Ask those who were there if they had ever witnessed a more violent, harrowing and blood-curdling fight than when Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan went to war on that fateful February night in 1995, and the answer will be a resounding no.
Even now, 25 years on, watching it back is hard work. You cannot help but wince as Benn and McClellan bludgeon each other with thunderous punches. So much punishment is inflicted, at times it is tough not to resist the urge to look away. It is a fight that will be embedded in the memory forever for the remarkableness of its brutality.
It was so vicious and barbaric that McClellan suffered a debilitating brain injury and returned to America permanently paralyzed, blind and 80 per cent deaf. Five weeks after McClellan had undergone a life-saving emergency neurological procedure in London, Parliament called a motion for the abolition of professional boxing.
Nigel Benn (right) and Gerald McClellan were in a brutal war back in February 25, 1995
McClellan (pictured in distress afterwards) suffered a serious brain injury from the fight
It may have been emphatically defeated, but it serves as an indicator of just how horrific this was that the future of the sport was momentarily reeling on the ropes. It took every spectator on a journey to hell. To simply describe it as a fight would be as insufficient as labelling The Pyramids a structure, or the Internet an invention.
That night on February 25, 1995, two lives were altered forever. McClellan still requires round the clock care from his sister, Lisa, while Benn was haunted for years by the sorrow in his soul before finding solace through religion.
The bad blood and resentment between Benn and McClellan’s family festered for years but has since been resolved. The questions and anguish from that unfortunate and controversial night, though, remain.
Gerald McClellan was a heavy-handed two-time world champion and was the big favourite to blast out Nigel Benn and wrench away his WBC super middleweight world title.
McClellan had a fearsome reputation across the pond and a knack for closing the show early. Before this fight, he had never been beyond the eighth round.
His promoter Don King called him ‘A miniature Mike Tyson’. McClellan preferred something more animalistic. ‘I’m like a really aggressive dog,’ he said in the build-up to the fight.
His former trainer Emanuel Steward, who worked with legendary fighters such as Thomas Hearns, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, claimed in 2011: ‘Out of all the fighters I have trained, Gerald probably had the biggest mean streak of them all.’
McClellan came over to London with a fierce reputation and was a heavy favourite to win
The American sent Benn crashing through the ropes in the first 35 seconds of the fight
Benn had been warned not to go anywhere near McClellan, but visions of the life he could afford if he conquered this monstrous puncher were like a moth to light. He had done the calculations and he was fighting. There was a huge buzz around the fight on both sides of the Atlantic and 13 million people tuned in to watch it.
Those inside the London Arena that night say you could feel violence in the air. McClellan’s trainer Stan Johnson said years later: ‘Gerald didn’t want to win the fight, he actually wanted to kill Nigel Benn.’
Within 35 seconds of the first round, Benn was sent crashing through the ropes by a barrage of spiteful punches. If it wasn’t apparent before how dangerous the man in front of him was, it certainly was now. Those who had placed bets on an early McClellan knockout were already counting their money.
But a resilient and courageous Benn clambered to his feet to beat the referee’s count. Given what would subsequently go on to happen, this moment has long been a serious bone of contention.
The two traded heavy shots in a bruising clash for the WBC super middleweight world title
The referee that night, Alfred Asaro, was officiating in just his second world title fight. He was a Frenchman and could barely speak a word of English.
There are many who are of the opinion that Benn should have been counted out in that first round.
As Benn didn’t actually drop off the apron, regulations state that he should have only been given a 10 count as opposed to the 20 seconds he would have had to recover if he had have fallen out of the ring.
Asaro to this day insists he only ever made it to eight before Benn rose to his feet. The former world champion’s trainer, Kevin Sanders, said during an ITV documentary nine years ago: ‘The fight should have been over. We got very lucky. You need a bit of luck in sport and we were lucky that night.’
This would turn out to be just one of many twists of fate. Benn came out firing in the second round, his boomerang hooks and attacks to the body finding a home with unsettling regularity.
Benn came on strong in the middle rounds as McClellan began to show some concerning signs
The referee waved it off in the 10th round when McClellan was counted out on his knees
McClellan won the next round but there were concerning signs that something wasn’t right. The American dislodged his mouthpiece and had it hanging out for much of the third – a signal he could have been struggling with his breathing.
