In the time it took a fighter to slide all the way down the
ropes, his consciousness slipping as he fell, an evening's
exhilaration yielded to disgust. Of course, it's the way of this
sport, a very old and resilient one, that it so often teeters
between spectacle and shame. But to see Gerald McClellan, who had
been a blur of ferocity for nearly 10 rounds last Saturday night
in London Arena, arrested in a medical tableau on the canvas in
his own corner was to watch that balance destroyed, perhaps
forever. It was another vicious blow to boxing, and what might
have been the fight of the year, the kind of occasion that
ennobles both the fighters and their fans, has instead revived
interest in the game's abolition.
Indeed, McClellan's condition had scarcely been stabilized Sunday
before the British Medical Association renewed its call for
boxing's ban. Although McClellan may survive his injury -- a
one-hour operation in the early hours Sunday to remove a large
blood clot from his brain had given him a good chance of
recovering as SI went to press Monday night -- the sport may
suffer more lasting damage. Precisely because British boxing
authorities seemed to have taken all the right precautions, the
blame must now go to the fundamental violence of the sport. There
are no longer corrective measures to be taken; there is nothing to
fix. ``The problem,'' said a medical association spokesman,
following the disastrous meeting between two superbly prepared
world champions, ``is that boxers are punching each other's
McClellan, a former middleweight champion who has made a fetish of
his own violence, of course had a more immediate problem than
boxing. McClellan, 27, who relinquished his WBC title to challenge
WBC super middleweight champion Nigel Benn, was celebrated for his
cruelty in the ring, renowned for his first-round knockouts and a
generally scary persona. In the week before the fight, he
horrified the British media by comparing himself to one of his
three pit bulls and by telling of the adrenaline rush he gets when
his fist smashes into an opponent's face, of the pleasure he
receives when a fighter falls before him. All in all, he became an
extremely forbidding attraction, and the dreadlocked Benn, 31, was
reduced to the role of sidekick in this entertainment, a
And yet it was McClellan, following a savage bout in which both
men fought for their lives, who lay dangerously wounded in the
third-floor trauma unit of the Royal London Hospital with his
family at his bedside. ``We are all so scared for Gerald; he must
not die,'' said his sister Stacey Caien. ``He's too young.''
There was not, as far as ringsiders could tell, any single punch
that caused the damage. Indeed, McClellan, who had knocked Benn
out of the ring in the first round (and thereby came close to
registering his trademark early knockout -- it would have been his
21st first-round KO in 34 fights), was getting the better of the
action for much of the fight. McClellan also dropped Benn in the
eighth. In a fight that surged back and forth, Benn came back
thrillingly each time, but McClellan was deservedly ahead on two
of the three judges' cards when the bout came to its eerie
In seeking to explain McClellan's collapse, fight reporters
remembered an encounter in the ninth round, when Benn lunged and
his forehead smashed into McClellan's right cheekbone, just below
his eye. McClellan sank to a knee, complained to the ref and later
in the round put his hand to his head, as if to indicate he
suddenly felt ill. Ken Jones of London's Independent remembers
leaning over to another boxing writer at the time. ``Something
strange,'' he said.
Ferdie (the Fight Doctor) Pacheco, who was at ringside providing
commentary for the U.S. cablecast, said on Sunday, ``McClellan was
blinking and rubbing the side of his head. I never saw anybody rub
the side of his head like that. From there on out he didn't act
the same. It was a different McClellan. Uncertain.''
As the 10th round began, McClellan seemed strangely weak. He got
hit with a solid right hand and went -- voluntarily, it seemed --
to his right knee for a count of seven midway through the round.
Twenty seconds later he knelt again, presumably because of a right
uppercut thrown by Benn, although it wasn't much of a punch. The
scene was strange enough that referee Alfred Azaro, who was inept
throughout the fight, seemed to pause in his count, as if puzzled.
``It's fairly evident from the time he first went down on his
knee and took the standing count of eight that something
significant was going wrong inside his head,'' said John
Sutcliffe, the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery on
McClellan. Sutcliffe added that he believed the blows McClellan
took before the two knockdowns were probably responsible for the
After being counted out, McClellan rose and stepped past a
cornerman, asking, ``I lost the fight?'' He then moved back to his
corner, leaned against the ring post, turned as if to sit and,
before a stool could be placed beneath him, slid all the way down
the post. He stretched out, lost consciousness and -- even as Benn
cavorted in the ring, taunting the media -- became very much alone
in a country 3,000 miles from home.
No country is as sensitive to the dangers of boxing as Great
Britain is, and none has responded so well to the sport's
inevitable tragedies. The Brits are well reminded, too, of their
concern. A guest at ringside Saturday, in a terrible irony that
seems available only to boxing, was 29-year-old Michael Watson,
paralyzed in a fight four years earlier in North London.
Strangely, if McClellan lives, it will be thanks to that young man
in the wheelchair, who was stranded in the ring for 25 minutes
after his injury and, when finally rescued, was taken to a
hospital without a neurological unit.
The outcry following his botched care brought boxing reform that,
in McClellan's case, could prove to be lifesaving, because on hand
Saturday night were five doctors, including an anesthetist, four
paramedics and two ambulances. This was McClellan's only luck, but
it might have been luck enough. McClellan, his neck in a brace and
blinking in and out of consciousness (``Did I get knocked out?''
he asked a handler), was whisked from the arena with as much
efficiency as possible in a crowd of more than 12,000. He was taken
to Royal London Hospital, given a CAT scan and was on the operating
table within two hours.
