He is on his feet and heading to the corner. Nothing fast, nothing easy, but he is moving. A shuffling, slurring, walking, talking, wonderful miracle.
But forget that for a moment, because he has. He just wants to do what he used to do so well, and that has put him on a mission to get to the speed ball.
With each uneven step he is being watched by a huddle of nine at the Peacock Gym, hidden down a few lanes on a stud farm in Epping. There is a recent British middleweight champion, a good featherweight and a coach who has witnessed his fair share, and they all want to see this.
Michael Watson has relived his near-fatal fight against Chris Eubank almost 30 years ago
Watson is on a mission to help others overcome the odds after his miracle recovery
So they stare as he slowly ambles over to his target, this man once known to the world as ‘The Force’. He is limping to the left because that is part of his damage, but it is also useful for sending out that left hand, which he does to get the ball moving. It is not a clean hit, nor is the second or third. But the next one is and he glances it again to keep it going.
There is an art in working a speed ball, a dance of coordination and timing — you cannot just do it, but if you can, you do not forget. It is a boxer’s bike and this old boxer remembers.
Clack, clack, clack, and it is bouncing; clack, clack, clack, and so is he. It gets faster and the grin gets wider, and he is the peacock now, all feathers and show, and all just a few strides away from a poster of the other guy. Thirty years ago this September, would you believe it?
But forget that, too, because for these few seconds he has. He just wants to spin that ball until the mood takes him to introduce the right hand, and so he does, which causes our miracle to stagger backwards. Two men dart in to catch him, but he has steadied himself and he is loving that.
‘The Force is back,’ he shouts to his gallery, and they are going wild, so he raises his right fist, the one that floored the man from the poster, if only for a while. ‘The Force is back,’ he repeats. ‘The Force is back.’
He is waving and smiling and for a blink or two it is just about the most beautiful sight in the world.
Eubank celebrates his victory against Watson at White Hart Lane in September 1991
Michael Watson is saying something extraordinary. The boxers are sweating away in the next room and he is on a couch talking about the night before, when he was remembering what it was like to be one of them.
He likes to remember that time in his other life and his way of remembering is to get on YouTube, so when he was at home alone in Chingford he put it on. The Chris Eubank fight. The second one. That one. The one that broke him. ‘I watch it three or four times a year,’ he says. He falls over the word ‘four’ but he gets up again, because that is what he does.
‘It reminds me of what I could do. I like to see The Force. When I watch it I see I am in total control of that fight and The Force is back. I boxed well. I was a good boxer.’
He was. Truly and brilliantly. That night and others and he remembers them all. Every little detail and punch, right up until the darkness fell on September 21, 1991. White Hart Lane. His third and last challenge for the world middleweight title. Thirty years.
He was magnificent for 10 and a half of those mad rounds, just as he was when he beat seven shades out of Nigel Benn in 1989 and likewise his first clash with Eubank, which convinced almost everyone in Earl’s Court there was a new world champion in town. Everyone except the judges. But that rematch, three months after the first, what a ride and what a righting of wrongs. Or nearly. So nearly.
That remarkable physique, those head slips, the relentlessness — this 26-year-old lad of Hackney was a blur. After three rounds the question was whether Watson could keep up such a pace, after four Eubank was cut above his left eye. After six Watson had not given Eubank a yard of breathing room, after 10 he was pulling clear for an amazing upset. But for the 11th.
Watson sits down with Sportsmail’s Riath Al-Samarrai at his local gym in Essex to recall fight
Three right hands and Eubank was finally down and almost done. As he got to his feet, there were 10 seconds left in the 11th round. Just 10. And then that incredible warrior pulled an uppercut out of hell and drilled it flush into Watson’s chin.
His head jolted off the second rope as he fell and though he retained enough consciousness to get to his corner, there was already a bushfire spreading through his brain. He went back out for the 12th but it was stopped quickly with Watson on stiff legs and barely able to protect himself. As the ring filled with loons and bedlam, it went unnoticed by the broadcasters that at 10.59pm, five minutes after the stoppage, Watson slumped to the canvas and into a coma that would last 40 days and 40 nights. Thirty years.
‘People might not understand why I want to watch that fight,’ Watson says. ‘But I watch and I’m happy.
‘He wasn’t hurting me in the slightest but then he did that punch. I remember it all. Nothing is missing until I was out. The last round all I wanted was to keep my hands up, get to the bell and win the title. I was so disappointed when they stopped the fight that my soul left my body.’
He pauses and it is nearly time for a break. We take a few of those, every 15 minutes or so, because that is how it has to be now. But before we do, he goes again. ‘I’m pleased with my performance. When I watch it I am the main man, I look good.’
For the briefest of moments it all feels desperately sad. But he is not and he does not want you to be, either. That is not his way because he has taught himself another.
‘I am blessed,’ he says, and the words hang in the air while his carer brings him a water and those strong, young fighters work towards their dreams a few yards away.
Watson shows off his skills on the speed ball at the Peacock Gym in Epping
The miracle is talking about resilience. About finding reasons and light in bad things. About a pair of episodes in his infancy that are not so well known and yet tie in with a lot.
The first concerns a tragic accident that happened to him and his younger brother, Jeff, and the second involves a fire. The point of both stories will become clear.
‘When I was a baby with Jeff, our pram got hit by a car,’ he says. ‘Jeff was badly hurt, paralysed, but I was OK.
‘My life could have been taken away many times. When I was seven I saw a fire start in my sitting room. I ran to my mum in the kitchen and she was able to call the fire brigade and we were just OK.
