SHOULD Chris Eubank Jnr and Liam Smith decide to fight again, either immediately or sometime in the future, it would make for one of the more bizarre trilogies in recent memory. After all, when you take into account the supposedly conclusive nature of their first fight, which Smith won in four rounds, there was seemingly no need for even the rematch which took place tonight (September 2) in Manchester. What is more, this rematch was won so handily by Eubank Jnr, in quite the plot twist, that any thoughts towards a third fight – a decider – would appear to be only those of Smith or people with a perverse fondness for getting predictions wrong.
However, just as was proven in January, often what leads to a reuniting of fighters is ambiguity, or doubt, more than simply what is down on paper in black and white. Here, for instance, while it is true Eubank Jnr secured his revenge, and did so emphatically with a tenth-round stoppage, what must also be considered is the context and what led up to that, by then, inevitable finish in the tenth. Because, just as the stoppage Eubank Jnr himself suffered at the hands of Smith in January was tarnished somewhat by an element of doubt, there is a similar argument to be made here, too.
That’s not to say the stoppage itself was unfair. Nor is it to say Eubank Jnr wasn’t a deserving victor; he certainly was. Yet, in much the same way Eubank Jnr appeared adversely affected by a stray elbow he accidently caught in the middle of a Smith barrage eight months ago, there is a case to be made that Smith, tonight, was debilitated by something else unforeseen. No less painful, and no less impactful, Smith, rather than caught by an illegal blow, was instead hampered by what appeared to be an ankle injury – single or double – from as early as round two. He could be seen, in fact, rolling both his ankles at various points, aware perhaps of the damage, and because of this impediment his movement only became more and more laboured as the fight progressed. Unable, it seemed, to either go forwards or backwards with any sort of conviction, Smith was, as a result, a sitting duck for Eubank Jnr and never once an active threat in the fight.
This, of course, was precisely what Eubank Jnr would have wanted, especially early. For although he claimed his confidence had remained intact, and although he is a man naturally fuelled by a bottomless well of self-belief, as Boxing News Editor Matt Christie smartly pointed out, this was the first fight Eubank Jnr had entered in his boxing career with an awareness that he could be knocked out. That fact alone must have done something – negative, most likely – to Eubank Jnr’s mindset going into the fight and therefore to later be greeted by the image of Smith cowering, as he did on occasion, and to feel he could now control the pace at all times would have come as a relief to the man from Brighton.
After that, it was all about him. He made it that way, too, displaying a control and economy of output which he sporadically supplemented with bursts of punches to never allow Smith to settle or regain some kind of footing; steady or otherwise. His jab, in particular, was a key weapon throughout and his uppercuts, which have always been a pet punch but have of late been missing, were back to doing damage whenever Smith, in attempting to escape, would duck down or try to remain low.
One uppercut, as well as some other cuffing blows, sent Smith to the floor for the first time in the fight in round four. Then, in the next round, Eubank Jnr sensed Smith had all but given up, so freely and happily bullied him around the ring, sustaining an attack that lasted the best part of a minute.
Smith, however, despite winning few exchanges, and despite being very much in survival mode, was having none of it. If anything, in fact, after weathering that initial storm, he could suddenly see the sense in letting Eubank Jnr punch his way to exhaustion, hoping, once this happened, he could then possibly ease his way back into the fight and take over late.
Instead, the reality was this: Eubank Jnr, having let it all hang out in the fifth, was back to controlling his aggression again in the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth, all rounds he won, which left a dejected Smith returning to his stool after each of them wearing the expression of a man who had already given up.
Given up winning, that is. Smith, a true fighter, never once gave up punching, or trying, or working hard, but there was a sense – and this may be wrong – that the game plan for Smith, from about the second round onwards, had changed in an instant. Now, owing either to his injury or the merciless approach of Eubank Jnr, Smith was content to just get through the rounds and reach the end, which, if nothing else, would ensure the door remained ajar for a rubber match. Get stopped early, of course, and the appeal might not be so great. Not only that, with so much talk of towels in the build-up to the fight, and when they should and shouldn’t be used, one would not be at all surprised if Smith and his corner found themselves in a position trickier than they would have liked given the issues, both physically and mentally, he was clearly facing.
Still, that’s no problem of Eubank Jnr’s. Indeed, regardless of what was going on with Smith’s ankles and in Smith’s corner, it is a testament to Eubank Jnr’s professionalism and maturity that he was able to stick to a plan, carry it out, and time the eventual stoppage to perfection. Not too early, and not too late, he could obviously tell Smith was starting to flag and duly set about him, backing him up to the ropes and unleashing one of those trademark flurries that has an opponent unsettled and panicked when under fire and then complaining to the referee when the assault relents and they realise it is too late and they have been stopped. Smith, now 33-4-1 (20), was no different.
As for what happens next, that’s anyone’s guess. Ideally, given they both have a stoppage win to their name, a third fight would make all the sense in the world and would, in light of how this rematch unfolded, also be far more anticipated than fight number two. That said, despite the impressive nature of Eubank Jnr’s performance, the extenuating circumstances tonight sucked the life out of the fight early and would have done little to have fans clamouring to see these two share a ring again anytime soon. It was, alas, not that kind of fight; not that kind of action.
The action – the real action – may be found elsewhere. For Eubank Jnr, 33-3 (24), that would seem to be the case. Post-fight, he wasted no time calling out Conor Benn and Kell Brook, both of whom were ringside in Manchester, and also Gennady Golovkin, with whom Eubank Jnr has had a strange obsession for several years now. Each of those fights, for a range of reasons, would be depressing to see happen, yet it is plain to see Eubank Jnr wants big names and that he doesn’t consider Liam Smith’s big enough anymore. Unfinished business, to both him and those who stand to make money from it, will not mean the continuation of a two-fight rivalry in which both fights carry an asterisk but instead the continuation of a phoney war with a welterweight whose relevance to Eubank Jnr stretches only so far as their dads being old acquaintances; a boxer whose punishment for scuppering their scheduled fight last October on account of two failed performance-enhancing drug tests has been only a period of inactivity and publicity; a boxer whose reward for failing those tests has been newfound notoriety and the feeling of all a sudden being a wanted man.