The firefight theme continued as both men enjoyed success headhunting. Despite McClellan visibly appearing distressed, his punches still carried force.
But by the end of the sixth, McClellan is said to have told his trainer Johnson: ‘I want to quit, Stan,’ by his sister Lisa. Johnson, who many had reservations about and felt was out of his depth, has always denied that claim.
Benn took control of the middle rounds but was still trailing on the judges’ scorecards. By the eighth, the Brit was noticeably tiring and failing to find the target with his wild hooks.
McClellan put Benn down for a second time in the eighth round but again the home fighter dug deep and regained his feet.
The American collapsed in his corner afterwards and had to be rushed to a hospital in London
In the ninth, Benn missed with a swinging right hand and fell forward, causing him to accidentally headbutt McClellan.
This appeared to have a significant affect on the challenger’s well-being. In the next round, commentators picked up on him repeatedly blinking and dabbing on his left eye as if there were a cut but neither his trainer nor the referee took action.
Benn connected with a solid right cross in the first half of the round to force McClellan to his knees. Asaro counted to seven before he reluctantly got back up. Moments after, Benn landed another hurtful right-hand and McClellan dropped to his knees for a second time and was this time counted out.
Showtime commentator Ferdie Pacheco described it as ‘the strangest knockdown I’ve seen’ and was one of many onlookers – including Jim Watt – who accused him of quitting.
In the moments after the fight was waved off, McClellan walked back to his corner and collapsed. His trainer Johnson poured some cold water on him, and McClellan worryingly responded: ‘Man, that feels like it’s running inside my head.’
McClellan had life-saving brain surgery but is now completely blind and 80 per cent deaf
The British Boxing Board of Control had amended their regulations following the life-altering injuries Michael Watson sustained after his fight with Chris Eubank just four years earlier, and the 1994 death of Bradley Stone, so an anaesthetist and paramedics were on hand to give McClellan immediate medical attention.
He was placed in a neck brace and given oxygen before being rushed off to Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel where Dr. John Sutcliffe performed life-saving surgery on him and removed a blood clot from his brain.
Benn also collapsed due to exhaustion on his way back to his dressing room and spent the night in hospital as a precaution before being discharged.
McClellan was in a coma for two weeks before regaining consciousness and didn’t leave hospital and return home until August, 1995.
This is where the aftermath of the Benn-McClellan fight starts to get murky, confusing and nasty.
After the fight, there was lingering animosity and a general feeling this tragedy could have been avoided. It became a game of pointing fingers.
First, there was the referee. Was he suitable for the scale of such a fight? The General Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control at the time, John Morris, admitted he would have liked someone ‘more experienced’ for the fight in the years after.
Alfred Asaro has always insisted he was more than qualified to take charge of the fight and also questioned why he would have needed to speak fluent English to referee the contest when he was capable of communicating to the fighters to break, stop and box on.
Asaro, who in 2011 was awarded the French National Order of Merit for services to boxing, believes McClellan’s team must take blame for what happened.
Referee that night insisted he didn’t make a mistake counting when Benn was down in the first
The man in charge of his corner that night was Stan Johnson, who had been friends with McClellan for years.
Many inside the sport had serious doubts about Johnson’s capabilities as a trainer. Emanuel Steward, who was ditched by McClellan after he decided to become his own boss, said: ‘Going into the fight, I understand that it was total chaos for the whole two weeks he was in London.’
McClellan’s sister Lisa said during the ITV documentary, The Fight of Their Lives: ‘I don’t think you could classify Stan as a trainer.’
Benn’s trainer Kevin Sanders went to visit McClellan’s dressing room before the fight and claimed the American told him he was wrapping his own hands because ‘these idiots don’t know how to do it.’
Johnson believes McClellan showed no signs he needed to be pulled out prior to the finish and said previously: ‘I was a very experienced trainer, one of the best in the God damn business and Gerald knew that, that’s why he hired me.’
