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The Forgotten Classic- Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan; 1


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15 years on (Part 1 of 4)

By Chris Baldwin


Just over fifteen years ago, the undisputed middleweight champion of the word stepped off a plane in London, England with the world seemingly at his feet. He had recently and emphatically retained his middleweight crown in the latest of a string of first round knock outs, solidifying his position as the hardest pound-for-pound puncher in the whole of boxing. A month earlier, The Ring Magazine had anointed him the eighth best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, ahead of pugilistic luminaries such as Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad. All he had to do to further cement his claim as one of the best in a golden era of middleweight talent was beat a man perceived by many as little more than an overrated banger with stamina and chin deficiencies.

Yup- in February 1995, life was good for one Gerald McClellan.

Soon to earn the moniker ’G-Man’, McClellan started his boxing career as a mere three year old, when his father Emmitt first made his young son lace ‘em up. Whilst other kids played after school, Gerald was learning the hard work it would take to make him a champion. When his family moved from Freeport, Illinois to Milwaukee in 1984, Gerald was taken into the tutelage of the Al Moreland Boxing club, where he began one of the most stellar amateur careers many seasoned observers could recall. After accruing multiple state Golden Gloves championships, McClellan went on to defeat all-comers en route to the Amateur Boxing Federation Middleweight title in 1987 and included among his amateur victims a certain Roy Jones Junior, who would turn out to be one of the greatest fighter of his or indeed any era.

With his 1988 US Olympic boxing place seemingly assured, Gerald was ultimately disappointed when the selectors chose Jones Junior for the plane to Seoul instead. He took his frustrations out on Roy Hundley on August 12th 1988, when his debut in the paid ranks lasted less than one round.

It was a pattern which would repeat itself over the next seven years. Under the expert eye of hall-of-fame trainer Manny Stewart, twelve more fighters would find the bell for the opening stanza a bridge too far in a three year, twenty-four fight barrage which opened the eyes of the world to the precocious, ferocious American prospect. In an era where undefeated records generally meant a fighter was more protected than prodigious, two tight decision losses to then fellow prospects Dennis Milton (who went on to challenge unsuccessfully for a world title) and Ralph Ward (who bizarrely never won another professional fight) caused little noticeable decline in Gerald’s stock. His reward for that early promise was a crossroads bout with the Ugandan ‘Beast’, John Mugabi.

Mugabi was, at that time, one of the most feared hitters on the planet. Not a single one of his forty-one previous bouts had troubled the scorecards; thirty eight of which had ended with Mugabi proclaimed the victor. Only world class fighters had beaten him, including an eleventh round stoppage defeat to ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler in an engrossing struggle for the light middleweight title in 1986.

McClellan was considered by many as a little too green to be tangling with the likes of Mugabi. Some feared an abrupt end for him in what was described by some as a fight too far, too soon.

Gerald soon proved them wrong. Brutally so. What followed was a massacre; a three knockdown, two minutes, fifty one second long battering in which Mugabi was engulfed by a boxing hurricane and spat out, never to trouble a world title bout again. For his night’s work, Gerald collected his first ‘world’ bauble, as the (then) lightly regarded WBO coroneted him their champion.

McClellan, though, never defended his title. He had bigger fish to fry. After four more stoppage wins, including another three further first round victims, Gerald found himself the mandatory challenger for the most prestigious of the ‘big four middleweight titles. In order to become the WBC version of the world champion, all he had to do was beat the present incumbent, Julian Jackson.

That was going to be seemingly easier said than done. If Mugabi was considered dangerous, Jackson was positively toxic. The former WBA light-middleweight champion had lost only once (to the brilliant Jamaican, Mike McCallum) in forty-seven fights, had earlier vacated the WBA version of the middleweight crown and had won his WBC title in a startling, highlight-reel knockout win against perennial world title challenger Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham in November 1991. Poor Herol was unconscious before he hit the canvas, seconds before the end of the fourth round. If he were to find any consolation, at least he might have considered himself in good company. Only three of Jackson’s forty-six other victims had heard the final bell.

