Last week marked the 20th year anniversary of a tragic date for boxing, a night which left one of the sports best in a critical condition, a night which started so brightly for the American Gerald McClellan ended with him on the canvas fighting for his life.
The man standing across the ring from him was Nigel Benn, the confident Dark Destroyer who held the WBC Super Middleweight title looking to stave off the challenge of McClellan who was coming up in weight class having annihilated the hard-hitting Julian Jackson.
The scene was set, the New London arena was in full attendance, all of which were left silenced in the night’s opener as McClellan’s famed punching power was felt, leaving Benn on his back, dropping through the ropes which were propping him up momentary. Benn looked flabbergasted as TV personnel held outstretched arms to stop Benn landing on their ringside table.
Returning to his feet Benn looked on unsteady legs as the American looked to end the night early, straining on his leash like a rabid dog, the referee on more than one occasion could be seen separating the two men for more than the time required, many onlookers at the time thought of the action as favouring the home fighter, still in a very one-sided natured round on numerous occasions McClellan shook Benn who looked fortunate to get through the nights opener.
The free throwing McClellan continued his assault throughout the second but Benn started to find the target as he stepped inside the guard, ripping his hooks, the capacity crowd upping the octaves with every landed shot.
In the third McClellan looked at times to be struggling with his stamina, often seen with his mouth guard hanging from his mouth, still he was landing but unlike in the frantic first, Benn was now able to weather the storm as he continued on the front foot looking to wear down his man. This continued for the next few rounds as both men traded bombs, Benn following McClellan around the ring, not allowing any respite to the high octane encounter.
While watching on as a young man I felt the drama which was unfolding, sitting on the edge of my seat, mesmerised by the action seeing two men at the peak of their powers in a battle of wills.
Still I felt it to be alarming to see McClellan who was quite evidently having issues with his breathing, the mouth guard a clear indicator of this as the referee let the action continue without a second look, sure he was still throwing shots with bad intentions but something was very wrong in the way in which he was acting in between the action, still blinking heavily, his chest showing signs of having trouble breathing, I find it difficult even as a person watching on not to be concerned about this as should the corner and the man in charge.
As the fight entered its conclusion, the momentum was with Benn but as we looked on, McClellan was in clear discomfort again more regularly seen squinting his eyes in between breaks in the action. I must have watched the contest too many times to count but it strikes me each and every time as McClellan takes a knee from the multiple of hooks / uppercuts coming his way in the tenth, the second one being the hardest to watch as he brings his glove up to his face before the camera picks up on the seriousness of it all as McClellan blinks continuously, drawing breath at an alarming rate even taking the quickness of the bout into consideration. He then looks up at the referee with a shake of the head as the third man (referee) counts him out.
Benn quite rightly so, turns to the crowd who acknowledge the victor, McClellan slowly, gingerly walks to his corner before collapsing, The British Board of Control doctors surrounding him as concern overcame all.
Reporters flocked to Benn afterwards as he told them of his outlook on the fight “You know what? This is what you wanted to see, You got what you wanted to see”
The commentators at the time were Jim Watt and Reg Gutteridge whose haunting words to this day send chills down my spine as just before knowing the seriousness of the situation he fired off “That’s what they call punching the life out of you”
Little did Reg know that he was so close to being true. McClellan was rushed to the emergency room shortly after the fight was waved off where surgeons worked tirelessly to remove a blood clot from his brain. The American spent eleven days in a coma where afterwards we would read about the full extent of the damage he suffered on the night of February 25th. McClellan had lost his eyesight, his ability to walk and was 80 per cent deaf from the near 30 minutes he tried to capture the title, a young man left to the care of his sister Lisa.
Suggestions to this day continue to haunt this story, questions remain not answered, those of which are based around the referee and his decision not to call a halt to the fight earlier knowing/seeing that from as early as the third round that McClellan could be seen breathing heavily and blinking continuously? Since then doctors has been asked of their opinion to which they state that the two in conjunction are seen as an indicator of a brain injury. To this day the referee Alfred Asaro maintains that the American’s corner are too blame as the vicious circle continues in vain to find its guilty conclusion.
Emanuel Steward who had previously worked with McClellan gave his view, looking at it from a different perspective, going to say that McClellan had dived at the weight, coming into the contest 2Ibs under, he suggested the preparation was rushed.
It is a fight which will stay with the executioner in effect, Nigel Benn until the day he passes, a burden which he carries with sadness for his former foe.
Gerald now relies on the generous nature of others with organisations helping him to stay afloat with care and essentials such as food, electricity and a roof over his head. It’s a heart rendering look at someone who could have been a superstar of the sport.
I leave you in remembrance of a fight which drew me in all those years ago with excitement all of which ended up leaving me with a heavy heart looking on as a fallen soldier clung to life.