May 9, 1993
The champ, the paragon, the shining example, the demi-god (only demi? Well, he doesn’t want to commit the sin of hubris) is on the phone to his barber. Glasgow speaks to Manchester. ”I’m not asking you Dougie, I’m telling you. I’m going to have to get someone else to cut it and they’ll mess up my hair and you don’t want that… We’re all under pressure, it’s a pressure you’ll have to deal with. Let somebody else down… Dougie, I’m not interested, mate, I need my hair cut, I’m on television tomorrow. You should comb it and cut it again, comb it and cut it again; we didn’t have time last time. I took a picture yesterday in a newspaper, I looked like an idiot… I need you here tonight, don’t let me down Dougie. You get up here to Scotland… It’s a different country, don’t let that frighten you. You get on a plane… Dougie, it’s not worth you telling me what the problem is. If I have an interview and my hair’s not right, I can’t think right, I can’t live right, I can’t talk right, I can’t fight right… I understand that you run a business, but you’ve given yourself a platform, and if I look bad you look bad. I’m you, my head is yours, one way or another you have to be here…”
There is more, much much more in this vein before the conversation reaches a satisfactory conclusion. For one of the parties, at least. What Chris Eubank wants, Chris Eubank gets.
There is, incidentally, absolutely nothing wrong with his hair. Unless you’re Eubank. ”It’s not perfection and perfection is what it has to be. I need it cut every seven to nine days.” Just as a matter of interest, what would he have done if Dougie hadn’t agreed? Silly question. Let’s put it another way: what if the plane is hijacked and Dougie is held hostage in some Middle Eastern guerrilla camp?
He shrugs. ”I either spend half an hour patting my hair down, or I’ll get someone who understands how to use a razor and make a line, or I’ll wear a hat.” So why not say that to Dougie? He smiles. ”It’s called a sales pitch.”
It’s a point worth bearing in mind when dealing with our current cartoon baddie, Eubank the arrogant, the super middle-weight champ who despises the boxing business, the philosopher of the ring who fancies himself as a Cambridge undergraduate, the chat show dandy who decks himself in Versace and maunders about his ‘inner warrior’ … It is all a very effective sales pitch. The question remains, is it anything more?
We’re to meet at Glasgow’s Moat House Hotel, an establishment which exists in the curious no-time of international flight departure lounges. Eubank has a suite on the 15th floor with more anterooms and apartments than the average palace. He receives me in the bedroom.
Even without the designer threads and ‘look at me’ shades, clad in an off-white jogging suit and fluffy towelling socks, he’s a good looking man. But what strikes you is the voice: soft, higher than you recall, with that much-mimicked lisp and the slight break which seems either pregnant with laughter or on the verge of tears.
His accent is flexible: RP for me, a streetwise sarf London for a couple of callers put through to the hotel room. Picking up the phone, he’ll aspirate ”How can I help you?” and you’d better swallow that snigger because he’s quite serious. To be fair, the ”cream and sugar?” manners seem natural enough, but there’s something a little too studied about the languid way he fingers his upper lip, those almost foppish gestures, so much daintiness in such a big package.
As you’d expect with a sometime Cosmo ‘Chauvinist of the Year’, we get the obligatory lady and the champ routine (”You can ask me anything you want, baby”), a long shtick about how he adores ”the female of the specie”, much stretching and rolling around on the Empire bed.
I quite fancy joining him. Just for a pillow fight, you understand. For all his 26 years, his l68lbs of solid muscle, the baby business, those interminable monologues about fighting for his manhood, Eubank comes across as a little boy, a larky kid playing up in his pyjamas. And then you remember that this little boy has already taken one life and irreparably damaged another.
When Eubank doesn’t want to answer a question he’ll mutter curtly ”Not important”. But not even he can dismiss Michael Watson this way. It was the second time they’d fought: Watson 2 – September 1991. In the 12th round Eubank knocked him out. A month later, when he emerged from the coma, Watson began the slow process of learning to walk and talk and feed himself again. It’s unlikely he’ll ever make it all the way back.
Eubank was badly shaken by the episode at the time and now refuses to talk about it, but it’s still there, cropping up in conversation when he’s off-guard or discussing other things. Then he’ll mention it, barely breathing the word ”two”. Never the man’s name, just this innocuous loaded abbreviation.
Watson wasn’t the first boxer in the world to get hurt; brain damage is not so much an occupational hazard as a guaranteed condition of employment. But his injury captured the imagination in a way others have not. Some of this was due to the pre-match press conference, a ritual public needling between the two fighters which went beyond showmanship into real nastiness. Eubank told Watson what he was going to do to him, and it didn’t make pleasant listening, and then, in a terrible irony of wish-fulfilment, it came to pass.
Five months later, on his way to the airport for a holiday in Jamaica, Eubank’s Range-Rover ran off the road and killed a workman. Neither episode did much for his popularity, but then there wasn’t too much of that to start with.
Surprising how many people don’t like Eubank. When he approaches the ring doing the famous strut, his iceman pastiche of untouchable contempt, you can hear the crowd booing him; some of them even look as if they’re trying to get within striking range. It’s rumoured that the snooker player Steve Davis has warned their manager Barry Hearn to stay clear of the boxer in public because one day someone is going to have a serious go at him and it’s not worth getting in the way.
Even Eubank seems chastened by the intensity of the reactions he provokes. Belatedly he’s embarked on a campaign to reinvent himself as Mr Nice, opening his training sessions to the public and donating the gate to charity, popping up in Moss Side like a missionary with attitude to preach to the dispossessed youth about doing good and living clean. His image is pure press misrepresentation, he protests: ask anyone, everyone, who’s spoken to him. ”I’m a likeable guy, a likeable person.”
And funnily enough, he is.
Without the gloves, when he’s not doing his hammy Cagney act on the way to the ring or striking those weird robotic poses, Eubank is quite an appealing character. The thing about all that demi-god guff is that you are allowed to laugh, at least if you’re the ”female of the specie”. He remains, nevertheless, deeply self-obsessed, almost mystically in awe of himself. And once he really gets going, it’s no laughing matter.
”I don’t generate real hate in people, Hyde does. He’s the boxing character, he’s the true warrior, he’s bloody and courageous and assertive, arrogant if you want to call it arrogant, he’s cocky, he’s cool, he’s a bad mother, he’s a character of pure fortitude, he plays people’s emotions, the people who are attracted to the sport. It’s not me. I swear on my eyes it’s not me.”
A word of warning while there’s still time. It’s easy to lose your way in conversation with Eubank, what with the tortuous syntax, the calf-bound vocabulary, all that rhetorical repetition; his lists are as likely to bludgeon you senseless as his fists. In the end, his tendency to talk everything up as enlightenment leaves you wondering whether anything he says means anything at all.
His philosophy is certainly of more interest to the psychologist than the metaphysician. Its governing principle is not consistency but autobiography. To understand, you have to go back to that little boy.
He was the youngest of four brothers brought up by their father in a council flat in Stoke Newington, North London. He calls it a ghetto, which it wasn’t, but they were at the meagre end of poverty: all four brothers sleeping sideways across the same single bed, little else by way of furniture, the television set permanently broken. Brilliant times, he says.
His first memory is of hostility. Many subsequent memories, too. It came in handy, he says. ”In accordance to what’s happened in my life it’s something I’ve come to understand, and because I understand it I can use it to free myself from the bondage of society.”
Was he loved as a boy? ”Not important.” He was a loving child, with love for others inside him; he didn’t need any from outside. Just as well. There wasn’t much in the way of reinforcement from his siblings. ”One said I was silly, one said I was a fool, one said I was ugly.” But he’s glad they put him down. ”It’s what gave me strength to do what I did.” And what Christopher did was fight.
He fought everybody: kids who chewed gum too loud in his ear, kids who had the wrong attitude towards him, kids who bullied other kids. He fought them because they were wrong and he was right, right and uncompromising. ”I was a good child.”
So good he was suspended and expelled 18 times from a succession of schools. He was taken into local authority care and sent to ”boarding schools whose fees were paid by the government”, only to run away again. At 16, in one last bid to straighten the boy out, he was sent to America to live with the mother he barely knew.
And it worked. It must be the first time the South Bronx set anyone on the straight and narrow. He knuckled under and went back to school, graduating at the age of 19. What made the difference? Boxing.
Eubank has a complicated relationship to his sport. He isn’t the first fighter to project a bad boy persona in order to sell tickets. Nigel ‘the Dark Destroyer’ Benn was doing it long ago. But there is one trick which is all Eubank’s own: he badmouths boxing.
He makes distinctions between the craft, which he loves, and the business, which he hates, but it’s an oddly self-sabotaging rebellion all the same: this is what I do better than anyone, and it stinks.
He fights for the money, he insists. Which is freedom. He’s a victim of society, a child of penury who wants all the possessions he never had. What else would pay him the sort of cash he makes for training three or four hours a day and fighting five fights a year? If everything goes according to plan he’ll give it up in 12 months, he says, but then, he’s been saying that for years.
There is, of course, another reason for boxing.
”Putting your life on the line is real, putting your self-esteem on the line is real, putting your pride on the line is real, putting your standard of living on the line is real, putting your faith, your manhood on the line…” (yes, yes, get on with it) ”baby, that’s real. Every time you get in there you’re on the razor’s edge. I know the way it feels, it’s not a nice feeling, it’s a horrible feeling. I don’t like doing it, but I like doing it. It’s a challenge. We’re here, we’re taking on this challenge, we’re living it big, we’re living it strong.”
There is a theory that suicidal behaviour sorts into two categories: the appeal and the ordeal function. Those in the first camp want to affect the living; in the second, they’re testing fate.
I wouldn’t say this to everyone, but it happens to be right up Eubank’s mystical street, so I ask him: does he fight to prove the gods love him?
His first reaction is to bluster. ”I’m the one who’s living this, I’m living something that’s extraordinary; you’re a mere mortal. My answer would be something that… You’re not entitled to this information, baby.” He laughs. ”It’s a bloody good question as well, I take my hat off to you, but you don’t deserve the answer.”
