Chris Eubank Jr had put all his chips on the table.
It was no exaggeration to say a second consecutive defeat to Liam Smith, especially a second consecutive knockout defeat, would leave his career wrecked.
In taking this rematch, he was making the biggest gamble of his career. He was betting it all. He was betting big and he bet on himself.
When he stood in the centre of the ring at the AO Arena in Manchester, shadowboxing sharply under the lights while Smith made his long entrance to the uproarious delight of the packed house, he knew all of that.
“A huge gamble. A gamble that I did not need to take. I didn’t need to risk possibly losing out on these big fights against these big names that are all lined up for me and that’s what would have happened if I had lost again,” he told Sky Sports.
“I didn’t need to risk that. I could have taken the loss and moved on like a lot of fighters do. They don’t want to get back in there with the guy that beat them. Especially not in the same arena with the same 21,000 people booing you, throwing stuff at you and wanting you to get knocked out.
“It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t enjoyable. It wasn’t something that I had to do. I could have taken bigger money fights in much more comfortable environments. I chose not to. I chose to take the hard route. I chose to test myself. I chose to prove myself. We don’t run. We don’t run from these challenges. We don’t hide from anybody. We don’t back down.”
As steely as Eubank’s self-possession can seem, there had been doubt over the difficult months that followed his loss to Smith in January.
“There were demons I was battling,” he said. “That’s what happens when you’re coming off a defeat. Especially a defeat where you’re stopped. You have to deal with a lot of things mentally and a lot of questions are asked. Does he still have it? Does he still want to fight? Can he still perform at the highest levels?
“I knew I could but obviously when so many people don’t think you can, don’t think you have it anymore, there were points where you kind of second guess: ‘maybe some of these people are right, maybe I am getting a bit old’.
“You have to catch yourself. You can’t let yourself slip down that slope of doubt and worry and fear. You have to be strong, you have to be sure, you have to be steadfast in your beliefs. You have to keep it together.”
That ferociously hostile crowd reception in Manchester could have fed those doubts. But instead Eubank rose to it.
Before he, as ever, vaulted the top rope to land on the boards of the canvas after his own entrance, he stood on the ring apron and welcomed the boos. He held a hand to one ear, then the other. The hate was real. But so was the fighter in him.
“It’s impossible, it’s insurmountable, it’s unimaginable to have to go through that. Very few fighters have to deal with that type of pressure, that type of hostility,” he said.
“I’ve been having to go through that my entire career and that’s shaped and moulded me into what I am now. Which is a hard, tough veteran in the sport that doesn’t buckle under the pressure, that doesn’t buckle when things get rough, that doesn’t look for a way out when I get hurt. I fight. I fight through it.”
He did so as well. Eubank dropped Smith twice and ultimately secured a stoppage of his own in the 10th round of their rematch. As a victory, he said, it was “one of the sweetest, one of the most important, one of the most pivotal” he’d had.
“This fight here really had me at a crossroads and depending on the outcome it would be a huge impact on my career,” Eubank said. “More so than any other fight.”
‘The shot-caller now’
When the referee waved the bout off, relieving Smith of further punishment, Eubank stood back.
Before his promoter, or his new trainer, could reach him to celebrate, he stood alone in the centre of the ring staring out beyond the lights above him. It was a moment of perfect isolation. He could just take it all in.
“I was the underdog. I was the guy that just wasn’t supposed to win, was at the end of his career and was just going to get knocked out again. That was me. To come out of that situation, to get booed into an arena of 21,000 people, then cheered out, that’s a hard thing to do. That is a hard thing to do but we did it.”
He might have bet big on himself. Now he had won big, too. If going in for the rematch had left Eubank running out of road, this turnaround opened his future up to a new wealth of options: “That was the gamble and the risk has paid off.
“Yeah, I could not take the fight. Yeah, I could get a bigger payday somewhere else in a more comfortable environment in a crowd that’s not going to hate me. But it doesn’t put me in a great position. These fighters can then maybe say that they’re the A side. That I’m coming off of a loss so I have to dance to their tune and meet their demands.
“I didn’t want to go into these fights in that position. I want to be in control. I wanted to have the power, position and the only way was by avenging the loss and making sure that there was no doubt that I am the better fighter in this match up.”
