Sitting at her kitchen table Lisa McClellan studies the black and white photograph of her brother, former world middleweight champion; Gerald McClellan. It captures the fighter accompanied by his entourage, his name emblazed across his boxing robe, as he makes the short journey from his dressing room to the ring to challenge Nigel Benn for the WBC super-middleweight title in London on the 25th February 1995.
“This picture makes me wonder, what went through his mind,” she solemnly admits.
This was the final fight of Gerald McClellan’s boxing career.
Despite being one of the most dramatic fights ever contested in a British ring, testing both the courage and endurance of both combatants the bout was marred by tragedy as McClellan suffered near fatal injuries which have left him permanently disabled.
McClellan lives today in the small town of Freeport, Illinois two hours west of Chicago. He is blind, requires the use of a wheelchair and suffers difficulty with comprehension. He survives with the help of his close family, particularly his sisters who provide twenty four hour care.
Gerard McClellan was not the first, or the last casualty of the ring but his bout with Nigel Benn was significant in that it managed to completely strip boxing of all its glamour and expose the raw violence and inhumanity of the sport. It underlined the vulnerability of fighters and demonstrated the ultimate price that is paid by both professionals when things go wrong in a boxing contest.
In February 1995 Gerald McClellan was the mandatory challenger for Nigel Benn’s super-middleweight world title. Already a two time middleweight champion he was once described as, “the most violent man ever to put on a pair of gloves.” McClellan was an explosive talent in the ring with one of the greatest knockout ratios in middleweight history.
He carried two losses on his record, each on points and both over eight rounds. He attributed the first loss to a lack of sparring and the second to being overworked. He had rebounded from these setbacks with twenty one straight victories with only three of his opponents having gone further than three rounds.
McClellan was no stranger to a British ring. He had won the WBO World Middleweight title vacated by Chris Eubank with a first round stoppage of the ferocious John Mugabi at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1991. In May 1993, he acquired the WBC World middleweight title with a fifth round stoppage of renowned power puncher Julian Jackson. He made three defences, knocking out each opponent in the first round before relinquishing the title to campaign as a super-middleweight.
From his training camp for the Benn fight in the Peacock Gym, Canning Town a supremely confident McClellan told The Independent’s Ken Jones, “I always go for a quick finish and I’m confident a knockout will happen. Of course it makes sense to train for twelve rounds but Benn isn’t going very far believe me.”
McClellan had an appetite for destruction. He regularly drew parallels between his mentality as a fighter and the ferocious fighting ability of a pit bull. He sported a tattoo on his bicep of his prized pit bull, ‘Deuce,’ a nod to his affinity for dog fighting. McClellan’s familiarity with violence continued throughout his pre-fight rhetoric, “Boxing is war,” he said, “and in war you have to be prepared to die.”
There was perhaps no other fighter at the time more prepared to go to war in a boxing ring than Nigel Benn. A former soldier from London’s East End, Benn had punched his way into the public consciousness combining bombastic performances with a degree of vulnerability that always left fans on the edge of their seats. Outside the ring he cultivated a hard man image which ran parallel to his hedonistic lifestyle. He was rightly regarded as the wild man of British boxing.
Benn had captured world titles in two divisions and the only blemishes on his professional record were in fights against Michael Watson and Chris Eubank but at 31 years old he was approaching the veteran stage of his career. A dangerous mandatory defence was something he could have done without but Benn’s options were limited.
The week prior to the fight, Nigel Benn was in court over a financial dispute with his former trainer Brian Lynch. He had also recently split from his last trainer Jimmy Tibbs over monetary issues and his promoter Frank Warren was threatening to sue him if he didn’t help publicise the fight with McClellan.
Benn had developed a reputation for not fulfilling his promotional duties in recent fights. He had more pressing issues on his mind. In 1993 he had split from his wife Sharron and a year later he had moved with his new partner Carolyne to Los Angeles. He was struggling to cope without his children and it was an emotional low for Benn who had gone as far as enlisting the help of celebrity hypnotist Paul McKenna to ease his suffering.
