By Elliot Worsell

WHEN so much of boxing’s intrigue and uniqueness is derived from its imperfections, it seems bizarre, and a tad naïve, to demand perfection from its participants. At best, they can strive to achieve a sort of perfection in the ring, yet to expect more than that from men and women who punch opponents in the head for money reveals an ignorance as to what it takes to become a boxer in the first place.

These, after all, are not “normal” men and women. There is a reason they, and not you or I, do what they do for a living. There is also a reason why when they retire, and when the buzz of punching people for money in front of a crowd wears off, they invariably struggle to fill the void or find pleasure in more, let’s say, human delights.

For a boxer, to punch is to communicate. It is how they connect; to opponents, their audience, themselves. Without a stage on which to communicate, they would be lost, or so many of them say. Without punching either bags, pads or people on a daily basis, they would remain in search of their identity, their purpose, and their outlet. That’s not to say every boxer is desperate and therefore in need of boxing to save them, but if you ask enough of them, and if you ever spend time around them, you will discover that the sport – and its violence – is intrinsic to what makes them tick, feel alive, and thrive.

Someone like Gerald McClellan, for example, was never more alive or fluent than when violence was the primary language in which he conversed. It was usually when violent that he felt important, powerful, loved. It was during that time he felt as though he belonged and was understood.

This need to fight and communicate in this way became clear only when the ability to do so was sadly taken from McClellan. In an instant, he transitioned from monster, a man feared and someone whose aura was as dark as his intentions, to patient, as helpless as any opponent he had left splayed on the ring canvas. It was even worse than that, in fact, for while an opponent of his reserved the right to get up and carry on, for McClellan there was no such possibility, or luxury. Rather, it had been stolen from him: his career, his livelihood, his language. He was now not a monster, or a warrior, or even a champion. He was a victim; a victim in whose presence people would now cry and express their sympathy rather than, as before, cower or crumble.

Gerald and Lisa McClellan

What Gerald McClellan was and what he is today is a cautionary tale and one told many times. Yet never better has it been told than in last week’s issue of Boxing News. In that piece, an exceptional one written by Oliver Fennell, readers were given an insight into not only the debilitating impact caused by a brain injury but also what happens when a boxer’s identity is stripped entirely, almost to the point that they are reshaped, reborn. On McClellan, once so intimidating and terrifying, Fennell said, “I’ve never met anyone quite so human.” Not only that, during the time he spent with Gerald and his sister, Lisa, Fennell found a man who was quick to console anyone who crumbled or cried in his presence, more concerned, it seems, by the sadness of others than his own.

That aspect of Fennell’s story was truly fascinating. It was also something McClellan’s distractors, of which there are many, were either unwilling to read or unable to understand. Some of these detractors, most of whom lurk on social media, have suggested that McClellan’s demise is no more than an example of karma at work. They said, in response to Fennell’s piece, that McClellan was an awful human being and that he deserved what happened to him in his 1995 fight against Nigel Benn for the way he behaved as a young man and particularly his fondness for dog-fighting. That these people chose to comment on this matter beneath an image of a stricken McClellan and a piece expertly detailing the extent of his plight says a lot; both about them and the unruly, look-at-me-listen-to-me pitfalls of social media.

McClellan, it’s true, was a boxer who had his rough edges. It was indeed these edges that made him such a spiteful and merciless puncher in the ring and why plenty tipped him to stop Benn, which he almost did, when they met 29 years ago. However, these edges – better yet, character defects – are not exclusive to McClellan and, what is more, to judge him for being so flawed is to completely ignore and undermine his upbringing, his surroundings, and the very nature of his profession.

That doesn’t mean all boxers who compete professionally are partial to all types of violence, even animal cruelty, but boxing is in the end home to an array of personalities, just like any other industry. As easy as it is to say the sport produces role models for working-class kids, it is just as easy to say, if you have seen all aspects of it, that boxing welcomes and to an extent facilitates the violent leanings of people with a penchant for destruction; self or otherwise. For most of these people, training, sparring and fighting is enough to assuage this. But for others it isn’t. For others it stays with them, this violence, this rage, and it is often what makes them so feared when standing across the ring from an opponent and so prone to unravelling when not in a gym.

In most cases, they are to be respected, boxers. Regardless of the level at which they compete, they do something the bulk of the population would consider scary – if not stupid – and the majority, in my experience, are humbled and enhanced as human beings by the profession and the discipline it entails.

Equally, though, just as through boxing I have encountered some of the most honest, likeable and inspirational human beings one could wish to know, so too I have encountered some of the worst. In fact, only a deep appreciation of what it takes to become the world’s best allows you to excuse certain behaviours and attitudes and view them as merely a product of their environment. Only self-awareness, meanwhile, coupled with the realisation that you watch human beings punch each other, reminds you that you are really no better than the ones who inflict damage for your entertainment.