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The Forgotten Classic - Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan; 2


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15 years on - Part 2 of 4

By: Chris Baldwin


The build-up to the fight in the UK was incredible. Benn unusually shut himself away after he became infuriated by what he felt was immense disrespect being shown towards him by both the experts and by McClellan himself, who conversely had spoken freely to the UK media. He infamously told ITV that he wasn’t worried about his lack of championship experience (he had never fought beyond eight rounds) as “I don’t plan on being in the ring that long”.


When questioned about how he intended to deal with Benn’s power, he cited the Jackson fight as evidence of his own fortitude and punching prowess, telling reporters that:


"It's like going to war. You go to war and you win this war, or you go to war and you die in this war. You're not going to return.”


In the meantime, we had heard the reports that, behind the scenes, all was not well in McClellan’s camp. Rumours were circulating that McClellan was having problems with a recurrence of the hand injury which had sidelined him for some months after the second Jackson fight. At the weigh-in McClellan came in at a trim 165lbs; three pounds under the super-middleweight limit. Benn came in right on the 168lb mark. More worryingly, Gerald’s long time coach and friend Manny Stewart was absent from the corner, and had to be replaced. Brendan Ingle, one of the UK’s leading trainers and the mastermind behind, among others, ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed, was one of those drafted in to help at short notice. He later described the corner on fight night as “chaos” and “a complete shambles”.


Still, not many were unduly worried. On the morning of the fight, every British daily newspaper ran a full, double page preview of the bout. Every one of them went down the line for the American. Only one predicted that Benn would make it to the sixth round. Ken Jones of The Independent, summed up the consensus view:


“The opinion held by a majority in boxing is that tonight's contest at London Arena between Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan for the World Boxing Council super-middleweight championship will develop quickly into a bad experience for the champion.


Few expect Benn to last long against the 27-year-old American challenger, who makes a habit of rapidly bringing his contests to a violent conclusion. McClellan is such an explosive puncher that all three defences of the middleweight title he recently vacated were each over inside two minutes. He was twice beaten on points at an early stage of his professional development, but his record since then is hugely impressive. Only three of 21 subsequent opponents have gone further than three rounds. Announcing his intention to score another quick victory, McClellan, the 1-3 favourite, says "I don't see Benn giving me any real problems. His best chance is to try and knock me out."


Upsets occur occasionally in boxing, but if McClellan fails to become champion tonight it will be nothing short of sensational. He can be expected to complete the task quickly, perhaps as early as the second round.”


Watching the ITV broadcast at the time was a hair-raising experience, even as a fifteen year old. The camera cut to McClellan, who had wrapped his own hands, performing the most unusual shadow boxing routine you could ever see- standing in front of a mirror, throwing single shot after single shot. The chilling intent was clear for all to see.


11,000 fans packed into the London Arena expecting violence. The promoters could have easily sold 11,000 more. The atmosphere was electric as both men entered the arena in as gladiatorial atmosphere as you possibly imagine in modern boxing, with Showtime’s commentary team stating that “boy, when they played the national anthem of Great Britain it sent a shiver down your spine”, before the bell sounded and one of the most violent rounds of boxing ever witnessed began to unfold. Both men charged forward at the commencement and began throwing murderous hooks. Benn, whose standard defence was to duck as low as the rules would allow, was bulled towards the ropes in front of the TV commentary teams, while Gerald hammered away at him with hook after thunderous hook. A left hand behind the ear froze Nigel’s legs, and, as Benn toppled backwards, a second left hook to the jaw smashed the Brit almost completely through the ropes, thirty five seconds into the opening round.


Boxing’s intelligencia exchanged knowing glances. Meanwhile, Benn was being shoved back towards the ring by ITV’s ringside announcer Gary Newbon and was barely in possession of his senses. The capacity crowd was temporarily silenced, almost as if unable to comprehend the unfolding massacre before them. Parisian referee Alfred Asaro had taken up a slightly late count but had reached nine by the time Benn was stood in front of him, urging Asaro to allow him to continue. Allow him he did, and after allowing Benn a few more precious seconds by preventing McClellan from an immediate onslaught by stepping between the fighters, Gerald marched forward, moving in for the kill. That Benn got through the round at all seemed a miracle, as McClellan pounded him with punch after punch in a vicious, one-sided battery rarely witnessed at championship level either before or since. As a contest, the bout seemed well and truly over, leaving only the timing of the result as a going concern.


