Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan
25th February 1995, London Arena, London
‘Fucking hell, Nigel, you’ve really got him in trouble, mate!’
Corner man Dennie Mancini after a first round that saw Gerald McClellan knock Nigel Benn into the first row.
By the practical and physical nature of sport, injuries are bound to occur. In athletic pursuits, where the muscles and sinews are primed in the pursuit of glory, sometimes the smallest deviation can cause a problem. Strains, sprains and tears become par for the course.
Some sports do come at a higher price in terms of the potential risks inherent in participation. Jockeys falling off of horses over jumps at high speeds potentially throw themselves under a cacophony of thundering hooves, every one a potential life threatening occurrence. Whilst many steps have been taken to improve the safety of motor racing in all its forms, it doesn’t detract from the fact that streamlined chunks of metal travelling at vast rates of acceleration and speed can be a recipe for serious injury.
Even football has had its fair share of recent brushes with near-death and fatalities within its less obviously threatening surroundings. One need only to look at Fabrice Muamba, the Zaire born Bolton player whose heart stopped for seventy eight minutes on the White Hart Lane pitch, to see that the spectre of death lingers over every sport.
Then we have boxing.
From the earliest recordings of the fistic arts, there have been examples of fighters dying. As far back as 1725, there are reports of men stepping into a boxing ring and meeting their ultimate demise. In 1833, Simon Byrne would die from injuries caused during a 99th round defeat against James Burke. The official reason given for his passing was ‘congestion of blood in the brain’, though in the four days between fight and death, he told his chambermaid that it wasn’t likely to be the beating that killed him, but the mortification of losing the fight.
There have been over one thousand reported deaths in boxing, and the clamour for boxing to be banned in some circles only increases each time a young fighter ends up in the papers for all the wrong reasons. To those who haven’t been able to see past the bombasticity and bludgeoning violence of the sport, it seems like a no brainer. Why would someone want to stand in a ring and punch or be punched by someone else, and what type of person would willingly choose to watch?
Unfortunately, the fight that saw me pass through the barrier between casual observer and pugilistic enthusiast was a contest with almost such an outcome. Gerald McClellan would require emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain, leaving him permanently disabled; not something that is easy to digest or fully understand during the immortality of childhood. My perception of the fight was one of sheer awe, as both men took and gave punishment like nothing I’d ever seen. Regardless of the outcome which naturally overshadows the reminiscence, this was boxing at its most volatile, aggressive and passionate.
Boxing out of my home town of Ilford, Greater London, Nigel Benn was a dangerous fighter in the early years of his career. The nickname ‘The Dark Destroyer’ wasn’t a misnomer; Benn would defeat, by knockout or technical knockout, every one of his first twenty two opponents. Though the boxing equivalent of wet paper bags are often used to feather a fighter’s record in the early years of his career, this statistic still stands out as impressive, especially when Benn would knock out fighters such as Winston Burnett, someone whose 20-98-3 belies the fact that only fourteen of those losses came by facing a ten count or ref stoppage. Two of those belonged to Benn; in contrast, Chris Eubank would beat Burnett six months this second defeat on points.
In the first Burnett match, we were already beginning to see the prototypical Benn fighting style, as he stalked his prey around the ring with limited, if any, remorse. Hands held low like the street fighter he was, he invited opportunities for his opponents to hit him, knowing that he trusted his hands to do the talking when necessary. Targeting the body as often as the head, punches were thrown with intent to hurt; there was never a sense of Benn trying to find his range or feel out his opponent. The ref would Burnett out of his misery in Round 4 following several shots that snapped back the Jamaican’s head and forced his whole body to recoil. Unsurprisingly, the second fight went no better: Burnett was stopped in Round 3 after a combination of shots that had him hanging limply against the ropes and almost out of the ring. Benn wasn’t looking to mess around.
It would be the twenty third fight of his career which would see him lose for the first time, an all English clash seeing him face Michael Watson for Benn’s Commonwealth Middleweight Title. Not only was Benn defeated by Watson, he was comprehensively outboxed. The favourite of both the fans and the bookies, Benn attempted to walk through Watson’s offense time after time, only for many of his hooks to meet the high guard of the challenger, or miss completely. Using the space afforded to him in the ring to maintain distance where possible, Watson would snap Benn’s head back with jabs and combos, slipping back into the guard before any retaliatory shot could be fired.
