Boxing is stalked by the ghosts and tragedies of the past. The chaos of this week in British boxing cannot shut out the distressing memories that still haunt the Eubank and Benn families. Michael Watson ended up in a coma for months, and his life has never been the same, after he and Chris Eubank Sr met in the ring in 1991. Nigel Benn showed such ferocity four years later that his opponent, Gerald McClellan, went blind and suffered terrible brain damage. Chris Eubank Jr’s fists sent Nick Blackwell tumbling into a coma in 2016. Both families have been scarred by the damage done in the ring.
Eddie Hearn is acutely aware of these grim stories in British boxing. He also cried openly when Patrick Day, an intelligent and inspirational young American fighter, lost his life after fighting on a Hearn promotion in Chicago in 2019. Yet the famously garrulous promoter and his paymasters, the streaming service Dazn, risked shredding all vestiges of their integrity by riding roughshod over the stipulation by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) that Saturday night’s fight between Conor Benn and Chris Eubank Jr should be “prohibited”.
The immediate obligation is to stress that British boxing came close to slithering over the brink into a lawless state this week. Attention should focus, rightly, on the scarcely credible decision to try to allow Benn to step into the ring at the O2 in London on Saturday despite him having tested positive for clomifene. The Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (Vada) found traces of the fertility drug in Benn’s system and yet the boxer and his promoter clung desperately to the fact he tested negative in all tests carried out by UK Anti-Doping (Ukad), which monitors fighters on behalf of the British board.
Benn protested his innocence and, as he had not been sanctioned by the board, said: “I’ll see you on Saturday night.” Eubank Jr’s promoter, Kalle Sauerland, suggested that, in regard to clomifene, “the experts we consulted couldn’t see that it was giving an advantage”. Respected sports scientists, in contrast, warned that the drug can raise testosterone levels by more than 140%. But still, according to Sauerland, Eubank Jr “was happy to continue”.
The shameless way in which efforts were made to sidestep the damning evidence of the Vada test, and pin the shabbiest of hopes to the fact that the board relies on Ukad results, exposed the hypocrisy at the sick old heart of this promotion and boxing itself.
A press conference had been arranged for 1pm on Thursday. Hearn and Sauerland only emerged after 5pm. “I was very tempted to slip out of the back door for a beer …” Hearn tried to joke. But he refused to take any questions – which at least implied an awareness that the list of pressing queries is long and troubling.
In his statement, Hearn said: “It has been a very difficult day. We were looking forward to an event and a fight that had so much history. We wanted to come here today and formally announce it has been postponed. I want to make it clear that Conor hasn’t been suspended and we feel he hasn’t been given due process.
“I have seen reports about going to the high court and bringing in foreign commissions but this is just not true, we took our time and made a decision that we felt was in the best interests of the parties involved. We were desperate for this fight to take place, but we felt we had to make this decision in the best interest of this sport and the British public.”
The damage done to British boxing would have been almost irreparable had the fight taken place and Benn or Eubank Jr had suffered a brain injury. That calamity has been avoided – at least for now, as Hearn emphasised that the promotion has been postponed rather than cancelled. But the tawdry saga has opened up fresh questions relating to governance and regulation. Those two words, which rarely appear in the same sentence as boxing, should be subject now to intense scrutiny.
After a positive drugs test the BBBofC was duty-bound to stop the fight. However, its officials are yet to explain how long they had known of Benn’s failed test and they should be put on notice to become far more rigorous. Hearn tried to blame the board for not recognising Vada test results and for depending on Ukad to implement doping controls. He indicated that he would take further legal action against the governing body. This is a muddied area in British boxing and the board must bring clarity and, also, strengthen its stance against doping which many insiders believe is rife in the sport.
It may be wishful thinking but Hearn and all those involved in promoting this fight, which has been built on the apparently noble “legacy” of the two brutal bouts between Eubank Sr and Benn Sr in the 1990s, should take a long, hard look at their motives and the way they operate. They know, as do the Benn and Eubank families even more painfully, that the lives of boxers are always at risk inside the ring. The legacy of this week is more than mere embarrassment and humiliation. It reeks of greed and stupidity, incompetence and danger.
Boxing is still often elevated by many good, and even great, men and women who do their work on the perilous side of the ropes. They are the victims of a corrupt system which has to be changed. These words are not new but, after such a debased week in which the ghosts of the past have been so hard to shake, they feel more urgent than ever.