As for his next move, Conor Benn was one of the names quickly suggested to him. Eubank Jr was due to box Benn, the son of his father’s great rival Nigel Benn, last year. That bout was cancelled when the results of Conor Benn’s failed drug tests emerged.
It is still likely to happen eventually but not necessarily next. The date, location and weight would still all need to be determined and Eubank points out that any agreement now has to be on his terms.
“Absolutely. He lost all his privileges when he failed those drug tests a year ago. I’m the A side. I’m the shot-caller in that fight,” he said. “It will happen. The fight will happen. I can’t tell you when it will happen. He still has a lot of issues to smooth out and I have a lot of options to weigh up.”
The British Boxing Board of Control and UK Anti-Doping are currently appealing the National Anti-Doping Panel ruling to lift Benn’s provisional suspension.
Eubank continued: “That fight doesn’t need to be rushed in anyway, in my opinion. Conor Benn isn’t going anywhere. The timing has to be right and he does need to be fully acquitted of the situation he’s in. He can’t have any appeals going on with the Board. He can’t have any drug agencies having him on a banned list or whatever the case may be.
“He has to be 100 per cent clear for that fight to go ahead. As far as I’m concerned at this moment in time he isn’t. So that’s why I can’t say when that fight will happen. But it will happen.”
Opportunities to fight for world titles should come to Eubank, too. At middleweight there will be options. Jermall Charlo has been inactive but holds the WBC championship. Janibek Alimkhanuly fights Vincenzo Gualtieri for the WBO and IBF belts on October 14.
“The names you just mentioned, I genuinely haven’t seen these guys fight before. I don’t know who they are. And I’m in the game. So the general public are not going to know who these guys are, which means it’s hard for them to tune in if you’re making it a pay-per-view event which a world title should be,” Eubank said.
“So you’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to build a fight in the right way and you’ve got to have it in the right place and at the right time. That is up to the promoters. That’s their job, to fit all that together. It’s my job to fight.
“I do want to fight for a world title, 100 percent. But the politics that comes with all that, it’s not easy to navigate sometimes. I’m just blessed to be in a position where I don’t have to be in world title fights to be a part of huge fights. Most guys, they need the belts to be in big fights. That’s what makes them box office, or makes them worth tuning in for.
“I don’t need a belt to captivate an audience. I do that with how I fight. I do that with how I speak, I do that with who I am as a man and as a fighter. Now if we can get both in at the same time, that’s the dream.
“A big name and a world title together, it’s very hard to pull off. But I’m going to try everything I can to do that. We just have to take out time and plan the best route.”
‘The real me’
There was another enduring image in the aftermath of the fight.
Almost immediately Eubank Jr flew out to Dubai to join his family. He was reunited with his infant nephew, the son of his brother Sebastian who died so tragically in 2021.
Previously perhaps Eubank Jr would not have been so willing to show that tender side of his character so publicly.
“With everything that’s happened over the last few years, it’s become a huge part of my life. I couldn’t hide away from it if I wanted to. And I think it’s good for people to see the real me, if you want to call it that.
“Not that I’m not real when I’m with the public or in the ring because I absolutely am. But there are sides to me. To everybody. And you may not think somebody is a certain way behind closed doors or when they’re not in a fight situation.
“Fighters a lot of the time are not seen as human beings and we really are. We go through the same things everybody else goes through. We deal with the same issues in life. We have families, we have our ups and downs in life and this is a huge part of my life now, bringing up my brother’s son.
“Giving him that male figure in his life that obviously he doesn’t have, making sure that that’s there for him. I think it’s important for a father figure to be in any boy’s life, especially a boy with Eubank blood running through his veins.”
Liam Smith, with three championship class brothers, like Eubank comes from a great British boxing dynasty. He and Eubank, you suspect, would both agree that more important than the battles inside the ropes is the family outside of them. Eubank Jr’s emotions stay in check, they did even in his moment of victory. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
This Smith win was the enduring achievement of his career so far.
“No matter how hard people are trying to push you and how hard people are trying to convince you and others that you’re going to lose, that you don’t deserve to be where you are and that you’re a fake – all the things I was seeing online for half a year – I had to fight those demons.
“That’s what I did and I proved that all those haters, all those naysayers and all those doubters were wrong. I guess that’s what makes this victory so satisfying. I’m a fighter. That’s what I do.”