Nothing in the pre-fight build up favoured a Benn victory. The fight was billed as “Sudden Impact,” an overt reference to the anticipated fallout between two dynamic punchers on a collision course destined for the boxing ring. Nobody in the British boxing press gave Nigel Benn a chance. Added to that, McClellan’s credentials saw him installed as the heavy favourite with the bookmakers with Benn a 4-1 underdog. The more cynical observers might have suggested that the powers that be were conspiring against Nigel Benn.
McClellan’s promoter Don King was promoting the fight in the UK in association with Frank Warren. Benn had be uncooperative in the past with both King and Warren in the promotion of his contests. King saw McClellan as the natural rival to the premier super-middleweight at the time; IBF champion Roy Jones Jr. McClellan had beaten Jones in the amateurs but to make a showdown in the professional ranks as big as it could be, McClellan needed a title to make it a unification fight.
As Benn would later say, “They only brought him over here to bash me up,” confirming what the dogs on the street already knew.
Despite being the overwhelming betting favourite McClellan was not without his own pre-fight preoccupations. McClellan had turned professional under the manager and trainer Emmanuel Steward at the Kronk gym in Detroit, but a year before the fight with Benn the partnership ended when McClellan felt Steward was devoting too much of his time to other fighters in his stable. Speaking to Boxing Monthly Steward said of the split, “It wasn’t that I wouldn’t give him enough attention, but he started giving orders and that’s not the way I work.” Nevertheless, Steward was replaced with Stan Johnson who had been the G-Man’s first trainer. McClellan was eager to secure a fight with Roy Jones Jr and cement his own status as the biggest attraction outside the heavyweights. However, he would have to get past Nigel Benn first.
As the fight loomed the atmosphere surrounding it took on a life of its own. Danny Flexen the former publishing manager for Boxing News was in the crowd in the London arena, “The atmosphere was rabid and violent as if association with such a brutal fight had transcended the fight and permeated the crowd.”
The fight was a brutal almost primeval affair. “Never have I witnessed a fight of such intensity,” said the former editor of Boxing Monthly the late Glyn Leach, “The instinct that McClellan, and more particularly Benn called upon are buried deep in the mists of mankind’s long-forgotten past, centuries before such things as religion gradually brought man to his current state of sensibility. This was truly an unholy war.”
“That night Benn and McClellan brought to the ring all the ferocious intent the fight industry demands,” said The Guardian journalist and author Kevin Mitchell, whose book War Baby; The Glamour of Violence provides the definitive story on the events surrounding the Benn-McClellan fight.
The opening onslaught saw Benn punched completely out of the ring in the first round. The partisan crowd were banging on the walls of the arena to rouse Benn from his knockdown. He rallied in the second driving McClellan back with his power punching. The ferocious exchanges continued. It seemed Benn was wilting in the sixth and he dropped to the canvas in the eighth under a barrage of blows from the American. The end seemed in sight but Benn battled back once more dropping McClellan in the ninth with a powerful right hander.
In the tenth round an exhausted McClellan dropped to one knee, after an accidental head-butt. At the end of the round he would take another knee. He was blinking uncontrollably while the French referee Alfred Asaro administered the count.
Renowned boxing trainer Brendan Ingle, who during the 90s trained an impressive stable of fighters including; Herol Graham, Johnny Nelson and Naseem Hamed from his Wincobank gym in Sheffield was working as an assistant corner man for the McClellan camp.”It was the most savage fight I have ever seen from the corner,” he recalls. “To me it was obvious a few rounds earlier that something wasn’t right with McClellan. McClellan’s chief second, Stan Johnson was so wrapped up in the fight, which his fighter was still very much in, that maybe he threw caution to the wind.”
