Don King, on Mike Tyson

"Why would anyone expect him to come out smarter?
He went to prison, not to Princeton."

"To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there's no music
and the dancers hit each other."

Monday, October 29, 2012

Interview: Michael Watson | Sport | The Observer

Uploaded by on Sep 25, 2011 Great Documentary about British Boxing

Legend MIchael Watson and his recovery after the tragic fight with Chris Eubank 20 years

Once a fighter...

Boxer Michael Watson's long and incredible comeback from brain damage is due to his faith, his fitness and his friends. That and an extremely fine line in near-the-knuckle jokes
    In September 1999, Peter Hamlyn, a consultant neurosurgeon, wrote these words about

    Michael Watson: 'He will never run again, never move his left side, walk or speak smoothly.

    Though he can stand, take steps and enjoy conversation - a wonderful achievement I never thought we would see - to cross a room on foot is for him a marathon. He reaches the "wall" not at 20 miles but 20ft.'

    Having operated on Watson six times, Hamlyn knew what he was talking about. But having become a good friend of the former boxer, he also knew Watson. The surgeon had watched his patient defy the medical textbooks on many occasions. Even so, when Hamlyn wrote those words, the idea that Watson might take on a real marathon, much less complete it, would have bordered on the territory of a sick joke.

    Last month, when Watson crossed the finishing line of the London Marathon, he was smiling.

    The joke, the uncontainable amusement, the gleeful satisfaction, was that most rational people had thought that he was too disabled to walk 26 miles, that he was too sick. Had he not laughed, he would have cried.

    'If I wasn't a fighter, I would have broken out in tears,' Watson told me, when I visited him last week. 'I felt touched. A lot of people could not have seen me doing it; could you?'

    The true answer is that I don't know what I think about Watson. Much of it, I suspect, is wrapped up in the abiding romance of a fighter's comeback. In a cartoon fashion, I half-believe he'll turn up on the news one day jogging and sparring. But I do know what I feel - humbled.

    He has journeyed to places, mental and physical states, that are the locations of our loneliest nightmares. And they were not short trips. He was there for years . Even now, almost 12 years after the bout with Chris Eubank that left him in a vegetative condition, he is severely restricted in his movements. He cannot see out of his left eye and he requires a full-time carer. But, discounting the life he led before that fight, he has never felt better.

    He certainly appears in tremendous shape. His forearms are pumped, his body lean and his face has lost the slight plumpness of inactivity that hid his previously striking features. In photographs of Watson taken before his injury, he bore a strong resemblance to the young Marvin Gaye. He had about him a mild-mannered composure that was all the more impressive for the courage and commitment it masked.

    When Watson boxed in the late Eighties and early Nineties, there were, including himself, three world-class middleweights (or, as they became, super-middleweights) fighting in Britain. The others were Nigel Benn and Eubank. Watson knocked out Benn, then fought and lost a controversial points decision, which most observers felt he deserved to win, to Eubank.

    Benn and Eubank both wore world championship belts, but Watson, who outboxed the pair of them, never did. They were boastful and understood TV's need for 'characters'. Watson was quiet, measured, uncomfortable with the hype; he was not a character, but nor did he lack it.

    The other two were household names, but only boxing fans had heard of Watson.

    That changed in the rematch with Eubank on 21 September 1991 at White Hart Lane. The fame that eluded Watson as victor was cruelly bestowed on him as victim. It was a night of ugly tension and shocking violence. Watson dominated and in the penultimate round, the eleventh, he put his opponent, the preening world champion, on the canvas for the first time in his career.

    Watson, arms at his side, was already dreaming of slipping on his new world championship belt. There should have been a mandatory count of eight seconds before the fight resumed. Instead, Eubank somehow sprung up and swung the punch that almost certainly tore a blood vessel on the surface of Watson's brain.

    He has no memory of the ensuing minutes. Yet what took place has been the subject of much debate, endless legal action, and Watson's most bitter thoughts. Incredibly, he got up and, even less credibly, he came out for the final round. Eubank, himself on the brink of collapse, launched two more onslaughts at Watson's head before the referee finally stopped the bout.

