Well, it’s probably safe to say nobody saw that coming. Liam Smith, the smaller, older man, jumped up in weight to take on Chris Eubank Jr, and took him to pieces. The first three rounds had been tight, with Eubank seeming to get the upper hand with his jab. Then in the fourth, seemingly out of nowhere, Smith cleaned his clock. He knocked his opponent down with a combination, then finished the job when the referee let a dazed Eubank carry on. Even Smith, who says he did predict it, must surely have been anticipated a more prolonged affair, after breaking Eubank down a bit.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, though. With it we can see some clues, some bad habits of Eubank’s that Smith exploited, that were visible even in the earlier rounds. Let’s take a look and see what we can find.
The first thing to realise, when searching for reasons, is that nothing much was wrong with Eubank’s actual plan. He wanted to lead with the jab, peppering Smith with it through the middle of his high guard. Once that was established, he’d start to either step in and out or draw Smith on, and look to throw uppercuts up the middle or hooks round the side. All of those are sound ideas, which could in theory work well to bring Eubank’s speed and size advantage to bear. And, indeed, for the first three rounds they did. The first round was close, but Eubank seemed to be growing in to the fight and definitely won the third pretty clearly.
The end came from a combination that sent Eubank down. The most damaging punches were an uppercut that nearly took his head off and a left hand following that sent him down. Those ended the fight, for sure, with Eubank allowed to carry on but never recovering from that hurt. The initial damage, though, came just a second earlier in the same combination. Eubank tried to escape a previous uppercut by leaning back on to the ropes. He did take the sting off that one, but as he came back forward, he leant straight in to a right hand that Smith was throwing. It didn’t even seem that clean a shot, but with Eubank’s momentum taking him on to it, he clearly felt it. He visibly slumped, and it was then that his reactions started to be unguarded, not properly aware of what Smith was throwing.
Eubank later described this as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ shot, an out-of-nowhere miracle throw that Smith couldn’t repeat or have really intended. That, however, is not true. While it seemed sudden, it took advantage of several tendencies Eubank had been displaying already, even while up in the fight.
The first was that snap back to escape the uppercut. Now, much like with the gameplan in general, this isn’t inherently a terrible move for a fighter to make. Leaning back to avoid strikes is pretty common and often the best move. In addition, Smith had to that point been throwing quite a few looping overhands or hooks from both sides. Leaning or hopping back wasn’t a bad reaction to those. If they fell short they’d sail past his nose and give him chances to counter.
The problems that manifested themselves in the knockout were threefold. The first was that Eubank’s balance wasn’t good enough to consistently make that move without having to physically step back to stay steady. The best fighters pulling that maneuver are able to do it just shifting their balance back, maybe sliding their back foot a bit for better control but not really actually moving themselves away. Eubank, though, does need that step, and that means only a big reaction is in his repertoire. Sometimes, in tight spaces, that’s a weakness.
The second problem, somewhat relatedly, is that those fighters don’t then come back the same way. They have enough control to take their head off center line as they straighten up, making it much harder for an opponent to walk them into something. Think Anderson Silva vs Forrest Griffin. That’s what Eubank was trying to do. Because he didn’t have that control of his balance, though, he would often need to hop backwards to get clear, and almost every time he’d also just lean straight back up.
The third part of that ill-fated combination of factors was Eubank’s footwork more generally. He didn’t use the space in the ring well, for someone whose gameplan was based on using his length. Even before the KO, he’d found himself pushed to the ropes and corners unnecessarily, allowing Smith to trap him there for a bit. As long as he kept his head over his feet, that wasn’t too big a problem. He’d eat some shots but eventually clear some space with his jab and escape. The moment he tried the lean-back though... well, he simply didn’t have the space. He needed to hop, but he didn’t have anywhere to hop to, and bounced. So he needed to slide under the incoming straight right... but he couldn’t. He tried, he turned his head in an attempt, but his feet and legs weren’t right to actually drop a level and he took it on the temple.
It’s worth noting that it’s entirely possible that Smith knew what he was doing and planned to take advantage of exactly those tendencies. We’ll probably never know for sure, unless he talks us through it, exactly how precisely he intended all this. What Eubank was being taught by his coach- Roy Jones Jr, a master of that sort of fighting - has been clear from their previous fights together, though. And a smart gameplanner- which both Smith and his own coach Joe Mcnally seem to be - could have had some thoughts on how those would fit with some of Eubank’s old bad habits. It would be a stretch to say that he aimed for exactly this to happen, but trying a few things, seeing how Eubank reacted? Maybe throwing those earlier looping shots precisely to bait that step back? It’s certainly something a good fighter can do. And drawing a big overreaction while he himself kept it tight and simple is something Smith has relied on before.
Either way, that was it. Eubank did get up, but he couldn’t walk straight. Realistically, the referee could have stopped the fight there, but he let him try once more. It became immediately clear that he wasn’t defending himself, though. He was so gone that when the referee did wave it off, he didn’t even notice. Smith’s own coaches had to get in between and guide him to his corner. It was a pretty emphatic finish, and a spectacular one.
In the immediate aftermath, a rematch was mooted. Financially and in terms of the show, that makes sense, and there was the implication that Eubank has a rematch clause. If true, if he decides he wants it within a certain timeframe, it has to happen. He’s made some comments post-fight, though, that seem to suggest that if he takes it, it won’t be next. Quite why is unclear- whether he just wants to clear his head and regroup, or whether he’s carrying an injury he suspects won’t heal fast enough. He certainly did see his cheek swell up concerningly at the end of the fight, and if that’s broken it could be a while.
Whatever the reasons, if the rematch isn’t next, neither fighter can afford to spend time tuning up. Smith implied he wants Gennady Golovkin. That’s a risk, being new to this weight, but it might well be the right time to catch the aging Kazakh. And even if it’s a step too far still, it’s a big fight for him. The other champions at the weight might be tempting too, especially Jermall Charlo. If he can’t get one of those showcases, though, he might find it preferable to come back down to 154lbs. That’s a shark tank of a division at the moment, but he’s not at risk of being overpowered there. And winning this high-profile fight might make him a good proposition for some of the young contenders who want to test themselves.
Eubank has to have a think. Firstly, if it’s really working with Roy Jones. They seem to pair well personally, but it’s just not clear that the things Jones teaches are helpful for someone with the fundamental flaws Eubank displays. If not, though, he’ll have to listen to someone else, and that’s notably been a problem for him in the past. Either way, he also has to think about the weight. It’s too soon to say that cutting to 160 was an actual factor in his previously solid chin failing him here, but it might have been. He claims he still wants Conor Benn, and if he can make the natural welterweight come to 160 that might still be viable. Other than that, though, does he want to be taking big shots from fighters natural at the weight? Of course, as he goes up the opponents punch harder, but making weight comfortably can make such a difference. Ultimately, though, it’s just not really clear where he stands, so predicting the future is hard.
What he does have to do, though, is learn from this. At 33 he’s never going to become a technically flawless fighter, but boucning off the ring-ropes while his opponent throws a combination? Yeah, he can probably avoid that bit.