McLellan’s sister Lisa (left) believes he told his trainer Stan Johnson he wanted to quit
Steward never truly forgave McClellan for walking away from him and the Kronk Gym earlier on in his career and said had he been in his corner that night, ‘I don’t think this tragedy would have happened.’
In 2010, Johnson claimed to have had evidence that Benn had been using performance-enhancing drugs, claiming that his blood on McClellan’s boot was found to have steroids in it.
It is not clear why it took Johnson 15 years to make the allegations or if the boot was in any shape to be tested.
Benn was never drug tested after the fight as he was taken to hospital after collapsing – something Johnson believes was feigned to avoid giving a urine sample.
He has always vehemently denied ever taking PEDs during his professional boxing career, telling ITV in 2011: ‘I have been a liar, I have been a thief, I have been a cheat on my wife, but I have never taken anabolic steroids.’
Johnson says it was the referee’s job to stop the fight and claimed Benn was on PEDs that night
Five words spoken by Nigel Benn stuck with Gerald McClellan’s family for a long time.
Benn was asked how he felt about the sorry ending to their great battle in the days afterwards, to which he replied: ‘I feel very bad, but I’d rather him than me.’
‘I’d rather him than me,’ were the words that made Lisa McClellan’s blood boil. She didn’t know how he could sleep at night let alone revel in the fact that a fellow warrior’s precarious situation was not his reality. She admitted in the past that she wished Benn dead.
McClellan and Benn remained distant enemies for years before the British fighter returned to London in 2007 to meet him for the first time since their fight.
In the years following their world title clash, Benn’s life descended into chaos as the consequences of that night began to take its toll.
Benn met up with McClellan when he raised £200,000 at a fundraiser for him in 2007
Benn took an overdose and tied a hosepipe to his car’s exhaust in an attempt to end his life after being unfaithful to his wife. He became a devout Christian after that traumatic experience and set up a fund raiser for McClellan in the capital.
‘I had to ask him for forgiveness, I felt that in my heart,’ Benn said. The event raised £200,000 for McClellan and his family.
McClellan received insurance payments for his injuries and spent his first major pay cheque on the house where he lives today with his sister, Lisa who had to give up her job to take care of him.
The former world champion can walk now without assistance but will forever remain in the realm of the darkest place because of the severe injuries he sustained that night in London.
When the fight ended in the 10th, McClellan was leading on two of the three judges’ scorecards.
‘One thing he always says to me is did I lose that night,’ Lisa said. ‘I always tell him, no, you won.’
JEFF POWELL’S FIGHT REPORT
As Gerald McClellan was being stretchered away from the scene of his epic battle with Nigel Benn the abolitionists were railing at the gates of boxing. Had the stricken American been able to hear the clamour against his chosen profession it would have added to his extreme distress.
McClellan, like the Englishman with whom he embraced death in perhaps the greatest fight ever witnessed in the British ring, belongs to the race of fistic warriors who believe that the only way to lose is to be carried out on their shields. That was his privilege this Saturday night.
The life-saving paraphernalia of paramedic emergency filled his corner with all their harrowing reminders of the desperate hazards of prizefighting… yet in the same gasping breath emphasised the stupendous courage which McClellan and Benn both brought to this, the defining hour of each man’s existence.
There was a nobility in their savage confrontation which transcended the stark, white images of them being borne to hospital by separate ambulances, with McClellan continuing that grim journey to neuro-surgery and on to life-support machinery. They had taken each other to the distant frontiers of human bravery and endurance.
Only time and the most skilled medical care will tell if both are to return but these and fighting men like them will forever refuse any cringing onlooker the right to prevent them answering the call of the bell. Until such time, hopefully, as McClellan is able to answer for himself, witness this Saturday night the figure of Michael Watson paying rapt attention at ringside to the ferocious manner of combat which has left him in a wheelchair.
Significantly, the surgeon whose swift incisions have given McClellan his chances of survival and a normal life declines to add his voice to the ban-boxing lobby. ‘I personally do not think boxing should be banned,’ Dr John Sutcliffe said yesterday.
Rather, Sutcliffe is at work with the official commission which has put in place the procedures of urgency which gave McClellan oxygen and time to reach hospital still alive. It is violently disturbing when a young man is reduced to such a fragile hold on life by the very nature of his sport.
