THERE was a moment during the build-up to Chris Eubank Jnr’s fourth-round stoppage loss against Liam Smith when an all-too-familiar feeling, one I had last experienced before the previous fight Eubank Jnr had scheduled, washed over me. It was, to put it mildly, a feeling of ickiness; the feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; or not belonging at all.
The cause of this feeling was this time not a failed performance-enhancing drug test and the subsequent attempts of promoters to carry on with a fight regardless. Instead, the reason this time I felt so out of place working in a sport like boxing owed more to the ugly back and forth Eubank Jnr and Smith combined to produce at the final press conference ahead of their January 21 middleweight fight. For it was during that press conference the world had to listen to Liam Smith take it upon himself to question the sexuality of Eubank Jnr, entirely apropos of nothing, before then, in retaliation, Eubank Jnr got his own back by accusing Smith of being unfaithful to his wife.
It was, given the current climate, a more shocking moment than it would have been in years gone by. Even so, to hear Smith stoop to those levels, and speak like a teenager still living in the 1990s, wasn’t so much offensive as it was disappointing. It was disappointing, for one, simply because it reflected badly on the otherwise sensible Liverpudlian’s intelligence; for who in their right mind would actually think to say something like that on a public stage in 2023? Moreover, as is the case whenever boxing press conferences turn blue or threaten to turn violent, there is a general uneasiness on the faces of everyone other than those directly involved, a sort of sheepishness which says, “This is not what I signed up for.”
Personally, maybe because I’m jaded by it all, or have heard it all before, that’s how I felt when watching Eubank Jnr and Smith that day. I felt let down by them in a professional sense and I felt embarrassed to be associated with a sport offering exchanges like that for all the world to see and hear. It was, in many ways, akin to receiving your child home from a sleepover only to be told by the parent of the child whose house they had visited that in the night your darling son or daughter had entered their kitchen and proceeded to do a poo on the floor.
Still, such feelings rarely last in a sport like boxing. There is usually a fight to make you forget – in this case, a good and dramatic one, with Smith delivering the kind of finish to make forgiveness an easy branch to extend. If not a fight, what also tends to happen is there will be some other scandal that comes along and makes you quickly forget about the last one. Here, for instance, while not quite a scandal, we had the social media attention-seeking of Conor Benn, he of the failed PED test, which helped us redirect our ire in the aftermath of Eubank Jnr vs Smith.
My own perspective, meanwhile, ended up being provided by an interview Smith granted BBC Radio 5 Live in the aftermath, during which one of its presenters, Eleanor Oldroyd, not only baited him to apologise for what he had said earlier in the week but did so with such condescension and determination one had to wonder whether that, in inviting him on the show, was the sole intention all along.
True or not, for a long-time advocate of boxing and boxers, that particular interview was every bit as hard to watch as Smith’s fight week press conference with Eubank Jnr. It was hard, for me at least, because aside from the confrontational nature of the presenter’s approach, a common one in attempts to shame, this BBC interview with Smith showed a complete disregard for (one) the fact a boxer had just won the biggest fighter of his career and (two) the fact boxers, like every other human being on the planet, are far from perfect.
That, of course, is not to say what Liam Smith intimated regarding Chris Eubank Jnr and homosexuality is right, far from it. But, certainly, to expect perfection from professional prizefighters is deluded in the extreme. Indeed, to expect that is to ultimately concede you know nothing about the sport or its participants whatsoever.
These, need I remind you, are not Oxford or Cambridge-educated, privileged, trust fund types. They are instead typically working-class, which means they have had a working-class upbringing and carry working-class beliefs, and some, such is the nature of the profession, will remain within their bubble until their career reaches its inevitable conclusion (which, for many, can be the root of their struggle).
Some years ago, in fact, one former world champion told me he believed that boxing, while it had given him plenty, had essentially stunted his growth as a human being. Socially, he said, he hadn’t developed the way so-called “normal” young men do and also revealed that because of the isolation his profession required he had to work extra hard to both maintain relationships and understand and care about people who had jobs that didn’t entail throwing punches at human skulls.
That conversation never left me. Moreover, it sadly returned to my mind with interest the morning I listened to the BBC pretend to care about Liam Smith’s career-best win in order to attempt to in fact ruin his career. They did so by trying to turn him into something he is not in an effort to apparently address a problem which is as much of a genuine interest to them as boxing itself.
By then, thankfully, I had made up my own mind and therefore didn’t require a passive-aggressive lecture from a BBC presenter to help me. By then, I had concluded that Liam Smith, while far from perfect, is nevertheless ours. Also, human.