The champion was rocked in Round Four, though was able to fight back and land some significant power punches before the bell. The same could not be said for Round Six; as both men traded punches on the ropes, Benn was caught with a left hook that seemed to take him, and his body, by surprise. As if in slow motion, his body tilted and crashed to the canvas, a look of shock registered on his face. Though he would be in the process of getting up at the time, he was not able to beat the ten count. Watson, a 5/1 bet for the victory, had pulled off the unthinkable, and had beaten ‘The Dark Destroyer’.
What would have worried Benn, his fans and his promotional team was the inability to switch gameplan. What had worked so well in the previous fights, Benn’s power punches to head and stomach often forcing his opponent’s guards to drop, hadn’t worked at all against Watson. Whilst Watson was a class above a lot of the men who had stepped into the ring to fight Benn, it was the inability to recognise the danger he was in, or to offer something resembling a plan B. Every time Benn would get hit with a Watson punch, he would leave himself open for two or three more, almost confused as to how best to fend off the rapier jabs of the more experienced opponent.
Following the fight, Benn and his team realised that for all the pomp and circumstance surrounding his boxing career up to date, things weren’t working out. It was one thing to beat a string of relative no-hopers, but when facing up against his first opponent of any real quality, Benn had been found wanting. A renewed focus on training and sparring was necessary, as well as a selection of opponents that would get him the rounds under his belt that were so clearly needed. Even more importantly for Benn was that the next five fights would be Stateside, allowing him to get away from the circus that had been created around his brand and quietly rebuild his reputation post-Watson.
Benn’s US debut would see him go the full ten rounds with Jorge Amparo, a man who had never been stopped and had fought four former world champions. Finally, Benn was beginning to get substantial in-ring time against opposition of a better quality. That isn’t to say that his ability to punch his way past opponents was lost; his second fight in the US didn’t see its way out of the first round, Jose Quinones almost getting punched through the ropes on a first knockdown before dropping to the floor shortly afterwards to leave the ref little choice but to stop the fight. Whilst he could still hit his opponents with power that belied his stature, this one round knockout also showcased a wiser Benn, as he picked his shots until he sensed weakness, clinically finishing Quinones off with several heavy shots.
Following a split decision victory over Sanderline Williams (comprehensively won on two cards), there were still murmurings that Benn couldn’t consider himself amongst the top echelon of middleweight fighters. The next two fights would arguably change that. In the first, he would pick up his first world title by defeating Doug De Witt for the WBO World Middleweight Title. A brutal beating saw De Witt drop three times in the first minute of the eighth round following seven previous rounds that saw cuts above both eyes and a serious ear injury. An even more impressive first round TKO of Iran Barkley followed, though this resembled a bar fight as much as a boxing contest. Barkley would hit the mat three times, though Benn would be chastised post-fight for a punch thrown when Barkley was on the mat for the second time.
It was time to come home. With an offer of a substantial payday to fight Chris Eubank, Benn would put aside his own desires to take on Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran or Sugar Ray Leonard and contest another all-English affair. The two men were the antithesis of each other in terms of style, with Eubank arguably more stylish and definitely more elusive. After nine close rounds, a tiring Benn would be stopped by a flurry of Eubank shots, forcing the referee to stop the contest with four seconds left of the round. For the second time, Benn would lose a title to a fellow British boxer.
This time, the rehabilitation would take place primarily in the UK, outside of a stop in Italy to pick up his second world title, the WBC Super-Middleweight Championship, in a four round TKO victory over Mauro Galvano. Rather than the conclusive victory Benn might have wanted, the fight ended in controversy when Galvano was unable to continue due to a cut above his eye. With the Italians angling for a technical draw due to it being at the end of Round Three, confusion reigned until it was announced that Benn had been awarded the fight by TKO. To put any lingering doubt to rest, Benn would subsequently defeat Galvano by unanimous decision in Glasgow.
Between winning the title and fighting McClellan in 1995, Benn would accumulate a record of twelve wins and one draw, the draw being the controversial rematch with Chris Eubank. The fight would be a record breaker for UK boxing as Benn would become the first man to get paid £1 million for a UK fight. Benn would technically win on two of the judges’ scorecards, only for a docked point for a low blow in the sixth round would leave the score tied: one judge for Benn, one for Eubank, one tied. The fans in attendance weren’t happy – they clearly thought Benn had done enough to unify the titles (Eubank being the current WBO Super Middleweight Champion).
