In what was the most exciting and well-matched boxing match of last weekend, the tough and likeable Nick Blackwell unsuccessfully defended his prestigious British Middleweight title against the highly talented, but often pantomime villain-esque Chris Eubank Jr. Following the fight, in which Blackwell was stopped by the doctor towards the end of the tenth round, the dethroned champion tragically collapsed in the ring and was taken to hospital on a stretcher. Though the world still has its fingers crossed for a full recovery, emotions have settled a little, so let’s evaluate what happened, decide if anyone is to blame, and the ramifications it might have for the sport.
The Lion’s Den
The much anticipated match was televised on Channel 5, in association with Mick Hennessy, Blackwell’s promoter. Despite hailing from Trowbridge in Wiltshire, Blackwell was effectively the home fighter, the partisan crowd was cheering him on and willing him to win. At ringside, the Fury clan and WBO champion Billy Joe Saunders were riled up, fully behind the champion, and perhaps fuelled as much by their dislike of the Eubanks as their affinity with Nick Blackwell. In situations such as these, it is inevitably tempting to give the well supported fighter every chance to pull off a victory and please his fans, creating a great atmosphere for the crowd and giving all a night to remember. This may or may not have had an influence towards letting the fight continue into the later rounds, and if this is the case, it should quite rightly be condemned considering the evident dangers. However, there are more prevalent factors which justify such a decision, and it is unlikely that this is anywhere close to the main reason why Blackwell was not removed in the earlier stages.
The Heart of a Champion
Potentially a more potent cause for elongating the fight comes from analysing the man himself. Nick Blackwell, nicknamed ‘Bang Bang’, is renowned for his fighting spirit and remarkable resilience, which was highlighted by the tremendous bravery and endurance he showed last Saturday night. Importantly, he is also known for his ability to come on strong as the fight enters its latter stages, owing to his tenacity and exceptional engine. It is primarily these qualities which have allowed him to reach the national champion status, after having no amateur bouts to draw from in terms of experience. Moreover, while being more than competent, he is not especially regarded in terms of technical flair. For example, both Damon Jones and John Ryder have given him significant trouble until the champion came back to win by knockout. This highlights the type of boxer Blackwell is and perhaps goes some way to explain why he was allowed to continue despite being clearly behind in the fight.
The Formidable Challenger
Chris Eubank Jr is a very skilful boxer, who has somewhat come out of the shadow of his great father to become a respected and serious prospect independently. However, much like Chris Sr., there are many who are averse to his arrogant posturing and showboating. Of course, this adds to the crowd turning against him, but also his unconventional style can affect his capacity to force a stoppage. By taking time off to pull poses and walk around the ring, he gives his opponents a little time to recover, so they are able to remain in the fight. This understandably led to Blackwell’s deterioration, but may have convinced the referee to let it go on as Eubank did not press his advantages enough.
The Third Man
Victor Loughlin, the vastly experienced referee in charge of the fight, has generally been regarded as one of the better refs in the United Kingdom, garnering praise on the boxing forums for his well-timed stoppages and assured handling of past contests. Notably, he is not included in the band of referees which are inclined to produce the so-called ‘British stoppage’, where a fight is inexplicably cut short after a few punches have been landed, despite the recipient appearing in no particular trouble. Recent examples of these stoppages, which sparked outrage from many fans, include the first Froch-Groves war, and Ovill McKenzie’s second round knockout of Enzo Maccarinelli on November 2012. Despite receiving criticism from some fans for his performance in this Blackwell-Eubank match, perhaps his conduct should be commended. At no times was Blackwell shaken or on weak legs, Loughlin let the fight go on as Nick was firing back, and as soon as his eye began to swell, Loughlin brought in the doctor and the fight was promptly stopped. Renowned trainer Adam Booth said his refereeing was impeccable, and he was similarly praised by the Channel 5 commentators. Blackwell was given every chance and the doctor was brought in at the soonest opportunity.
Some have argued that Blackwell’s corner, and particularly head trainer Gary Lockett, should have pulled him out after taking punishment in the 7th and 8th rounds in particular. This seems fair, they could see that he was not winning the fight, and they could see the development of facial injuries he sustained throughout the match. However, they also were clouded by a belief in the fighter and his tendency to end the fight well, and furthermore they desperately wanted him to win. While this does not excuse leaving a fighter in the ring to get seriously injured, it would be expected that as they knew the fighter so well, they would also know when something was wrong. Blackwell appeared cognisant and responsive in the corner and it is doubtful whether it ever occurred to the corner men to take him out compassionately, as they did not believe it was necessary. The ultimate responsibility to take a fighter out of the ring lies with the referee, and as previously argued, there was never a clear point in which to do this.
Undeniably the fight was a brutal affair, and with the majority of those in attendance rooting for Blackwell, it is conceivable that the fight was continued in the hope that he would win. Compounding this is his reputation for durability and ability to be dangerous late in the fight, in addition to Eubank’s role as the tricky villain and Loughlin’s avoidance of the ‘British stoppage.’ However, despite all of this, I would offer an alternative answer: no one is to blame, and sometimes these things unfortunately happen. I’d have stopped it in the corner at the end of round 9, and it could have been stopped in any round from 7 onwards, but it was never obvious and that is the key. As for the outcome, boxing may struggle once again to find a home on terrestrial TV, and the usual questions will be asked about banning and regulating, but it will most likely carry on as normal. The pressing issue is Nick Blackwell’s condition and I, along with the rest of the boxing community and the wider world, wish the great man a swift and full recovery.