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Dublin: 3°C Thursday 3 December 2020

Tractors, hypnotists, and 'what are we doing in a cowshed?' - Sky Sports in Millstreet, 25 years on

Sky Sports’ head of boxing recalls Steve Collins’ 1995 upset win over Chris Eubank, and the local businessman who became ‘the star of the show’.

Steve Collins celebrates his world-title win over Chris Eubank in 1995.
Steve Collins celebrates his world-title win over Chris Eubank in 1995.

AN ENGLISHMAN, an American and an Irishman sit at a New York bar.

The Englishman is a boxing fan, the American is one of the world’s foremost boxing journalists, and the Irishman is, admittedly, a friend of mine who has overheard a debate between the other two and couldn’t help but pull up a stool.

The bar is Jimmy’s Corner on West 44th St in Midtown, global HQ for boxing discourse wherein fans can become journalists and journalists can be fans; the Mecca for men like these for whom a feed of $3 bottles of Whatever You’re Having Yourself is scarcely a prerequisite for hearty dialogue about who would beat whom, and how.

The back-and-forth between the English boxing fan and the American journalist regards Chris Eubank and his worthiness of induction to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Yay, says the Englishman. Nay, says the American.

They’re approaching the middle rounds when my friend, the Irish-boxing aficionado, slides up and quips in the direction of his English counterpart something along the lines of: ‘Hang on, mate. So, does Steve Collins deserve to be in the Hall of Fame as well, then? Because he bate Eubank twice.’

‘Well…’ hesitates the Englishman, making an error that’s about to cost him 20 minutes of his evening.

And away they go, the three of them.

‘Eubank was past his best; he wasn’t looking for knockouts; he was haunted by the Watson fight.’

‘He rebounded with two stoppage wins and then lost to Collins again!’

‘Eh, guys?’

‘But by then Eubank was really faded.’


‘Sure Benn had the same excuse — it’s always the same: Collins never got enough credit.’

‘Guys, realistically, Roy Jones Jr was the world champion at the weight, okay? The rest is actually kind of just semantics.’

‘Ah, don’t be such a fuckin’ American, mate, will ya?’

Eventually, the final bell sounds. Clink, clink, clink. ‘Cheers, men.’ ‘Cheers, lads.’ ‘Sláinte’ — the American, of course.

Against all odds, they have arrived at a unanimous decision, but not about Collins or Eubank or Jones or respective primes or prospective Hall-of-Fame inductions.

The Englishman and the Irishman who had been there in person, and the American who had watched it back retrospectively on a couple of occasions, are all in agreement about one thing: that was some night in Millstreet all the same.

steve-collins-1995 Steve Collins throws a left hand at Chris Eubank. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO


“A unique and unlikely venue for a world-championship fight,” said bemused and enthused Sky Sports presenter Paul Dempsey as, 25 years ago on Wednesday night, he turned away from analyst Barry McGuigan to face his eye-level camera, the stands of the Green Glens Arena frothing with anticipation behind him.

“Millstreet is little more than a dot on the map, a village deep in the countryside of County Cork, yet it has become a centre of excellence for major events — cultural and sporting.”

That particular transition had begun 23 years prior when businessman and horse breeder Noel C.Duggan, in a bid to boost the economy of his “stagnant and deteriorating” hometown, staged a small horse show in the town park.

By 1979, Duggan’s horse shows had become international affairs. In 1993, Millstreet hosted the Eurovision. And then, in 1995, it drew the eyes of the boxing world.

The locals came out in force to prepare the town and its prized 8,000-capacity indoor arena for one of the biggest prizefights ever to take place on these shores — and by far the biggest to take place anywhere in the province of Munster since Pat O’Connor beat Paddy Roche for the vacant Irish middleweight title at Clonmel’s Oisin Theatre in 1942.

And they didn’t need to be asked twice.

“It’s a very happy community, a very united community, all working together for the common good,” Duggan told Sky Sports. “Nobody is doing anything for money. Everybody gets a kick out of what’s happening.”

1427371302MDG 012.preview The Green Glens Arena, Millstreet.

Adam Smith, who has since become the head of Sky Sports Boxing, still gets a kick out of that famous night too — albeit he’s not especially fond of today being its 25th anniversary: “I can’t believe it’s been a quarter of a century,” he says over the phone from his home in London. “You’ve made me feel really old, there.

“It brings back so many memories. It was my first full year at Sky Sports and there was only a couple of us on the boxing team at the time. Sky was in its infancy and it was a really fun time to be involved in the TV world as a sort of junior, a young reporter.

Chris Eubank had started his world tour and we were very excited about that but unfortunately, it didn’t take much of the world in! I mean, we got one in Sun City [South Africa] but then there was one in Cardiff, one in Manchester, so it didn’t feel very global. And then all of a sudden came this bizarre announcement that we were off to County Cork.

“Now, as you well know, I holiday in West Cork and have done for 15 years or so,” says Smith, who owns a family cottage near Drinagh, the townland from which his wife’s grandmother hailed. “But 25 years ago, I didn’t really know Ireland at all. So, when we heard that this fight was going to happen in the middle of nowhere — in the middle of the County Cork countryside — it was really odd.

“Steve Collins was obviously known to us: he was the former WBO middleweight champion and he had spent a lot of time in America, but he wasn’t a big name. He was known to the boxing world — ‘The Celtic Warrior’ — and we knew he had been trained by the Petronellis [Goody and Pasquale] who previously had Marvin Hagler in Massachusetts, and he’d linked up with Freddie Roach who we knew. So, there were links, but we didn’t know of the appeal of Steve Collins in Ireland — or really anything.

“I was a young pup on the boxing team and I quickly knew we couldn’t have favourites but at university, I’d loved Eubank. It was Benn or Eubank and I loved Eubank. I loved the theatre, I loved all that came with it. And when he beat Benn I was so excited. So, I suppose, a bit of me, in the back of my mind, wanted Eubank to stay unbeaten against Collins and become this sort of complete boxing legend. But what happened was quite something.

I remember coming over quite early on in the build-up; we flew into Cork, drove up to Millstreet and it was surreal. Even arriving, we were wondering: ‘What are we doing in this sort of cowshed in the middle of the countryside?’ But actually, it was an incredible spot — the arena was fantastic. And it began my love affair with the Irish, just hanging around Millstreet and getting to talk to the locals.

“And then I met this fellow called Noel C. Duggan. He was the ringleader, really. He was the man who pulled it all together in Millstreet.

Noel C. was there on his tractor, going up and down the town and almost advertising the fight through his own voice. He didn’t even have a megaphone.

anthony-joshua-v-dillian-whyte-press-conference-four-seasons-hotel Sky Sports' head of boxing, Adam Smith. Source: PA

As for how a fight of this magnitude landed in Millstreet at all, Smith wasn’t privy to such conversations at the time but contends that it must have been then-Sky Sports chief Vic Wakeling who “made the deal” with Matchroom head honcho Barry Hearn to bring their boxing poster boy to North Cork. Mind you, he also recalls sitting down with Duggan and being told otherwise.

“And actually”, he adds, “being around Noel C. before the fight, you could definitely imagine him having banged on Barry’s door or Vic’s door and saying, ‘Hey, come on, we can make a real happening here — something completely different.’ And it was completely different.

And Noel C. showed me some letters when I saw him a few years ago that he had written to Vic and to Barry at the time, and he was absolutely convinced that it was he who had made it happen. Unfortunately, Vic has passed since then. Barry is still going strong and he’d tell you he made it, of course, because Barry is the ringmaster and ringleader of everything! But I think Noel C. had a huge part to play. He was tied to the Greens Glen Arena and I do literally remember him going up and down Millstreet, the Main Street, promoting the fight.

“Even if he wasn’t the man who put it all together — and he was certainly one of them — he was still the star of the show.”

steve-collins-v-chris-eubank-991995 Collins lands a left uppercut. Source: © Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Hearn was close with Eubank and despite his claims in the programme notes that Collins, whose career he also steered at this point, was considered by many to be capable of bringing to an end the Briton’s 43-fight unbeaten reign, the promoter would have been confident his flagship fighter would leave Leeside with his WBO World super-middleweight title tucked away in overhead storage.

Collins, his record at the time reading 28-3(16KOs), had 10 months prior stopped Chris Pryatt to win the equivalent middleweight strap, but he was moving up eight pounds in weight to challenge the British great. Justifiably, he was deemed the underdog. And then came a twist of his creation.

“Eubank was always the one on the front foot, the showman, the one who seemed to control everything,” Smith says. “I remember he came in on a motorbike on the night. Everything was centred on him.

But we had sort of forgotten, A: the passion of the Irish; B: the willpower of Steve Collins; and C: the tenacity of the man, because ultimately he spooked Eubank.

“Tony Quinn, wasn’t it? Dr Tony Quinn,” Smith recalls correctly. “The so-called hypnotist!”

steve-collins-at-the-weigh-in Collins at the weigh-in. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

At the weigh-in, Collins had told the 3,000-strong crowd that he had been hypnotised, that he couldn’t be hurt and that he wouldn’t bleed in the ring. “It’s not a gamble — it’s an investment,” he said of his decision to add the mysterious Quinn to his corner.

It was something of a ruse, of course. But it worried Eubank, and fooled plenty more like him.

