Of eccentrics in sport

My favourite is Chris Eubank whom I saw fight in Dubai a quarter century ago in a weird attempt to make a comeback into the ring he once dominated as a middleweight and super middleweight champion.

Boasting boxer: Great Britian’s Chris Eubank after knocking out Jose Ignacio Barreutabena in 55 seconds in the first round of their super-middleweight fight in 1995.   -  Holly Stein/ALLSPORT

True eccentrics are rare in sport, and for some reason they tend to be boxers. Apart from the obvious: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, the list includes the likes of Jorge Paez, featherweight champion who was also a circus performer, and Prince Naseem Hamed, world champion who enjoyed making entrances into the ring riding on a flying carpet or in a palanquin and once memorably dancing like Michael Jackson in Thriller.

My favourite is Chris Eubank whom I saw fight in Dubai a quarter century ago in a weird attempt to make a comeback into the ring he once dominated as a middleweight and super middleweight champion. His son, also Chris Eubank, is a champion and some five years ago, the father asked to be known simply as ‘English’ in order to distinguish him from the son.

The senior was unique with his lisp, his fancy talk and his carefully chosen clothes (jodhpurs, bowler hat) that imitated a posh English gentleman. He wore a monocle and carried a silver-tipped cane. The eccentricities did not distract from his charm or talent as a fabulous boxer who was light on his feet and punched with precision.

Two years after he retired, Eubank attempted a comeback against a little-known Colombian in Dubai which he saw as a build-up to a title fight which he promised would be held in the UAE. You couldn’t go to a public space in Dubai then — malls, clubs, theatres, even a ship that was berthed there — without Eubank ‘preparing’ for the bout , shadow boxing, speaking endlessly and promising a great fight.

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Eubank was his own PR man, telling us that the bout would have an audience of 800 million in 110 countries. But it emerged that no broadcaster in Britain, his home country, was interested.

On the big day, he entered the ring in a crane (which was an anti-climax as the audience had been primed for something more exciting), won in the fourth round, and at the end made a dramatic announcement: He was converting to Islam and would henceforth be known as Hamdan.

We ran into each other quite a bit during the build-up, and on one occasion I had to offer him a lift back to his hotel because the organisers of some function had forgotten all about him after he had done his part.

The picture that will always remain with me of those days, however, is of Eubank stretched out on a sofa at a club, relaxed, smiling, and speaking into his mobile phone.

“No, no, nothing under five million,” I heard him say as he gestured for me to take the seat beside him. “You know I don’t get out of bed in the morning for anything less…” There was more in that vein. Eubank raising the price, taunting the speaker (presumably someone who was keen to see him in action), upping the ante. But just before I could get genuinely impressed, the phone he was speaking into rang!