After that, I’m not sure I need one. The point is, when a man goes to these sort of lengths to prove he’s OK, it can only be because deep down he fears that he isn’t. Perfectionism is a paradoxical virtue, the mark of those who believe they start the race so far behind that only the ultimate achievement will render them acceptable.
He displays the textbook behaviour of a personality trying to keep daemons at bay. Certain words recur in his conversation. Good. Clean. Unpolluted. Real. Sincere. His asceticism starts as athletic discipline – no alcohol, no substances – but strays into the wacko realm of renouncing aftershave and scented deodorants. There’s a strong whiff of the talisman about all this, the sort of magical thinking favoured by children and primitive societies.
Take the furniture in his hotel room, his habit of arranging everything so that it’s impossible to tell he’s been there before he leaves for a fight. Is that not a little… superstitious?
”I know where everything is. Everything is sectioned, everything is where it’s supposed to be, everything is clean, everything is in its rightful place. That’s nothing to do with superstition. When I’m in the arena, in the changing rooms, I think ‘where’s my wedding ring?’ I know it will be on top of this table here, and my watch is in this drawer.” He proceeds to run a complete inventory of the possessions in his suite.
”It’s just knowing where everything is: that’s called organisation, not superstition. It’s not extreme, it’s mathematics, it’s keeping everything in order, so you know. It’s not good not to know.”
“Why is Chris Eubank so strange?” he asks suddenly, taking the sugar bowl from the tea tray and placing it on the carpet. ”I tell you why. There’s the objective, OK? The insincere world” …he starts to prowl around the room, circling the demerara… ”they will coy a little, creep a little and lie a little, maybe wait a little” …he’s almost dancing, pirouetting slo-mo behind the sofa, gooseflesh reminding me this is not a man you want in your blind spot… ”they’ll smile a little, beat around the bush a little to get to the objective. The reason Chris Eubank is strange, maybe even unacceptable to some people, is he does it like this.” And he walks straight to the bowl and picks it up.
Despite all the boasting, despite that dressing gown embroidered ‘Simply The Best’ after the Tina Turner track he’s taken as his signature tune, Eubank knows there are better boxers. ”The fact is that we both have two hands, two legs, a brain, a mind, we both have determination, we both have these concepts, we both have a will, we both have pride, we both have talents. If everything’s equal, it’s the one who lives the cleanest.”
We’re not just talking deodorant here. ”It’s the way you walk, it’s the way you talk, it’s the way you act to people, it’s the message what you have for people, it’s whether you’ll cop out and live in the insincere world, whether you’ll play the game.” He even despises actors for pretending on stage. ”They give people so much pleasure but they’ve achieved nothing. Boy, that must be a bad feeling.”
It’s not always an easy way to live. ”My principles have come this close” …he presses thumb and forefinger almost together… ”this close to letting me down.” Knowing what he means, I ask anyway. His voice drops to a whisper. ”Two.”
As a coping strategy Eubank’s philosophy works fine, as long as he keeps on winning. But what happens when he loses, as he acknowledges is inevitable at some point? If he’s a winner because he’s clean, protected by goodness, doesn’t losing imply unworthiness, a terrifying fall from grace? The edges are fraying already: he’s had his share of tragedy. And anyone who goes in for magical thinking must also accept the possibility of jinx.
He shakes his head. ”No. I’m a lucky man.” And the workman on the way to the airport? He’s suddenly very cold. ”Bad question, Don’t ask me questions like that. Accidents happen. Do you know how many crashes there are in a year? Do you know the statistics? I happened to be one of those people who survived.”
But later there’s an incident which suggests matters are rather more complicated, a hint that Eubank is marked by death, and prepared for it to appear at any moment.
That evening he holds one of his charity training sessions, open to anyone who wants to watch the working of those tectonic plates of muscle. He tapes up the fingers that have been gesticulating so fastidiously and does some pad work with his trainer Ronnie, each punch propelled by an unnerving guttural shout.
Accidentally, he clips the trainer’s hand and, pop, Ronnie’s knuckle is out, a strange cartoon-like tuber on the inside of his third finger. Wincingly, the older man supervises the rest of the session, the speedball, the punch bag, a few rounds of sparring between Eubank and a young boxer called Paul, then jogs off in search of a doctor.
Half an hour later Eubank is on his feet, chatting to the sparse crowd, when some unnameable expression flits across his face. The next moment he’s smiling to himself, explaining in that breaking voice: ”I had a funny thought back then. Paul’s come back in. I thought he was going to tell me that Ronnie’s passed away.”
Eubank will be training at the SECC every evening until Saturday’s contest with Ray Close. You can go along and see him there: a lone figure in the ring, half absorbed, half self-conscious, skipping, dancing, twitching, bouncing against the ropes, dodging and retreating, grunting and trembling as those powerhouse arms execute flurrying jabs and sudden uppercuts, strange unconnecting blows. Fighting his shadow.
Courtesy of Scotsman Publications