For Gerald, the time to shine had come. Once more there were those who felt he would not prevail. Once more he proved them brutally wrong. In front of an audience of millions on Showtime in the US and SKY Sports in the UK, McClellan and Jackson went to war; two of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers in the history of boxing smashed each other with unmitigated ferocity for five desperate rounds. Jackson would not see a sixth. A right hand by Jackson missed McClellan’s jaw by a mere whisker before Gerald countered with a tumultuous right of his own. Jackson’s legs failed him, and as he staggered back he was felled by a monstrous, looping left hook to the chin. Spread eagled through the ropes in the corner, Jackson gamely rose on jelly legs at the count of 5 before McClellan rushed forward and clattered into Julian, who shipped three more huge right hands to the jaw before buckling again and falling to the canvas. Referee Mills Lane had seen enough, and the world had a new middleweight champion.

That McClellan took some terrific punches in the process was lost for now.

On the crest of a wave, McClellan set about solidifying his position at the top of the 160lb tree. Two one round defences soon followed before he answered Jackson’s call for a chance to regain his title. Julian needn’t have bothered. By now far removed from the wrecking machine that tormented two divisions in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Jackson was humiliated in the return with McClellan, lasting less than a minute and a half.

Victory took McClellan to 31-2, with 29 knockouts. The consensus, undisputed middleweight champion had the recognition he craved. Now he wanted the money he deserved. His old amateur foe, Roy Jones Junior, had claimed himself the IBF version of the middleweight title by defeating the indefatigable Bernard Hopkins in May 1993 but had quickly vacated and was now campaigning at the fledgling super-middleweight limit of 168lb. A dominating victory over another sure-fire future hall of famer James Toney (then 44-0-2) had earned Jones the IBF portion of the 168lb title and a top two pound-for-pound spot in the latest Ring Magazine rankings. Now the talk among those in the know was that a mouth-watering rematch of that McClellan-Jones amateur bout was in the offing.

For McClellan, the chance at world-wide fame and millions in the bank beckoned. To maximize the earning potential of that super-fight, McClellan’s promoter Don King suggested that Gerald win himself one of the alphabet 168lb titles so that the fight be marketed as a huge, unification bout. All eyes then turned to England, where two of the three remaining super-middleweight titlists were to be found. The WBC played their part, and made their 160lb champion the number one contender for their 168lb crown. The present incumbent was Nigel Benn.

By the time that plane landed at Heathrow in the infancy of 1995, Nigel Benn (then 39-2-1, 32KO) had long since established himself as a household name in the UK. Along with two other excellent British middle/super-middle weights, Chris Eubanks and Michael Watson, Benn, a former British Army paratrooper, had been instrumental in making boxing a primetime attraction in the UK. For ten or so years, Britain was a hotbed of boxing popularity, even surviving the horrific aftermath of the Eubank-Watson rematch to maintain its lofty position in British sensibilities. Over 40,000 people paid to enter Old Trafford stadium to watch Benn and Eubank fight to a debatable draw in their 1993 rematch, whilst an incredible fifteen million more watched the action unfold on ITV, a terrestrial, free to air broadcaster who gave the fight (along with many others at the time) a prime, Saturday night live slot.

Whilst Watson had been the ‘People’s Champion’, Benn had revelled in his role as the charismatic ‘Dark Destroyer’. Fast, furious and immensely popular, Benn, like McClellan, had earned a reputation as a tremendous puncher, with 21 knockout wins in his first 21 fights. He bounced back well from a shock defeat to Watson (KO 6) by travelling to the states and destroying Doug DeWitt (TKO8) and Iran ‘The Blade’ Barkley (TKO1) to win and then retain the WBO middleweight crown won by Gerald a few months later. After losing to Eubank (TKO9) in a thriller in November 1990, Benn stopped Mauro Galvano inside four rounds in October 1992 to obtain the WBC version of the super-middleweight title that McClellan had hoped to wrest from him on February 25th 1995.

There was little doubt in the minds of most that Gerald would succeed. Although largely unknown to the British boxing public, McClellan was quickly installed the 4-1 on favourite and the smart money rolled forward in support of the American. Most seasoned observers felt that, despite his popularity, Benn was over the hill. There remained questions over his stamina after Watson allowed Benn to punch himself out inside six rounds and then KO him with a jab, and over his punch resistance. Benn may well have been a terrific puncher, but he was no stranger to the canvas himself, with several knockdowns coming against the kind fighter several tiers below the calibre of McClellan. Even his punching power seemed to be deserting him, with a sharp decrease in KO’s coming after he’d moved up to 168lbs.


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