A day for vivid boxing matches, including one of the saddest
By 1991, Michael Watson was ready for another shot at a world title. Stopping Nigel Benn to win the Commonwealth middleweight title in 1989 earned a shot at the WBA belt - but Mike McCallum was too good and strong for him and the fight ended in the 11th round. Watson defended the Commonwealth title a couple of times, then took on WBO champion Chris Eubank. Defeat by a tight majority decision earned him a rematch three months later - and the rest is tragic history. Tonight at White Hart Lane, they moved up half a weight to fight for the vacant WBO super-middleweight title.
Near the end, Watson was well ahead on points against an opponent who insisted on showboating and pulling faces as always. Watson swore at him more than once, and hit him more often. In the 11th, he caught Eubank with a series of punches before knocking him down with a right hand. Eubank looked exhausted and ready for a knockout defeat. But whatever you thought about him in and out of the ring, you couldn't question his courage. As soon as he got up, he connected with a terrifying uppercut which put Watson on the seat of his pants and bounced him against the ropes. The bell rang almost immediately but the minute's rest wasn't enough for Watson, who'd been led back to his stool with no expression on his face. At the start of the 12th round, the referee had to take his arm to lead him to the centre of the ring - so he could take more punishment. For the next few seconds, Eubank trapped him in a corner and threw punches - but the damage had probably been done by that single uppercut in the previous round. If Watson had received oxygen when he collapsed, he probably wouldn't have spent 40 days in a coma, undergone six brain surgeries, or suffered permanent partial paralysis. There had been no ambulance at the fight, and he had to wait several minutes for doctors to appear and nearly half an hour before receiving treatment in hospital. His representatives successfully sued the British Boxing Board of Control. In 2003, Watson took six days to complete the London Marathon, raising money for the Brain & Spine Foundation. Chris Eubank joined him for the last mile.
You can't help wanting to look at the lighter side of boxing after that, and it was provided on the same day in 1989 - by a fighter's mum. A hoot and a riot. At the Guildhall in Southampton, a British title eliminator was taking place between two light-heavyweights: local boy Steve McCarthy and former champion Tony Wilson. When Wilson was knocked down in the third round, his mother Minna climbed into the ring and attacked McCarthy with the heel of her shoe. As mums do. McCarthy left the ring with a cut head and refused to go back ('I'd rather take on Tyson') - whereupon the referee awarded the fight to Wilson! So the crowd rioted. Plastic glasses were thrown, fist fights broke out, and McCarthy had to get back in the ring - not to fight but to appeal for calm. Great stuff.
The same day in 1955 saw the end of an iconic boxing career. There wasn't much left for Rocky Marciano to prove. Undefeated as a pro, world heavyweight champion since 1952, he'd beaten every challenger worthy of the name and a couple who weren't. He took the title from Jersey Joe Walcott, beat him in the first round of the rematch ( May 15), nearly lost to Ezzard Charles ( September 19, 1954), and finally beat a blown-up Brit ( May 16, 1955). If that's all there was on the horizon, The Rock didn't want any more of it. He was 32, he'd always had to train for months before every fight, and he'd made his money. But Marciano had room for one last payday, so he looked around for a name fighter to draw the crowds, and found him in the reigning world light-heavyweight champion. Archie Moore was 38 by now, but tonight in Yankee Stadium he weighed the same as Marciano - and he still had one of the great knockout punches in history, which he proved in the first round. As the champion came in, Ancient Archie caught him with a big right hand. Marciano went down on one knee with both gloves on the canvas. The referee made a mistake in counting as far as five, which Moore claimed cost him the title - but that's stretching it a bit. A few seconds here and there made no difference: Marciano wasn't hurt. But Archie soon was. He bloodied Rocky's nose in the third round, but he was already struggling at the pace Marciano was setting. The old man was down twice in the sixth and once in the eighth, and he was more exhausted than anything when he was knocked out in the ninth. Marciano retired after this, undefeated after 49 professional fights...
...a total that Larry Holmes tried to equal, with spooky symmetry, on the same in 1985. He was 5-1 favourite to do it, too. His opponent Michael Spinks was one of the all-time great light-heavyweights, but Holmes outweighed him by a stone and a half and had all the moves and a stinging punch. He'd beaten Spinks' brother Leon in a title fight in 1981 ( June 12), and his IBF heavyweight belt looked safe. But Holmes was only a week away from his 36th birthday, and Spinks junior fought the right kind of fight against a veteran. Throw flurries of punches, then move out of reach. Some of his swings were wild, but Holmes couldn't reach him with his right hand. Even so, it was very close to the end. Spinks won the last round despite dancing for most it, which was just enough for a unanimous but very tight decision. The Ring magazine made it their upset of the year. Stopped short of Marciano's record, Holmes lost a rematch with Spinks, this time on a split decision. His next fight was a mismatch with Mike Tyson ( January 22, 1988), who then ended Spinks's career ( June 27).
Still the same day, still world championship boxing. 1948 saw the end of another great career. Tony Zale was known as the Man of Steel, which tells it like it was: one of the hardest middleweights of all time. His famous trio of fights against Rocky Graziano ended in another brief slugfest ( June 10). Zale was 34 by then, but after destroying Graziano he wasn't expecting any trouble from Marcel Cerdan three months later. Cerdan travelled to Jersey City from France with a good record against unknown opponents. Earlier that year, he'd lost his European title to Cyrille Delannoit of Belgium. Cerdan won the rematch, but Zale was hardly trembling in his boots. But the world was about to find out that it had another giant in its midst. Zale was so strongly built that he made Graziano look like a whippet, but Cerdan was built like a square and made Zale look almost slim. And he beat the champion at his own game. Coming forward throughout the fight, he kept his guard up and his arms in tight to counter Zale's body shots, and above all kept beating him to the punch with both hands. Some of his hooks would have flattened other men, and only Zale's famous strength kept him upright until the 11th round. Then Cerdan staggered him with a long left and trapped him on the ropes, where two bigger lefts left Zale drooping, with both hands down. He fell to the floor and wasn't saved by the bell: he didn't recover in time to come out for the 12th and retired after the fight. The following year, Cerdan lost the world title to Jake LaMotta after fighting ten rounds with a damaged shoulder, then died in a plane crash on his way to the return fight. Outside the ring, he was famous as Edith Piaf's lover.
America's golfers regained the Ryder Cup by ending Europe's run of three wins in a row. At the Valhalla Club in Louisville, Kentucky, USA held a two-point lead going into the singles. Europe halved that thanks to good wins by Robert Karlsson over Justin Leonard and Justin Rose against Phil Mickelson. But this was an unexceptional Europe team, and there were defeats for Henrik Stenson, Oliver Wilson, and Søren Hansen as well as Lee Westwood and Pádraig Harrington. Even without Tiger Woods, USA won 16½-11½.
Jacques Villeneuve won the first Austrian Grand Prix to take place for ten years. He started on pole and set the fastest lap but had to work hard to hold off David Coulthard by less than three seconds. A stop-go penalty left Michael Schumacher in ninth place as Villeneuve closed to within one point of him at the top of the Formula One table and went on to win the title.