­scen­dent mo­ment. Against Collins, there were no more epipha­nies left for him to con­jure.

Fi­nan­cially im­per­illed if not quite phys­i­cally fraz­zled, Eubank would can­cel his over­hasty re­tire­ment in the name of ful­fill­ing un­sat­is­fied am­bi­tions. The same fighter who had in­fa­mously called box­ing “a mug’s game” now launched his sec­ond com­ing un­der the guise of se­cur­ing last­ing af­fec­tion from a formerly hos­tile au­di­ence. What fol­lowed in­stead was one of the strangest ven­tures to the Mid­dle East since Charles Doughty spent two years wan­der­ing around “Ara­bia De­serta” call­ing him­self Khalid in the mid-1870s, when Eubank launched him­self as a trav­el­ling at­trac­tion in con­sec­u­tive fights in Egypt in Oc­to­ber 1996 and Dubai the fol­low­ing year.

Whereas Doughty’s trav­els would take him to “the mawk­ish mummy-house cliffs, the sor­did kella, and per­ilous Moghrareba of Medain Salih,” as he re­mem­bered in Trav­els in Ara­bia De­serta, Eubank’s bizarre trip to the desert would see him scrap­ping with mea­gre jour­ney­men be­fore grim-faced sol­diers in fa­tigues and a few im­pas­sive sheikhs, first in Cairo and then at a Dubai ten­nis club.

As if to add to the sur­re­al­ist at­mos­phere be­fore his first fight in Egypt, Eubank’s en­trance mar­ried the fa­mil­iar strains of Sim­ply the Best with an en­tourage adorned in faux-Egyp­tian head­dress - min­gling Tina Turner with Tu­tankhamun. To com­pound the anachro­nism, Eubank’s op­po­nent, Luis Dion­i­sio Bar­rera, was a 5ft 7in ca­reer wel­ter­weight whose last four bouts had been lost on the spin. Wear­ing a cheap yel­low cap, with a matte of un­kempt hair sponged across his chest, the chubby Bar­rera bowed apolo­get­i­cally to the four cor­ners of the ring when his name was an­nounced. “Style on the Nile” – de­spite the name of Eubank’s pro­mo­tion – this was not. Eubank would stop Bar­rera when a half-hearted flurry of body shots dropped the portly Ar­gen­tine in the fifth.

Odder still than the fight it­self was the fact that Eubank stood to lose money from his scanty scrap with Bar­rera. A fail­ure to drum up in­ter­est in Cairo had meant that tele­vi­sion cov­er­age was given free to the state-run lo­cal chan­nel. Back home, Eu­rosport car­ried the fight in the UK as a de­layed screen­ing at the cost of £20,000 – small change in com­par­i­son with Eubank’s for­mer deal with Sky. “The money is ir­rel­e­vant,” Eubank would in­sist to The Guardian af­ter­ward. “I felt the crowd was very warm to me. They ap­pre­ci­ated the dif­fer­ence be­tween the per­former and the hu­man be­ing, which is some­thing that the Bri­tish pub­lic, ill-in­formed by the me­dia, had trou­ble with.” Later he would an­nounce his in­ten­tion to fight in Kuwait, Dubai, Saudi Ara­bia and Euro Dis­ney.

In the event, Eubank would make his way to only one of those venues when he took his wan­ing road­show down to a ten­nis club in Dubai for a scrap with the un­known Camilo Alar­con in March 1997. Once more Eubank’s dif­fi­cul­ties in sell­ing tick­ets and se­cur­ing pay­ment from Sheik Ham­dan and Merser Al Fayegh, the Sheik’s ap­point­ment as pro­moter, would leave him to cover a sprawl­ing tab. Even worse, he would fall out badly with trainer Ron­nie Davies while pre­sid­ing over the sham in Dubai. Alar­con, who had

not fought for 12 months, was less ca­pa­ble even than Bar­rera. Be­fore a si­lent crowd ac­cus­tomed to ball­boys and tram­lines, Eubank sank the Colom­bian in four. By the time for­mer an­tag­o­nist Frank War­ren came call­ing later in 1997, he was ready to re­turn home.

