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 heads."
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 designated victim.
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 conclusion.
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 blood clot.
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.