``I've never seen anyone this prepared,'' said Pacheco. ``They did
it right. If this had happened in Mexico City, he would have died
-- as he would have if it had happened in New York, L.A.,
Sutcliffe says the ringside treatment, particularly the immediate
oxygenation, probably saved McClellan's life. It was Sutcliffe's
job last April to operate on popular London super bantamweight
Bradley Stone, who was injured in a title fight but did not
receive the same immediate care. Stone died after his operation.
``The advantage that Gerald has,'' Sutcliffe said, ``is that he
got here quicker than Bradley did, and that his resuscitation was
more complete.'' Sutcliffe said that if McClellan had arrived 30
minutes later, ``he probably would have died.''
There has been a grim investment of human life in British boxing,
and there may not be enough reform possible to guarantee a
fighter's life. There was not enough Saturday night to assure
McClellan of anything but a provisional recovery. ``It is likely
that there will be some problem for the next few months,''
Sutcliffe said of McClellan's future health. ``It is too early yet
to say whether there will be any long-term disability or any sign
of damage as a result of this bleeding.''
Asked if McClellan might return to the ring, Sutcliffe paused
before saying, ``His boxing career will be over.''
It is certainly over, and if it was not complete, it was
definitely a spectacular one, marked by the unadorned fierceness
that lays boxing bare, reveals its terrible charm. McClellan's
brightest moment as an amateur was his defeat of Roy Jones Jr.
in the 1988 Golden Gloves semifinals. He missed the 1988 Olympic
trials but went on to Detroit's famed Kronk gym, where he thrived
as a pro, crafting a concussive career and grooming the violent
demeanor to go with it.
McClellan has said he admires the late Bruce Lee and rapper Ice
Cube and is especially fond of the bloodshed in the movie
Scarface. In London he told writers that he kept his three pit
bulls (one of which cost him $5,000) caged and that he sometimes
puts them into fights. A likeness of a favorite pit bull, Deuce,
is tattooed on his right biceps.
This is considered shrewd p.r. material in the world of boxing,
and it played well to McClellan's talent in the ring, a brilliant
aggression that opened and closed bouts with the equivalent of
mortal gunfire. He'd had eight first-round knockouts in his last
10 fights, including his last three title defenses. One of those
was a 30-second bout, the quickest in title fight history, which
resulted when McClellan folded Jeffrey Bell with a body shot.
All this made for such a persuasive package that some of the
prefight buildup addressed the problem McClellan presented
promoters and broadcasters: a short-circuited program schedule.
And at the start that's how the evening seemed destined to play
out. To see Benn crash through the ropes just 35 seconds into the
fight and wobble back into the ring just at the count of 10
confirmed everybody's preconceptions about how the fight would go.
That Benn wasn't counted out may have been a gift. Pacheco and
some others at ringside were skeptical that Benn had beaten the
And yet Benn, who is called the Dark Destroyer, rallied
magnificently and had McClellan in trouble in the second round. He
kept absorbing McClellan's jabs and long right crosses, and
through the middle rounds accelerated the action. McClellan, who
has struggled to make the middleweight limit in his recent title
defenses but who came in three pounds under the super middleweight
max of 168 for this bout, seemed troubled as the fight proceeded.
He was breathing heavily, pushing his mouthpiece out to get more
air. Was he dehydrated? Had he taken too much weight off? ``I like
this, I like this,'' screamed Benn's father at ringside.
But the momentum returned to McClellan in the eighth when, after
some sustained pummeling of Benn, he drove the champ down again,
for a count of eight. The fight was ragged, but the spirit of the
two exhausted fighters was memorable. ``I can't recall anyone
showing as much raw courage as Benn,'' said the Independent's
Jones. ``It was incredible.''
That is often the savage beauty of boxing, to see limits of
courage and endurance stretched. Both fighters pushed beyond those
limits -- even Benn required a brief hospitalization for his
exhaustion -- and their fans were cheered to see so much will on
display. To some it might have seemed inspirational, even heroic.
But many others insist upon more humane tests of manhood than
Indeed, this fight, as much as any other, exposed boxing as a
blood sport. You could not pretend you were watching a sweet
science. Seeing men fighting for their lives as furiously as these
two were, well, there was no question about what you were
watching. Sutcliffe, who saw the bout on TV, said matter-
of-factly, ``I had a feeling I might be needed.''
In England now, the debate has been rejoined. How much of this can
a supposedly civilized species stand? ``I'm a little bit
horrified,'' says James Tye, director general of the British
Safety Council, ``because right from the beginning of the fight
there wasn't much boxing about it. Really, it was one bloke trying
to injure the other bloke's brain.''
Those who call for the sport's abolition insist that there is no
further reform that can protect a man from those intentions.
Whatever boxing satisfies in us, they say, that appetite ought to
be ignored, be legislated against.
But if you can't ban boxing and you can't make it any safer, what
can you do? Can you still enjoy it? It's getting harder, that's
all. It doesn't help to know that McClellan, as he went to the
Peacock Gym in Canning Town every day when he was in London, had
to pass the recently erected statue of Bradley Stone, a cautionary
tale cast in bronze. You wonder: Did he avert his gaze, did he
tremble at the sight? Or, confident of his own capacity for
violence, did he just sneer at the fallen and the weak. You just
hope you can ask him someday.