| Watson is a lasting example of a sportsman refusing to allow his spirit to shrivel in a wrecked body
The final photograph of Michael Watson’s six-day London Marathon was of him at the finish with two fellow prize-fighters: Chris Eubank, the man who maimed him, and Spencer Oliver, who had his own near-death experience in the ring. Maybe he needed the brotherhood to be there for him to understand his own achievement.
In that moment, boxing reclaimed one of its victims, and gently reminded the country that Watson’s stoicism on the hard roads of London was an extension of the kind of courage he summoned inside the ropes. This peculiar strain of bravery, which few of us non-combatants really comprehend, clusters under the Marquis of Queensberry’s tattered flag, and survives crippling injury, brain disorders and even death.
Watson had to be stubborn, valiant, intrepid to even think about lacing up boxing gloves at the level he attained. To call him “brave” after his 26.2 mile walk — on which he raised some £1 million for charity — almost sticks in the throat. How can we, in the safe seats, attach such approximations to ordeals we’ve never experienced ourselves, and hope we never will' We’re stuck with a floppy thesaurus of admiration.
I don’t know what kind of “courage” enabled this Lazarus of the gym to transform himself from husk to hero, because I don’t suppose I possess it myself. But there does seem to be something in a championship-class fighter’s make-up that enables him to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the face of relentless incoming blows.
The beauty of Watson’s journey, in which he started with other runners in the London Marathon and then walked as much as he could each day — was that it contradicted all the normal rules of sport, and certainly of running.
Paula Radcliffe went fast, fast, fast; Watson went slow, slow, slow. But which story had you thinking about it all day, showing it to your children, waiting anxiously for the next instalment'
And so we cast around for comparable examples of athletes defeating their own infirmities. At last summer’s Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Natalie du Toit, a South African swimmer, made the able-bodied 800m final 17 months after losing her left leg at the knee in a motorcycle accident. Some will call out the name of Lance Armstrong, who recovered from vicious, multiple cancer to win the Tour de France. However the miracle was wrought, Armstrong was at least “well” again when he returned to competitive cycling. Watson toiled against the damage through every step for almost a week.
It ought to be obvious that he wasn’t competing against the tarmac and exhaust fumes. His was not a victory over course and distance. It was a triumph over his body, and what Eubank inadvertently did to it. (Watson spent 40 days in a coma after collapsing in the ring against Eubank. He was not expected ever to walk again.) Aside from the paralympics, where such feats are common — as Watson would be the first to concede — there is no more lasting example of a sportsman refusing to allow his spirit to shrivel in a wrecked body.
Self-liberation is the greatest freedom of all. Michael Watson is trapped no more.