    Fights broke out among a crowd livid that Watson had not been allowed to continue. The ring filled with bodies and confusion, and Watson collapsed into a coma. It took seven minutes for the designated doctor to get to the boxer, a time that challenges the traditional job title of 'ringside'. Unfortunately, the doctor possessed neither the appropriate equipment nor skills to aid Watson's breathing. For 28 minutes before he reached a hospital, the 26-year-old lay without oxygen. It then took a further hour to get him to a hospital with a neurosurgeon - Peter Hamlyn.

    After two emergency operations, Watson was in intensive care for a month. 'Like a statue of a Greek god encased in muscle,' recalled Hamlyn. What kept the boxer alive, he says, was his supreme fitness. Recovery was excruciatingly slow and every gradation of improvement made unceasing demands on Watson's willpower. At first, he could not swallow his saliva or control his bladder. He could not eat or speak, let alone stand or move.
    According to Hamlyn: 'The damage had all been done by the delay in treating the blood clot.'

    In other words, Watson's injuries could and, given the known perils of his sport, should have been avoided. Three years ago, a High Court judge agreed and, awarding damage, found that the British Boxing Board of Control's medical provisions were not adequate. The board appealed (it lost) and went into administration. Watson has still to receive compensation.
    It's necessary to outline the succession of injustices that Watson has suffered, the abominable luck and ongoing battles, to begin to appreciate his near total absence of rancour.

    The man who met me at the door of his house in north-east London seemed at ease with the world. His struggle was with himself - his limbs, his mind - but it was one that he is waging without complaint. His speech is now only slightly slurred. He lives in Chigwell, home of sports stars and porn barons, but there is nothing gold-tapped about his two-storey terrace squeezed into the end of a cul-de-sac.

    On his sitting-room wall are some lines from the Bible, a photograph of his two teenage daughters (he is separated from their mother, with whom they live, and you gather that the split, which took place after what he calls his 'accident', was not entirely amicable), and the world championship belt that Nigel Benn gave him. A coffee table bears two biographies of Muhammad Ali. (The legend came to visit Watson in hospital and made him smile for the first time after his injury.)

    He tells me that his upbeat outlook on life is due to his belief in God. He was always a religious man - his ringname was The Force - but he says he kept company with the wrong people.

    'I used to hang out with street boys. Going to discos, pubs; I didn't used to be much of a drinker, but I still lived that kind of lifestyle. But my life has been transformed, in a miraculous way, by Jesus. I love my new life. I love my new lifestyle. I love the people that surround me. My true friends.'

    There was no shortage of what he refers to as 'so-calleds' - friends who visited him in hospital when the cameras were there but who later 'disappeared with the media'. It gave him an insight into what people are about, he says, and it made him stronger. 'I can now count my real friends on one hand.'

    He acknowledges that there were times when he felt like giving up. 'I can remember being put in a stretching frame to straighten out my leg. I couldn't keep my balance, let alone walk.

    I had a splint in this arm [pointing to his left] to straighten it out. Friends of mine, they were angels. My mother, Joan Watson, my Uncle Joe, they've lifted my spirit. You are who you mix with.'

    There are still bad periods. 'Waking up in the morning, not being able to go out. I come downstairs and make my breakfast, read my books. Get bored with my books and wait for my carer to come. And I think, "What a joke. Why me?" It's horrible to rely on other people.'

    His carer, and great friend, is Leonard, an old family neighbour, with whom he has struck up something of a double-act, trading punchlines as Watson once exchanged punches.

    'Andrew,' says Watson apropos of nothing much. 'What do you call a three-foot black man?'

    'I don't know,' I say, perplexed.

    'A yardie,' he replies, straight-faced, then bursts into laughter.