In the lead up to his match with McClellan, Benn would have two unanimous decision victories, the first over Henry Wharton, the second over Juan Carlos Giminez Ferreyra. Whilst both fights were comprehensive victories for the champion, they lacked the fireworks and ferocity expected of Benn between the ropes. With his 31st birthday behind him, and forty two fights of escalating length and competitiveness, people began to wonder how long Benn had left at the top of the pile.
For a fighter who had had questions about his chin ever since the fight against Michael Watson back in 1989, Benn couldn’t have chosen a more potentially difficult opponent. Gerald McClellan, fighting out of Illinois, was as dangerous a puncher as had ever set foot in a boxing ring. Around the time of the Benn/Watson contest, McClellan would lose his eleventh and twelfth fights on points. He wouldn’t lose another fight for the next five years. More worryingly, after a points victory over Charles Hollis in 1990, he would win his next fourteen contests by knockout or TKO. Ten of these fights would not see the bell for the end of the first round.
On McClellan’s first trip to the UK, he would win the WBO Middleweight Title that had been vacated when Chris Eubank moved up to Super-Middleweight, a belt that Eubank had taken off of Benn with his ninth round victory. John Mugabi would be his opponent for the vacant championship; Mugabi would hit the canvas three times in the first round. A fighter notorious for having no fight go the distance in his career up to this point, Mugabi would be hit multiple times with shots that stiffened his entire body, punches akin to walking into a brick wall staggering the veteran. That the referee allowed the fight to continue after the second knockdown was questionable, allowing Mugabi to take several more heavy shots to the face before collapsing face first to the mat. Jumping and punching the air as the ref waved off the fight, McClellan had proved to the British crowd his immense power. He would clearly be a danger for any opponent, no matter how lauded they might be.
Unlike Benn, who seemed to be slowing down, McClellan continued to improve as he knocked out challengers with relative ease. His impressive record would see him earn a shot at the WBC Middleweight Title in 1993, a match against the Virgin Islander Julian Jackson, a man who had only lost one fight of a forty seven fight career up to this point. Even successive low blows in the fifth round would not be enough to stop the American, as he got up after a short delay to land a left hook that almost had Jackson sliding under the bottom rope. The game champion was able to get back to his feet, only to take more punishment as McClellan smelt blood. The second knockdown saw Jackson once against get back up, but Miles Lane waved off the fight with him in no state to continue. A rematch would take place in 1994, the final fight before McClellan would meet Benn; this time Jackson barely made it out of the first minute, dropped by a body shot for a ten count. The speed, power and accuracy of McClellan was frightening as he swarmed all over Jackson after the first punch of note. Future glory seemed within his grasp.
The opening to the show was pure 90s; lurid colours flashing across the screen supported by synth music of the most basic. ‘The Big Fight’ emblazoned across the screen in gold, symbolic of the glory ahead for the victor. Vox pop style promotional snippets of interviews sat next to a montage of each mans’ impressive in-ring action, numbers dancing across the screen to remind the viewer watching at home that they were in for some destructive and explosive action. In the lead up to the fight both men were confident that they would come out the champion. McClellan criticised Benn’s ability to box; Benn reminded us all that he had more knockout victories than McClellan had matches.
The contest came at a good time for ITV Sport. Having only the week before showcased a one-sided ‘mugging’ (the words of Jim Rosenthal) between Frank Bruno and Rodolfo Martin, the broadcaster would have been looking for action that was a little more inspiring. The coverage pre-fight seemed to highlight the belief that they would get exactly that, everyone effusively selling the contest as a potential ‘fight of the decade’. Worryingly for the British fans, popular consensus was that the fight would be short, with McClellan likely to be the one with his hand raised at the end. The Times and The Mirror had the American winning in the sixth and fifth round respectively; The Guardian and Today didn’t even have Benn making it out of the first round.
Those who had lumped on the bookies’ tip would have liked what they saw as the introductions boomed out over the PA system in the London Arena. Lead to the ring by a flag waving Don King, McClellan looked unfazed by the hostility of the pro-Benn crowd, like a man ready to take what was rightfully his. In contrast, Benn appeared more wide-eyed and on edge as he followed his crew to ringside, a man who might have been beginning to regret the choices he had made.
After the ring introductions, the first round proved to be beyond the expectations of all the pundits who had expected a ferocious start. With a reminded of the thirty three first round wins each men shared, it shouldn’t have been surprising that one boxer was on his back within the first three minutes. Benn, after looking surprised by a couple of decent shots and the power within them, would get caught against the ropes with relative ease. Using his left hand to seemingly identify the places to aim for, McClellan would knock Benn out of the ring and onto the apron. A couple of shots that had managed to connect on Benn’s chin, a target ducking underneath the belt line in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable, stiffened the legs, before the next shot had Benn almost amongst the glitterati in the front row.
What followed has been debated about ever since the fight, as Benn would get what was perceived longer count to get back into the ring. Whether he had fallen far enough into the crowd to get a twenty count, or the ref offered a very calm and considered ten count, Benn was somehow able to get back into the ring. Inside my house, the fear of an early stoppage (and an early night) grew exponentially. How could Benn manage to see out this onslaught to finish the first round, let alone the fight?
And an onslaught it was.
McClellan was like a pitbull, snarling and chomping to get at Benn as quickly as possible, a fighter who knew he wasn’t paid by the hour and sensed it wouldn’t take much more to put Benn out for good. Stumbling around like a drunkard after closing time, Benn was lucky not to get stopped by the referee at several points – some officials would have stepped in for less. A token left hand before the bell rang would be the only offense of any note from the Brit, though it was at least a signal that he had managed to weather the storm and was still not only standing, but swinging as well.
In the Benn corner, a sense of worry was pervasive amongst not only the boxer, but his team also. Choosing not to dwell on the massacre that was the first round, Dennie Mancini would champion Benn’s cause, extolling the virtue of his work in that first round and reinflate a sense of belief in the almost beaten man. The second round would not be a repeat of the first, not if Benn could help it.
The street fighting instincts seemed to kick in, though many punches were high, wide or handsome, yet every connection would send a capacity crowd into rapture. As if exhausted by the early flurry and confused by the fight even entering a second round, McClellan would show little in the second round, resorting to holding onto Benn after receiving several stinging left hooks to the face. It was as if Benn drew energy from every punch that connected, his legs working hard to allow McClellan no space to escape.
The danger with a powerful fighter like McClellan was always going to be his ability to turn a contest on one jaw-shattering punch. Even though Round Three and Round Four saw Benn make multiple use of his left hook from out of a crouch position to good effect, the American still looked the more dangerous. Benn still needed to be wary of his opponent, a point highlighted when he was stopped in his tracks by a McLellan left hook, a desperate clinch enough to allow him to stay upright. These punches were becoming less frequent as the fight went on, however.
With the rarity of McClellan being dragged past Round Three, a longer fight felt like it was going to favour Benn. The commentary mentioned McClellan’s seeming inability to defend, and whenever the camera focused on the man, he looked dazed and tired by the constant barrage of blows from Benn. The wars across the UK and the US to get Benn to this night were paying dividends – he knew what it took to dig deep.
As hindsight is always perfect vision, it is easy to look now and see the warning signs that things weren’t quite right as the contest progressed. What could easily dismissed as the struggles of a boxer who had never been challenged in this manner, or been forced to box this many rounds more than a handful of times, looks damning when viewed in retrospect. The mouthguard seemed to have a mind of its own, popping in and out of McClellan’s mouth with every breath he forced into his exhausted body. Between rounds and as he circled away from the onrushing Benn, his eyes flickered rapidly, a feature of his countenance noted on commentary. Every shot that Benn landed that somehow McClellan managed to absorb was testament to his capabilities at the time, as well as a steady march to the inevitable tragic ending.
That is not to say that Benn had it all his own way up until the eleventh round. The pundits went back and forth on whether Benn had done enough to recover on the scorecards following the first round knockdown, whilst arguably McClellan would win Round Seven after a barren spell since sending his opponent through the ropes. The frustration of the crowd was tangible, and spilled over for Benn at the end of Round Six, a couple of heavy shots landing after the bell, shrugged off on commentary as the instinct of a fighter who has his man hurt.
Just as it seemed like the home favourite was doing enough to peg back the points, disaster struck. A right hand by McClellan would send a flailing Benn into the ropes, before follow up shots would leave him propped up against the corner. Though suggestions would be made that the resulting knockdown was a slip, connection by McClellan’s glove seemed to be the catalyst for Benn’s trip to the canvas. Irrelevant as to whether it should have been considered a knockdown or not, all of the hard work that Benn had put in to closing the points gap was undone, much to his visible frustration.
McClellan would have his heart questioned in Round Nine, as an overreaching Benn would hit the American with his glove and then a glancing headbutt as he tumbled down to the canvas. As if to try and force the referee’s hand to give him the time that he so desperately needed, McClellan would kneel on the floor, much to the chagrin of the crowd in attendance. Boos reigned down as the ref told him to get back up to his feet, to resume the war of attrition that only occasionally threatened to break out into a boxing contest.