The visceral feeling for the 12,000 fans in the arena and the 17 million viewers watching from the safety of their living rooms, was that McClellan had quit at the end of the tenth round. Former world lightweight champion Jim Watt providing commentary for UK viewers on ITV exclaimed to his colleague Reg Gutteridge, “He’s quit Reg! He’s quit!” The US TV coverage provided by Showtime saw their resident ‘Fight Doctor,’ Ferdie Pacheco comment, “I never saw a guy quit in a corner like that.”
Quitting is regarded as a cardinal sin in boxing, but no one had realised that when McClellan collapsed in his corner he had a blood clot on his brain. Even as McClellan was removed from the ring on a stretcher he perpetuated his ‘quit,’ theory in his post-fight interview with Benn. Perhaps he should be forgiven, McClellan was ahead on all three Judges’ score cards when the bout was halted and Pacheco wasn’t the only person at ringside who thought McClellan quit.
It only served to prove that there is no sentimentality in boxing. The Benn-McClellan fight validated the unspoken belief that fighters are expected to lay down their lives in the name of entertainment. Nigel Benn put it in the simplest terms he could, “This is what you wanted to see. You got what you wanted to see.”
“The Benn-McClellan fight is boxing’s dirtiest secret,” said journalist and author Ben Dirs in his book The Hate Game, “It was everything most fans wanted. Except, the someone nearly dying bit. Only when fighters do get hurt do people question their own blood-lust.” Danny Flexen recalls the pandemonium in the arena following the Benn win, “Fights broke out in the crowd, and chairs were slung around but the elation quickly turned to deflation as people gradually realised how much trouble McClellan was in.”
After his collapse McClellan received immediate medical attention and was rushed to the nearby trauma unit of the Royal London Hospital where the blood clot was removed from his brain. It should be noted that the five doctors, including an anaesthetist, four paramedics and two ambulances that were on hand to provide the lifesaving treatment on McClellan were only there as a result of the reforms introduced in boxing following the inadequate first response treatment Michael Watson had received when he suffered a similar injury in the his world title fight with Chris Eubank in 1991.
Following his post-fight interviews with the media Nigel Benn returned to his dressing room and collapsed with exhaustion. He received treatment and for a brief time he was reunited with his opponent in the Royal London Hospital. He was released the next day when an x-ray indicated that his injuries did not extend to a broken jaw as previously feared. It would be twelve years before both fighters would be reunited.
While Gerald McClellan lay in a hospital bed the world of boxing was coming under fire. James Tye the director general of the British Safety Council said, “I’m a little bit horrified, because right from the beginning of the fight there wasn’t much boxing. It was just one bloke trying to injure the other bloke’s brain.” It was a harsh observation, and even harder to ignore given that one of the combatants was now fighting for his life.
Harry Mullen, the former editor of Boxing News said in the immediate aftermath of the fight, “Gerald McClellan is on a life support machine today because he boxed, and because boxing is a dangerous sport. That is the hard fact we must face.”
It was getting harder to justify the sport’s place in civilised society. British boxing had faced a quick succession of ring fatalities with the passing of Bradley Stone and James Murray and it seemed the resolve of even the most reverent supporters of boxing was being tested. Despite producing a career defining performance Nigel Benn was so affected by the tragedy that he deemed the win, ‘worthless.’
Glyn Leach writing in Boxing Monthly rallied to the defence of the noble art, “Despite what outsiders might think, boxers do not deliberately seek to do such damage to each other…incidents such as this are rare, as are fights of the intensity of Benn-McClellan…and while trying to convey my genuine feeling for those involved, I cannot term two men giving of their best as ‘worthless’. Far from it-Benn-McClellan was magnificent and deserves to be remembered as such. Anything else would be an insult.”
Boxing is one of the oldest and most resilient sports in the world. It is a testament to the sport that it didn’t fall into obscurity after the tragedy that befell McClellan. Perhaps what repelled the public from boxing continued to draw them in.
Gerald McClellan spent eleven days in a coma and was left with extensive brain damage. He returned to the United States in August 1995 with the $54,000 he was paid for the fight and an additional $100,000 from Don King as part of an insurance policy. He returned to his home in Freeport, faced with annual medical bills in the region of $70,000.