    There is a view that sees boxing as a business in which black fighters hit one another for white entertainment. And, further, that in Britain it is not until a black fighter loses or presents himself as unthreatening, like Frank Bruno, that he is truly loved. Of course, if you wanted to take this theory to its extreme, there is no more unthreatening boxer than a disabled boxer.

    But the reality is Watson was always liked and respected, and it would be the final injustice to mistake him as some kind of cuddly cripple wanting to please. He was, and remains, a hard man who knows his own worth. When I mention that his marathon walk was one of the most high-profile sporting events of recent months, he almost snaps: 'So it should be. I was told I'd never walk again, never talk.'

    He did the marathon, which took him six days (a mobile home followed him), to raise money for two charities, the Brain and Spine Foundation and the Teenage Cancer Trust. Hamlyn says that the mark of the man is the empathy he feels for those worse off than himself. He talks of how moved Watson is by stories of others' suffering and how, at the same time, he is an inspiration to those sufferers.

    Medical orthodoxy has it that after the first year there is no further physical improvement in people with brain disabilities such as Watson's. Yet it was more than four years before he made his first unaided steps. He is now looking for commercial sponsorship to help him help other people. 'I know my potential. I don't want to waste it. I want to put my qualities to good use, put a smile on somebody's face. I'm here on this earth for that purpose.' The words are messianic but the delivery is modest.What has energised him is both the experience of the marathon and the preparation that he undertook at the Hustyns hotel and gym complex in Cornwall. Watson was always a dedicated trainer as a boxer, he got high on the 'buzz', and he relished the return to a strict regime of exercise.

    It was harder than the marathon, he says, but it gave him that buzz again. 'I worked on the speedball while I was at the Hustyns centre. I'd never hit a speedball since the accident. I hit it like I was never off it for a day.'

    How did that feel?

    'I couldn't get off it.'

    I wondered if he still felt the boxing moves inside him, the weaving and bobbing and punching.

    'Do you want me to get up and show you?' he says, fixing me with a mock-tough stare.

    'He hits me on the leg sometimes, Andrew,' complains Leonard. 'Bang. It hurts.'
    'Andrew, this guy has got such a big mouth,' Watson replies. 'He goes on and on. There's a saying, if you can't hear you can feel.'
    The joking aside, Watson still talks of his boxing in the present tense, which is not uncommon among ex-boxers. I ask him if he continues to take an interest in the sport.
    'Certain fights,' he says. 'I love the artistry. But now it's all play acting. They're all pampered. Too much money involved.'

    It might seem a strange response from someone who received such a raw deal himself from boxing. But Watson was always a purist, a man in love with the discipline of boxing rather than the business, which he dismisses as 'corrupt'. It's one reason why he holds no grievance against Eubank, who accompanied him on the last leg of the marathon. In the wake of the fight, the tabloids tried to stir up enmity between the two, exploiting Eubank's gift for saying too much. But now they're friends.

    'He's such a character, he really makes me laugh,' says Watson. 'What happened was an accident. It could have happened the other way. He didn't do it intentionally. If someone should be blamed it should be the controlling bodies. He did the job that he had to do.'
    Eubank tells me that Watson handed him a boxing lesson 12 years ago. 'I've always been there for Michael,' he says. 'Can the media say the same?' He speaks of his former adversary with a respect that is both intensely private and necessarily public. He says he felt 'ashamed but at the same time inspired' when Watson completed his marathon, 'a miraculous feat of human endeavour'.

    Back at Watson's house, I notice that among his boxing paraphernalia is a ringside pass for Nigel Benn's match with Gerald McClellan in 1995 that rendered the American blind and brain-damaged. I can't believe he attended that night, but he did, in a wheelchair.

    'What a fight,' he recalls. 'What a barbaric fight.' It's less a criticism than a compliment.

    Watson has never been an abolitionist. Does he miss boxing?

    'I don't miss it. Boxing misses me.'

    And so it should.

    · To make a donation to the Brain and Spine Foundation, call 0207 793 5900.

    Interview: Michael Watson | Sport | The Observer

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