It seems that no one had passed this information, though, to Nigel Benn. When the bell went to end the round, Benn smiled, pumped his fist half heartedly and trudged back to his corner. When the bell sounded to start the second round, most expected him to retreat into a shell and try to delay the inevitable. They were very wrong. Benn charged forward and threw the first of what proved to be dozens of hard left hooks which landed on the side of McClellan’s head. The crowd roared their approval. Nigel seemed to take a lot of encouragement from Gerald’s reaction to the punch and, almost on instinct, threw another. Once more, Gerald took a small step back and once more the crowd roared. McClellan seemed confused and had no answer as Benn poured towards him, unleashing his own barrage of devastating left and right hooks to the head. As the stanza ended, the tide, incredibly, seemed to have turned, and Benn not only looked like he might survive a few more rounds; he actually looked like he had a chance of winning.


Despite a brief success at the end of the third round, Benn defied the naysayers who had predicted his brutal demise and arguably took rounds three through seven. McClellan looked punch-shy, cocking his hands as if to throw his bombs but rarely actually carrying out the threat, allowing Benn to beat him to the punch and thus, almost inexplicably, beat him up, landing murderous left hook after murderous hook. Alarmingly, Gerald was blinking frequently, as if his vision had become impaired, whilst hanging his gum shield from his mouth as if struggling for breath. It came as no surprise when, at the end of the sixth round, another Benn left hook to the jaw sent the gum shield flying into the tenth row of spectators at ringside.


By the start of the eighth, the fight had become a desperate, back-and-forth battle of attrition, played out for the delectation of millions. It was a battle than Benn seemed to be winning, despite his torrid start. This round, though, belonged to Gerald. After trading hooks again for a minute or so, McClellan landed a terrific right hand down the pipe and staggered Benn, who lurched violently against the same ropes he had fallen through what seemed like an eternity ago. Sensing victory, McClellan ploughed forward, pinning Benn in a neutral corner and thudding left and right hands into Benn’s jaw. With little coming back, Benn seemed on the verge of being stopped and threw one last, desperate left hook at Gerald, missed, and duly collapsed in a heap at McClellan’s feet.


As reprieves go, it was as good as Benn could hope for, as he hauled himself back to his feet no doubt relieved for the respite, however temporary it seemed. Then, not for the first time that night, as McClellan came forward to finish Nigel off, Benn somehow found the strength to throw two more punches, this time vicious right uppercuts, which halted Gerald in his tracks and made him back up just enough for Benn to see out the round.


As the bell sounded to end what seemed a fight-changing round, Benn turned to McClellan and taunted his rival, shouting “there’s plenty more where that came from mate!”


The ninth was a much less eventful affair, notable now for a contested accidental head-butt landed by Benn as he fell forward, slipping on a damp patch near his own corner. Some have retrospectively tried to claim that Benn, by no means an angel in the ring, deliberately tried to foul McClellan, but these claims do not stand up to post-fight scrutiny. It would have been the most remarkable deliberate head-butt in the history of boxing, launched as it must have been almost three feet away from his opponent. Benn himself has always vehemently refuted the claim. It was, however, undoubtedly McClelland’s round.


As the fighters entered the tenth round, McClellan’s two knockdowns were proving decisive. He led by one and three points, with a third card scored dead even, after nine rounds fought without any jabs worthy of the name thrown and contested almost exclusively within the proverbial phone box. It would, tragically, prove as close to victory as he would get. The bell sounded for the tenth round and both men strode forward with typical menace, but it was Benn who landed first. A crashing right hook smashed into McClellan, whose gum shield was by now almost entirely out of his mouth and who was blinking profusely. After a brief flurry of punches and to the delight of the crowd, McClellan sought the sanctuary of one knee, almost in centre ring. Scoring the knockdown, referee Asaro reached the count of six as McClellan rose, blinking his eyes and looking confused and distraught. His body failing him, Gerald stood almost defenceless as Benn roared towards him, glory unbridled seemingly within his grasp. Another flurry of punches from Benn, mostly ineffectual compared to the animalistic fury of what had gone before, saw Gerald take a second knee in quick succession. Awake but clearly distressed, McClellan stared desperately as Asaro completed a ten count before immediately rising and returning to his corner.



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