The British Boxing Board of Control maintain that to outlaw pugilism would serve only to drive it underground, to a dark place where none of their safeguards exist. That is a powerful argument but it it is not the real point. It is useless to deny that the object of boxing is to render another human being senseless.
Especially futile after watching a fight like this one which stands historic comparison with the best of the Ali-Frazier trilogy and which began with a first round as viciously intense as the opening three minutes of Hagler-Hearns and ended with a 10th round as brutally climactic as Holyfield-Bowe. The real point is that it would diminish the human spirit to prohibit men bursting with such challenging aggression from fighting.
Neither McClellan, who revels in the ferocity of his pit-bull terriers, nor Benn, who rages against the outside world, would make welcome dinner guests for the politicians or the do-gooders who are in the vanguard of the abolitionists. Civilised society might care to consider how much of a danger to civilised society such men – including one Michael Gerard Tyson who is to due to be returned to civilised society shortly – might be if they were denied self-expression in the ring.
To cast the likes of McClellan and Benn as hungry victims of vile exploitation is as outdated as the cheapest of the old black-and-white boxing movies. Both were millionaires before this weekend. Neither needed the extra half-million pounds or more they were paid for scrambling each other’s faculties in the Docklands area of east London where the hardest fights used to take place in the old dark streets, not the shiny Arena.
They were contesting a world championship by name – the WBC super-middleweight title – but declaring their pride and manhood by nature. It is not easy to explain this to the tea-set, cafe society or the chattering classes. The sheer, raw, primitive instinct which brought Benn back through the ropes between which he was bludgeoned in the first minute, carried him on through hellish punishment, then lifted him up off the canvas to which he was battered in the eighth round, has nothing to do with the money, greed and corruption with which boxing is so often associated.
This was a fundamental of human nature to which society would close off this outlet to its own peril and detriment. In its base form these gladiators embody the daring which enabled mankind to cross oceans, climb mountains, walk on the moon… challenge all the frontiers. McClellan and Benn are not victims but heroes. Brutal, ugly perhaps, tragic possibly, but heroes just the same. Ban boxing and next the prohibitionists will be after racing by horse and motor, round-the-world sailing, football of any shape and code, cricket with a hard ball, street crossing and Bingo in case we get too excited.
Excitement, in its roaring manifestation, was the initial emotion aroused by Benn as he defied the 40-1 odds and took most of the chin-breaking punishment to come back and beat one of the most dangerous men in this bloody business and thereby claim his place in the pantheon of great middleweights. Chris Eubank, eat your heart out. Eubank, who prefers a blander diet of opponent, was not at ringside. But Bruno and Lewis, Cooper and McGuigan were there along with Watson and Warren, all punching the air in unashamed lust for Benn’s achievement of the seemingly impossible.
This was boxing at its finest, no matter how animal the passions it aroused. It was pure excitement. Although it was curtailed by the anxiety which then emanated from McClellan’s slump into his corner – and even though Benn himself is traumatised by his opponent’s plight – it ought not to be contaminated by feelings of guilt. Not since the Marquis of Queensberry framed his rules for civilised fisticuffs 111 years ago has boxing been so prepared to render humane assistance to the men who take its highest of sporting risks.
Although it was Benn’s face which became distorted by a fractured jaw – whoever accused him of being chinny? – it was McClellan who was suffering the more lasting internal damage. As Benn unbalanced himself completely with one desperate swing against the points mounting in his opponent’s favour, McClellan dropped oddly to one knee and gestured to his forehead.
We thought he might be protesting about an imagined butt but most likely he was feeling the first affects of cerebral bleeding. That was in the ninth round. Twice more in the 10th he fell to his knees, as much the victim of the affliction within his brain as of the right-hand punches for which Benn had found the strength from somewhere.
The great fight was over, the more important fight for life just beginning. As the ambulances took over the bell ringing it was time not only to worry for these men but to salute them. Gerald McClellan and Nigel Benn, in the highest traditions of the ring, had fought each other to a standstill. Hopefully not to a finish.
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