Benn–McClellan: The Fight That Changed Lives
21 years ago Gerald McClellan fought Nigel Benn for the WBC super middleweight title. It was a brutal contest that left the American fighting for his life, and a changed man thereafter.
When Nigel Benn tumbled from the ring just 38 seconds into his title fight with Gerald McClellan on 25 February 1995, few would have expected the Englishman to come back and win the bout. Fewer still could have guessed at the awful fate that awaited his opponent not forty minutes later; that night, Gerald McClellan was changed forever.
The middleweight divisions were exciting both in and out of the ring during the 1990s. On the American side, fighters like Roy Jones Jr and James Toney talked the talk and staked their claim to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world; in Britain, attention-grabbing characters who could back it up in the ring – men like Benn, Michael Watson and especially Chris Eubank – had given boxing a new golden era. Such was the enthusiasm for the sport, 15 million people watched Benn and Eubank's second fight in 1993.
But there was also a dark side to this era. Watson's career was ended in 1991 when he suffered permanent neurological damage in a fight against Eubank (the British Boxing Board of Control was later ruled to be responsible). The Londoner has made a remarkable recovery, but his career was over and his life changed.
By 1995 Benn was a major British sporting star, particularly after two brutal and bad-blooded fights with Eubank. With the second having ended in a contentious draw, the 'Dark Destroyer' held on to his WBC super-middleweight title, then successfully defended it against Henry Wharton (February '94) and Juan Carlos Gimenez (September '94).
But while Benn would undoubtedly have the full support of the crowd who packed inside Docklands Arena in east London, he was not the bookies' favourite. McClellan was 4-1 to take the belt, holding a record of 31-2 with 29 knockouts – 21 of them inside the first three rounds.
Born in Freeport, Illinois – a small city roughly 100 miles from Chicago – McClellan had been introduced to the sport by his father, Emmite, and won the Wisconsin Golden Gloves middleweight title four years in a row (1984-87). He was national amateur champion in 1987, and a year later beat Jones Jr in an Olympic trial semi-final. Despite this, Jones was selected to represent the United States in Seoul, where he won gold, a snub McClellan was hoping to avenge when they met as professionals. That seemed the logical next step once he'd put away Benn.
Obsessed by the colour green, he wore expensive green suits, drove a green Mercedes and called himself 'G-Man'. There are stories of involvement with brutal dog fighting – pitbulls, he said, reminded him of himself – and the usual tales of a fondness for female attention; by the time he fought Benn, he was a father of three.
Having turned pro he sustained two early-career defeats on decisions, but by the time he fought Benn the G-Man was on a 21-fight winning streak. This included picking up the WBO middleweight title in November 1991 and the WBC equivalent in May '93.
Then he relinquished the middleweight crown to take a shot at Benn's super middleweight world championship. This would be a huge draw in the UK. The bout was co-promoted by Frank Warren and Don King who stood ringside – the latter clutching a handful of miniature American flags – and was screened live on ITV, with 13 million people tuning in to see what promised to be a thrilling encounter.
Yet it looked to be over inside a minute, with McClellan seeming determined to dispatch Benn in the opening round. The Englishman was backed on to the ropes and slumped there while McClellan kept delivering blows. The force of the punches sent Benn tumbling through the ropes where he sat on the apron looking stunned. Climbing back into the ring, Benn again received a flurry of punches; his legs looked weak and the fight seemed to be heading in only one direction. The referee, Alfred Asaro, saved Benn from what should arguably have been a humiliating defeat, stepping between the two but electing not to stop the contest.
"The fight should have been over there and then," McClellan's trainer Stan Johnson would later say. (Johnson, it must be noted, has also been blamed for not withdrawing his fighter when things went wrong in the latter stages).
After making it through that punishing opener, Benn entered the contest. A savage encounter followed, one that the writer Kevin Mitchell called "the most brutal fight I have ever seen." Had it not ended in tragedy, it might have been remembered as a classic.
Benn edged ahead as the fight progressed, but in the eighth McClellan floored him again, landing a vicious right and following up with a flurry of blows. But Benn was a very difficult man to stop, and once again returned to his feet before the ref had counted him out.
McClellan appeared to be in charge now, but the ninth would change everything. Heading towards defeat, Benn was swinging wildly and unable to land his punches; he stumbled forward, accidentally headbutting McClellan as he did so. Doctors believe that this was what caused the blood clot in McClellan's brain; he took a knee to recover.
In the 10th Benn caught McClellan, who again went down on one knee, blinking in an alarmingly rapid fashion. He rose, but Benn caught him again and the American once more sank to one knee. This time he did not attempt to resist the count; Benn had won.
The Briton leapt away in celebration, unaware of his opponent's suffering. McClellan had wondered into his own corner, head bowed, then slumped to the canvass before a stool could be placed beneath him. A group of men in green t-shirts stood over the fallen fighter. Quite how much he could see by this point we will never know.
Benn continued to celebrate with the euphoria befitting such a challenging bout. On the other side of the ring, McClellan was in obvious distress, still slumped against the ropes, eyes tightly closed and a grimace across his face. It became obvious that something was seriously wrong. McClellan was rushed to Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, where he underwent an emergency operation to remove the clot. He survived surgery, but spent the next 11 days in a coma.
The Gerald McClellan who travelled to London did not return home. His injuries have left him a changed man: McClellan is blind, partially deaf, and requires the use of a wheelchair. His personality has been dramatically affected; there is still some G-Man left in him – he knows he was a boxer and a champion – but the aggression has been replaced by a passivity, and often confusion.
His sisters have cared for him over the past 21 years, their lives also unalterably changed. In 2015, Lisa, who does much of the public speaking for the family, told Boxing News Online: "Considering [Gerald] has no eyesight and considering he's still got deficiency with his short term memory, and he has trouble comprehending things, believe it or not, physically he's doing well.
"We don't use the wheelchair all the time; we use it for when he's out in public or if Gerald is going to a doctor's appointment. But he can walk and he does walk at all other times. We think using the chair all the time is too easy. Also, his hearing is good. It's mostly his short term memory problems that cause him the most issues."
McClellan has made a number of public appearances over the past two decades, some to help raise funds for his continuing care. Lisa has recently left her job due to a heart condition.
Benn also suffered from what happened that night. In recent years he has become a born again Christian and now lives in Australia with his family. He met McClellan after a 12-year gap in 2007, when $250,000 was collected at a fundraiser in London.
In a strange way McClellan does not seem to have aged a great deal in the 21 years since he fought Benn. He remains a handsome man and appears younger than his 48 years. It is almost as if his image was frozen than night: his hair is the same short crop, his moustache trimmed as it was in February 1995.
"With his short term memory problem, he doesn't exactly remember [the Benn fight], but he remembers what I've told him about the fight and what happened," says Lisa. "We often talk about it. He asks me if he got hurt against Nigel. I tell him, 'yes, you got hurt, from a headbutt.' And he asks me if it was an accident or on purpose. I tell him it was just an accident."
McClellan continues to reside in Freeport. A framed painting of his final fight against Nigel Benn hangs on the wall of his living room.