“That really freaked Chris,” Smith says. “I remember him saying around, or after, the weigh-in, you know, ‘We’re out of here. I don’t want to be part of this. This is freaky. This is paranormal.

‘This is not right!’“, Smith adds, lending an admirable Eubank impression.

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“We were all wondering if Steve really had been put under. At the time, honestly, it was nearly like we were all put under.

“Everyone was confused but we all thought something was going on.

It was just really eerie to see Chris Eubank so completely befuddled — sort of fearing for his life because of this man, this doctor. ‘This witchdoctor’, Chris would say!

steve-collins-receives-a-count Collins receives a count after being knocked down. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

There is a chance, too, that Eubank feared not only — or not even — for his own life but for that of a supposedly hypnotised Collins.

In 1991, Eubank knocked out fellow Brit Michael Watson in the 12th round of a gruelling rematch which infamously resulted in Watson spending 40 days in a coma, undergoing six brain operations to remove a blood clot, spending a year in intensive care and six more of them in a wheelchair. For the first eight months, Watson couldn’t hear, couldn’t speak, and couldn’t walk. Miraculously, he eventually recovered all of those functions.

However, of the 14 Eubank bouts between Watson II in ’91 and Collins I in ’95, 12 had gone the distance.

The appetite for victory remained; the appetite for destruction not so much.

It was evident even during the Collins fight in Millstreet when, en route to his first defeat, Eubank dropped the Celtic Warrior for a second time in the 10th round but didn’t appear to seek a finish. Although to Collins’ credit, his toughness was such that one couldn’t say with any certainty that the end was nigh in any case.

“What happened with Michael Watson had definitely stayed with Chris,” Smith says. “There was something that ‘went’, there. That killer instinct, that wish to really hurt somebody may have slightly gone from him.

“So that might have just added to the mental issues going into the fight. Steve Collins was a hard man, and he was to Eubank’s mind under some sort of spell, so maybe Eubank felt he could damage Collins, too.

“But you have to say, whatever Steve did, it worked. He had Eubank where he wanted him — he had him flustered. Steve got into the ring and he had the headphones in and the hood up. He kept it going, the idea that he was ‘in that zone’.

“The mind games were fantastic and they played an enormous part in it, because I know Chris was worried going into the ring. And Steve took full advantage.

“He utilised the mind, but he utilised actual boxing skill on the night. Funnily enough, in the rematch in Cork [Páirc Uí Chaoimh], it was very different: it was a physical Steve Collins who out-hustled and out-bullied Chris. But in the original, he outfought the master. He actually boxed really well.

“And Eubank had been lucky in a couple of previous fights — he had sort of scraped through a couple, so maybe he was owed a defeat. But it was a massive story, that he had finally been beaten, and Steve Collins had become a two-weight world champion. Collins foxed him and he boxed him, and I think the roar of the crowd willed him on.

It’s one of the best atmospheres I ever remember in any arena anywhere in the world. It was a raucous, raucous noise in there. And the scenes afterwards were spectacular.

steve-collins-talks-to-the-press-after-the-fight Collins speaks to the press after the fight. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In his current role as head of Sky Boxing, Smith remains hopeful that before Katie Taylor retires, he can work with Barry Hearn’s son, Eddie, to bring a fight of hers to Millstreet — or somewhere else in rural Ireland — and create such memories for the next generation. It’s still a pipe dream for now.

Taylor’s women’s superfight with Amanda Serrano in Manchester is still — officially, anyway — due to become reality on 2 May, but the new reality into which we’re all currently staring will likely soon dictate otherwise.

And in such times, with almost no sport to look forward to, the only option is to look backwards with fondness. 25 years is, whisper it, a long time, but for Smith, Collins-Eubank I is still emblazoned on the mind, a professional highlight which in the years that followed had positive ramifications in a more personal context.

“It was an unbelievable fight, and an unbelievable night for Irish sport — a very, very special night,” he says. “One that I experienced very early on in my career, but one that still resonates with me today. And not just the fight, but the whole experience. It made me want to get to know Ireland more, especially the Cork area, which I later did. And I love it there.

“And I think the night was possible because of three people: it was made possible by Vic Wakeling — he was a big boxing fan, formerly head of Sky Football, and he wanted to really put his mark on the sport and do something different; big events.

“I think Barry Hearn wanted to put the show on and wanted to make something memorable.

“But the third person is Noel C. Duggan. He was the circus master. He was the guy who whipped up the town, whipped up the crowd. He was the man.

I thought he was about a hundred at the time in 1995, Noel C! But Steve Collins and I went back to Millstreet [for a Sky Sports piece] — I think it was 19 years afterwards — and he was still going strong. An incredible man. A phenomenon. He made a dream come true for himself and the people of Ireland. Noel C. Duggan is a name that will stay with me forever.

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