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Michael Watson turns 50 years old: Nigel Benn remembers “The Force”

15
Mar

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When explosive British power puncher Nigel Benn entered the ring at Finsbury Park, London against Michael Watson on May 21, 1989, he had won all 22 of his pro bouts by knockouts and was heading towards stardom at 160 pounds.

Benn, “The Dark Destroyer”, had a fearsome reputation long before he annexed the first of two world titles and the 24-year-old Watson’s own formidable resume of 21-1-1 (18 knockouts) did not faze him.

“Not in the slightest,” said Benn with emphasis. “Michael was just a lovely man who was good looking and extremely polite. He didn’t mouth off or get nasty during the build-up and I thought it was going to be an easy day at the office.



“In the ring though, Michael was smart. His manager, Mickey Duff, had told him to cover up and let me burn myself out and I ran out of ideas. My trainer, Brian Lynch, who didn’t know anything about game plans, told me to go out and steam him. What does steam him mean?

“Simply put, Michael had a good team around him and I didn’t.”

Benn attacked the man known as “The Force” like a devil dog in the opening three sessions. He went from 0-60mph offensively, looking to reach the finishing line as quickly as possible, but Watson was eager to find out how much fuel was in his opponent’s tank.

He survived the early blitz, hurt Benn badly in Round 4, and closed the show – almost gently – in the sixth.

“Michael knocked me over with a jab and I was so exhausted that I couldn’t beat the count,” said Benn, who had only been beyond three rounds twice. “I remember that night vividly because I was aching all over. If you win, you don’t feel the pain but when you lose it’s different.

“I came to that fight with a big posse of people and ended up alone in a changing room with my jockstrap. Everyone left me on my lonesome because I had lost.”

Watson would challenge Mike McCallum for the WBA middleweight title the following year but the legendary “Body Snatcher” halted him in the 11th. The challenger had struggled with an infection and a broken nose during training but McCallum looked a class above.

Benn, who had been taught humility, regrouped, ventured to the U.S., and less than a year later dethroned Doug DeWitt in eight rounds to claim the WBO middleweight title.

“After the loss to Michael, I took myself over to the Fifth Street Gym in Miami and found out quickly what was required to become champion,” Benn said. “I needed that defeat because I came back down to earth and, in the long run, my first setback was a blessing.

“I had a lot of respect for Michael because he was a great guy. His career didn’t go the way it should have because he was inactive for long periods of time. Michael could have gone much further – if he’d been promoted properly.”

Watson did earn two more world title opportunities, however. In June 1991, he was deemed very unlucky not to win the WBO middleweight title from Chris Eubank on points, but the super middleweight rematch would end in profound tragedy.

On Sept. 21, 1991, Watson dominated the majority of a classic contest, but collapsed following a stoppage loss in the final round. Time was of the essence but the wounded warrior was initially taken to the wrong hospital and was not given oxygen when it mattered most.

The fact that he survived surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain was nothing short of miraculous.

Watson successfully sued the British Boxing Board of Control, for negligence, in 1999 and mandatory protocol, which has been of great benefit to other stricken fighters since, was introduced. “The Force” incredible retained the vast majority of his motor functions and faculties.

Benn, who was deeply affected by his former foe’s plight, won the WBC super middleweight title from Mauro Galvano in October, 1992, and vowed to give the belt to Watson, who was now thankfully on the road to recovery.

“Michael was a gentleman and giving that belt to him was an honor,” said Benn, who subtly avoided discussing Watson’s forced retirement. “He meant a lot to me and I loved him. He’s someone I genuinely like and, as you know, I don’t normally like guys who beat me.

“I hadn’t planned to give Michael the belt, it came from the heart.”

The gesture was an act of kindness rarely seen between former rivals in any sport but it was also a tribute from one warrior to the other. Benn was the balls to the wall ex-soldier and Watson, the cerebral gladiator who tamed him and made him smarter.

That respect continues to endure to this day.

“We see each other whenever I’m in England and when I lived in Spain, Michael came over to stay for a while,” said Benn with affection. “I don’t see him as much now because I’m in Australia but I should be in the UK soon and we’ll catch up then.

“It’s always great to see Michael.”

 

Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing

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