No sooner did Eubank an­nounce his new deal with War­ren than he found him­self back in the ring in Oc­to­ber 1997, on 11 days’ no­tice, against the un­beaten Joe Calza­ghe. Eubank had been pre­par­ing for a lightheavy­weight bout with Mark Prince when Steve Collins abruptly with­drew from his fight with Calza­ghe and re­tired from box­ing. Al­most im­me­di­ately he went from sham in the desert to a main event in Sh­effield, in a fight whose higher stakes para­dox­i­cally were ex­actly what Eubank needed once more to crank up the Tina Turner and prove him­self again. Used to boil­ing off weight in the lead-in to his fights, Eubank looked char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally spry back at su­per-mid­dleweight – de­spite not hav­ing made the 168lb limit since Septem­ber 1995 and in spite of a num­ber of knee prob­lems that had ma­jorly ham­pered his prepa­ra­tion.

Once again Eubank found him­self fight­ing for the WBO su­per-mid­dleweight belt he had spent his ca­reer try­ing to le­git­imise. This time, how­ever, he would play an un­fa­mil­iar role as a nos­tal­gic crowd favourite against the up-and-com­ing Calza­ghe, whose re­lent­less whirling style and swarm­ing feet made him a daunt­ing chal­lenge for the slow­ing Eubank. Calza­ghe, from New­bridge, Wales, was then as shiny and new as Brit­pop or Blair – a dash­ing emis­sary for a time yet to come. When Eubank was razed to the can­vas by a left cross in the first 15 sec­onds, caught rear­ing back from a mid-range clinch with his head hang­ing out in aris­to­cratic fash­ion, those who pre­dicted a sac­ri­fice were nod­ding sagely along. By the end of the first round, a con­fi­dent Calza­ghe was do­ing his own shuf­fled imi­ta­tion of Muham­mad Ali.

Yet Eubank’s fight­ing in­stinct had only been dimmed, not di­min­ished, by his mis­spent years in the desert. “As I picked my­self up from the can­vas and brushed my­self down, I thought to my­self: ‘You’ve got your work cut out tonight, guy,’” he re­mem­bered sev­eral years later in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. That would be borne out by sub­se­quent rounds, as Eubank re­grouped only to find Calza­ghe re­lent­lessly clos­ing the dis­tance across from him. Eubank had never been the most com­fort­able fighter up close, but ev­ery time he sought to hold Calza­ghe at a dis­tance, the Welsh­man would spring into range and swarm the for­mer cham­pion against the ropes. Af­ter sev­eral ex­act­ing rounds, Eubank was barely sur­viv­ing Calza­ghe’s pun­ish­ing regime.

Forced into con­tin­gency, Eubank fell upon a strat­egy be­set with risk yet which brought back mem­o­ries of prior suc­cess. “My con­sti­tu­tion was strong enough to soak up the dam­age [he] might have done in the longer term,” he re­marked, “so once I had re­gained my poise, I thought to my­self: ‘I will knock on your door in the 10th or 11th round but, boy, am I go­ing to have to take some stick in the mean­time’.”

But when Eubank did come call­ing – in par­tic­u­lar, with a fusil­lade of straight rights and up­per­cuts in the 11th and 12th – Calza­ghe would re­main in posses­sion of him­self and the an­swers. Near­ing the end, Eubank found him­self knock­ing too late.

Sit­ting in his chang­ing room with Richard Bran­son af­ter­ward, face bruised and swollen, knees worn down to the bone, Eubank would an­nounce in pri­vate his de­ci­sion to re­tire. “I can’t do this any­more,” he re­mem­bered say­ing, “I just can’t.” The next day he would wake up un­able to walk cour­tesy of the knee prob­lems that had dogged him for years. There were not so many next days left for Chris Eubank as a boxer. But, for per­haps the first time in his ca­reer, wak­ing up as a loser, he had found what he had al­ways wanted, what he had wanted even more than vic­tory - ap­pre­ci­a­tion. In fu­ture, there would be a new an­swer to ques­tions about re­tire­ment: “Life is a show and the show must go on.” Next up, cruis­er­weight and Carl Thomp­son.

Photo: AC­TION IM­AGES/NICK POTTS

CU­RI­OUS AF­FAIR: Eubank pounds the vastly over­matched Bar­rera

Photo: AC­TION IM­AGES/ AN­DREW COULDRIDGE

HARD GO­ING: Calza­ghe starts fast against Eubank

LIFE IN THE OLD DOG: Calza­ghe is forced to cover up as Eubank comes on strong

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