Nigel Benn recalls triumph, tragedy of Gerald McClellan fight
On February 25, 1995, British star Nigel Benn defended his WBC super middleweight title against the fearsome American puncher Gerald McClellan in London, England. It was a hellacious give and take war but, by the time the ring was dissembled, both combatants were hospitalized and McClellan was fighting for his life.
Benn, who now resides in Sydney, Australia, had gotten off the canvas twice to prevail via 10th-round knockout but the fight was only just beginning for two 168-pound warriors, who would become inextricably linked due to a tragic aftermath.
The winner that night rarely talks about the finest performance of his career, which is understandable. Benn’s God given talent had maimed an opponent and the bout itself is shelved like an old video nasty. That aside, Benn is not the nostalgic type and his lifeblood now is family, religion and helping people less fortunate.
“You’re the first person who has mentioned to me that the McClellan fight was 20 years ago,” said the former two-weight world champion, before passing the news of the anniversary to his wife, Caroline.
“I rarely think about it to be honest and it’s only discussed when someone brings it up. It’s a part of my life that’s behind me and I don’t really dwell on it, or put in a specific category.”
At his peak, Benn was an irresistible fistic cocktail: three measures of excitement, two of power, two of aggression, and one of pure vulnerability. The latter is the reason fans loved him; “The Dark Destroyer” was the ultimate wounded lion and fear brought out the best in him.
McClellan would have instilled dread in any fighter. He was the most feared knockout artist in world boxing: 31 wins, 29 knockouts (28 of those inside three rounds). Benn’s bravery and heart were well renowned but the challenger, along with the vast majority of the British media, underestimated him – badly.
“I came out fighting because almost everyone tipped Gerald to win inside three rounds,” said Benn, who was a 4/1 underdog. “That got my back up. Who is he fighting here? I’d been in against Iran Barkley, Doug DeWitt, Robbie Sims and Chris Eubank. You’re going to forget everything I’ve done because McClellan blasted out Julian Jackson?
“I’d done my homework. They (McClellan’s team) rushed Gerald through the weights, when you need at least a year to adjust in a new division. You can bang people out at junior middleweight, then middleweight, but things will change at super middleweight when you meet someone equally as strong, and equally as determined.
Benn continued, “I had won world titles away from home and I wasn’t scared to fight anyone. That was my attitude, so when Don King threatened to bring over the man he called ‘mini Mike Tyson’ I said, bring him on. I was in the army and I’m not going to lie down to no one.”
Ordinarily, when you view a fight from ringside the general ambience is that of civility. The ringsiders don’t want to fight, they want to watch. With Benn-McClellan the entire arena resonated hostility and a fever pitch crowd became an extension of the home fighter’s passion. This was a cockfight – savage and blood curdling with breakneck ebb and flow.
Benn was initially ecstatic with what was a career defining performance but his opponent’s desperate fight for survival and the subsequent realization of his own mortality made a permanent mark, physically and mentally.
“I had facial injuries, damaged kidneys and a shadow on my brain,” said Benn, who was 31 years old at the time. “All of that punishment, plus I led a pretty hectic lifestyle outside of the ring. My wife wanted me to quit boxing because she was nudging me through the night in case I’d fallen into a coma. She didn’t care about the money and it was the happiest day of her life when I retired (in 1996).
“The McClellan fight was a career highlight and I was initially on a high, when the referee waved it off, but everything had been battered out of me. The fights after that, against Sugar Boy Malinga and Steve Collins, were for big paydays but you don’t realize what you’ve lost after an experience like that.”
Immediately after the contest, McClellan and Benn were taken to the London Royal Hospital. The 27-year-old American, who lost consciousness shortly after the bout was stopped, required lifesaving surgery to remove a blood clot from the surface of his brain. Benn, who had also collapsed after leaving the ring, was brought into McClellan’s room and, in a poignant moment, kissed the stricken warrior’s hand.
McClellan, who was a former WBC middleweight title holder, suffered permanent brain damage which had a profound effect on his mobility, his hearing and his eyesight. He receives the vast majority of his care from his sister, Lisa, who rarely leaves his side, in his hometown of Freeport, Illinois.
It would be 12 years before McClellan and Benn were reunited.
“In 2007 we raised $250,000 for Gerald and that was such a joy. The benefit night was a complete sell out in London,” said Benn, with emotion in his voice.
“It was so difficult because I had to shout in Gerald’s ear so he could hear what I was saying but he told me it was an accident, that it wasn’t my fault. I was so happy to see him but my emotions were up, and down, up and down. I didn’t know whether to be happy, or cry, or be sick. I’ve never experienced so many emotions at one time in my life.
“I held Gerald’s hand and Lisa told me all the stories about his aftercare. I always felt the American people (boxing fraternity) should have looked after him better than they did. If he’d been British, his house would have been paid for and he’d be getting the best of care. I understand that a lot of people, particularly animal rights activists, held a grudge because of his links to dog fighting.”
In terms of Benn’s post-boxing life, the moniker of “Dark Destroyer” is now a paradox. The former champion and his wife are born again Christians, dedicated to helping their community in a variety of ways.
Benn said, “All of the things I’ve learned from the bible have made me the man I am now. The bad things I went through in life are beneficial because I can help people, due to my past experiences.
“Nobody can say to me that I don’t know about drink and drugs. Nobody can say that I don’t know about having affairs. Nobody can say to me that I don’t understand anger. I walked with the devil for a long time but I turned my life around and that’s what I tell people.”
When this reporter asked Benn how he would like to be remembered, as a champion, by his many thousands of fans the response was gold dust.
“I had millions, don’t shortchange me,” said Benn, breaking out in hysterical laughter. “Eubank and I had 18.5 million people watching us, so get out of the thousands and into the millions. And you should see me now. When I tell you I’m in the best shape of my life you can believe it. I do 17 rounds on the pads, at pace, and I’m running 14 kilometers a day.
“I’m in better shape now than I was when I was world champion. How is that possible? It is God that has given this to me. I’ve been training kids for the last two years and, at the same time; I’ve been training my own body like a trooper.
“You’ll see what I’m talking about very soon. In fact, I’ll email you right now!”
Benn-McClellan – a tale of two survivors.
Editor’s Note: The 20th anniversary of the Benn-McClellan fight is one that is both bitter and sweet. McClellan’s health has not deteriorated but it hasn’t improved, and the cost to take care of the former middleweight titleholder is considerable.
On Saturday, March 28, Gerald’s sister Lisa McClellan, who does most of the care taking for the fallen warrior, will present “An Evening Honoring the G-Man” at the Masonic Temple Ballroom in Freeport, Illinois, with proceeds going to aid with his medical bills, medication, and the costs of the event.
Several boxing luminaries are expected to be in attendance. There will also be dinner, dancing, a live band and a silent auction of boxing memorabilia. The Masonic Temple is located at 305-315 Stephenson Street in Freeport, Illinois.
A GoFundMe page has been set up for the event and to aid Gerald at: http://www.gofundme.com/n4hjic
Tickets, priced at $100, may also be purchased through this page. Please note that you are purchasing an event ticket when you make your donation.
For more information, contact Lisa McClellan at [email protected]
Tax-deductible contributions to the Gerald McClellan Trust Fund and ticket purchases can also be made by sending a check or money order (made out to the Gerald McClellan Trust) to:
Gerald McClellan Trust
839 East Wyandotte Street
Freeport, IL 61032
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing