IT is the fight every fan of the sport must confront. Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan was hugely anticipated, it generated an electric atmosphere, the action was undoubtedly thrilling. But it ended in tragedy. McClellan collapsed in the ring, he could have died there. An operation removed a blood clot from his brain. After coming out of a coma he was disabled permanently, blind, almost deaf, scarcely able to walk.
As a boxer McCellan had been a force of nature. A merciless puncher, he’d ended 29 of his 31 victories inside the distance, 20 of them within the first round. He had moved up from middleweight to challenge for Benn’s title but came in a strong favourite. Benn, the “Dark Destroyer”, brought a ferocity to the ring that inspired his followers with visceral excitement. A heavy, heavy puncher who liked to fight.
McClellan however opened their first round in the expected form. Benn leant forward and the American caught him hard. He sagged on the ropes and McClellan hammered him down, hammered him clear through the strands. But Benn would not be put out of the fight. He clambered up, re-entered the ring and survived the round.
The bravery of the two men could not be denied. Benn came back, the crowd roaring wildly. McClellan began to take punishment. He tried to punch his way out of trouble, even dropping Benn in the eighth round. The challenger however was exhibiting worrying signs, blinking, his mouthpiece hanging out of his mouth at an early stage.
When McClellan sank to a knee for a second time in the 10th round he was counted out. After initial confusion the severity of his predicament became apparent. He lay stricken in the ring as cheers boomed round the London Arena, an image that remains profoundly unsettling.
He was given oxygen there and the measures brought in after Michael Watson’s experience saved his life. (Promoter Frank Warren had actually provided extra medical personnel).
Should his corner have recognised his trouble? Should the referee have spotted it sooner? The questions of how this disaster could have been averted remain. And boxing must justify itself when one of its competitors can so nearly die in the ring and be left grievously disabled and in desperate need of support. The sport will always need to heed whatever lessons it can learn from this fight.
RESULT Nigel Benn (UK) w ko 10 Gerald McClellan (USA) DATE February 25, 1995 VENUE New London Arena, Millwall, London AT STAKE Benn’s WBC super-middleweight title AGES Benn 31, McClellan 27 WEIGHTS Benn 12st, McClellan 11st 11lbs RECORDS Benn 39-2-1, McClellan 31-2 REFEREE Alfred Asaro SCORES at time of stoppage Franz Marti 84-84, Jose Juan Guerra 87-84, Anek Hongtongkam 85-84 (both for McClellan) FINAL CAREER STATS Benn 42-5-1 (35), McClellan 31-3 (29).