Even in a fight where every shot feels liable to leave a man laying on the canvas, the end came suddenly. At the time, I felt it was an anti-climax, buying into the commentary team’s suggestions that McClellan’s will and desire had been broken by Benn over the course of the intense battle. A big right hand from Benn in Round Ten would send McClellan down to his knees, the crowd’s fervour for their champion to win reaching a fever pitch as the first real sign of weakness from the American played out in the middle of the ring. He would get up to his feet, but there was no doubt that he was in no real condition to continue, each following punch taken with limited attempts to defend the swarm of blows from Benn’s right and left gloves. In testament to his will and desire to win, McClellan would manage to avoid ending up flat on his back, instead heading back to one knee for the second count of the round.
With the referee clearly signalling the count to the kneeling warrior, McClellan looked stunned. The crowd, every man and woman standing on their feet, has a sense that neither man would give in if they had an ounce of fight left in them. Yet, as the count continued to move towards ten, McClellan didn’t move. As the referee waved off the contest following the splaying of both of his hands to signal the ten had been reached, the realisation that Benn had managed to defeat the American against all odds hit. Rapture mixed with relief, for Benn and for the crowd in attendance. At the time of the knockout, McClellan was ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards.
It wasn’t long before the feeling in the ring changed from celebration to concern as McLellan would end up flat on his back, the corner and the medics rushing to try and administer first aid. With the TV viewers to consider, the post match interview with Benn was tinged with a sense of ill timing, as he lauded it over his fallen opponent at a time when oxygen masks were being administered and people were trying to clear the ring. Noticing the situation, the interview would be cut short, with McClellan’s condition unclear and the coverage finishing with questions left hanging in the air as to how serious things were. Was he just exhausted after a war that would end up putting Benn in hospital as well? The crowd crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.
In a bittersweet turn of events, it would be the disabling of Michael Watson at the hands of Chris Eubank in 1991 that may have saved McClellan from a more serious condition, or even death. When Watson had required immediate medical attention, no paramedic or ambulance had been in attendance, leaving his brain to be starved of oxygen and a long wait for the required treatment was received. This time, five doctors, four paramedics and two ambulances were on the scene; an army of medical personnel that probably saved McClellan’s life.
In the ensuing hours that followed McClellan’s collapse, the adrenaline and aggression that surged through the body of Benn led to him declaring ‘rather him than me’ when challenged by a journalist on the condition of his opponent. Crass, but unfortunately all too understandable from a man who felt the world was against him in the lead up to the fight. When they ended up in the same hospital, Benn would show a more tender side to his personality, kissing the hands of the stricken warrior.
Understandably, calls from the British Medical Association to ban boxing were instant, especially considering all conceivable measures had been put in place to try and stop this type of tragedy occurring. In a comment that seemed almost too obvious and simplistic, a spokesperson for the medical body would say “The problem is that boxers are punching each other’s heads.” However, just like McClellan would survive his brush with death, boxing would also survive, yet with the lingering spectre of tragedy never too far away.
Benn would fight two more times in 1995, defeating Vincenzo Nardiello and Danny Perez by TKO. This would be the last hurrah for a boxer that many felt had been on a downward slide before triumph over McClellan. His WBC Super Middleweight Title would be lost in a match against a forty year old Thulani ‘Sugarboy’ Malinga in 1996, one that Benn himself admitted he had been complacent in and put in a lacklustre performance. Later that year, two consecutive losses to the Irishman Steve Collins would signal the end of his career.
As for McClellan? He would spend eleven days in a coma, losing his eyesight, ability to walk and powers of comprehension in the process. Over time, the ability to get around with a cane would allow him an element of freedom, but he required full time care that would be administered by his three sisters.
The tragedy of the fight rightly overshadows the quality of the contest, but it would be remiss of the boxing public to choose to bury their heads in the sand and forget about it. The battle between the two champions encapsulated the best and worst of the fighting game; the lengths that a man would go to to take a punch and keep on moving forward; the potential for debilitating injury and death ever present.
This was the fight that made me fall in love with boxing as a sport. Perhaps too young to realise the overarching narrative that played out in the days that followed, it became emblematic of persistence in the face of adversity. Even after over twenty years, it grabs and engages me in a way that no other fight has and possibly will since. The epilogue may be tragic; the talents of the men who were willing to die for victory, unquestionable.