Friday, July 12th 2024

Benn vs. McClellan, A Tragic Epic

By Murali Para

In the world of boxing, there have been countless thrilling battles in the past thirty years. You know the names. The Ali-Frazier trilogy. Duran-Leonard I. Hagler-Hearns, certainly. More recently, the Holyfield-Bowe trilogy. Barrera-Morales even. There are too many to mention. These exhilarating fights have been watched again and again by fans and have never ceased to please.

For my money, the fight between Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan definitely belongs among the pantheon of these epic encounters. Yet it is very infrequently cited when battles of this nature are discussed. This is almost certainly because of the tragic aftermath that left McClellan blind, half-deaf and severely disabled. While this reluctance to relive the fight is understandable, I believe it should be acknowledged as a titanic battle of wills between two great boxers at the height of their powers.

I do not propose to review the events of 25 February 1995 at the London Arena in minute detail. That would be superfluous. But I do want to look back at the fight as the pivotal moment in the careers of two very fine champions. Benn gave a career-defining performance that evening, after which he was never quite as good again. And we are sadly all too aware of what happened to McClellan who now lives in reduced circumstances (more of which later).

Nigel Benn was an excellent British fighter who was the reigning WBC super-middleweight champion. A tough ex paratrooper, he was one of the most popular British champions of recent years. The Dark Destroyer was enjoying a very good run of form, having put behind him his two early losses at middleweight when his explosive, ragged power-punching was mastered by the more technical boxing of Michael Watson and Chris Eubank. He was unbeaten in the previous 5 years. He retained his walk-forward, heavy-hitting style, but was not scoring as many knockouts in the early rounds. He was considerably more mature as a boxer.

At this moment, Gerald McClellan was looking set to become a modern boxing legend. The only blotches on his record were 2 defeats on points and they were clearly a learning experience. He claimed the scalp of his friend Roy Jones in his amateur career, a win whose significance would grow with the passing of time. Like Benn, he was an awesome, brutal fighter. For the record, 27 of his 31 wins up to that point lasted no longer than three rounds, against 25 of 39 wins for the Briton. The way McClellan despatched the highly rated Julian Jackson twice for the WBC middleweight crown made him a strong favourite to beat Benn.

The fight was incredible. It is almost unrivalled in recent years for sheer emotion and frenetic energy. McClellan started explosively like a young Mike Tyson, knocking Benn clean out of the ring in the very first round. With a generous count from the referee though, the Dark Destroyer managed to survive the round. Somehow. Maybe it was because he was hypnotised by Paul McKenna. Who knows. And then, bit by bit, Benn managed to set the agenda, turning it into an all-out slugfest. Each new round was a battle in itself. Brutal and brilliant shots landed from both parties and plenty missed too. Such was the burning intensity and the desire to end the fight. And when McClellan fell to one knee in the tenth round in what has now become a poignant, harrowing image, he was still aheadon two of the judges' scorecards.

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Freeport, Illinois. This small town two hours west of Chicago is the home of Gerald "G-Man" McClellan. This is where he resides today with round-the-clock help from his sisters, Lisa, Sandra and Stacy. Gerald will never again see his son, Gerald Jr. or his daughters, Forrest and Mandale, as they grow up. It is tempting at this point to be critical on moral grounds. Critical of the referee who spoke no English and didn't stop the fight sooner. Critical of Don King. Critical of the boxing fraternity. But I believe that would be wrong. Boxers are aware of the dangers of their trade. And the public pays to watch boxing as a sport, as entertainment. There is nothing further to add on that score.

All that remains is to say that Benn-McClellan was a phenomenal fight. And Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan were both superb champions. Only in McClellan's case, perhaps not quite as superb as he might have gone on to be.

Reference was made to Kevin Mitchell's excellent book War, Baby (Yellow Jersey Press 2001) as well as Teddy Blackburn's Forgotten Warrior article in Boxing Monthly September 2001.

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