Belfast Telegraph

I was at the top of my game when I failed an MRI scan. It was hard to accept and, in fact, I never did

Following the bout that saw boxer Nick Blackwell left in a coma, Ray Close recalls his fights with Chris Eubank and the failed brain scan that ended his career

By Jim Gracey

Sometimes, in his job helping passengers with mobility difficulties at Belfast City Airport, former boxing champion Ray Close catches a glimpse of the man with whom his destiny will be forever linked.

Back in the news, Chris Eubank Sr will be entering or exiting the executive lounge on his way to or from another lucrative engagement.

Given their past history, Close, now 47, could be forgiven for wondering what might have been. Instead, he offers a cheery greeting to his old adversary and they go on their separate ways and lives.

It could all have been so different. His 1990s generation of boxing fans and historians of the fight game will remember how the pride of east Belfast twice fought Eubank to a standstill in still-talked-about world title fights.

The first, in Glasgow in 1993, was declared a draw with both men claiming victory. But the bigger controversy erupted in the 1994 rematch at Belfast's King's Hall as Close looked to have done enough to win an epic WBO Super Middleweight title only for Eubank to be declared world champion again on a split points decision, meaning the three judges had differed in their verdicts.

To this day, having frequently watched the video re-runs, Close maintains the scoring was skewed and that one judge's final round points award could not have been counted, otherwise he would have been world champion.

Instead, Eubank went on to a millionaire lifestyle, through boxing and celebrity status, while Close was dealt yet another cruel blow within months, just ahead of a third crack at Eubank and his title.

A routine MRI scan at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital revealed the presence of two lesions on Close's brain, and the British Boxing Board of Control promptly revoked his licence to box.

Now, it has all been brought back, two-fold, with Eubank a central figure in the debate over the plight of injured fighter Nick Blackwell, placed in an induced coma after developing swelling on the brain during a bruising contest with Chris Eubank Jr more than a week ago.

Close has been following the story and his thoughts, naturally, are with the stricken boxer and the future he will face now that he is out of the coma, as his family hope, without life-changing injury effects.

Blackwell is unlikely to fight again and while many will believe he should count his blessings, Close offers a insider's perspective that only an old fighter can.

"I truly hope the lad makes a full recovery, but its not for me to say what he should do then," said Close. "That's up to the medical people and, if they give the okay, then it's up the lad himself.

"Believe me, it is the worst thing a fighter can be told, that you will never step into the ring again. When it happened to me, I was plunged into such a deep depression that lasted a long time.

"I was at the top of my game. I had a chance of becoming world champion and I believed I would. Then to have it taken away from me... it was hard to accept. In fact I never did.

"I was an Irish and European champion and I dreamed of becoming a world champion.

"I had a vision of beating Eubank and then going on to unify all the world titles in my division at the time.

"I wanted to fight and beat all the other title holders to become the undisputed champion of the world. Money was never my motivation. I just wanted those belts.

"So I feel for Nick Blackwell, both in his predicament and for the career hopes he will have had."

But far from stoking painful memories of past injustice and opportunities lost, Close is remarkably upbeat. There is no hint of bitterness nor ill will towards any of the parties he could deem to have wronged him, down in part to his glass half-full outlook on life and also the Mormon faith he quite literally became immersed in with a ritual baptism under water at the age of 13.

Now living in Bangor, he is an elder of the church and is surprised to be even asked if he ever saw a conflict between his beliefs and his art.

"Why would there be?" he asks. "Boxing is a sport like any other - fitness and clean living is paramount."

Close loved the fight game so much and still harbours hopes of donning the gloves again.

"That would be my wish," he said. "If someone picked up the phone and made me an offer, I would fight again tomorrow, but it would have to happen soon as I'm getting nearly 50."

That isn't going to happen, given those lesions still remain, although Close contends they were pre-existing; present in his first scan when he turned pro in 1988.

"Lots of people have them and don't know," he added. "Mine only showed up because, as a boxer, I had to have the scan."

To prove a point, he applied for and was awarded a US licence in the state of Illinois, finishing his career with a run of five straight victories.

Boxing is in the Close DNA, to the extent his daughter Sarah has become a successful amateur fighter. "Sarah is on honeymoon now, having just got married, so I don't know if she'll have as much time for boxing when she gets back," he said.

His own involvement is now confined to watching on television. And casting a professional eye on the ill-fated Eubank-Blackwell contest, he exonerates both the referee, heavily criticised for not stopping the fight, and young Eubank, urged from the ringside by Eubank Sr to stop landing head punches, from blame for the potential tragedy.

He said: "The referee took his lead from the medical people who said it was okay to carry on, and young Eubank was doing what he was trained to do. They have nothing to reproach themselves about."

As for the very prominent figure of Eubank Snr, does Close not feel even a tinge of regret, seeing him back in the news or on their brief airport encounters?

"Why would I have hard feelings?" he replied. "Sure he knows I beat him."

Belfast Telegraph


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