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AFTER middleweight Chris Eubank Jnr was scheduled to fight welterweight Conor Benn, a man the former relentlessly taunted about how easy victory would be, the 33-year-old found his popularity at an all-time high. Not because he went on to beat Benn, but because of the way he reacted when the bout was belatedly canned when it emerged Conor had failed two drug tests. Though we may never find out if Eubank would have made good on his predictions and brushed aside Benn with the minimum of fuss, the act of stripping mass for the catchweight bout unquestionably became a gruelling struggle. Upon seeing the sinewy Eubank keep his side of the bargain and make weight, social media, that fickle devil on everyone’s shoulder, went from disliking Eubank (or, at least, embracing his villainy) to adoring him in the space of 72 hours.

Despite the newfound hero status, there are plenty who understandably object to this Saturday’s Manchester Arena showdown with Liam Smith – Eubank’s latest Instagram plaything – landing on a pay-per-view platform, particularly in the thick of a grim January when saving money is at the forefront of public consciousness. In such circumstances, making money becomes the priority for those in positions of power. Boxing is no different. For promoters, broadcasters, and even the fighters, now is not the time for sympathy, it seems.

The crux here is that promises have been made to Eubank (who missed out on a whopping payday thanks to Benn’s indiscretion) and Smith (long-deserving of a truly big fight) in regard to pay-per-view wages. To make this one – and let’s be honest, twenty quid price tag aside, it’s a terrific matchup – it needed the extra cash injection to persuade the fighters to take part and, in turn, for the organisers to make the desired profit. So as much as we’d like things to be different, well, they’re not.

The reasoning for the Boxxer-promoted card landing on Sky Sports Box Office in the UK shouldn’t be a surprise. Though not quite at the level of Tyson Fury or Anthony Joshua, who are ‘box office’ whomever they fight, Eubank nonetheless finds himself as arguably third only to those heavyweight superstars as the most recognisable boxer in the country. It’s a status he’s been cultivating for a long time, first as the surly son of a bona-fide national treasure and now as a ‘celebrity’ in his own right. The fame of the Gogglebox and Good Morning Britain regular cannot be disputed but Eubank’s in-ring accomplishments remain some way below what we, as hardcore fans, expect from ‘box office’ stars. Smith hasn’t yet won a truly defining contest at world level, either.

But we are operating in a time of change. Plenty, like me, will be straddled across two eras. One foot remains in the past, when the best had little choice but to fight the best and pay-per-view was only reserved for truly mesmeric matchups. The other, meanwhile, struggles to retain its balance in the present day as YouTubers fight Influencers and ‘fame’ is a substantially more important commodity than ability. That age of celebrity, which has long been toying with our senses in the outside world, has now well and truly got its claws into boxing, too. Worst of all, there is absolutely nothing the likes of you or I can do to stop it. So if KSI is deemed as pay-per-view, a genuine 50/50 contest involving Eubank, both a real fighter and bona-fide ‘star’, was always likely to end up on that platform, too.

Frankly, it is simply a waste of time to point to a fight with a price tag and say it’s unworthy for this reason or that. Very simply, if it will sell well, for whatever reason, it will be put up for sale. And Eubank, love him or hate him, is very good when it comes to selling a fight. All you can do is decide if you want to buy it.

The truth is that Eubank-Smith is a better-matched fight than Eubank-Benn ever was and makes last month’s PPV-offering, Tyson Fury-Derek Chisora III, look like the pantomime it should have been (one on a stage with sing-a-longs and jokes between friends as opposed to the cruel beatdown it became). Also undeniable is that, in the current domestic era where too many boxers are protected as they’re moved towards sanctioning body titles, two leading British fighters risking their positions against each other, without a bogus belt on the line, should be welcomed. Particularly one week after a beyond farcical Misfits Boxing card stole the attention. No, Eubank Jnr-Smith should not be on pay-per-view, but we’ve certainly had worse.

That aforementioned element of risk is real, too. Though Eubank’s career wouldn’t be over with a loss (for reasons already stated, his public profile would ensure he remained a lucrative proposition for someone), his longstanding ambition to be regarded as one of the world’s elite would surely be over. The stakes are even higher for “Beefy”. A serious boxer with no celebrity status on which to fall back, Smith would likely become a mere stepping-stone or even opt for retirement if convincingly humbled by the cocksure Brightonian.

During a typically engrossing Sky Sports Gloves Are Off episode, Smith admitted: “At this stage of my career I know I’ve got a lot to lose. My fear is losing to somebody I should never be losing to. It’s a big fear of mine. I feel I should never lose to Eubank Jnr.”

The Scouser is unquestionably right up there among the best opponents Eubank has faced. In fact, only George Groves, who handily defeated the seasider over 12 rounds in 2018, can claim to be better. Billy Joe Saunders or James DeGale might object to that observation, but Smith is proven at the highest level in a way that Saunders wasn’t before outpointing Eubank in 2014 and not nearly as eroded as DeGale looked while losing so convincingly five years later. Other ‘names’ on Eubank’s ledger – like Arthur Abraham, Matvey Korobov and Avni Yildirim – can also be discounted as not being in Smith’s league for various reasons; Abraham was too long in the tooth, the erratic Korobov limped out with an injury and Yildirim has subsequently been exposed several times. Perhaps Eubank’s most recent rival, Liam Williams, is the closest thing to Smith he’s encountered, both in stature and ability.

Eleven months ago, Eubank started in electric fashion, shocking the Welshman in the early rounds when he scored three knockdowns, coasting from the halfway point before adding another 10-8 session in the 11th to secure victory on the cards. Beforehand, plenty felt that the educated aggression of Williams might be too much for Eubank. The same Williams, don’t forget, who had lost twice to Smith in the past. So if Williams was deemed a live underdog last year, Smith’s chances of victory are surely greater.