‘I think God has a purpose for me, which is why I have been saved like this. Everyone thought I would be dead after the fight but I am still here and I think it is because I am meant to show people that even when you say you have no hope, you do.’
The details of his hopelessness, and what followed that tragic punch at White Hart Lane, are common knowledge. They start with the astonishing negligence of the boxing authorities that meant eight minutes passed before doctors got to Watson in the ring, a period in which he was not given oxygen. The lack of planning extended to him being taken to a hospital without a neurological unit, during which he was resuscitated, and by the time he was transferred across to St Bart’s, the ‘golden hour’ was up and more than 90 minutes had elapsed before surgery.
How he survived that night is anyone’s guess. And ditto the coming months. But it undoubtedly started with the skills of an exquisite surgeon in Peter Hamlyn, and the rest is either fitness, luck, or divine intervention, if that is your thing.
The man once known to the world as ‘The Force’ is still going strong at the age of 56
Six times his brain was operated on to remove the clots, six weeks he was in a coma, a year he was in intensive care, six years he was paralysed in a wheelchair, and for varying periods in that timeline he had to learn to speak, read, write and walk all over again. Today, aged 56, and 18 years after he spent six days walking the full course of the London Marathon, he is hitting a speed ball and reflecting.
‘Thirty years, that is a long time,’ he says. The words come out slow and many of them are slurred, but across more than three hours of this interview he is lucid and he is sharp and he is alive.
‘The anniversary will be very emotional. It has been hard but I like to show people you can overcome the odds. I was gone. I was not meant to come back. But I am here. I was not meant to talk, and I was not meant to walk.
‘After three months in the hospital I had not made a sound. The first I made was when I had a visit from Muhammad Ali. He said, ‘Michael, you are almost as pretty as I am’. I made a sound like a laugh and it was the first noise I made since the fight. I could only communicate by blinking for a long time.’ He tails off because he is tired. Long chats are hard work.
But he wants to keep talking about what has been the central point of this phase of his life. It ends with a quite astounding comment.
‘I don’t say, “Why me?” I am a man of faith. So this is what I told you — everything in my life happened for a purpose. My fight with Chris Eubank happened and now I’m showing hope to people who need it.
‘What happened was a blessing in disguise. I wanted to win a world title. But what if I had?
‘If I won that fight I would have had the wrong people around me, been led astray. I look at my life now. I help people. I am a better man now than when I started. I’m at peace. I’ve been resurrected.’
Watson admits the 30th anniversary of the nearly ill-fated Eubank fight will be emotional
He’s a busy guy, Michael Watson. That fight was more than half a lifetime ago but it is still his life every day.
It is his life because the clots on his brain did damage that will not be fully fixed, and it is his life because there will always be interest in miracles made flesh.
Some weeks he is out five or six times in appearances for a multitude of charities, providing a face of what is possible. Others maybe just once and the pandemic did not help. ‘It was hard — I like seeing people,’ he says.
But he has made it through worse than a global virus, so on he goes, pushing boundaries around brain injuries. He is being helped along by a sweet-natured carer, Haroun Topalak, who came on the scene a couple of years ago. ‘They’re like a married couple,’ says Geraldine Davies, a long-time PR in boxing who has loyally helped Watson across the years.
Topalak turns up at Watson’s home at 9.30am each morning, and he sticks with him until 6pm, sometimes cajoling, sometimes just chatting away. The rest of the time, Watson is mostly on his own, with a level of independence these days that would have seemed impossible not so long ago. He has had two seizures in the past 18 months, but he has reliable procedures in place and the wider improvements to his health are still being made and chased.
He is doing around half an hour on his static bike per day and wants to do more; he used to walk to the end of his drive but he now does a 400m loop and wants to do more of that, too. In their world of goals, the next one is getting that left leg to straighten and swing out less. ‘The Force can do it,’ says Watson, and who would bet against him?
Finances are not especially easy for a fighter who has raised hundreds of thousands for charity, but he would never say as much, and in any case he is in a good place.
Watson likes to remember by watching the fight three or four times a year on YouTube
He does not take in much modern boxing, but he does re-watch his Commonwealth title win against Benn often, as well as his occasional viewings of the Eubank fight. With that he has frustrations over the care received by fallen boxers historically, but at the very least his terrible injuries, which were followed by a successful legal action against the British Boxing Board of Control, led to immense improvements in the medical infrastructure around fights.
‘If I saved lives with my accident, that makes me happy,’ Watson says. No if about it.
As for Eubank, he has long had only kind words. Their rivalry was bad-tempered, particularly between the first and second fights, but Eubank has tortured himself to tears about that rematch.
‘It is not his fault what happened,’ says Watson. ‘It could have happened to anyone. I know it hurt him and I forgave him. He was a great fighter.’
And of that Benn-Eubank-Watson trio, who was the greatest? ‘Silly question,’ he says.
As we talk, Watson is approached by Denzel Bentley, who recently lost the British middleweight title, and then Louie Lynn, who is moving through the featherweight division. They want to bump fists, and so does their trainer Martin Bowers. Another coach, Ray Bull, comes over to say he sparred Watson in the Seventies. ‘He used to bash me up,’ Bull says, and they both laugh. Watson is in his element here.
Life can still be very hard. Just four years ago he was almost killed when he had ammonia sprayed in his face by carjackers before being dragged behind the vehicle as it sped off. That left big scars on his back and hurt his confidence for a time, but he will not dwell on anything, this guy.
‘If I can make it through so can other people,’ he says.
With that he needs help to get to his feet. He teases Geraldine, she teases him back, and even though he is exhausted, he wants another look at that speed ball. Just a quick spin.
‘The Force is back,’ he says, and thank goodness it never went away.