Pride, reputation and world title hopes are on the line when Liam Smith (33-3-1, 20 KOs) and Chris Eubank Jr. (32-3, 23 KOs) run it back in a middleweight non-title rematch on Saturday at the AO Arena in Manchester, England (ESPN+, 2 p.m. ET).
Animosity between the two English rivals has only intensified since Smith’s fourth-round TKO victory over Eubank in January. But this fight is more than about their personal dislike of each other, and someone’s career could take a nosedive after the fight.
ESPN gives you the background to one of boxing’s fiercest rivalries alive in the sport today.
Eubank, 33, from Brighton, has dismissed Smith’s shock, fourth-round win over him as ‘a miracle’ and complains that Smith beat him with an illegal blow (an elbow to the head) in that encounter. It would be dangerous for Eubank if he truly believes Smith’s win was down to misfortune, a premature stoppage or an aberration of the rules rather than anything to do with his strategy or defense.
“He was terrified of getting hit and when I did hit him, it was over,” Smith said after the fight.
Eubank failed to deal with the pressure he was under from early in the fourth round and was first floored by a huge left uppercut. With Eubank on unsteady legs after quickly getting to his feed, Smith finished him with a right to the head.
“I dominated the first three rounds, the third round I started hurting him. Maybe that gave me a false sense of security or made me have a short period of lack concentration and he took advantage of that,” Eubank recently told Sky Sports. “It was my fault and I have to make sure I never let that happen again.”
Eubank was left drunkenly staggering about the ring when the fight was stopped.
“He blamed the referee, which was laughable,” Smith said.
It was Eubank’s third professional defeat, after being unanimously outpointed by George Groves in a shot at the WBA “super” middleweight world title in 2018, and losing a split decision to Billy Joe Saunders at middleweight in 2014.
Best of enemies
Both went beyond what is acceptable in their pre-fight comments before their first encounter.
Smith, ESPN’s No 4 middleweight, questioned Eubank’s sexuality at a press conference a few days before their first fight, and Eubank made derogatory remarks about Smith’s private life and his home city of Liverpool.
This time around, Eubank has riled Smith by dismissing his win against him, while Smith has responded by calling his rival ‘deluded’.
“If I only have to touch you once and I land then you’re in trouble aren’t you,” Smith told Eubank during a Sky Sports broadcast.
“It was a one-shot wonder, and it will never happen again,” Eubank responded.
One of the questions around this fight is whether Smith can continue his remarkable good form he has hit late in his career.
The 35-year-old made two defenses as WBO junior middleweight champion in 2015 to 2016, but then suffered a few setbacks. After losing the title in a knockout loss to Canelo Alvarez in 2016, Smith was involved in two close wins against Liam Williams before getting dropped on his way to a unanimous points loss to Jaime Munguia for the same WBO title.
Smith responded to another decision loss to Magomed Kurbanov with an impressive eighth-round stoppage win over Liverpool rival Anthony Fowler, the first of four sharp performances which included the win over Eubank. Smith’s stopped former junior welterweight and welterweight champion Jessie Vargas in the tenth round before running through Eubank in four rounds.
It was Smith’s fourth successive stoppage victory and the form is firmly with him ahead of this weekend’s rematch.
Eubank changes team
Eubank has worked with various trainers in his career and sometimes preferred to work without one. The loss to Smith prompted Eubank to try something different and his former trainer Roy Jones Jr., the former four-weight world champion based in Florida, will not be in his corner for this one.
Instead Eubank will rely on the wisdom of another American, Brian McIntyre, the trainer of undisputed welterweight world champion Terence Crawford, the best boxer in the world at any weight. Eubank has been training at McIntyre’s gym in the U.S. in preparation for this fight. Eubank has spent significant periods training in Vegas throughout his career and hopes returning there will result in a rediscovery of form to validate his claims he is a better boxer than Smith.
However, Smith does not think the change will achieve anything.
“I feel what goes in one ear goes right out through the other ear with Chris,” Smith told Sky Sports. “I’m still learning. He can have the best coaches in his corner, it doesn’t make a difference. Chris is the one that has to change, he can’t box like he did last time.”
No time to lose
Eubank has never held a major world title and at 33 he cannot afford to lose more ground.
“My career is on the line,” Eubank said. “I’ve probably never had this amount of pressure on me.”
Despite calling out former champions such as Gennadiy Golovkin, and once being offered the world title fight with GGG, Eubank has yet to challenge for a world title at middleweight. Now at No. 5 with the WBC, and not ranked by the other three governing bodies, Eubank will find himself far from a title opportunity if he fails to avenge defeat to Smith.
Eubank’s father, Chris Sr., ruled as a middleweight and super middleweight world champion in the 1990s, but time is running out for Chris Jr. to win one of the four major belts (Chris Jr. held the WBA ‘interim’ title in 2019, which is not the full world title).
“I can’t lose, with Liam being able to say he’s a better fight than me,” Eubank said.
Smith is better placed. He is No. 3 and No. 2 with the WBC and WBO respectively and a victory over Eubank will be a big step towards facing either Jermall Charlo or Janibek Alimkhanuly in 2024. WBO titleholder Alimkhanuly seems a more likely route for Smith if he wins Saturday.
Conor Benn still in Eubank’s future — if he wins
Welterweight Conor Benn is still an option for Eubank should he get revenge over Smith. In a reprise of their fathers’ rivalry in the 1990s, Eubank-Benn would be a big fight for the U.K. market. The trouble is, doubt surrounds about when Benn can resume his career in the U.K.
A National Anti-Doping Panel ruling lifted Benn’s provisional suspension from boxing after he failed two drugs tests which forced a scheduled fight against Eubank last year to be cancelled in the week of the fight. But the British Boxing Board of Control and UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) have appealed against that decision to allow Benn to box.
Boxing — particularly in the U.K. — could do without another blow this weekend. Failed drugs tests on British soil (Robert Helenius and Dillian Whyte were the latest in the last month), fights failing to happen (Anthony Joshua-Whyte, Tyson Fury-Joshua, Fury-Oleksandr Usyk and Josh Taylor-Jack Catterall) and controversial comments (Smith and Eubank) have all created negative publicity for boxing this year. Smith-Eubank 2 is an opportunity to address the balance.