They fought for the WBO belt live on ITV, a brutal endgame watched by over 17 million people. As the urgent rush to save Watson’s life gripped a nation, the British boxing love affair with the super middleweight division was secured. It has never diminished as year after year the men of 12-stone have set impossibly high standards and left behind unforgettable fights.
Eubank was beaten by Joe Calzaghe in 1997, Calzaghe held versions of the title until 2007, Carl Froch took over between 2008 and 2014 and in other years, often overlapping in classics, Nigel Benn, Robin Reid, Richie Woodall, Glenn Catley, James DeGale and George Groves all held a world super middleweight championship belt.
It is one of British boxing’s finest lists, so many men and so many bitter rivalries that have followed many through time: the conflict between Benn and Eubank is still unresolved and the Froch and Groves fights have a sense that they will linger forever. It is boxing’s most enviable club to be in.
In September 2018 in a fight that is often forgotten, Groves, the defending champion, was broken and dumped in seven awful rounds at an outpost in Saudi Arabia by Liverpool’s Callum Smith, who was the slight underdog with the bookies.
This Saturday, in his second defence, Smith defends his WBA title against London’s John Ryder at the Echo Arena in Liverpool; Smith is considered the best fighter at his weight in the world right now, surrounded by British rivals Chris Eubank Jr and the current WBO super middleweight champion, Billy Joe Saunders. There is a fantasy plan to put Saunders and Smith together next year at Anfield, which cast a shadow over Smith’s childhood home.
That “dream fight” is on hold until Ryder, a legitimate challenger for Smith’s delayed homecoming, is beaten. Eubank Jr, seemingly guided by voices and his father, lost a tight decision in 2014 to Saunders, was beaten by Groves and would add an irresistible edge if he could be persuaded to be part of a trio with Smith and Saunders.
There is a welcome suggestion in the trade that 2020 will be about enormous domestic fights and fights like that always create other far more important fights.
However, the British trio have all been linked with Canelo Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin and other established names from boxing’s roll call of big earners. A fight against either would and should be worth about $10 million when all the tiny details, sums and extras have been nimbly calculated; Alvarez makes a guaranteed $33 million dollars each time he fights.
There are two other fighters, unbeaten and impressive and unknown young Americans, holding the IBF and WBC belts (Caleb Plant and David Benavidez), but they fight largely anonymously and would probably be considered too big a risk for too little gain – hey, nobody said the business of boxing was fair.
Smith is keeping the tradition alive, having a hard defence against a British fighter and looking at the crazy offers as they mount on his breakfast bar. Smith is 29 and a young 29, which means that he will be at this level or higher for three or more years. The Groves win was an ideal start, but his dance partners next year will define his position on that list of great British super-middles. Will he join Eubank and Benn at Old Trafford, the night at Wembley Stadium with Groves and Froch or any of the other memorable nights with 20,000 hanging off the ceiling at the Manchester Arena or The O2. He certainly has the invite from the club.