By his own admission, former boxer Michael Watson shouldn’t be walking or talking. After sustaining a near-fatal brain injury during a world title fight with Chris Eubank in 1991, he spent many years in rehabilitation, eventually defying his doctors to recover some movement and regain the ability to speak and write. Today, the fighter who nickname was ‘The Force’ is determined to be a force for good, and we met him at his Chingford home to discuss his remarkable life and he’s just become a patron of The Dream Factory, a local charity that grants the wishes of poorly youngsters:
The sky was leaden and the rain torrential, which according to the weather forecast would last all day, but nothing could dampen the spirits inside one Chingford home recently, where excited chatter, good natured banter and loud guffaws rang out throughout the usually quiet cul-de-sac.
The house in question is that of Michael Watson, the former champion boxer whose successful career came to a crashing halt 30 years ago nearly to the day, when Chris Eubank delivered a devastating uppercut during a world title fight (one which Watson had been winning, having controversially lost their previous fight, a verdict that’s still hotly contested). It caused such catastrophic damage that Watson was in intensive care for a year, and wheelchair bound for a further six.
Cut down in his prime, Watson was jus 26 at the time in peak physical fitness, it could so easily have signalled the complete end of his life as he knew it. Buch such was his amazing resilience and profound faith (he is a devout believer, but is at pains to point out that he does not subscribe to any organised religion – ‘I am a free spirit ‘ he states.), Watson managed to get back on his feet, and even managed to complete the London Marathon in 2003, taking six days and raising an incredible £150,000 for the Brain and Spine Foundation in the process.
Today, however we are sitting in Michaels light and airy living room to discuss another charity, The Dream Factory, which he has just become a patron of. With me is Dream Factory founder Avril Mills, who started the charity back in 2008 in memory of her nine-year old son Oliver, who died of leukaemia. Having granted more than 500 dreams to date, she’s hoping to be able to grant a great deal more, especially now she has Michael on board.
For his part, Michael couldn’t be more thrilled to be involved. ‘I can see what these children are going through, and I can really really understand their disabilities’ he explains. ‘I’ve been through what they’ve been through and I feel this connection with them. I believe I am here for a purpose and I want to help motivate these youngsters. I am so happy to have a chance to do this through The Dream Factory’ he says leaning over to squeeze Avril’s hand.
At this point, Michaels’s full time carer, Haroun Topalak, comes in, offering tea and biscuits. A slight, wiry man compared to Michael, who has the trademark physique of an ex-boxer (he still trains every day), it’s immediately apparent that these two get on like the proverbial house on fire. Trading nicknames – Michael is ‘The Champ’ and Haroun is ‘Governor General’ – Michael credits Haroun with ‘bringing back the force in me’.
While today he is in fine fettle, joking and fist bumping and cackling with laughter, life for Michael has not been with its ‘dark spells’, most recently in 2017 when he and his then carer were car jacked while out and about in Chingford, a place he’s called home for more than 21 years. Dragged 500 metres down the road, his physical injuries healed, but the mental one ran much deeper, with Michael starting to display symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
‘I went into a shell – I kept having flashbacks and didn’t want to go out, but Haroun came along and he has really helped me. He’s brought back the real me’ states Michael fondly. We’ve brought back each other Haroun interjects.
As we sit chatting, the conversation gets round to Chris Eubank and his recent appearance on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. Michael enquires if Avril and I have seen it, and we have to admit we have not. Quick as a flash, Haroun has it set up on the TV and for the next wo minutes we watch transfixed.
In what is probably one of the most moving TV moments I’ve seen in a long time, a tearful Eubank tells Michael who is sitting in the audience how he struggles to find the words to say how sorry he is. To which Michael replies ‘ It’s ok, bruv. Let’s move on in life I love you Chris. It’s all in the past. This could have happened to anyone. It was a sheer accident.
Asked how the encounter made him feel, Michael’s trademark mega-watt smile briefly leaves him. ‘Emotional’ he says softly. ‘Yes very emotional. It bought back many memories. But determined to move on and keep things upbeat, he then asks me, eyes twinkling, who I think was the best dressed on the show, him or Chris? ‘You of course I say, to which he breaks out into his highly-infectious laugh.
Before we leave, Michael is keen to show us some of the trophies and awards he’s received over the years, many of which decorate the walls of his house. Taking pride of place in the living room, above the cream leather sofa, is his MBE, awarded by the Queen in 2004 for his services to disability sport. Meanwhile on a sideboard rests his two honorary belts, one from the WBC and the other from the WBO both declaring him the ‘People’s Champion’.
He might have been denied that world title, but we can’t help thinking that this one suits him better.