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The Forgotten Classic- Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan; 3


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15 years on - Part 3 of 4

by Chris Baldwin


An epic contest, one of the most thrilling ever witnessed, was finally over. Benn’s victory was hailed by an uproarious crowd, who sang and cheered as if nothing else in the world had ever mattered. Frank Bruno and Naseem Hamed, both ringside, leapt into the ring and danced with unbridled joy. The promoting broadcasters were in no doubt as to what had transpired. ITV’s Reg Gutteridge told a watching nation that Gerald had quit: “that’s what they call punching the life out of you”. On Showtime, Ferdie Pacquiao announced his disapproval at McClellan’s demise, exclaiming “what was THAT? It looks to me like Gerald has a heart problem”.


Nigel himself had fallen to his knees in celebration, only to be lifted onto the shoulder of his corner-man for a well-deserved lap of honour. Having faced his defining moment and come out the other side triumphant, Benn belligerently faced the ITV cameras, declaring to the unfortunate Gary Newbon:


“Yeah, well, all you lot were geeing him up, giving it this, giving it that. I knew he wouldn't be able to go the distance...”


Newbon, acutely aware that the clock towards his ad break was ticking, tried again, but was furiously rebuffed:


'No, no, you listen to me! I'd like to thank my trainer, Kevin Sanders. Everyone sayin' we ain't goin' anywhere without Jimmy Tibbs. Proved him wrong. And not only that, the person I'd like to thank most of all is Paul McKenna, who hypnotised me and made me believe in myself.'




No doubt fearing the recital of each and every boxing person Benn had ever come across, Newbon made a further attempt to bring Benn round to something approaching a conventional interview. He was wasting his time:


'No, no. You listen to me. I'm always listenin' to you. No, mate. They only brought him over to bash me up, mate. I'm gonna say what I want to say. Let me tell you that now. They only brought him in to bash me up, mate. No chance ...no chance ...no chance


What Benn did not and could not know was that, in the meantime and almost lost in the jubilant melee, Gerald McClellan lay slumped in his corner. Newbon, who had also had the misfortune of interviewing Chris Eubank in the ring as Michael Watson lay dying across from them, had now noticed that Gerald was in a desperate condition and was visibly ignoring Benn’s ranting-to-camera. Desperate, he told Nigel that “we’re gonna have to wrap up this interview because there is a serious problem with Gerald McClellan”. Newbon was absolutely right. Gerald had slid from the stool he had sought refuge upon and was not flat on his back, stretched out and facing the ring lights above. Suddenly, he was no longer conscious and was by now receiving frantic medical attention- a welcome result of the Michael Watson tragedy. Gently lifted to a stretcher, the proud and fierce fighting pride of Freeport, Illinois was carried out of the ring and into a waiting ambulance before being taken for emergency medical assistance at the Royal London Hospital.


On the way there, McClellan temporarily revived. He tore his oxygen mask from his face and turned to Stan Johnson, his coach for the fight and asked:


“What the fuck happened? I got knocked clean out, didn't I?”


Johnson does not really want to tell Gerald the truth, but nonetheless, he does so:


'No, man. You didn't get knocked out. You went down to one knee and you walked back to the corner and you quit.'


Disbelieving, Gerald turns to Donnie, the third man in that ambulance and demands “Donnie, you tell this motherfucker he lyin' to me, ain't he!” After hearing “No, G-Man, that's exactly what happened”. Gerald arrived at hospital and slipped back into unconsciousness. It would be a sometime before he woke up again.


Meanwhile, while McClellan was wheeled into a hospital room in preparation of the emergency surgery which would save his life, Nigel Benn was slowly wheeled along the corridors of the same hospital towards an adjacent, vacant cubicle. The adrenaline of that incredible battle by now fading, Benn was in bad shape. His cheekbone was smashed and he had a fractured jaw. He was in as much pain as might be possible for such a tough warrior. Looking around, he saw McClellan prostrate form in a nearby bed. He wheeled himself over and kissed his eyes, whispering “sorry” before retreating into his own pain.


According to Johnson, another man visited Gerald that night. Soon after Benn’s brief visit, Don King, McClellan’s promoter, made his way to the Royal London to see his fighter. As he stood at the bottom of Gerald’s bed, he turned to Donnie and Johnson and declared:


“Gerald quit man. He quit like a dog…”


It would be many months before ‘the dog’ would leave the Royal London. That he did at all is nothing short of a miracle. Neurosurgeon Mr. Sutcliffe and his team worked tirelessly through the night to remove a blood clot which had developed in McClellan’s brain, and then equally tirelessly to ensure that he made it through the night. Gerald spent a full eleven days in a coma and was afterwards diagnosed with extensive brain damage.


The aftermath of the fight was filled with ugly recriminations. Boxing once again was forced to take an introspective look at itself as yet another high profile, elite protagonist found himself fighting for his life in front of a live audience of millions.


In the US, Showtime made the decision to broadcast the fight on tape delay a matter of hours after it concluded and whilst Gerald was being treated on the operating tables of the Royal London. It was a crass decision and one which should never have been taken.


In the UK, ITV made a quite different decision. They took to the hills and ran. A second high profile tragedy, shown live to millions, was too much for ITV executives to bear, and after Naseem Hamed obliterated Sergio Liendo in chilling fashion, live, a week later, they elected to withdraw from boxing altogether, promising never to return. They kept the promise for almost ten years, being tempted back only by the lure of British Olympic success story Amir Khan in 200. For this reason, the great British boxers who followed Benn, Eubank and Watson, such as Joe Calzaghe and Lennox Lewis, never received anything like the recognition that their talents undoubtedly deserved. Between them, only Calzaghe’s fight with Lacy in 2005 made it onto ITV’s terrestrial platform.


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