The Scouser has been a professional for 15 years (three more than his opponent), has boxed 228 rounds (compared to Eubank’s 213) and, in his biggest fights, has fought at a higher level. A skilled pressure fighter, one more versatile than he’s ever given credit, Smith has fought Canelo Alvarez, Jaime Munguia, Magomed Kurbanov and Jessie Vargas, and proved his worth as a top-tier competitor in each. Though the ninth-round loss to Alvarez in 2016 was predominantly controlled by the Mexican, Smith did have his moments. He gave Munguia his toughest fight to date. He deserved the nod on away soil versus Kurbanov and dominated (an admittedly past his best) Vargas.

Like Eubank, Smith has proven too good for anyone below world level. While Chris won one-sided encounters over the likes of Nick Blackwell, Spike O’Sullivan and Tom Doran, Liam encountered very little trouble over the comparable Jimmy Kelly, Sam Eggington and Anthony Fowler.

Smith’s aforementioned victories over Williams are worthy of closer inspection. In the first one, “Beefy” fought his rival’s fight, one anchored in furious aggression, and was fortunate when it was stopped (then ruled in his favour) due to a horrendous cut caused by the Merseysider’s wayward nut. Tellingly, however, is the manner in which he redesigned his approach for the sequel when he proved too cute for Williams and boxed his way to a convincing decision. Though Smith is unquestionably a fighter who thrives in the pocket – which is exactly where Eubank likes his rivals to be – he’s more than capable of boxing intelligently if the gameplan demands it. And Eubank can struggle when faced with opponents operating intelligently behind the jab.

Whether Smith, 34, has it in his locker to befuddle and outbox Eubank for 12 rounds – ala Saunders and Groves – is unknown but the feeling is he’ll need the performance of his career to date to win. It’s certainly difficult to shake memories of Eubank, when faced with good technicians, losing his shape, resorting to crude swinging and being picked off. Even against a faded DeGale, Eubank smothered his work and walked into multiple jabs on the way in. With that in mind, if Smith can keep his shape in close, he may not need to replicate the efforts of Saunders or Groves if he’s to have his arms raised.

Busy and tenacious, Smith’s desire to teach Eubank a lesson seems unlikely to spill over to the extent the Liverpudlian loses his temper. Though Chris seemed to get under Benn’s skin, at least to a degree, his efforts to do the same to the level-headed and vastly experienced Smith are yet to succeed, irrespective of what Eubank’s social media persona might tell you. In truth, evidence suggests that Eubank is actually trying [i]too[i] hard to gain an early psychological advantage. Behind the scenes, however, the 4/9 favourite is acutely aware it will take more than online mischief to deter his opponent. “If I don’t get the victory my career is in dire, dire straits,” he said. “It’s in jeopardy. Victory is the most important thing in my life at this moment in time.”

One advantage Eubank certainly does hold is size. At 5ft 11ins he is just shy of two inches taller and has operated at middleweight and super-middleweight his entire career. Though Smith won’t be ‘small’ at the weight like it was perceived Benn would have been, this remains only his second contest at 160lbs over the 12-round championship distance. The first, a September stoppage of a hapless Hassan Mwakinyo, is difficult to assess given the African’s meek surrender in the fourth.

Both can take a shot. Smith claims that he hurt Eubank during a sparring session they exchanged seven years ago but only Liam has tasted the canvas as a professional. Canelo decked him three times, twice from shots to the body of which one dropped him for the full count. Smith again looked susceptible to the midsection against Munguia, though the only time he touched down was a consequence of a left hook upstairs. Eubank, meanwhile, has rarely looked in serious trouble but the notion that he can be hurt to the body is a worthwhile consideration.

Though Eubank getting down to 157lbs for Benn ultimately went untested inside the ropes, it’s feasible that – at the age of 33 – his efforts to do so have left a lasting effect. Furthermore, though we’re always led to believe that Eubank is among the most tireless active fighters today, what we don’t know is why he chose to coast during portions of last year’s victory over Williams or indeed in 2020 when he took his foot off the gas against Marcus Morrison (w ud 10).

Eubank claims those moments were by design. Trainer Roy Jones Jnr is back in his corner for this bout but the jury is out on the true effectiveness of the partnership. In a tough and gruelling outing, which this looks almost certain to be, Eubank will find it difficult to dictate the pace through 36 minutes. Eubank, therefore, must be better than he’s been in recent outings. Yet we must also consider that the ‘old’ Eubank, one who could look clumsy and crude when faced with a skilled foe, simply had to change in order to win bouts against opponents as good as Smith. The newfound ability to take a breather, and reset, could serve him well here. Because if his guns are constantly ablaze, Smith, who boxes behind a high guard and employs clever feints to draw mistakes, is more than capable of disarming his attacker.

So who wins? It’s a very tricky contest to call. That alone makes this fight worth paying close attention to. For all of Eubank’s faults, he has an opponent in Smith who is far from elusive himself. The feeling is that Eubank will start quickly before Liam, having survived the early onslaught, rallies in the middle rounds to leave the contest poised. It’s how Eubank reacts during those sessions that might be where the fight is won and lost, but we expect the favourite to do enough to triumph on cards that might be deemed contentious.

Don’t rule out the stoppage completely. Both have been marked up and cut in previous outings but Smith in particular could fall foul of an intervention if his skin opens up.

THE VERDICT: Exactly the kind of fight that should be made as a matter of course considering the talent in this country.

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