The simple question before the fight was “repeat” or “revenge”, and the simple answer was delivered in round 10 by the fists of Chris Eubank Jr late on Saturday night.
It would be sweet revenge and it was nasty.
Back in January, Eubank Jr was dropped, shocked and stopped by Liam Smith in the fourth round; the pair returned to the same venue for the rematch. There was not a solitary empty seat in the Manchester Arena.
This time, Eubank Jr was quite brilliant and Smith struggled from the very start with his opponent’s accuracy and speed. There will be no excuses from Smith, and that is right, but it was painfully clear that making weight after an injury and a delay, had taken an ugly toll. He also injured his left ankle, probably when he was dropped in the fourth round. However, he was not hobbling, it just meant his feet moved slower than normal and he was restricted when going back.
When the referee, Kevin Parker, jumped between Eubank Jr’s punches and the last remnants of Smith’s defences, after 1:45 of the 10th, it was a perfect intervention. Smith argued and tried to continue; Eubank Jr had done the same in their first fight.
“We both come from boxing families of warriors,” Eubank Jr said. “There is no quit in either family.”
In the 10th and last round, Smith was bleeding heavily from a damaged right eyelid, his mobility was reduced and he was bundled over in a heap. He beat the count and was trapped on the ropes when it was stopped at 1:45 of the round. He complained, but he knew – he is a smart boxer and would have known several rounds earlier, possibly days earlier when the desperate rush to drop the final pounds took its unforgiving toll.
“When I win I celebrate,” Smith said. “I lost to the better man tonight. It happens.”
The early rounds were tight, there was a lot of holding and heads were crashing. Smith was sneering and talking and Eubank Jr was trying not to get too involved. Smith is a craftsman at boxing’s black arts and the opening two rounds suited him.
Eubank finally found some space, moved his feet, moved off the ropes and from the third the fight was finished; Smith was dropped with a short right uppercut after about 30 seconds of the fourth, hurt his ankle as he got up and from that point, until the end, he never won a round. It was heroic, hard to watch at times.
In the fifth, when it looked like Smith had recovered from the knockdown, there was a minute of relentless action when Eubank Jr trapped Smith on the ropes. The referee was poised, but Smith rolled, held, blocked and countered like an old master. Eubank Jr let a lot of punches go and then Smith, with a smile, turned Eubank Jr and suddenly Eubank Jr was trapped on the ropes. But Smith never let his hands go, a reluctance he carried throughout the fight. The crowd, which was mostly there for Smith, roared the smart move – it was possibly the highlight of their long night of devotion. Eubank Jr was a bit smarter after that and picked his way to a lead with a lot of guile and skill.
In rounds eight and nine, Eubank Jr looked like he was setting up the end; his jab was opening up gaps for rights to the body and head. It was clever boxing and all that Smith could offer was his heart, and that is, it has to be said, a considerable obstacle. At the start of the 10th, Smith had been fighting on instinct for far too long; he was hurt, tired, cut and an easy target. Eubank Jr is not a cruel fighter, but he is vicious and it was a relief when it was called off.
Smith, who is now 35, will look at his options and Eubank Jr, who is two years younger, already has a stacked dance card; at the top of it is Conor Benn, a ringside guest. “I want him at 160 pounds – I was not impressed,” he told me. The pair were due to fight last year, but Benn had an issue with a drug sample. That issue is still being discussed. “If Benn sorts out his problems, we can fight, sure,” Eubank Jr confirmed in his dressing room, long after midnight. He seemed as dazed on Saturday night in victory as he had been in painful defeat back in January. That can happen when the stakes are so much higher than what happens inside the ring.
Eubank Jr salvaged a career on Saturday night, Smith edged a bit closer to the end of his, and once again just under 20,000 fanatics filed out into the hot Manchester night. They have been doing it for a long, long time.
The old venue has now become a sacred place for the best of British boxing during a quarter century of fights. Once again a Eubank filled the space with class and quality. There is dignity in the dirty old game, make no mistake, and, as Eubank Jr found out, no sport offers the same chances of revenge.