In the years that followed the McClellan family were locked in a lengthy dispute with their brothers’ former promoter Don King. This included a very public row with King over his claims that he paid for McClellan’s medical bills, which he produced receipts amounting to $226,798. There was also great animosity between the McClellan family and Nigel Benn relating to comments he made to the press in the aftermath of the fight.
Nigel Benn may have been the victor but he did not escape the fight completely unscathed. “The consequences of Benn and McClellan’s total commitment for the entertainment of others were brutal,” said Kevin Mitchell, “Gerald suffered more by some distance but Nigel suffered too, spiritually and it has taken him years to deal with it.”
Despite winning the defining fight of his career Benn was not the same after the McClellan fight. He lost his world title to Sugar Boy Malinga and retired two years later following back-to-back losses to Steve Collins. Life after boxing was difficult and at one point Benn attempted to take his life through suicide. He overcame his demons outside the ring to be ordained as a born again preacher and he now lives in Australia. Speaking to The Ring magazine in 2015 Benn said, “I rarely think about it to be honest and it’s only discussed when someone bring it up. It’s part of my life that’s behind me and I don’t really dwell on it.”
In 2007, the fighters were reunited as part of a fundraiser in London for McClellan. Reports indicate it was an emotional night and Benn confirmed that he spoke with McClellan who acknowledged that it was an accident and that he didn’t blame Benn for what has happened. The reconciliation between the fighters has not stopped others from trying to determine what led to McClellan’s life altering injuries.
The 2011 ITV documentary The Fight of their Lives, explored the factors that contributed to the tragedy. The French referee who couldn’t speak English, the long count that allowed Benn back into the fight in the opening round, McClellan coming in underweight; an indicator of poor preparations, McClellan’s inexperienced corner led by the Sailor capped trainer Stan Johnson, McClellan’s constant blinking not being checked by the referee; all these issues were explored but all it does is remind us of the inherent risks in boxing.
It is over twenty years since the tragedy and Gerald McClellan remains the man most damaged by tragedy in a British ring. Unfortunately he must live with the consequences of being a professional fighter every day for the rest of his life. The care that he requires is expensive and his medical bills have gobbled up his career earnings and insurance policies. His family established a trust in his name and continue to host fundraisers to assist with his ongoing care.
Much had been made about his ferocious ring persona but Martin Bowers from the Peacock Gym, in Canning town, where McClellan trained while in London remembers a distinctly different side to the man, “McClellan had got a bad press around the time of the fight but he didn’t bring any of that into the gym. He never said anything untoward about anyone. He wasn’t aloof, he just did his training, had his coffee, checked his weight and talked about his dogs. He was just a genuine guy interested in his dogs and his boxing.”
Despite everything that has been written about Gerald McClellan over the years he was not the bogeyman, he is just a man. A brother, a father and someone’s son. As is Nigel Benn who continues to bear the unspeakable grief that men who have maimed or killed another in the ring must bear. As Kevin Mitchell puts it, “They suffered enormously for our pleasure,” which remains a hard pill for fans to swallow.
For the arm chair critics, keyboard warriors and internet trolls who criticise, laugh and sneer at fighters when they fall from grace or slump to defeat they would do well to respect the fact that fighters put everything on the line when they step into the ring. Anything less would be an insult.
If you would like to donate to the Gerald McClellan Trust then you can send a cheque or money order to:
Gerald McClellan Trust
C/o Fifth Third Bank
899 E. Wyandotte
Freeport, IL 61032
Or make an online donation via his website: http://www.geraldmcclellan.com
If you would like to support Ring 10 Veteran Boxing Foundation of New York, who help disadvantaged ex boxers, then visit : http://www.ring10.org
If you would like to help raise funds in the UK for the Ringside Rest and Care Home, a thirty-six bed residential care facility for ex boxers then visit: https://www.gofundme.com/the-rinsgide-rest-amp-care-home-for-exboxers